Quebec’s ambitious Plan Nord faces a few hurdles before it becomes a reality, according to Pierre Langlois, a partner in Montreal law firm Heenan Blaikie. Mr. Langlois specializes in mining law, and presented at a luncheon ­organized by the Société de développement économique du Saint-Laurent (SODES) on February 23, 2012.

Announced last May, Plan Nord calls for public and private investment of an eventual estimated $80 billion by 2036 to open up Quebec’s huge northern region to mining, renewable energy and forestry projects. Northern Quebec is rich in untapped deposits of iron ore, copper, nickel, zinc, gold, uranium, cobalt, diamonds and other minerals.

Covering a territory 72 per cent of the area of Quebec, Plan Nord marks the biggest economic push into the Canadian north since the development of the oilsands in northern Alberta in the 1970s. It will involve a lot of upfront spending: Over the first five years, Quebec plans to spend $2.1 billion – close to $1.2 billion for infrastructure including roads and airports, $382 million for social and housing programs and another $500 million in venture capital.

The main challenge facing Plan Nord is the building of necessary infrastructure to allow major mining projects to proceed, Langlois said. Other issues concern environmental impact studies and getting the four major First Nations groups on board.

“There are 18 (planned or committed) mining projects and for many, there is no infrastructure such as roads, rail or port access. But at least Route 167 is being extended and the port of Sept-Îles is being expanded,” said Langlois.

Route 167 is being extended to the Monts Otish, northeast of Chibougamau, at an estimated cost of $279 million, which will facilitate the completion of the Lac McLeod (gold, copper, and zinc), Matoush (uranium), Eastmain (lithium) and Stornoway (diamond) mining projects.

The port of Sept-Îles plans to spend $220 million, including $55 million from Ottawa, to construct a new multi-use deep-water dock equipped with two ship loaders and two conveyor lines. In addition, the Quebec government is conducting a $33-million feasibility study for a deep-water port in Kuujjuarapik on Hudson’s Bay, combined with a road link to Radisson to facilitate a Northwest Passage link to international maritime traffic.

That proposal could be problematic due to a short shipping and construction season curtailed by heavy ice, said Langlois. It’s the same problem faced by Xstrata’s nickel, copper and cobalt project in Raglan on the northern tip of Quebec. But potential mining activity in western Quebec could be well served by a port in Kuujjuarapik, he added.

While the port of Sept-Îles is clearly the best placed to reap the benefits of Plan Nord, the port of Saguenay has an important role to play by serving Chibougamau, Langlois noted.

Turning to the existing infrastructure in northern Quebec, Langlois noted there are several small ports along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, but few with rail connections, while the existing rail network would probably have to be double-tracked to handle the anticipated mining boom. “There are also several landing strips throughout the region, but most have limited capacity,” he said.

Plan Nord can expect to get a major financial infusion from la Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the province’s giant pension fund, which has over $41 billion invested in Quebec, or about 25 per cent of its total assets.

“If there’s an iron mine, you have to do something with the iron. You need the infrastructure capable of getting the product to port,” Michael Sabia, head of the Caisse, said recently in explaining what role the pension fund would have in advancing the Plan Nord. The Caisse also expects to play an active but unspecified role in several mining projects.