Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents

6  Domestic extraction

Exploiting potential reserves

172.  Wolf Minerals Ltd, a mining company developing a tungsten deposit in the UK, told us in a written submission that:

There is [...] a perception that metal mineral resources in the UK are fully known and that there is therefore very limited opportunity to provide metal from within the UK. This perception [...] is not correct. In most of the prospective areas within the UK the mineral potential is unknown at economic depths and there are indications of substantial targets.[259]

173.  The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) agreed that there was potential to increase domestic extraction of strategic metals[260] and the Mineral Reconnaissance Programme led by the British Geological Survey (BGS) has identified unexploited deposits of various strategic metals, such as the platinum group metals and gold, in the UK.[261]

174.  The Mineralogical Society stated that "the UK is considered to have significant reserves of some of the critical metals, particularly in the historical mining area of SW England, although areas such as the Highlands of Scotland and parts of Wales also potentially contain exploitable deposits".[262] Professor David Manning, Secretary for Professional Matters at the Geological Society of London, explained:

We assume that because Cornwall has been around for thousands of years as a mineral stockpile, we don't need to do any more work there, yet there are treasures in Cornwall waiting to be found. We need to make sure that this is consistently being worked through and that continued work takes place on the geology and aspects of the geological science.[263]

Professor Manning added that Northern Ireland was recently surveyed for minerals using modern geophysical prospecting methods, resulting in 90% of Northern Ireland being licensed for mineral extraction.[264]

175.  In addition to raw reserves in the ground, there are also potential reserves in alternative resources that were once waste. The Geological Society of London explained that as well as primary ore extraction and the recycling of products, it might be possible to extract metals from industrial waste streams such as spent oil shales, fly ash and slags.[265] It said that:

[Researchers] have shown that the retorting process [a common extraction method] for generating oil from shale, for example, leaves increased REE concentrations in the residual shale […] There are 100 million tonnes of oil shale spoil heaps in West Lothian, representing a significant potential resource, though not all is available for use under current planning regulations.[266]

176.  The UK is well placed to exploit domestic reserves—including from unconventional sources such as industrial waste streams—due to the expert knowledge of its research base. Dr Mike Pitts, from the Industry Technology Division of the RSC, explained:

We have the capability in the UK within our chemistry, science and engineering infrastructure to develop much better ways to get materials out of mining ores and also so-called waste streams where the concentration can often be higher than in the ore that it came from.[267]

The Geological Society of London took the same view: "the UK has the advantage of a world renowned mineral deposits research community, including not only university scientists, but also those in BGS, NERC isotope facilities, and the Mineralogy Department of the Natural History Museum".[268] However, concerns were expressed that:

this area is relatively neglected by NERC with regard to research funding, and that if the next generation of mineral deposits researchers is not nurtured, the community will lose critical mass and not be self sustaining.[269]

177.  While Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science, acknowledged that "we are world leaders in understanding some of the geological processes and the distribution of some of these materials", he suggested that the UK was "quite active in researching this area" and that if there were specific areas where more research was required it was his expectation that industry would communicate that to NERC.[270]

178.  The evidence shows that there are unexploited deposits of various strategic metals in the UK but, in many areas, it is unclear whether extraction is economically viable. The use of modern geophysical prospecting methods could identify economically accessible reserves. The Government should work with the British Geological Survey to ensure that Government has a comprehensive and up-to-date understanding of potentially valuable domestic mineral resources.

179.  Research is underway into the potential to extract metals from industrial waste streams. We recommend that, if these techniques become economically viable, the Government ensure that current planning regulations do not unnecessarily restrict the use of significant potential reserves such as the 100 million tonnes of oil shale spoil heaps in West Lothian.

Impact of domestic extraction

180.  The Geological Society of London explained that one of the benefits of domestic extraction was that "there is considerable potential to reduce our vulnerability [...] to some strategic metals. [For example] the UK has significant potential reserves of […] indium and tungsten in south west England".[271] The Mineralogical Society agreed that "exploration and mining of critical metals within the UK would provide the country with some security of supply, as well as bringing economic benefits to rural areas".[272] Wolf Minerals Ltd added that:

Developing our own resources both enables the UK to minimise the offshoring of environmental and health costs to other nations, but also ensures that the UK can negotiate trade agreements from a strong position. [...] The most ethical method of ensuring supplies of strategic minerals to our economy is to provide them from our own resources. Such action clearly removes or reduces any threat of external controls on supply to the UK.[273]

