(Adds natural resources minister's comments)
By Steve Scherer
OTTAWA, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Canada on Friday unveiled a new strategy to ramp up production and processing of critical minerals vital to power electric vehicle (EV) batteries as the world seeks to shift away from fossil fuels toward cleaner technologies.
The government pledged to review the permitting process with an eye on cutting the time required to bring mines online by avoiding duplication and ensuring early indigenous consultation and engagement, the 58-page strategy document said. It did not say when the review would be completed.
The plan focuses on expanding the critical minerals sector and "moving things forward expeditiously," Canada's Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said at a news conference in Vancouver.
Wilkinson said the strategy, backed by nearly C$4 billion ($2.95 billion) allocated in the 2022 budget, "is a roadmap for the creation of wealth and sustainable jobs throughout the value chain in every region of this country."
Under the strategy, companies will be offered help in applying for permits and for federal support through the Critical Minerals Centre of Excellence. The office is already operating with a team of about 15 people, said a senior government source.
Critical minerals are key elements in EV batteries, electronics and solar panels and play a crucial role in the transition to the green economy. While Canada is home of some the largest deposits of critical minerals, it can take anywhere between five and 25 years for a mining project to become operational, the document said.
"We recognize that, although responsible regulations are vital, complex regulatory and permitting processes can hinder the economic competitiveness of the sector and increase investment risk for proponents," the document reads.
As the world shifts to cleaner technologies, demand for critical minerals is expected to skyrocket. Many in the mining industry have said the bureaucracy is too slow and is holding up investment.
"What has been the tendency over many years is that the requirements just keep ballooning and you end up with impact assessment reports (for new mines) that are thousands of pages long," said Pierre Gratton, president and chief executive of the Mining Association of Canada, adding that he welcomed a review of the permitting process.
"We're not looking for yet another overhaul of the federal regime. We're looking at opportunities to implement existing requirements more expeditiously. ... There are definitely opportunities to speed things up," he said.
China dominates the market for critical minerals used in EV batteries.
Countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, India and Japan want to wean themselves from their dependence on authoritarian regimes for strategically important materials.
'EVERYONE WANTS A PIECE OF CANADA'
Canada signed a joint action plan with the United States in 2020 to advance secure supply chains for critical minerals. It has signed similar critical minerals cooperation agreements with Japan and the European Union.
"I've talked to the Americans more in the last few years than I had ever talked to them in my entire career, and also Europeans," Gratton said. "Everyone wants a piece of Canada right now, and they keep knocking on our door."
The new strategy lays out priorities along the entire critical-mineral value chain, from exploration and mining to recycling old batteries, and it also covers the need for new infrastructure in often remote corners of the country.
Ottawa will seek "regulatory harmonization" with the United States on critical minerals, the document reads without elaborating.
Ottawa's strategy prioritizes developing lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, copper and rare earth elements. At the same time, Canada is offering a 30% tax credit to spur exploration for nickel, lithium, cobalt, graphite, copper, rare earth elements, vanadium and uranium. ($1 = 1.3579 Canadian dollars) (Reporting by Steve Scherer; Additional reporting by Ismail Shaki; Editing by Stephen Coates, Crispian Balmer and Richard Chang)