Portugal: Have Your Say on Lithium Plant by September 13
Updated: Sep 2, 2022
For fixed contracts, the annual average U.S. lithium carbonate price was $17,000 per ton in 2021, more than double that in 2020, reported the U.S. Geological Survey (January 2022). (Photo by Marcos Zegers/The New York Times)
A proposal for a €700 million lithium conversion industrial unit, which Galp and Northvolt plan to develop in Setubal along with the environmental studies that they intend to undertake for its licensing, is available for public comment from August 24 until September 13.
The lithium conversion plant would lead to the creation of 200 direct jobs and 3,000 jobs in the region of Setubal, according to the proposal, which cites an estimated construction phase of 24 months and an operation phase of 25 years.
The plant’s estimated production would be 28,000 to 35,000 tons of lithium hydroxide per year, according to the proposal. The unit would be able to deliver lithium hydroxide sufficient for 50 gigawatts (GWh) of battery production per year, enough for more than 700,000 electric vehicles, according to Northvolt (April 13). As part of the joint venture agreement, Northvolt would secure an offtake of up to 50 percent of the plant’s capacity for use in its battery manufacturing.
“The Lithium Conversion Industrial Unit project represents an opportunity for economic development due to the demand for lithium hydroxide monohydrate in the national and international market induced by the transition energy, in particular, the gradual replacement of vehicles with combustion engines by electric vehicles,” states the proposal.
“In general, the production of lithium hydroxide, used in battery cells electricity, will contribute to the global energy transition and to the development of the European battery value chain, which is essential for the development of the national and European Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”
Aurora Lithium is the name of the equal-stakes joint venture between Northvolt, a battery developer and manufacturer based in Stockholm and founded in 2016, and Galp Energia, a multinational energy corporation based in Lisbon and founded through a merger in 1999.
It would be located in the municipality of Setubal on land within the perimeter of the 50-hectare Sapec Bay Industrial Park in the region of Lisbon and Vale do Tejo.
Andre Martins, the president of Setubal Municipality, said in Northvolt (April 13):
“Setubal deserves this investment. The Municipality of Setubal has invested in the qualification of this territory. Everyone recognizes this reality, which is the result of a great desire to make more of Setubal. We are very proud that this was the chosen municipality which, as is recognized, has qualified industrial areas, good roads, rail and port accessibility, and an equally attractive city, social and cultural environment.”
Controversial “White Gold”
The anticipated increased demand for electric cars has propelled lithium into the category of “white gold” as mining companies compete for extraction contracts around the world. The light metal is used in batteries for phones, laptops as well as electric cars.
“Portugal, which produced about 1,200 tons of lithium last year, currently sells almost exclusively to the ceramics industry rather than producing high-grade lithium needed for car batteries,” reported Reuters (February 14, 2020). “It is already Europe’s largest lithium producer, but Portugal remains a small player compared to Australia and Chile, with an output of 42,000 tons and 18,000 tons, respectively.”
Due to its large lithium deposits, Portugal is being touted as a key player in the European Union’s transition to green energy. Currently, the European Union is wholly dependent on imported battery-grade lithium in an increasingly competitive global market, according to the EU. The majority of the world’s lithium is mined in Australia and South America, and more than 97 percent of it is refined in China, reported Inside Climate News (November 7, 2021).
Meanwhile, there has been sustained opposition to lithium mining from residents, environmental groups and municipality presidents, who advocate protecting people, animals and plants. Families whose members are shepherds, beekeepers, weavers and smallholders are fighting for their livelihoods and heritage, which would be lost to them . . . and to Portugal.
On August 16, demonstrators again warned against the exploitation of lithium at the Covas do Barroso proposed mine of Savannah Resources in Vila Real District due to scarcity of water and other environmental impacts, reported Sapo (August 16).
After “years of struggle and realizing that something was not right in the authorization process,” the parish council of Covas do Barroso in the district of Vila Real filed a lawsuit against the State over the exploitation of lithium in the Barroso mine in Tras-os-Montes, reported Lusa news agency in Jornal de Negocios (February 11).
I oppose lithium mining in Portugal. I live in the foothills of the Serra de Estrela, which was excluded from the six of eight areas approved for lithium prospecting in February after a December 10, 2021, deadline for public consultation, which garnered 1,430 participants and 1,533 keeping abreast of the proposal.
One of 23 maps available on Participa of the proposed Aurora Lithium plant in Setubal
Proposed Lithium Mining Site
Where would the Lithium Conversion Industrial Unit get its feedstock?
Savannah Resources has the most advanced lithium extraction project in Portugal, and it claims that the proposed mine has the “most significant resource of hard rock spodumene lithium” in Europe. (Rio Tinto, whose contracts with Serbia have been revoked due to environmental concerns, has said the same about Serbia, reported Reuters, January 20).
Savannah Resources submitted its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to the Portuguese Environment Agency (APA) in May 2020, receiving a preliminary stamp of approval one year later, reported Reuters (June 8). The environmental agency then opened public consultation on the project between April 2021 and July 2021.
However, Savannah Resources sustained a setback when the Portuguese Environment Agency delayed its decision and ordered the lithium company to take up to six working months until March 2023 to adjust its environmental assessment plan for a proposed mine at Barroso in the district of Vila Real, according to a company press release, reported Observador (July 6).
