Lithium: A white gold rush excites Cornwall – but who gains?

  • By Joshua Nevett
  • BBC Politics

Image supply, Getty Images

Image caption,

A bronze sculpture of a Cornish miner in Redruth symbolises the proud industrial previous of the city

Towering over a excessive road in a former mining heartland, a statue of a pitman reminds Cornwall of its industrial previous.

In this a part of south-west England, the mining business was once an financial powerhouse and in recent times, it has been making a tentative comeback.

A new era of miners are hoping the pure assets that put Cornwall on the map will as soon as once more convey wealth to the county.

This time, the miners are utilizing slicing-edge know-how to get their palms on lithium – a steel used to make batteries for on a regular basis digital units all of us depend on, from laptops to smartphones.

These lithium-ion batteries additionally energy the electrical vehicles that can be essential to slicing carbon emissions and limiting the worst results of local weather change.

The mining business has the potential to revitalise the tourism-dependent economic system of Cornwall, the place some areas are among the many most disadvantaged in England.

But whereas the mining revival excites a lot of Cornwall, there’s uncertainty over whether or not lithium actually would be the golden ticket the realm has lengthy been ready for – benefitting individuals in a manner that does not hurt the atmosphere whereas bringing again nicely-paid mining jobs.

Economic prize

The firm is aiming to begin manufacturing by 2026 and expects to extract about 10,000 tonnes of lithium every year. That’s about 12.5% of the 80,000 tonnes the UK is forecast to wish a yr by 2030.

They’ll be competitors from British Lithium, a rival firm that is seeking to mine the steel from an open pit in St Austell.

Image supply, Cornish Lithium

Image caption,

Cornish Lithium started its arduous rock lithium mission at Trelavour Downs close to St Austell in 2018

Estimates of the lithium business’s market worth differ, with one report forecasting world income price virtually $19bn (£15bn) by 2030.

With lithium costs anticipated to rise worldwide, the financial prize on supply is tantalising.

Overall, “the community is pretty favourable”, says Frances Wall, professor of utilized mineralogy on the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall.

The pleasure has been constructing, she says, but provides “if you go to individual areas, there are certainly people who are concerned”.

They typically point out the environmental toll some lithium mining operations have taken in South America and worry which may be repeated in Cornwall.

“It’s got to be done as cleanly as possible”, says Holly Whitelaw, the director of the Cornwall Climate Action Network.

She says “some lithium mining abroad is horrific” and firms within the UK have an opportunity to set higher requirements globally.

And the founding father of Cornish Lithium, Jeremy Wrathall, believes they will.

He says his firm makes use of extra environmentally pleasant strategies than these elsewhere.

For instance, one approach includes pumping up sizzling brine from underground and eradicating the lithium, in a course of he compares to an enormous model of a Britta water filter.

Mr Wrathall, a former funding banker, says there’s enthusiasm for what his firm is doing due to Cornwall’s lengthy historical past of mining.

“We recognise it could bring huge economic benefits and if we don’t, if nothing happens, the outlook is bleak for Cornwall,” he says.

Image supply, Cornish Lithium

Image caption,

Jeremy Wrathall studied mining engineering in Cornwall earlier than working in finance

One native local weather activist, Nichola Andersen, is sceptical and claims she is aware of “a lot of people around the Cornish Lithium project who are against it”.

“I’m very suspicious of it, bearing in mind the history of companies in Cornwall,” she says.

“Anyone exploiting the assets listed here are simply making an attempt to feather their very own nest.

“It’s simply one other instance of individuals extracting worth out of Cornwall. The cash goes out of Cornwall and by no means comes again.”

Loveday Jenkin, a Mebyon Kernow member of Cornwall Council, is extra optimistic. She welcomes the prospect of excessive-high quality jobs in step with Cornwall’s custom of expert engineering.

But she would not wish to see lithium mined right here exported overseas. She requested: “Why do not we’ve a lithium battery manufacturing facility in Cornwall?”

It’s an excellent query, and a clumsy one for the UK.

Lagging behind

Currently, the UK solely has one giant battery manufacturing facility in operation – the Chinese-owned Envision plant in Sunderland. A second Envision plant is beneath building, whereas a 3rd – Britishvolt – is floundering after collapsing into administration initially of this yr.

In the race to construct these so-referred to as gigafactories, the UK is lagging behind the likes of China, which is estimated to have greater than 100 lively vegetation. Even in western Europe, there are 38 gigafactories both operational or deliberate, according to the Faraday Institution.

Simon Moores, managing director of consultancy Benchmark Minerals, has his doubts.

He says the UK is dropping the “world battery arms race” after “hesitating over any form of technique on electrical automobiles and lithium for a very long time”.

Image supply, Getty Images

Image caption,

A Tesla gigafactory in Shanghai, China, which is a world chief in producing electrical automobiles

Benchmark Minerals has calculated that the UK must spend about £100bn to spark a brand new electrical automobile business – £20bn to arrange new gigafactories and £80bn to construct the provision chain that feeds it.

Without this battery ecosystem, the way forward for the UK’s automotive business is hanging within the stability.

“As a Brit, I’m very involved about that,” Mr Wrathall says. “But by way of what we’re doing with Cornish Lithium, we’ll export it if there isn’t any automotive business right here. It can be a tragedy.”

Cornish Lithium has acquired authorities funding for its initiatives, together with £2.9m in direction of its pilot geothermal lithium plant close to Redruth. The authorities says its Critical Minerals Strategy highlights its progress on supporting lithium initiatives and battery manufacturing within the UK.

“From the tip of Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands, we’re creating the precise situations for important mineral companies to develop by providing monetary assist,” a authorities spokesperson mentioned.

The Conservative MP for St Austell and Newquay, Steve Double, says some alternatives had been created due to authorities assist.

“But due to the worldwide financial state of affairs there have been some challenges round that,” he says.

He agrees there’s lots extra to be accomplished earlier than the individuals of Cornwall can see the advantages of its white gold rush.

“If a gigafactory grew to become potential, I’d like to see it occur,” Mr Double says.

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