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Delivering the UK’s critical minerals ambitions

Our world is increasingly powered by critical minerals. Experts working across Government, industry, academia and finance gathered to discuss how to secure supply chains and deliver the UK’s Critical Minerals Strategy

Words by Eileen Maes
24 May 2023

The UK currently relies on imports from countries such as China for much of its supply of critical minerals

The UK Government published its first-ever critical minerals strategy, Resilience for the Future, in July 2022. The report highlights the reliance of modern society on critical minerals, as well as the complexity and volatility of today’s global critical mineral supply chains. The strategy sets out a plan to secure UK supply chains by accelerating the growth of domestic capability, collaborating with international partners to innovate and solve challenges, and enhancing international markets to make them more responsible and transparent – a framework referred to as ACE (accelerate, collaborate, enhance).  

It is promising to see Government beginning to recognise the critical minerals risk, but the release of a strategy does not mean that the country can be complacent – effective delivery of the strategy remains an urgent priority. The UK risks falling behind in the global race to secure responsible sources of critical minerals.

In November 2022, the Critical Minerals Association (CMA) and Geological Society Business Forum (GSBF) hosted their second annual conference, ‘Delivering the UK’s Critical Mineral Ambitions’, which welcomed hundreds of experts across governments, industry, academia, and finance, both in-person and online globally, to discuss how the UK can deliver its strategy. Guests included MPs, UK civil servants, a government delegation from Australia (including the Honourable Scott Stewart MP, Minister of Resources), and a wide range of industry and academic participants. The day’s discussions covered topics including Government’s strategy, research and innovation, diplomatic support, law and governance, traceability and life-cycle assessments, as well as funding. 

It is promising to see Government beginning to recognise the critical minerals risk

The UK’s opportunity  

In the inaugural speech, Rt Hon. Baroness Northover, Member of the House of Lords, and Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Critical Minerals, highlighted the great opportunity that critical minerals represent for the UK and its future.  

Matt Hatfield (Critical Minerals Lead, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy; BEIS), Joseph Mansour (Critical Minerals and Net Zero Lead, Department for International Trade; DIT), and Ros Lund (Responsible Mining Lead, DIT), who were integral in the formation of the UK’s critical minerals strategy, answered questions surrounding the ACE framework. They also expanded on the meaning of building ‘resilience’, emphasising the importance of being realistic in our goals – the UK’s vision should not be autarky. Instead, we must leverage our expertise in mining and chemical engineering and invest in areas with competitive advantage to secure the UK’s place in global supply chains. The panel unanimously contended that although Government departments still require further communication and coordination to effectively implement policy, the past two years have seen encouraging progress in that senior decision-makers are coming to realise the importance of critical minerals to achieving the UK’s net-zero ambitions.  

Guy Winter (Fasken, UK), Jeremy Wrathall (Cornish Lithium, UK) and Frances Wall, (Camborne School of Mines, UK), who were part of the BEIS Expert Committee that supplied expert recommendations to Government, provided crucial insights into the formation of the strategy. They illuminated, in particular, the urgent need to reset the critical minerals market by globally sign-posting the UK’s willingness to set up an alternative supply chain of critical minerals. This includes pursuing partnerships with allies, like-minded nations and strong UK Government attendance at global mining conferences – which, fortunately, we have seen in the past few months. 

UK Minister for Business and Trade, Nusrat Ghani MP, attended both the Indaba 2023 and PDAC 2023 mineral exploration and mining conferences in March, and announced the signing of a landmark agreement with Canada to collaborate on research and innovation in critical minerals and clean technologies.  

With governments in the room and listening, the CMA and GSBF annual conference provided an opportunity for industry to outline their concerns, risks and opportunities, and exactly what support they need. Ian Higgins (Less Common Metals, UK), Allan Walton (HyProMag, UK) and Paul Atherley (Pensana, UK) highlighted two areas of advantage that the UK must capitalise on to build resilience: the world-class expertise and efficiency of its separating facilities and chemical parks, and its notorious ‘bad weather’ – and therefore potentially unlimited energy supply from offshore wind turbines. But to do this, industry needs support from Government. 

In recent months, the US has introduced its Inflation Reduction Act and the EU its Critical Raw Materials Act. The UK should emulate the ventures of its allies by pursuing equally ambitious and progressive policies that will foster domestic industry, streamline processing and permitting, and attract foreign investment.  

