Two Economies, One Province: Mining giant Rio Tinto gets help from the BC Innovation Council

The BC Innovation Council helps metals giant Rio Tinto attract workers to its revamped Kitimat aluminum facility

Credit: Courtesy of Rio Tinto

The BC Innovation Council helps metals giant Rio Tinto attract workers to its revamped Kitimat aluminum facility

A partnership based on getting people to a specific location only started because Carl Anderson got lost. Last February the president and CEO of the BC Innovation Council (BCIC), was on a BC Growth Opportunities Tour in the northwest of the province, trying to show some guests the Skeena River. Instead, he ended up visiting Rio Tinto Alcan Inc.‘s modernized aluminum smelter in Kitimat.

“You come out of the [Terrace] airport, and you have to make a left, then a right,” Anderson recalls at his downtown Vancouver office. “I was kind of distracted,” admits the head of the BCIC, a Crown corporation that aims to encourage the development and implementation of technologies that meet industry’s needs. “Thirty minutes later, we’re in Kitimat. So we say, ‘Let’s go find the smelter.'” 

Anderson wasn’t aware of the Rio Tinto facility’s revamp, which was completed in 2015 and reached full capacity the following year. The mining and metals multinational (called Rio Tinto Alcan in Canada since the corporation acquired Alcan Inc. in 2007) first built an aluminum smelter in Kitimat in 1954.

The modernization has meant a renewed focus on shrinking emissions of harmful chemicals such as fluorocarbons. Aluminum is one of the most energy-intensive metals to make, but the Kitimat smelter has slashed its carbon emissions. “China produces over 50 per cent of the world’s metal now,” says Gareth Manderson, general manager of Rio Tinto’s B.C. operations. “But in China, the greenhouse gas per tonne of aluminum is eight or nine times what we have here.” Manderson estimates that Rio Tinto now produces metal with 30 percent less energy than before. 

By combining hydroelectric power with new technology—a system built by Rio Tinto called AP40—the smelter now throws off two tonnes of carbon dioxide for each tonne of metal, he explains: “Compared to the Middle East that’s at eight tonnes of CO2 per, or China, which is at 17, that’s significantly better than our competitors.” Kitimat residents remain concerned about sulphur dioxide emissions from the facility, but a Rio Tinto spokesperson says monitoring shows that SO2 levels are much lower than the B.C. air quality objective.

The smelter’s transformation caught Anderson by surprise. “No smoke,” he says, still in disbelief. “I never knew it had been revamped. I never knew it was modern at all. So we came back and actually went up and did a tour, and it’s just like, ‘Holy shit.'” That 2017 tour led to a recruitment-focused alliance between BCIC and Rio Tinto. “We’ve been up twice talking to people and working down to the actual problem,” Anderson says. “[Rio Tinto] go, ‘Well, we can’t get enough people to come up.’ [They] put job postings up on bulletin boards. It’s not like, ‘We’ve got the world’s best salmon fishing; it’s incredible skiing’—you know what I’m saying?”

The smelter employs about 1,000 people in operations, and about 400 additional workers as contractors and support staff. That makes it the top employer in Kitimat, a community of some 8,100 residents. BC Chamber of Commerce member Rio Tinto Alcan is looking for help in its on-the-ground operations (supervision as well as construction-type work) and engineering department. 

One of the BCIC/Rio Tinto collaboration’s first projects is a 50-second video aimed at attracting talented young people to those jobs.

“They gave us a whole stack of ideas,” Manderson says about appealing to prospective employees. “I think we as a business can probably promote the outdoor lifestyle, the rural lifestyle. For young people that want to get some fantastic experience in a business that’s going places…this would be a great opportunity.”