8 Apr. 2022

BC exploration thriving in the post-pandemic economic recovery

By EY Canada

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

8 Apr. 2022
Related topics Consulting Mining and metals

The latest annual British Columbia Mineral and Coal Exploration Survey finds that exploration spend across the province increased by 56% year-over-year to $660m.

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As the global economy began its recovery, 2021 saw certain sectors experience a rebound in economic activity. Domestic markets reopened, supply chain networks began to recover, and restrictions that had previously disrupted on-site operations were gradually lifted. Driven by favorable market conditions, the exploration industry in BC experienced a record-setting year in 2021, despite major local difficulties in the form of an unusually large number of forest fires and temporary infrastructure disruptions from flooding.

Global nonferrous exploration expenditures experienced an increase of approximately 35% for the year, driven by higher metal prices, easing of pandemic restrictions and increased financing activities¹. Buoyant precious and industrial metal prices saw gold and base metals exploration predominate globally¹. In line with domestic trends, Canada’s exploration expenditure saw the highest growth and attracted the largest share of global budgets with an increase of 62%, ahead of Australia and the US, which saw increases of 39% and 37%, respectively¹.

As an outcome of the severe disruptions to supply chains globally, a national focus was placed on securing metals that are considered essential to technologies that will enable a transition to a greener economy. These metals, commonly referred to as critical minerals, drew renewed interest in the exploration world. Where applicable, metals listed on the Canadian critical minerals list² will be referred to as metals. This focus was observed in BC in 2021, where amid an unprecedented gold market, copper and other critical metals like nickel and zinc saw a resurgence in exploration spending. Given the abundance of porphyry deposits (polymetallic deposits typically containing copper) in the province, BC has the potential to be a global leader in the push towards a more sustainable model for economic growth.

BC exploration sector nears historical highs as the rebound continues

Using the data collected in this survey, BC exploration was in line with national exploration trends in 2021, as the province saw a 56% increase in expenditure year on year. Exploration spending across the province totaled $660m, just short of the historical high in 2012. The number of projects was up by 16% in 2021, with total metres drilled increasing by 45%, consistent with the continued trend towards late-stage exploration. The Northwest region continued to lead and contributed to more than 55% of the province’s spending. Expenditures were up across all regions except the Northeast region.

Gold exploration spending was predominant; critical metals had significant growth

Gold exploration was predominant in 2021, as it was in 2020. Exploration expenditure increased by 93% as market variability drove demand for the metal and prices rose to more than $1,800/oz throughout the year.

The Northwest region, which contains the informally designated “Golden Triangle,” continued to attract exploration activity and remained the most prominent centre for gold exploration spending, experiencing a 123% increase as investors capitalized on high commodity prices and available funding for project expansions. The North Central and South Central regions saw significant increases in gold expenditure due to the concentration of gold-primary precious metal projects in these regions, as well as large projects such as Cariboo and Lawyers.

Critical metal expenditure was up in 2021. This increase is consistent with global exploration trends, as demand for critical metals has increased in line with economic growth and recovery in global markets. Copper exploration saw the largest increase, with prices continuing to rally to new highs toward the end of 2021. With the continued post-pandemic recovery and reopening of global economies and record-high commodity prices, we expect demand for critical metals to continue to increase into 2022.

A continued movement towards late-stage exploration

Recent years have seen a shift away from early-stage exploration towards advanced-stage projects as BC exploration experienced a lifecycle reset. Companies elected to focus more resources on maximizing the value of proven assets and operating sites rather than on riskier, grassroots prospects. However, spending in the early stages of the exploration cycle — geophysics, geochemistry, trenching and early drilling stages — did see an increase of 25% from $109m in 2020 to $136m in 2021.

Grassroots and early-stage exploration accounted for 24% of total exploration in 2021, compared to 33% in 2020 and 44% in 2018, as exploration spending continued its trend towards the advanced and mine evaluation stages. A significant increase in metres drilled, favourable commodity prices contributing to the reopening of previously shut mines and large investments in numerous advanced-stage projects contributed to the shift towards later-stage exploration.

Looking forward

As the global economy continues its recovery from 2020, the exploration economy is likely to follow suit. The direction in which focus will be turned remains to be seen, as ongoing geopolitical turbulence and less-than-favourable macroeconomic conditions, exhibited by rising inflation, may continue to contribute to more volatility in the commodities markets.

However, the demand for critical metals such as copper is likely to increase as the push towards a greener world remains a priority, while gold could maintain its high value. In either case, BC has the resources and expertise to capitalize on future demand. 

Show resources

  • Download insights from the BC Mineral and Coal Exploration Survey 2021 (pdf)


The British Columbia Mineral and Coal Exploration Survey is a joint initiative between EY, the Government of British Columbia’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation (EMLI) and the Association for Mineral Exploration (AME), which includes insights collected from 326 exploration projects across the province.

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By EY Canada

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

Related topics Consulting Mining and metals