The last man staking
As Yellowknife’s rock-star geologist, Lou Covello has been poking at the Canadian Shield for 40 years – and he has no interest in stopping now. Find out what it means to get Lou’d
Profile by Ted Anderson
Photo by Patrick Kane
During his four decades working on northern rock as a geologist and consultant, Lou Covello has become an outspoken advocate for the mining and exploration industry. He’s written columns and spoken before the Senate. He’s seen mining and exploration in the North change, and not always for the better.
While things are looking up for the Yukon and Nunavut, it’s no secret the industry has stagnated in the Northwest Territories. Speaking to the Senate’s standing committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development in 2009, Covello said mining companies have become “political footballs” for land claims negotiations between aboriginal, federal and territorial governments. Speaking with Up Here Business, he says the territory is at a point where it might take more than 10 years to catch up to our sister territories – once development finally kicks into gear.
“When you hear someone on the radio say we should leave it in the ground because it’ll be worth more in the future, it’s not true. The odds are it’ll be worth less,” Covello says over Monday morning breakfast at a Yellowknife diner. “You can see that with natural gas. Because of human intellectual capital being expended on the problem – natural gas – we have more now than we ever have in the past. As a matter of fact, we have so much that the price of natural gas is at an all-time historic low and looks like it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future, and that’s why we don’t have a Mackenzie Valley pipeline – because we said, ‘Well, let’s leave this because it’ll only be more in the future.’ And in fact the exact opposite was true.”
Covello anything-but-cynical take on big industry, and his views on non-renewable resource development, cut decidedly against the grain: He calls the Alberta oil sands a “natural oil spill” that has been leaking into the Athabasca River since the end of the Ice Age. Now, he says, “we’re cleaning it up” and making the money we need to fund environmental stewardship. “I believe that for human practical purposes, our so-called non-renewable resources are in fact infinite and only limited by the crust of the earth, and the main limitations on finding new deposits are human, and that’s the amount of resources – time and resources – and intellectual capital that we spend on the problem.”
At 67, Covello spends his downtime skiing and getting out on the lakes around Yellowknife – not fishing necessarily, just enjoying the natural environment he calls home. But work is where his true passion lies. He focuses on getting out into the bush and on the tundra – he’s field-oriented, he says. “Who wouldn’t want to be out there? It’s out in a pristine environment, you get to solve problems, you get to think about rocks, figure out what rocks are doing, realize that you never really know the whole truth.”
Covello graduated from Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University with a Bachelor of Science in 1971. He came North first for Noranda Inc, then for two years with the Geological Survey of Canada. Covello returned to Noranda in 1973 and they offered him a transfer to Yellowknife or Winnipeg. The choice for Covello was a no-brainer. “There was no way I wanted to live in Winnipeg,” he says.
Gary Vivian first met Covello in 1977 when the two worked for Noranda. Covello left the company in 1981 for his own consulting business. But in 1988, Covello recruited Vivian to work for Covello, Bryan and Associates, a firm Covello started in 1986 with partner Douglas Bryan. That company became Aurora Geosciences in 2000, merging with Whitehorse’s Amerok Geophysics, and for the past eight years Vivian has been the company’s president.
With a passion for fieldwork “second to none,” Covello has been tireless and level-headed out on the rocks, Vivian says. Not to mention something of a workaholic. Covello’s passion is sometimes so boundless that the geologists he brings with him are essentially hijacked into taking longer trips than what they signed up for. It’s an experience common enough that there’s a known saying in the northern industry to describe it: “I’ve been Lou’d.” “If you do something for somebody and you’ve been misled down the garden path, they say you’ve been ‘screwed,’” says Vivian. “Well, with Lou, it’s always one of those things where, as a supervisor, he’ll tell you or tell your wife that you’re going into the field for two or three weeks, but Lou actually knows it’ll be six weeks. When you come back, the famous line you use to always tell your wife was you’ve been Lou’d.”
Continues Vivian: “The man just has so much knowledge and so much passion for geology that it doesn’t matter if you end up getting Lou’d for a job. Everything always works out well. You know he’s always got your back.”
Rushed jobs end often in disaster, so for Covello, taking it slow now and then is more of a blessing than a curse. “Commonly in the field you can get highly stressful situations where you may have helicopter problems or fixed-wing problems,” says Vivian, “but Lou always takes those things with a grain of salt – he never lets them bother him and he always makes the right decisions. He never makes a rushed decision to potentially make the wrong one. He’s always had his emotions under control extremely, extremely well.”
Working on the landhas lost a lot of its romanticism. Modern camps boasts many of the amenities of home – satellite TV, Internet, running water – but 30 years ago, says Vivian, “you’re there by yourself, there’s not much support, and, you know, it’s a great place to be.” The freedom of the North in the 1970s and 80s, along with its inherent mystique as a huge chunk of unexplored Canadian Shield, brought miners and geologists north. While much of the land remains to be explored for minerals, the lifestyle is much different than it was back when the population was few and the few were hardy. “If you wanted to wash, you went and jumped in the lakes,” says Vivian. “You cooked your own meals, you didn’t have a first aid person, and to be quite honest the camps in those days were a lot more fun than they are now, because at night you used to sit around the kitchen table and you just talked about life, whereas now everyone just goes and watches TV or they play on their laptops.”
There’s still a lot of mystery as to what’s buried out there. That fact keeps some of the romanticism alive, but mystery doesn’t pay the bills. Exploration spending intentions for the territory are estimated at $124 million this year, up from $105 million last year but far below the $568 million spending expected in Nunavut. “We have this anti-development attitude in the North, the Northwest Territories in particular,” says Covello. “We’re largely a civil service-oriented entity now; a political entity. Mining is probably one of the few viable economic activities that we have, at this point anyway, and it’s perceived almost universally as a very dirty and very destructive occupation, and I think until we revise those attitudes we’ll find we continue along this path.”
It’s an attitude that doesn’t jive with logic, in his mind. Without money, how can we afford to be the stewards of our environment? “If you look at the history of human activity on earth, the more industrially advanced, and the richer a nation is, the better it is able to look after its natural resources, its environment.” Working in Russia, he’s seen what happens when a poor nation is mining because it really, really needs the money. “Things that, here, would appall us in terms of environmental degradation are commonplace there. If you don’t have money, you’re concerned more with survival, and environment takes a backseat to survival.”
To fix the mentality in the NWT, the education system should not only shift misconceptions about industry but get youth excited about it, Covello says. Yellowknife’s Sir John Franklin High School used to offer a geology course in the 1960s, but Covello doesn’t see that happening nowadays, despite it seemingly being a natural fit in the North. “I think there is a certain amount of reluctance to teaching it as well because of its affiliation with industrial activity,” he says. As a result, it’s the territory’s young who are missing out on opportunities. “There are a lot of people who are interested here but most of the expertise when it comes to the actual practical aspects of exploring comes from down south.”
Covello is starting to see the mentality shift, at least within the GNWT. Devolution will be a big boost for the territory. He speaks of responsible development, which could bring prosperity to the territory, if we’d let it. “Some people think that the royalties are going to be a big thing, but the royalties never are – the big benefits are going to be in the jobs, and people paying taxes and getting off the social support end of things.”
As he finishes off his breakfast, Covello notes the ground under our feet, the rock Yellowknife is built upon. It’s some of the oldest in the world, dating back to the Archean Era, some 2.6 billion years ago. “They form the cores on all of the continents, these old stable platforms,” he says. This old stone contains immense wealth, the full scope of which we are only just beginning to discover. Those treasures will support the people in the communities of the NWT long after we’re gone, and, if we’re lucky, while most of us are still here.