“The return of mining could make Cornwall rich again,” announced a jubilant headline on the Cornwall Live homepage last year. This time, however, prospectors aren’t digging for tin or copper but for lithium, a soft, silvery metal found in salt brine and igneous rock which key to realising an environmentally sustainable future.
The discovery of enough lithium quantities in Cornwall to drive the UK’s green revolution has put the county back on the world stage. But amid the fanfare, how can local communities ensure that the extraction process doesn’t suck the life out of them too?
Lithium is classified as a ‘critical mineral’; it’s scarce, in high demand and subject to supply issues. Currently only produced in Chile, Argentina, and China, lithium is used to make batteries; it powers your smartphone and laptop. But, crucially, it’s also vital for the production of electric cars, which many see as the future of transport.
The UK’s Climate Change Committee’s sixth carbon budget report – a blueprint for how the UK can reach net zero by 2050 – includes a phaseout of petrol vehicles by 2032, in tandem with a scaling-up of renewable power and electric cars. With pressure on all nations to minimise their use of fossil fuels, a global demand for lithium has skyrocketed. If you believe the hype, Cornwall is at the centre of this new gold rush.
Two companies – British Lithium and Cornish Lithium – are at the forefront of lithium extraction in Cornwall, both investing heavily in the development of sustainable mining technologies. Cornish Lithium secured an £18m investment at the end of 2021, and has ambitions to eventually produce zero carbon lithium. British Lithium has designed and trialled its own technology to sustainably produce lithium from mica in granite, a technique never commercially used before, making it a world first.
The scale of their planned operations are staggering – and long term. Within three to five years, British Lithium expects to begin commercial operations and is planning to produce 21,000 tonnes of lithium every year, for 25 years, at its St Austell site in southwest Cornwall. Working across multiple locations in Cornwall, Cornish Lithium plans to produce 20,000-30,000 tonnes per year from two sources – geothermal water and granite rock – and expects its first site to open in 2026.
Cornwall could provide enough lithium to meet two thirds of predicted UK demand for lithium, and it would certainly be a boon for the country. But what about the county? Could lithium reinvigorate a region dogged by deprivation? Or will it see the riches redistributed elsewhere, while the land itself is ravaged?
Mining is entrenched in the history and culture of Cornwall – as is the memory of what happens when the extraction stops. “Cornish lads are fishermen and Cornish lads are miners too. But when the fish and tin are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do?” sang folk musician Roger Bryant. The line was later graffitied on the outer walls of South Crofty, the last mine to close in 1998 – an expression of the deep frustration felt by the community at its shuttering.
In the gap left by mining came tourism. This provides desperately-needed income for some, but has also played a significant part in the creation of a housing crisis in Cornwall, and has led to a glut of seasonal and low-waged employment, with the median Cornish salary £10,000 lower than the national average. Lithium companies are already pledging to address both issues. “It’s an opportunity to reinvigorate the mining industry in Cornwall, bringing good, long-term, well-paid jobs to areas that ultimately need them,” Neil Elliot, corporate development manager at Cornish Lithium, told me. But how can that be ensured in practice?
Dr Joanie Willett, senior lecturer and researcher of rural economies at Exeter University, says advance notice is key if residents are going to be eligible for skilled positions, and it’s up to mining companies to provide this. “They’re doing a lot of publicity, so they need to footnote these stories with guidance on how to prepare for the kinds of work that they have to offer,” she says. “The general [local] population need to know that a) these jobs exist or are going to exist, b) how to access them if they want to and c) what kind of knowledge, skills and training are they going to need to be able to do them,” she explains.
Community regeneration has also been promised as a result of the lithium find. But not all residents are hopeful. One Cornish climate activist I spoke with in Truro, who didn’t want to be named, expressed deep-rooted feelings of exploitation among residents: “Unless we have autonomy down here, it [lithium mining] will be yet another thing that ruins our countryside and that we don’t see any of the benefits from”.
One potential solution is pushing for all steps in the production process to be localised. Both lithium processing and battery manufacturing should happen in Cornwall, says Neill Wood from Camborne School of Mines. “Not only would this increase the economic benefit to the area, but it also offers an environmentally focussed best practice approach.” In other words, the shorter the transportation distance of the raw material, the lower the carbon footprint. In the likely scenario that investors – who are set to benefit most financially from the mining – won’t be based in Cornwall, adding value to the product in the immediate area is a way to keep some wealth circulating in the local economy.
Dr Loveday Jenkin, a councillor for 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 wave, wind, and solar energy resources, and if lithium is made available because of the supply in Cornwall, it could fuel the development of green technology projects that harness these natural resources. But Jenkin says community involvement must come first. “I generally think we need some sort of way that the community has a strategic overview of the community benefits,” she notes. “It’s not about how much money you’re generating, it’s how that money is used and whether it circulates in the local economy.”
In her view, that means a return to localised mineral management, and the wider devolution of powers from central government, enabling better decisions to be made. “We tend to find that, with whichever government is in power, they make decisions about funding without understanding how Cornwall works, meaning it quite often doesn’t work for Cornwall,” she says.
Extraction, not exploitation.
Looking at previous extraction sites across the country can offer some valuable lessons in this regard. When oil was discovered in the North Sea in the 1970s, Shetland council went to great efforts to imagine how the Shetland’s way of life might be impacted. Keen to protect both the culture and pre-existing industries, MPs successfully advocated for some decision-making power to be transferred from national to local authorities, enabling long-term planning for how to manage the influx of workers and wealth into the area.
Indeed, Anne Harris of the Coal Action Network – an NGO supporting communities seeking justice from coal mining projects – advises community involvement in the process from the earliest point possible, ideally “before planning is approved, as that is the point when you have the most leverage.” Local communities should try to “search out the non-technical summaries from the companies who are putting in applications,” she says. “These will often tell them things like how many jobs, how many people would be employed, what tonnage would come out, [and] what the transport routes would be.”
Though it’s not a legal requirement, companies have been known to negotiate community ‘deals’ and to agree terms of practice at the outset of extraction projects. These ‘deals’ are often made in the specific area where the extraction will take place. However, the Shetland Community Benefit Fund, a local working group, has moved away from localised compensations. Formed from 18 community councils, the body negotiates with wind farms as a region to avoid polarising neighbouring communities and to instead accumulate funds to take on larger projects and investments.
If Cornwall were to take this approach and negotiate ‘funds’ from the prospective mining projects as a region, investing in long-term renewable energy could prove a suitably large enough project to balance out any environmental impact of short-term extraction. Community Power Cornwall, for example, manages community-owned renewable energy projects and was set up to retain some of the estimated £2bn that the county pays for energy yearly.
Investing funds into renewable projects can also help offset the environmental impacts of mining. Even the likes of zero-carbon mining can’t ever be fully sustainable, as once the mineral is gone, it’s gone. In late May, activists set up a climate camp outside the Cornwall county council building in Truro demanding greater commitments on reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Any new mining developments – even those in aid of a green future – will have to show their environmental workings or face opposition from an increasingly active climate movement.
At the time of writing, no public working group or strategic plan appears to exist regarding plans for lithium extraction in Cornwall, and there is fear about the risks. But many of those invested in the interests of the county believe it’s worth pursuing. “If residents want more than tourism and retirement, we need something to happen here,” says Jenkin.
For Jenkin, though, it’s residents’ involvement that will make or break the project. With lessons from Cornish history and successful examples of community organising elsewhere to draw on, they can take steps to make sure extraction doesn’t mean exploitation.
Lucie Akerman is a freelance journalist living in Falmouth, Kernow.