British mining is now about a green future and not about the storied past

Just a stone’s throw from picturesque walking trails in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park lies Scotland’s only commercial gold mine.

The Cononish project was embraced by the local community and championed by politicians – as well as investors who bought shares in London-listed owner Scotgold Resources.

But hopes that the country can produce gold in coming decades that can be exported or made into fine jewelery have been thrown into doubt after Scotgold warned last week it could end up in administration.

Close to the Arrochar Alps in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park lies Scotland’s only commercial gold mine

The warning wasn’t the only news that rocked the mining sector last week.

Councilors rejected a proposal to expand operations at Wales’ last open-pit coal mine, Glan Lash in Carmarthenshire. And separately, a raft of major insurance companies ruled out providing cover for the controversial planned coal mine in West Cumbria.

From these headlines, it seems like the industry is in crisis.

So what went wrong – and is it worth having a British mining industry at all?

Mining in the British Isles has a rich heritage, dating back to the Bronze Age over 4,000 years ago.

Later the Romans came here for lead and copper.

In the south-west, Devon and Cornwall had some of the richest copper and tin reserves on earth in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Cornish industry was commemorated by the author Winston Graham in his Poldark novels, which he began writing in the 1940s.

The books followed Ross Poldark, whose family made their fortune in fictional local copper mines in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The novels were adapted into a hugely successful TV series starring Aidan Turner.

However, when most ordinary people think of mining in Britain, they think of coal fields across the country that were a driving force in the Industrial Revolution.

Coal production peaked in the 1980s. But the mining sector is now trying to reinvent itself as a driving force in the green industrial revolution.

It has also become, at least in the eyes of some politicians, a security issue, in much the same way energy did when Russia invaded Ukraine and sent gas prices soaring.

The emphasis now is on securing access to so-called ‘critical’ minerals.

The Department for Business and Trade describes a key minerals strategy published last year as improving ‘the resilience of our vital supply chains’, protecting industry, boosting confidence in the UK’s energy transition and protecting national security.

A range of mined metals, including lithium and tin, are seen as crucial to Britain’s efforts to go green and could also provide raw materials for local production of items such as car batteries.

The Cornish industry was commemorated by author Winston Graham in his Poldark novels, recently turned into a hit TV series starring Aidan Turner

The Cornish industry was commemorated by author Winston Graham in his Poldark novels, recently turned into a hit TV series starring Aidan Turner

“Most people in Britain have grown a conscience about their food, but no one has a conscience about their metals at the moment,” says James McFarlane, managing director at consultancy Mining Plus.

“People understand blood diamonds, but it’s not just about the way they’re mined from a human rights perspective, but also from an environmental perspective.”

Last month, the UK Infrastructure Bank invested £24 million in private company Cornish Lithium to help extract the battery metal.

John Meyer, head of research at SP Angel, added that while large institutional investors are less likely to back small British mining companies, they have “been replaced by a new breed of fast-growing and more skilled managers.”

These include Sir Mick Davis, the former Xstrata boss whose Vision Blue fund has also invested in Cornish Lithium, and another investor called Techmet, led by Brian Menell.

Jeremy Wrathall, founder of Cornish Lithium, added: “In Cornwall the industry is booming. We are developing a warehouse for the essential metals needed for the energy transition.

‘The most important thing here is security of supply, creating new jobs and building pride in Cornwall. Mining gives Britain a significant addition to the value of its economy – every tonne mined is a tonne not imported, every job we create is a job not exported.”

British geology, McFarlane explains, is not the problem: “We’ve got great rocks, and lots of them.” According to him, the biggest hurdle now is scaling up the many small businesses that often struggle to raise the huge funds needed to get a project off the ground.

Investors in Sirius Minerals remember this all too well.

The company, which at its peak had about 85,000 individual investors, nearly went bankrupt when it tried to build a sprawling fertilizer mine under the North York Moors National Park.

Sirius was rescued by mining giant Anglo American, who renamed it the Woodsmith Project.

Natural potash fertilizer is another crucial material that will be needed to grow food for the world’s growing population.

Despite the diversity of mining activities in Britain, it appears that projects that focus on the future, rather than simply harking back to the past, will continue to attract the most support.

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