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Strategic metal mining set to gain traction in Britain

(Reuters)
Updated: 2014-04-03 14:47
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Mining firms are looking favourably at Britain as a project destination with deposits of strategic metals leading a small mining revival following the launch of the country's first new metal mine in 45 years.

The UK has deposits of metals such as tin - used in mobile phones, and tungsten - used to make drilling tools - as well as antimony and tellurium - used in the semiconductor industry - seen as having bullish long-term price outlooks as the appetite for electronic gadgets expands in the developing world.

The southwest counties of Cornwall and Devon experienced extensive mining in the 19th century when metals including copper, lead and tin were keenly sought, but fierce competition from lower cost operations in Latin America, Asia and Africa resulted in projects being shut and many sites abandoned.

While analysts said it is unlikely for Britain to experience another mining boom, the country is being eyed by some as a favourable destination due to competitive labour costs and tax rates, as well as deposits of strategic metals - a vital component in technology and industry.

Australia's Wolf Minerals said in March it will begin production of tin and tungsten by next year at its Hemerdon mine in Devon, the world's third-largest tungsten resource.

A second potential tin project, by Treliver Minerals is currently in an exploration phase in Cornwall.

"The Wolf Minerals investment has catalysed other people to come and look for deposits in the UK," said Andrew Bloodworth, science director for minerals and waste at the British Geological Survey (BGS).

"If an Australian company can come in and put together a project and get all the permissions, that sends a hugely important signal to other people to say you can do this."

Britain has small gold and silver mines in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and has deposits of strategic metals antimony and tellurium, although exact quantities are unknown.

Bloodworth said an ongoing geophysical survey by the BGS to map soils and rocks in the country's southwest has received interest from the mining community, as the industry seeks out alternative supplies for strategic metals.

"Concerns about the supply of some 'critical' or 'strategic' metals has also driven investor interest. The concentration of about 80 percent of global tungsten production in China has driven people to look for deposits elsewhere," he said.

The Hemerdon project aims to produce 3,450 tonnes of tungsten a year, compared to a 80,000-tonne global market, and 500 tonnes of tin.

BULLISH OUTLOOK

Prices for ammonium paratungstate, produced from tungsten ore, have risen more than four fold in the last 10 years and posted a 22 percent rise last year. APT-CHINA

"For 2014, the market is forecast to move into deficit as demand grows at 5 percent and supply struggles to match it," Numis analysts said in a note.

In an environment where appetite for mining project funding remains limited and is seen as risky, firms mining strategic metals could find that the metals' long-term upbeat prospects works to their advantage.

Also favouring the industry in Britain are lower labour costs and corporate taxes compared to places such as Australia. Although still costlier than Latin America and Africa, Britain could provide room for smaller, niche firms to establish high-value production, industry members said.

"On the back of what we have done, there are some companies that are thinking that this is a part of the world that they wrote-off previously but perhaps they shouldn't have," said Russell Clark, managing director of Wolf Minerals

Still, companies say they face time-consuming and mining rights procedures, and strict environmental controls.

"It is very difficult to get over the mineral rights issue. A lot of companies look down here but they don't know how to go about putting together packages for exploration," said Mark Thompson, executive chairman at Treliver.

Mineral deposits, with the exception of gold, silver and coal, do not always belong to the party that owns the land, and often it is an aristocratic family or the Church of England that retains the rights to the minerals and royalties.

 

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