Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Supplementary written evidence submitted by The Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network (ESKTN) (SIM 07a)

Q. In response to question 41 (see the transcript of the session), you mentioned that mining companies "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". You implied that a large chunk of this time was taken up by the planning process. Are you able to expand on this a little? For example, how much of this time is because of the planning process and why does it take so long?

I will try to expand on this point in general on the understanding that this is generalised interpretation of the situation rather than a detailed review of specific cases (which would be difficult to do in the case of the UK because I cannot recall the opening of any new metallic mineral mine in the UK in recent years). If you read the response below in conjunction with some of the Oral evidence given by Professor Manning I hope this will clarify the situation. Please also refer to the attached paper, by UK experts, which looks at both mining and quarrying 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. 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. This is probably the case in many European countries. This is partly due to issues related to population density and land use and these are less of a problem in parts of Scandinavia where they have encouraged some mineral development.

As Professor Manning points out the distribution minerals is determined by geology and a mining industry cannot be developed where there are no mineral deposits. The EU Study on Critical raw Materials points out that the EU is highly dependent on imports of many metals but unlike the USA and Japan does not have strategy for managing supplies. It suggests that where possible the EU should look for potential to reduce dependence on imports. This could be achieved by identifying and developing new deposits which would require significant investment in exploration. It may also be necessary to look at the development of smaller and/or lower grade deposits and research is required to look at mining and processing methods that could make these processes viable.

If we look at the issues relating to the development of a project in the UK these could be summarised as:

  • Mining not seen as an important part of the economy.
  • The perception is that the easy deposits have already been exploited and there is little chance of finding a large/rich deposit.
  • Uncertainty about the rights to prospect.
  • Uncertainty about the mineral rights.
  • Complications in the planning process—local/national/EU regulations, interpretation of Environmental Impact data, potential for objections and delays.
  • Classification of land as of some form of special interest (archaeological, habitat, etc).
  • Tax scenarios (mine development is encouraged in some countries).
  • Availability of expertise and cost of personnel.

It has also been suggested that 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". This probably takes us onto the wider question of the general public's perception of mining operations. These are 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 using the most sustainable methods available (see attached paper and information on Sustainable Development from the ICMM).

So in many ways the cards are stacked against developments in the EU relative to other parts of the world where mining can be seen as an important part of the economy. However if the EU/UK wants to reduce its dependence on imported materials it must consider developing the appropriate strategies. Policies to support R&D in minerals and the development of appropriate deposits could reduce supply risks. Developing a mining project to the stage when investors are prepared to fund a project is a difficult and expensive process—local conditions that make it more difficult will deter development activity.

Tony Hartwell
The Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network (ESKTN)

8 February 2011

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