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It’s a material world – and mining is essential

Parys Mountain in northeast Anglesey, in the 18th century the largest copper mine in the world. Now mining of copper could resume, along with silver and gold. Photo Heidi Stewart/Alamy Stock Photo.

A working class asserting its right to be an independent nation, with control over its industry, should make the materials critical to energy and advanced manufacturing very much its business…

Among the public at large there is little or no debate about extracting the materials needed for twenty-first century technology. What little there is revolves superficially around mining portrayed as an ungodly destruction of the planet.

But copper, iron and carbon from coal to make steel are all essential. And there are more – the government lists 18 highly critical minerals essential for technological progress. Significant ones are cobalt, graphite, lithium, silicon, tin, tungsten, and several rare earth elements.

Without most of these minerals, Britain cannot develop future technology and the jobs that go with it. We cannot defend ourselves and certainly can’t meet targets for decarbonisation by 2050. The minerals are needed for specialist alloys in the aerospace industry, for space technology and advanced robotics, for wind turbines and energy storage, and for the automotive sector.

Batteries for electric vehicles need vast quantities of lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel, as well as copper for motors and electricity generation. Many rare earths are used in each vehicle, not just in the battery. And more generally, praseodymium, neodymium and other rare earths are used in magnets, lasers and a wide variety of technologies.

People have always sought a better life through use of the earth’s riches. Roman Britons needed lead from the Mendips so their baths wouldn’t leak. Bronze and iron were needed for battle. Even before them a network of workshops across Britain forged implements for farming and trade, for the basics of life and survival.

It’s no different today. At the centre is the worker, unlocking and controlling nature – not controlled by it.

The once revolutionary idea of using what can be extracted from the earth is heresy to some people. The mention of mining – of any sort, not just coal – attracts criticism. Whether that’s an attack on people as inventors, shapers of their environment, or a false equation of industrial growth with capitalism, the reasoning is flawed. This vocal minority not only pit themselves against industry, they deny the importance of national independence and self-reliance. All are interconnected.

Margaret Thatcher, and the EU during our membership, together downgraded Britain to a service economy. There was to be no more hands-on experience of metals, minerals and mining. The London Metal Exchange in the City was to be the sole focus – a financial system detached from its productive bedrock.

As a result there is minimal investment in the plants and factories needed for processing, refining and recycling materials. Talk of sustainability and a circular economy is meaningless without the industry and technology to enable it.

Outsourcing mining and running down our own industry left Britain entirely dependent on outside sources, primarily China, for critical minerals. We have to turn that around. Ironically, the courts are ruling to limit extraction of the very metals needed to wean the world off fossil fuels.

We need to ask what traditional materials, including fossil fuels, oil, shale, remain critical for the foreseeable future. Which can we produce ourselves? Which do we have to import, and where from?


The working class has to do the job. The government has failed to get a grip. The parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee issued a report last year, A Rock and a Hard Place, which sharply criticises the government’s inaction and lack of direction compared with the USA or China.

In the British context, we have many geological advantages and hundreds of years of mining and metallurgy experience predating the Industrial Revolution.

Britain stands on rock, surrounded by water, and possesses rich reserves. Raw materials such as the high-grade tin, tungsten and copper needed for today’s electronic age still exist, sometimes deep underground. Occasionally old mines are being reopened.

We have to consider shale, not only for its oil and gas potential in generating electricity, but also because some shales are enriched with cobalt, nickel, platinum and rare earths. Shale also contains graphite, from which graphene can be extracted.

Graphene was discovered by researchers working at the University of Manchester, now home to the National Graphene Institute. It has the potential to replace plastic, silicon, and to some extent copper. It enables quantum computing and will predictably transform the man-made world. It is 200 times as strong as steel.

‘Raw materials for today’s electronic age still exist in Britain, sometimes deep underground…’

Fracking is constantly monitored by the British Geological Survey (BGS) for seismic activity and groundwater quality. The BGS has produced a report for the government about managing risk. The gas can be liquefied and stored efficiently. The BGS has estimated that Britain’s total offshore shale gas resources could be between five and ten times the size of the resources available onshore.

The newest development arising from the extraction of shale gas is potentially a breakthrough. It is the heating of cold water pumped underground onto hot rocks, producing a renewable geothermal clean energy source.

