Lithium: Critical Minerals Supply Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Lithium: Critical Minerals Supply

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Tuesday 23rd April 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I thank my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for securing this really important debate. As his successor as chair of the all-party group for critical minerals, it has been my privilege to champion this industry in Parliament in recent years. I am told that the phrase “critical minerals” has been used more in Hansard in the past couple of years than in the whole of Parliament’s history. That shows that critical minerals are firmly on the agenda and that everybody is starting to talk about them.

My hon. Friend knows that every opportunity to discuss lithium and other critical minerals is a chance to raise the profile of this vital sector and outline its importance to our energy security as a nation and a global economy. It should also give our constituents in Cornwall a sense of pride. The sector is absolutely essential, given that demand for critical minerals is due to quadruple by 2040 to meet the requirements for clean energy technologies on our way towards net zero.

As my hon. Friend outlined, mining has always been closely interwoven with Cornish communities. It has been fantastic to witness the revival of Cornwall’s mining industries, which has restored Cornwall to its rightful place at the heart of the UK’s critical minerals strategy. He spoke at length about how Cornish Lithium and Imerys British Lithium are going from strength to strength. I associate myself with his comments, and I thank the companies for their endeavours.

In addition to lithium, Cornwall is also extracting tin. I had yet another opportunity to visit Cornish Metals at South Crofty in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). I took great pleasure in showing the then Minister for Industry and Economic Security—my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who has now picked up a brief in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—around the site. We met the company directors, who took her underground to update her on the progress that Cornish Metals has been making to restore that historic mine.

Cornwall is home to one of the top three tin sites in the world, and it is expected that South Crofty will be back online in 2026. I want to highlight a couple of the challenges facing our new and re-emerging mining companies that were raised when I visited South Crofty. The first relates to planning. South Crofty is on an existing site and, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay said, although we had local buy-in, the planning process took about 12 years and cost more than £10 million; that is now completed. Given that Cornwall is an area sympathetic to mining infrastructure, surely we can simplify the process if we mean what we say about the minerals being critical.

The second challenge is the processing. My hon. Friend has spoken about lithium processing, but currently any tin extracted from Cornwall will need to be exported to the far east to be processed. In Europe, the energy costs are simply too high, and we must use carbon to melt the metal. The sites in Belgium and Poland are used only to recycle, so should we stand up our own processing in the UK, perhaps in south Wales or Humberside, next door to our existing steelworks?

Despite that, mining is not the dirty industry it once was. As champions of the industry, we have a duty to remind communities of the environmental benefits that a restoration of Cornwall’s mining industry will bring to our natural surroundings, our towns and our villages. It is not simply about high-skilled jobs for the future and opportunities for work. The Cornwall Lithium site at United Downs is producing geothermal energy, which is ready to power local houses and businesses. The water treatment plant at South Crofty is providing resources for the reopening of the mine that can also be used to clean the nearby Red River—no longer as red as it was—and protect local wildlife. That is a great example of the fact that when the Government give industry the breathing space to start in an emerging sector, the benefits to the economy, security and the environment are bountiful.

It is important that we place our discussions about the supply of critical minerals in a broader international context. I have worked closely with the Critical Minerals Association and its partners to get world leaders in the industry, and representatives of international bodies and Governments across the word, in the same room to have conversations and build the relationships that are needed now if we are ever to be in a position to grow the supply chain at pace to meet the growing global demand.

Last November, I hosted the first ever roundtable of producer nations, right here in Parliament. We brought together Ministers from Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Armenia for a discussion with Foreign Office Ministers about the future of our respective critical mineral supply chains. The event complemented the UK’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative roundtable, which I had hosted earlier in the year, where we discussed the corporate risk and the need to set out international expectations for the industry early on, to ensure transparency and ethical mining in the rush to meet demand.

I also attended another roundtable at the US ambassador’s residence. If I am totally honest, I was quite surprised to be invited, because it included representatives from the US Government as well as global industry CEOs. We were able to brainstorm on the cross-governmental challenges that like-minded nations face, in order to build resilience in the supply chain and meet global demand, thereby ensuring not just security but sustainability.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
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The hon. Lady has made two significant points in a coherent speech. First, we will not be able to make use of natural resources in this country while our energy costs remain so high, and secondly, the planning regime that we operate in makes getting permission for the extraction of any minerals very difficult. Does she agree that deep in the Government, as the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) said, there is still a belief that we can rely on international trade to import critical minerals, whereas in actual fact China is behaving malevolently and trying to monopolise the trade?

Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory
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The hon. Gentleman is not wrong, in that global events are catching up with us. I think everybody in this Chamber knows that Whitehall moves at a glacial pace at the best of times, and current geopolitics has taught us that the Government need to be more agile. I think they are getting better at that and at getting Government Departments to work together. I mentioned that the Minister’s predecessor now has the equivalent brief in the Foreign Office and will therefore take her understanding with her. Government Departments are getting better at working together, but the hon. Gentleman made an incredibly important point.

Throughout all the events we have hosted this year I have been reassured by the Government’s determination and willingness to pitch in. The critical minerals strategy grapples with many of the industry’s original concerns, yet I also think most of us see it as an evolving document, as both our ambitions for the sector and the realities on the ground shift. What is true is that the strategy will ensure that the UK remains competitive as different nations grow their supply chains at varying rates, and it will also ensure that regions such as Cornwall, which have so much to offer, get the sustainable investment and job opportunities that we need.

Before I draw my speech to a close, I will discuss the local impact of improving the supply of critical minerals to my constituents in Truro and Falmouth, outlining the successes of the activity by the Government and the all-party parliamentary group on critical minerals on the international stage, as well as the reassuring framework offered by the critical minerals strategy. I will also use this opportunity to mention alternative ways of boosting the supply of lithium, tin and other minerals through recycling.

The world-renowned Camborne School of Mines is now based at the University of Exeter in Penryn. It is highly respected around the world and I have met many of its graduates during my time as chair of the APPG. In February 2023, an additional £15 million was invested into research on strengthening the resilience of our critical minerals supply chain by recovering rare earth metals from products that had already been used. This work has huge potential. For example, it is estimated that by 2040 some 10% of copper, nickel, lithium and cobalt could be generated by recycling used batteries. When we are in a position of urgency, it makes perfect sense for us to maximise the minerals we have in products with limited lifespans, in order to alleviate the pressure on our mining industries and shore up our national security in the process.

Earlier this year, the Minister responsible for resources, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), announced that the University of Exeter, where the Camborne School of Mines is now based, would be a partner in the new United Nations-backed centre that will propel the transition to a future circular economy. The International Centre of Excellence on Sustainable Resource Management in the Circular Economy is the first such centre in the world. It will develop new approaches to the circular economy in areas such as metals, construction and critical minerals. I thank Ministers for taking the initiative on this front and putting investment into research early on, and I pay tribute to Professor Frances Wall at the Camborne School of Mines for leading the work.

Across the board, we have had big wins for the critical minerals industry in the UK, particularly in Cornwall. Our future security and economic growth rely on getting the next phase of increasing supply chain capability right for international demand, with balance to benefit our mining communities. However, it is quite easy for attention to shift to the next domestic policy interest of the moment, which is why I will continue to use every possible forum in this place to raise the topic. I am incredibly grateful to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, for giving me the opportunity to do so today.