Big offset on the Prairie

K+S Potash Canada just built Saskatchewan’s first greenfield potash mine in more than 40 years. To ensure no net loss of rare native habitat, it’s also financing the province’s first-ever grassland biodiversity offset
By Brian Banks

Green gem: This rare, moist mixed grassland—the 521-hectare Stark Coulee Project—in south-central Saskatchewan, exemplifies the kind of property being sought for the K+S mine’s grassland habitat offset by the Nature Conservancy of Canada

A two-square-kilometre (200-hectare) mine site might not sound massive. But when its construction is earmarked for one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems—the moist mixed grasslands of central Saskatchewan, where more than 80% of the native vegetation has been converted to agriculture or paved over—it is a Goliathan footprint worthy of serious attention.

Such is the notoriety of the Legacy Project, a $4.1-billion potash mine 70 kilometres northwest of Regina. The mine, owned by K+S Potash Canada Inc., a subsidiary of Germany’s K+S AG, the world’s largest salt producer and a top potash miner, starts production this spring. It’s the first greenfield potash mine built in Saskatchewan in more than 40 years. It’s also the first mine in Saskatchewan, if not Canada, to meet a portion of its obligations for environmental approval by making an almost $1-million investment in grassland habitat offsets.

In a statement announcing the offset plan last fall, Erin Robertson, K+S Potash Canada’s environment manager, said: “Science is the foundation of good environmental management.” The goal is to achieve “no net loss” of native grasslands as a result of the mine’s construction. It’s an arrangement that also advances the still-emerging practice of using large biodiversity offsets to compensate for environmental damage caused by mining and other resource development projects—in this case, by conserving 402 hectares of high-value grassland elsewhere in the region.

“Offsets have become increasingly common and we’re starting to see various jurisdictions incorporating them into their environmental mitigation and stewardship policies,” says Dave Poulton, director at the Alberta Land Institute at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and executive director of the Alberta Association for Conservation Offsets. “In Canada, most of our experience has come through our fisheries. And various regulators, particularly the National Energy Board, have been getting more assertive in requiring offsets as a condition of pipeline approvals. But on this sort of scale, for land impact, there’s reasonably few where anything of any ambition has been undertaken.”

K+S spent six years working with the province and the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) on the plan. They devised a sophisticated system of debits and credits to quantify the impact of what would be lost due to construction (the site held a mix of annual cropland, tame and native pasture land and wetlands) and what would be gained in the offsetting process. A key detail to note is that offsets, here and elsewhere, are only considered when there are impacts that can’t be addressed by avoiding them in project development or mitigating them onsite. This evaluation process follows what is known as a “mitigation hierarchy.”

The province plans to use the lessons and feedback gained in working with K+S to develop more formal offset policies for future use with other development projects. NCC, meanwhile, has been tasked with identifying and securing the offset property as well as its ongoing stewardship. “We will be taking the property we secure and managing it for the benefit of biodiversity,” says Cameron Wood, natural area manager for NCC in Saskatchewan. “Included in that will be livestock grazing, because that’s one of the tools we use to benefit biodiversity. But the main goal of what we are actually looking to achieve is biodiversity. Then we just use grazing and other things—invasive species management potentially, fire in the future, or whatever—to help us achieve that.”

But first, they’ll need to locate and secure suitable property. “It’s going to be a matter of waiting for the right land, or right parcels of land, in the right area, to present themselves,” says Wood. “We’re really focused on areas that have high habitat connectivity, where we have hot spots for biodiversity that are highly valuable and highly threatened.”

K+S may be forging new ground in grasslands, but it isn’t the first miner to set aside large chunks of biodiversity-rich land in Canada for conservation purposes. In 2013, Teck Resources Ltd. (TSX:TECK.B) of Vancouver spent $19 million to buy 7,150 hectares of wildlife and fish habitat in B.C.’s Kootenay region for conservation purposes. While it didn’t use the term “offset,” Teck pledges to have a net positive impact on biodiversity in the areas it operates.

Both Teck and K+S might soon have more company, according to Poulton of the Alberta Land Institute. “The mining industry, internationally, has been one of the leaders in exploring offsets,” he says. “The International Congress of Mines and Minerals published a guide to offsetting in 2013.”

That report cites three main drivers for offsets in mining: government regulation, demands from lenders, and risk management and social/environmental responsibility. Says Poulton: “There’s been buy-in at quite a high level.”

Photography: Nature Conservancy of Canada

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