“The return of mining could make Cornwall rich again”, announced a jubilant title on the Cornwall Live homepage last year. This time, however, prospectors are not looking for tin or copper but for lithium, a soft, silvery metal found in brine and igneous rock that is essential to achieving an ecologically sustainable future.
The discovery of sufficient quantities of lithium in Cornwall to drive the UK’s green revolution put the county back on the world stage. But amid the fanfare, how can local communities ensure that the extraction process doesn’t kill them too?
Lithium is classified as a “critical mineral”; it is rare, in high demand and subject to supply problems. Currently produced only in ChileArgentina and China, lithium is used to make batteries; it powers your smartphone and laptop. But, above all, it is also vital for the production of electric cars, which many see as the future of transport.
The UK Committee on Climate Change sixth carbon budget The report – a blueprint for how the UK can achieve net zero by 2050 – includes a phase-out of petrol-powered vehicles by 2032, alongside an increase in renewables and electric cars. With pressure on all nations to minimize their use of fossil fuels, global demand for lithium has skyrocketed. If you believe the hype, Cornwall is at the center of this new gold rush.
Two companies – British Lithium and Cornish Lithium – are at the forefront of lithium mining in Cornwall, both investing heavily in the development of sustainable mining technologies. Cornish Lithium has obtained a Investment of £18 million end of 2021, and aims to eventually produce zero carbon lithium. British Lithium has designed and tested its own technology to sustainably produce lithium from mica in granite, a technique never before commercially used, making it a world premiere.
The scale of their planned operations is staggering – and long term. Within three to five years, British Lithium plans to start commercial operations and expects to produce 21,000 tonnes of lithium each year, for 25 years, at its site in St Austell, south-west Cornwall. Working at several sites in Cornwall, Cornish Lithium expects to produce 20,000 to 30,000 tonnes per year from two sources – geothermal water and granite rock – and plans to open its first site in 2026.
Cornwall could supply enough lithium to meet two-thirds of Britain’s predicted lithium demand, and that would certainly be a boon for the country. But what about the county? Could lithium reinvigorate a region plagued by deprivation? Or will it see the wealth redistributed elsewhere, while the earth itself is ravaged?
Mining is steeped in Cornwall’s history and culture, as is the memory of what happens when mining stops. “The Cornish guys are fishermen and the Cornish guys are also miners. But when the fish and the tin are gone, what will the Cornish boys do? sang folk musician Roger Bryant. The line was later graffitied onto the exterior walls of South Crofty, the last mine to close in 1998 – an expression of the deep frustration felt by the community when it closed.
Into the void left by mining came tourism. This provides desperately needed income for some, but has also played a significant role in creating a housing crisis in Cornwall and has led to a glut of seasonal and low-paying jobs, the Cornish median wage £10,000 less than the national average. Lithium companies are already committed to solving both of these problems. “This is an opportunity to reinvigorate the mining industry in Cornwall, bringing good, long-term, well-paying jobs to areas that ultimately need them,” Neil Elliot, Business Development Manager, told me. at Cornish Lithium. But how can this be ensured in practice?
Dr Joanie Willett, a senior lecturer and rural economics researcher at the University of Exeter, says advance notice is essential if residents are to be eligible for skilled positions, and it’s up to the mining companies to provide it. “They do a lot of publicity, so they have to add footnotes to those stories with advice on how to prepare for the type of work they have to offer,” she says. “The general [local] people need to know a) that these jobs exist or will exist, b) how to access them if they want them and c) what kind of knowledge, skills and training will they need to be able to do them”, she explains.
Community regeneration was also promised following the discovery of lithium. But not all residents are optimistic. A Cornish climate activist I spoke to in Truro, who did not want to be named, expressed deep-rooted feelings of exploitation among residents: “Unless we have self-reliance here, it [lithium mining] will be yet another thing that ruins our campaign and that we see none of the benefits of.”
One potential solution is to push for all stages of the production process to be localized. Lithium processing and battery manufacturing should take place in Cornwall, says Neill Wood of the Camborne School of Mines. “Not only would this increase the economic benefits to the region, but it would also provide an environmentally-focused best-practice approach.” In other words, the shorter the transport distance of the raw material, the lower the carbon footprint. In the likely scenario where the investors – who stand to benefit most financially from mining – will not be based in Cornwall, adding value to the product in the immediate area is one way to keep some wealth circulating in the local economy.
Dr. Loveday Jenkin, adviser to Crowan, Sithney and Wendron, is both cautious and optimistic about the prospect of lithium mining. Surrounded by sea, the area is blessed with some of the best resources of wave, wind and solar energy, and if lithium is made available as a result of Cornish supply, it could fuel the development of green tech projects that exploit these natural resources. But Jenkin says community involvement must come first. “I generally think we need some sort of way for the community to have a strategic overview of the benefits to the community,” she notes. “It’s not about how much money you generate, it’s how that money is used and whether it flows through the local economy.”
According to her, this means a return to the localized management of minerals and a greater delegation of powers from the central government, allowing better decisions to be made. “We tend to find that whatever government is in power, they make funding decisions without understanding how Cornwall works, which means it often doesn’t work for Cornwall,” she says.
Extraction, not exploitation.
Examining past mining sites across the country can offer valuable lessons in this regard. When oil was discovered in the North Sea in the 1970s, Shetland Council scrambled to imagine how the Shetland way of life might be impacted. Anxious to protect both culture and pre-existing industries, MEPs successfully argued for the transfer of some decision-making power from national to local authorities, allowing for long-term planning of how to handle the influx of workers and wealth in the region.
Indeed, Anne Harris of Charcoal Action Network – an NGO that supports communities seeking justice from coal mining projects – advises involving the community in the process as early as possible, ideally “before planning is approved, as that is when you have the most influence”. Local communities should try to “seek out the non-technical summaries of companies submitting applications,” she says. “These will often tell them things like the number of jobs, the number of people that would be employed, the tonnage that would come out, [and] what would be the transport routes.
If Cornwall were to take this approach and negotiate ‘funds’ from potential mining projects as a region, investing in long-term renewables could prove to be a big enough project to offset any environmental impact of short-term mining. Cornwall Community Energyfor example, runs community-owned renewable energy projects and was set up to retain some of the estimated £2billion the county pays annually for energy.
Investing funds in renewable projects can also help offset the environmental impacts of mining. Even zero carbon mining operations can never be fully sustainable because once the ore is gone, it is gone. At the end of May, activists created a climate camp outside the Cornwall County Council building in Truro demanding greater commitments to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Any new mining developments – even those in favor of a green future – will need to show they are working environment or face opposition from an increasingly active climate movement.
As of this writing, no public task force or strategic plan appears to exist regarding lithium mining projects in Cornwall, and the risks are cause for concern. But many of those invested in county interests think it’s worth pursuing. “If residents want more than tourism and retirement, something has to happen here,” says Jenkin.
For Jenkin, however, it is the participation of residents that will make or break the project. With the lessons of Cornish history and successful examples of community organizing elsewhere to build on, they can take steps to ensure extraction does not mean exploitation.
Lucie Akerman is a freelance journalist living in Falmouth, Kernow.