181.  We consider that UK mining for strategic metals could help to relieve the risk associated with external supply monopolies and reduce the "offshoring" of the UK's environmental impact. We appreciate that any new mining in the UK would have an environmental impact. Professor Manning, Geological Society of London, did not envisage that this would be an insurmountable problem:

One of the good things about mining in this country is that we can be absolutely sure of the control of the environmental parameters. If we are interested in making sure that we are responsible consumers of mined materials, then the more we do that under our own control the better.[274]

182.  Louis Brimacombe, Head of the Environment and Sustainability Research Team at Tata Steel, agreed that "we probably manage environmental issues of our mining operations […] better than overseas […] so the net impact globally might be better".[275] He added, however, that "the mining community now in general is improving its environmental and social performance overseas as well".[276] Tony Hartwell, Knowledge Transfer Manager of the Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network (ESKTN), summed up the issue of environmental impact in the UK:

There is a demand for these metals and they are going to be produced somewhere in the world. The point is that, if we are using the metals, we have a responsibility to see that they are mined sustainably wherever they are made.[277]

183.  We heard evidence that the impact of mining operations in the UK has been improving. Dr Bernie Rickinson, Chief Executive of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3), stated that "over the last decade […] sustainability, environmental parameters and health and safety associated with mining has changed in all respects".[278] The Geological Society of London provided us with an example of UK mining activity with high environmental standards. In this example, Scotgold Resources Ltd are developing Cononish, a gold mine in the Grampians region of Scotland, which is currently in the planning process.[279]

In terms of satisfying planning and environmental legislation, the initial application was turned down largely because of concerns about 'visual' impact in the National Parks but since refusal Scotgold Resources has been working to meet these concerns by reducing the size of the tailings facility and by incorporating some underground disposal. For environmental reasons, a gravity/flotation process rather than the use of cyanide will be employed. Plant has been designed at additional cost to minimise the footprint—modularised and contained in a single building rather than a traditional design. The location demands the highest environmental and planning standards and it is perhaps significant that the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency withdrew their objection. The company is currently sufficiently encouraged to re-apply for planning permission.[280]

184.  However, perception of the environmental impact also matters, in particular with regard to convincing the public.[281] Professor Manning, Geological Society of London, elaborated:

The important point about mining is that much of the problem arises from the automatic assumption that a mine is definitely not a good neighbour. This is where the mining industry has a role to play in demonstrating that a modern mine, run to standards that we would expect in this country, can be a very good neighbour. We see this in some of the open pit coalmining […] in Northumberland. The mines of one of the very good companies that operates there can be scarcely visible, and so the company can have problems in getting planning permission because no one knows a mine is there. It has backfired to some extent and they have to work very hard to demonstrate to the public for example just how quiet they are. That is where there is a double edge to this. The consultation process tends to throw up objections that are based on historical perceptions rather than present day perceptions, and there may be ways in which that can be eased.[282]

The ESKTN concurred:

the general public's perception of mining operations [is] often based on views based on historical descriptions of operations and incidents but the modern mining industry takes its responsibilities seriously and aims to develop mineral[s] using the most sustainable methods available.[283]

185.  We consider that domestic mining for strategic metals could alleviate the risk associated with sourcing metals from external supply monopolies. While any new mining in the UK is likely to have some environmental impact, this is likely to be lower than it would be abroad and so reduce the export of the UK's environmental impact. It is important that the Government invests in the necessary research, to ensure that future domestic mining has the least possible environmental impact. However, perception of the environmental impact also matters, and the public rightly needs to be certain of the effects of mining in the UK. The mining industry has a role to play in demonstrating that a modern mine, run to standards can be a good neighbour.

UK planning law

186.  The Mineralogical Society told us that "issues of cost, environmental considerations, and planning have restricted mining in [the UK] in recent years".[284] Professor Manning, Geological Society of London, added that "this country is one of the most difficult in the world to get planning permission to take a mine forward".[285] Mr Hartwell, ESKTN, agreed that "the planning process takes a long time".[286] This was illustrated by the ESKTN's explanation of the initial phases of exploiting a mineral reserve in the UK:

The whole process of identifying a mineral deposit is itself an expensive process and risky process. Ideally mining companies would like to identify large deposits of high grade material. Exploration geologists conduct surveys to identify signs of potential for deposits and then they must conduct detailed exploration work to determine if the deposit might be economically viable. This can include extensive drilling and mineral processing test work. [287]

Prior to applying for planning permission, mining companies must invest significantly just to identify mineral reserves. The ESKTN continued:

Mineral exploration companies are unlikely to invest in development work in locations where the mineral exploration rights are unclear and /or there is a high probability that an operating permit may not be granted—or will be only be received after long delays.[288]