In a live discussion between Government and UK companies operating overseas, Joseph Mansour (DIT, UK) deliberated with Charles Douglas-Hamilton (Optiva Resources, UK), George Frangeskides (GreenRoc Mining, UK) and Rob Macaire (Rio Tinto, UK, and previously Director of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) on the need for overseas diplomatic support. They recommended that Government should collaborate with African nations and optimise alignment with the EU post-Brexit. Signing bilateral trade treaties with African nations will not only strengthen the UK’s supply chains by diversifying supply, but also help low-income countries in Africa. 

Supporting overseas operations is vital to diversifying the UK’s sources of critical minerals and building resilience in supply chains. It aids in wealth and job creation for emerging economies, acknowledges their value and place in the global energy transition, and signposts the UK’s willingness to collaborate and forge strong relations with like-minded nations.

With governments in the room and listening, the meeting provided an opportunity for industry to outline their concerns, risks and opportunities, and exactly what support they need

Geological datasets 

An important point that arose during the discussions was that made by a panel of geologists and exploration experts with decades of experience – the sheer amount of time, effort, and money that goes into making extensive datasets. However, the panellists also delighted in what an exciting time it is to be in geoscience and exploration, with the advent of new geophysical techniques, artificial intelligence, and machine-learning. 

The UK has immense geological potential. We are, for lack of better words, sitting on a ‘gold-mine’ of critical minerals such as lithium, tin, tungsten, and nickel. The British Geological Survey requires more funding and support from Government to invest in data collection and map the minerality of the country, to open the door for more mining companies and exploration projects that will position the UK as a global leader in developing alternative, responsible supply chains of critical minerals.

Thankfully in the past month, progress has been made on this front. On behalf of the Government-funded UK Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre, geologists at the British Geological Survey (BGS) have recently identified eight prospective areas as part of a national-scale assessment of the geological potential of critical minerals in the UK. The study is the first comprehensive mapping of its kind and one of the UK’s first steps towards realising its Critical Minerals Strategy.

Critical minerals are essential to the UK’s green future

Need for investment 

Discussion around the funding of mining projects was highly anticipated. Amanda van Dyke from ARCH Emerging Markets Partners provided some incredible insights into why private finance is failing to capture the importance of critical minerals: they invest based on past results and yields, and since mining has a poor legacy, too few private investors are willing to give the industry a second chance. However, we are beginning to see progress in the Canadian and Australian markets due in large part to a policy push. 

In recent years, Canada and Australia have invested billions in cultivating domestic industry: identifying mineralised zones, streaming planning and permitting, and investing in research, innovation, and the talent pipeline. The dedication of the Canadian and Australian governments has attracted a deluge of foreign investment and strengthened their value and projected growth of their domestic industries. The UK should look to the action its allies have taken in critical minerals, be inspired by their ambition and scope, and strive to implement similar initiatives.

Modern society is increasingly powered by critical minerals

Social licence 

Debate around the supply of raw materials to gigafactories (those that produce batteries for electric cars) highlighted the importance of sustainability. For example, Nick Wells (Jaguar Land Rover, UK) provided a downstream perspective, admitting the difficulty of delivering products that comprise both ‘luxury and sustainability’ in the current economic climate. Ellen Lenny-Pessagno (Albemarle, USA) added to this point by highlighting the almost-unattainable standards of the public: even when companies abide by progressive Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) standards, they still face backlash.  

The discussion illuminated a crucial point: the success of the UK Government’s strategy goes beyond investments and capability, and ultimately depends upon a strong social licence to operate, and public approval. Therefore, moving forward, one initiative that must be prioritised in elevating critical minerals is improving public perceptions and engagement with the mining industry. This includes integrating the importance of critical minerals into education programmes across the country, re-opening geoscience courses in UK universities, and illuminating and elevating the work of UK mining companies involved in community outreach and best practice ESG – all to demonstrate that mining is not what it was in the past, and is, in fact, an integral part of our future.  

On 13 March, the UK Government published a Critical Minerals ‘Refresh’, detailing how it is delivering the strategy. CMA looks forward to collaborating with the Government on translating its policy into action.  

Eileen Maes 

Communications and Public Affairs Associate, Critical Minerals Association, UK.

The third annual CMA and GSBF conference will take place on 27 November 2023.

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