Lithium: Critical Minerals Supply — [Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 2:54 pm ar 23 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Ceidwadwyr, Truro and Falmouth 2:54, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon. I thank my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend 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 George Eustice. I took great pleasure in showing the then Minister for Industry and Economic Security—my hon. Friend 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.