From policy to practice? – Tungsten in the UK

From policy to practice?

Recently much has been written and debated about mineral supply policy, particular for important industrial and metal mineral resources (sometimes termed ‘critical minerals’ or ‘strategic minerals’), to the economy of the UK and the EU.  Concern as to the future security of commercial supply of such mineral resources is now widely acknowledged.  Politicians and the general public may now be aware of the broad resource issues associated with the availability of minerals.  These concerns are now the topic of a ‘Policy’ debate within Europe and beyond.   As mineral supply policy has effectively been off the agenda of European governments for decades, particularly in the UK, this debate is to be welcomed.   However, the question is to what extent this ‘Policy’ debate is helping to resolve supply concerns, specifically for critical minerals as well as for other necessary minerals, as opposed to merely being words that assuage the call for action, but do not actually improve the policy environment.

Construction has recently started at the tungsten deposit at Hemerdon in Devon.  With full scale production commencing this time next year, there is every prospect that the UK will become a significant supplier of tungsten to the western world.  Hemerdon will produce some 5,000 tonnes of tungsten concentrates, with smaller volumes of tin concentrate, per annum over the next 10-15 years.  The fully permitted deposit at Hemerdon is one of the largest proved tungsten deposits in the World, certainly significantly larger than any known potentially commercial deposit in Europe and will meet around 5% of global demand.  Interestingly, this globally and economically significant supply will be provided from an excavation site which is less than 0.5 square kilometres in area, tucked away on the fringe of Dartmoor and within easy access to Plymouth.  There are prospects to add significant further reserves to the mine.

Tungsten is of irreplaceable significance for its application as a hard metal in cutting and shaping other metals and materials; in drilling for and excavating other rocks and minerals; and on wearing surfaces.  The continued supply of tungsten is therefore essential to enable the provision of other minerals; in manufacturing and therefore all material aspects of our life.  Tungsten is considered to be a critical mineral within the terms of the EU14, and now the EU20, and elsewhere in the world, but it might be considered to be an ‘old’ critical mineral because its criticality has been acknowledged for over 100 years and because it is mainly of value in basic engineering and exploration processes, rather than in high tech ‘green’ energy minerals (particularly REEs), where the interest of UK and EU governments now seem almost wholly focussed.

It is thought-provoking that the World class Hemerdon deposit lies a few miles from the internationally important industrial mineral extraction operations in China Clay and ball clay in Devon and in the adjoining counties of Cornwall and Dorset; that there would appear to be a number of metal targets elsewhere in South West England; and that the UK hosts operations and targets for, inter alia, fluorspar, zinc, potash, lithium, tin, etc. 
Yet, with all this wealth the UK has no operational ‘minerals policy’, within which further development of these minerals, such as extensions to Hemerdon, can be evaluated.  There is a very effective land use planning policy system (which some confuse as a minerals policy), with which mineral proposals must comply; and there are strong environmental controls, now mainly reflecting European origins; but there is in effect no ‘mineral policy’ at a national level providing a framework within which regulation weighs the significance of minerals against other objectives.

This is particularly frustrating because, with the distraction of high tech green minerals, the UK has focussed research and policy on resources it mainly doesn’t have and away from those resources which it is particularly endowed with and where other policy may be shutting down options.

It is also thought provoking that other European countries, notably the Nordic and Iberian nations, but, more particularly Ireland, feature high up the table in the Fraser Institute study in relation to policy climate and the ‘attractiveness’ of their mining policies.  The UK isn’t even in the table, despite, as noted above, a more diverse mining industry than Ireland and effectively a similar legal and regulatory regime (the regulatory regime must be similar in impact because the basic substance of EU regulation is common).
Hemerdon has come forward, despite, and not because of, the form of UK minerals policy.  This position needs to change if the UK is to maximise the potential of its assets.  One cannot put policy into practice if policy doesn’t exist.

John Cowley
Independent mineral development consultant based in the UK