Rio Tinto to Create Australia's Largest National Park
In a surprising move by Rio Tinto, chief executive Sam Walsh has agreed to cancel a 40-year old joint project in Western Australia, returning over 175,000 hectares of bauxite land to the government so it can be used to create the country’s largest national park.
Located on Western Australia’s Kimberley region, the area is internationally recognized for its flora and fauna, and its Mitchell Falls and indigenous rock art dates back over 40,000 years.
"To fully understand you need to go there and you need to physically see it,” said Walsh.
"It is iconic. There's no question in my mind that this is an iconic area that needs to be preserved for future generations."
Walsh admitted he believes community opposition would have never allowed a mine and refinery to be built on the site.
"As I toured around, I was visiting as a tourist, not as an employee of Rio Tinto, and I met people and I said 'do you think this is going to be developed'," Walsh said.
"People said this will never be developed and quite frankly I believed them.”
Rio Tinto and joint venture partner Alcoa were granted the rights to develop bauxite resources on the land in 1971. Since then, the two companies have actively evaluated the development of an integrated bauxite mine and alumina refinery project. Depressed bauxite and alumina prices have caused the companies to wait for higher prices.
"Bauxite prices [are] stronger at the moment but unfortunately alumina prices are not," he said. "As China continues to develop and build refineries and smelters it is going to make it a tough program well into the future but most importantly to us when we develop a project we want to have community support. You could not mine this area without impacting on the environmental and heritage aspects."
British Lithium Pressured Due To Calls for Electric Cars
The British demand for lithium is set to reach 75,000 tonnes by 2035 as the government works towards their ban on the sale of high-polluting diesel and petrol vehicles within the UK. This comes as automakers worldwide continue to insist on the benefits electric vehicles will have on slowing the rate of climate change.
It is estimated that the UK will require 50,000-60,000 MT of lithium carbonate a year by 2035 for battery production to satisfy government needs. This is assuming production remains at 1.2 million vehicles per year, and the amount of lithium required does not increase.
British Lithium, which hopes to begin constructing a quarry to produce 20,000 MT of lithium carbonate a year in a $400 million investment, are not without competitors, both within the UK and abroad.
Competition For Lithium Rises In Europe
After only five years after its initial launch, Cornish Lithium is setting its sights on becoming a UK powerhouse in mining lithium, aiming to begin commercial production in under four years. Jeremy Wrathall, a former investment banker and current managing director of Cornish Lithium, had the future in mind when founding the company.
“In 2016, I started to think about the electric vehicle revolution and what that would mean for metal demand, and I started to think about lithium,” he said in an interview with AFP. “A friend of mine mentioned lithium being identified in Cornwall, and I just wondered if that was a sort of unrecognised thing in the UK.”
Lithium was first discovered in Cornwall around 1864 and has not been mined again since 1914 when it was produced as an ingredient in fireworks. Now, however, Cornish Lithium is reportedly in the testing stage to see if the metal can be produced commercially to meet the growing demand required for the electric car sector.
Despite Cornwall’s close historic ties to mining lithium, Wrathall insists that the project is purely commercial.
Cornish Mining Revival For Lithium Production
“It’s not a mission that drives me to the point of being emotional or romantic,” he says. “It’s vitally important that we do get this technology otherwise Europe has got no lithium supply.”
The European Commission has also stated their goal to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035 to aid the environment. That being said, the majority of lithium extraction currently relies on power provided by environmentally damaging fossil fuels─a slight contradiction.
Alex Keynes, from the Brussels-based lobby group Transport & Environment, is adamant that mining for lithium should be done sustainably.
“Our view is that medium-to-long term, the majority of materials including lithium should come from efficient and clean recycling.
“Europe from a strategic point of view should be looking at securing its own supply of lithium.”
Despite growing competition from abroad, British Lithium Chairman, Roderick Smith, continues to place importance on the mining of lithium within the UK.
“Imagine what the UK economy would look like if we lost our automotive industry,” Smith says. “The stakes are high for the UK.”
Smith expects the UK to compete with other European countries to secure a lithium battery plant in the near future.