187.  ESKTN explained that the uncertainty and delays in gaining planning permission was preventing mining companies even considering prospecting for reserves:

We spoke to a company that was looking at developing mining assets and they said they wouldn't even look at deposits in Europe because they know it is going to take them 10 or 15 years to go from discovering the deposit to getting into production. They just can't afford to do that. They can't afford to invest in developing the deposit, exploring for it and going on to do that.[289]

188.  However, not all mining companies are discouraged. Wolf Minerals Ltd stated that "the UK has one of the most rigorous and fair planning and regulatory regimes in the World. This regime fits within a local democratic process and within a stable and trusted national political framework".[290] The democratic process is key to giving local citizens a platform to voice their concerns about what happens in their region. We consider, however, that the nature of mineral reserves is such that they may only be located in one or two pre-defined areas within the UK. Their location is often not flexible. Therefore any substantial local opposition and resulting rejection of planning applications may result in the mining company pursuing an overseas location.

189.  The Geological Society of London stated that the "Government should […] address the inconsistency between national mineral supply objectives and local planning policy and practice".[291] The ESKTN suggested that it was "the lack of clear statement from central government as to the importance of minerals which leaves the planning process (and the courts, who might review the legality of a planning decision in terms of national policies) open to pressure of 'yes, but not here'".[292]

190.  The Planning Act 2008 was introduced to speed up the process for approving "nationally significant infrastructure" projects. The Act provided for a new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) to decide applications for these major infrastructure applications. The Localism Bill 2010/11 is set to abolish the IPC and replace it with a Major Infrastructure Planning Unit within the Planning Inspectorate. We understand that mines are currently not considered to be nationally significant infrastructure and therefore must go through the traditional local government planning process.[293] Professor Manning, Geological Society of London, stated:

There could be some ease in terms of the strategic need for materials being recognised in the same way that the planning law is being changed from the point of view of looking at major installations over power generation and things like that. If mining could come into that category, that would help.[294]

191.  We consider that classifying mines as nationally significant infrastructure under the Planning Act 2008 would speed up the planning process and be of advantage to the UK's economic development. It would encourage the exploration and the development of strategic metals mines. Mr Hartwell, ESKTN, stated that "the same is happening now in America where they are trying to shorten their planning process from two years to one year for minerals and metals".[295] When we asked the Minister whether he thought classifying mines as nationally significant infrastructure would have an impact on mining projects in the UK, he replied:

That is not a proposal that has been put to me. I can see the sensitivities of things such as that. It is an interesting observation […] I will pass it on to my colleagues who are in the forefront of tricky decisions on planning.[296]

192.  We are concerned by reports that uncertainty and delay in the planning process is preventing some mining companies from even considering prospecting for reserves in the UK. The nature of mineral reserves is such that they are where they are, that is, their location is a given. Therefore any substantial local opposition and resulting rejection of planning applications may result in mining companies pursuing an overseas location. In order to make the most of the UK's valuable domestic resources and to speed up the planning process, we recommend that the Government classify mines, in particular those containing strategic metal reserves, as nationally significant infrastructure.

259   Ev w15, para 1.6 Back

260   Ev 58, para 13 Back

261   Department of Trade and Industry and British Geological Survey, Exploration for metalliferous and other minerals in Great Britain: a guide (second edition), 2000 Back

262   Ev w21, para 7 Back

263   Q 18 Back

264   As above Back

265   Ev 53, para 16 Back

266   Evs 53-54, para 16 Back

267   Q 23 Back

268   Ev 52, para 11 Back

269   Ev 53, para 12 [Geological Society of London] Back

270   Q 175 Back

271   Ev 52, para 11 Back

272   Ev w21, para 7 Back

273   Ev w15, w18, paras 1.7 and A2.2 Back

274   Q 23 Back

275   Q 38 Back

276   As above Back

277   Q 38 Back

278   Q 23 Back

279   Ev 55, para 5 Back

280   As above Back

281   Q 14 [Professor Manning]; Q 23 [Dr Rickinson]  Back

282   Q 19 Back

283   Ev 51 Back

284   Ev w21, para 7 Back

285   Q 14 Back

286   Q 41 Back

287   Ev 50 Back

288   As above Back

289   Q 41 Back

290   Ev w18, para A2.2 Back

291   Ev 53, para 13 Back

292   Ev 51 Back

293   Planning Act 2008, section 14 Back

294   Q 19 Back

295   Q 41 Back

296   Q 178 Back

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Prepared 17 May 2011