Mining means skilled jobs and revival of local economies. High grade Cornish tin ore is beginning to be extracted again. The search for lithium in Cornwall and elsewhere could provide year-round jobs. It is a lighter substitute for nickel-hydrogen batteries in EVs, and needed for the grid-size batteries serving wind and solar energy.

The BGS has mapped out underexplored areas of Britain where critical metals and minerals such as lithium and graphite might be found, which could at least supplement imports, and where less-critical substitutes might mitigate against insecurity of supply.

The International Energy Agency estimated over 300 new land-based mines will be needed worldwide by 2030 for lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite. It takes over a decade from discovery to production, including two years to consult and get permits. Established sites are becoming depleted. Deeper and more difficult extraction is required at new sites.

The government sets out areas to “explore” – it means “think about”, not send out surveyors – as a basis for a strategy. It offers no conclusions, admitting to ignorance of critical materials and to being a latecomer in the global race. There is little sense of where priorities might lie, yet with imperialistic hyperbole it presents Britain as a global leader, and London as the metals centre of the world.

The government is indecisive, talks of “signposts” to finance but no actual financial support. It makes excuses for inaction, and tolerates delays from environmentalist opposition. It leaves Britain dependent and vulnerable on supply chains.

There have been a few positive steps – the government has set up various funding streams such as the Automotive Transformation Fund and the UK Infrastructure Bank which recently invested in Cornish lithium. But it amounts to a sprinkling of money here and there.

Gigafactories for the processing of battery materials are risky enterprises, and bound to fail without long term government commitment to developing an integrated supply chain, as China has done. Britishvolt has already gone under.

The US government tries to ban business and research cooperation with China. And whatever the US does, the British government tags along. Having no independent trade policy puts Britain at a competitive disadvantage.

China already has several company footholds in Britain, such as British Steel and wind turbine and battery manufacturer Envision, and in other European countries, including building their gigafactories.

Trade war

The USA would like Britain to join in its trade war, and ultimately real war, against China for resources. We need to stand independent of both the USA and China. But we can learn from China – without hostility – the importance of government backing for industry. Besides, there are mineral deposits closer to home than China. These could reduce or eliminate the need for lengthy supply chains. And there are plenty of new developments.

Last year Europe’s largest known deposit of rare earth ore was found at Kiruna in Sweden. Previously iron ore mining sent rare earths to landfill. Now there’s a clean, safe site for processing.

The same Swedish company also refines a by-product of steel making called ground granulated blast furnace slag. This is used as an alternative to cement to reduce the carbon impact of concrete. Here is self-reliance in practice – efficient processing combined with recycling through retaining blast furnaces – and jobs.

The sea

What does the future hold? Mining under the sea has become a new focus in the search for vital mineral resources. This area of exploration is something entirely new and exciting.

Over 30 licences for mining on the sea floor have been issued by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the intergovernmental body that regulates exploitation of the seabed outside national waters. It has over 160 member states, but the USA typically refuses to join.

A maximum of five licences per state was allowed. The British government would have known that over two-thirds of the planet consists of ocean and that the sea floor would be likely to yield up mineral riches – nickel, cobalt, copper, manganese, tellurium, almost certainly exceeding land-based reserves. That would meet global needs for the foreseeable future.

‘The government makes excuses for inaction…’

The government was fully informed in 2021 by the BGS, National Geographic and Heriot Watt University of the rapidly evolving interest from other states in mining for critical metals contained in polymetallic nodules (potato-like lumps on the Pacific Ocean floor). And in recent years Britain (academia, government and industry) has been actively involved in research into related marine ecosystems.

But environmental groups intend to prevent sea floor mining for critical metals. Last year the government said it supported a moratorium. Unregulated mining has certainly done considerable damage, on land and under the sea. That has to change but a ban isn’t the answer.

The ISA is preparing a mining code, which will include the “common heritage of mankind” principle, adopted by the UN in 1970. But knowledge won from hundreds of years of land-based mining is of little use to deep sea mining. There is not yet even sufficient knowledge on which to base public consultation. All countries and corporations are aware of uncertainty and risk.


Seabed mining can also bring the benefit of shared scientific knowledge. The drawback for us in Britain is government with faith in the market economy and little or no scientific interest – too craven to encourage debate.

But the working class cannot afford to be uninterested and ignorant about science and its technologies - including mining. We must inform ourselves about what our industries require to produce the things we need to sustain our lives and livelihoods. We must call governments to account and begin to take some control over decisions and developments.        

• This article is based on the introduction and debate at a CPBML online discussion group in April.