Another interested company is Lusorecursos. Public consultation on Lusorecursos Portugal Lithium's Environmental Impact Study ended on May 10. The mining company proposes to prospect for lithium at Montalegre in Vila Real District.
A third mining firm is Portugal Fortescue, which was formed from an Australian mining giant.
Portugal Is Not Alone
Portugal is not the only country where people contend with threatened land grabs. However, “it is changing in a handful of countries”, The New York Times (August 9) reported:
“It is a struggle that communities across the world have faced: stopping companies from grabbing their lands, polluting their environment and forcing them to relocate. When a major investor sees an opportunity to profit from a mine or large-scale agriculture, long-established ways of life, and even land ownership rights, often prove to mean little.”
However, in Sierra Leone, the West African nation passed two laws in August obligating companies “to obtain the express consent of local communities before starting mining, industrial or farming activities,” reported Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (August 8).
Also, in August, Mexico, which nationalized lithium resources in April, created a state-run company to mine the metal, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said in a decree issued on August 23, reported Reuters (August 23).
After Chile’s election of a new president, the country began to write a new constitution, to determine the future of lithium, which has a four-decade history, amid a "amid a climate and ecological emergency", according to The New York Times (December 28, 2021). A legacy of General Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s leader from 1973-1990, is the privatization of minerals and water, which gives companies ownership of those resources, reported the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group based in New York (April 26).
Before a national election in April, Serbia revoked lithium mining contracts and closed the door to future mining after years of being wooed by Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest mining company, reported Reuters (January 20, 2021).
According to The New York Times (August 9):
“In 2018, Sierra Leone’s neighbor, Liberia, adopted a law requiring prior consent from rural populations across most of the country’s territory, although unlike in Sierra Leone, the government can still circumvent local communities to allow mining activities. In February, Ecuador’s highest court enshrined a similar right, but it applies only to the country’s 14 recognized Indigenous groups.”
Natalia Greene, a climate change activist based in Ecuador, said: Usually companies are given concessions before they obtain the consent from the populations, and then they ‘inform’ them. They offer people a sandwich, make them sign something, and that’s it.”
In Portugal, mining companies have been accused of underhandedness and a lack of transparency, ECO (November 4, 2021) reported:
“(Julia Rodrigues), the president (of Mirandela in Bragança District) recalled that two years ago she was also surprised when the company (Portugal Fortescue) started working on the ground, and the population alerted and questioned the municipal council about the movement of machines and workers.
“She said that on that occasion, there were several local due diligences, but there were no further contacts with the company, which the president hopes will happen now.”
The company updated its 2019 contract for lithium exploration in the three Bragança municipalities of Macedo de Cavaleiros, Mirandela and Vinhais on October 28, 2021, reported ECO.
The new rules imply more local participation, economic benefits for the people and environmental regulations, according to the Directorate-General for Energy and Geology (DGEG), reported ECO.
Yet, two of the three municipal presidents were unaware of these legislative changes.
Portugal stands as a nation conscious of its democracy and sensitive to the rights of its people. It was only in 1974 that it overthrew the 50-year authoritarian New State regime. Therefore, a platform exists for those living in the country to voice their support or opposition and their views on the environmental impact of proposed projects through Participa.
Please see below for instructions.
Available since July 2015, Participa is the official portal, where the public consultation processes run by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Action are made available. It says that it aims to facilitate access by citizens and stakeholders to consultation processes; encourage informed participation, and improve efficiency in process management.
Proposal Outlines Future Study
The consulting document, Aurora Lithium, Unidade Industrial de Conversao de Litio, Proposta de Definiçao de Ambito de EIA de Unidade Industrial de Conversao de Litio, Revisao 03, (Lisboa, 22 de julho de 2022) is available for study. The engineering firm, Quadrante, prepared the 142-page proposal.
Approval of Aurora Lithium’s Scope Definition Proposal would expedite the preparation of the Environmental Impact Study (EIA):
“The definition of the scope allows the planning of the Environmental Impact Study (EIA), focusing its elaboration on the significant environmental issues that may be affected by potential impacts caused by the project. This focus will allow, after approval of the scope, the rationalization of the resources and time involved in preparing the EIA, as well as reducing the time necessary for its technical assessment and for the decision-making of the direction of the Declaration of Environmental Impact (DIA) . . .”
Therefore, the proposal raises issues that it says it will address in the Definitive Feasibility Study or Environmental Impact Study such as supply alternatives of water, natural gas and electricity:
“The supply alternatives will be evaluated. . . . It is noteworthy from the outset that the solution to water supply for industrial purposes does not provide for the implementation of groundwater in the project implementation area. Solutions for suppressing water needs of the project will take into account pressures on theoretical availability of the aquifer. . . .
“In the current phase of the project, the origin of the water to be used to supply the Lithium Conversion Unit is still preliminary, with different studies of different options that are dependent on the quantity and quality needed for the process.
“Thus, the Feasibility Study (DFS – Definitive Feasibility Study), which is in preparation, will define the origin of the water supply. With certainty, the project will look toward a complete water balance within which there is bound to be recirculation and recycling water in order to minimize the consumption of water necessary for the operation of the industrial installation. . . .
“The evaluation of alternatives also includes those that may be considered for the project: engineering for the transport of raw materials to the Industrial Unit of Lithium Conversion and the flow of lithium hydroxide monohydrate, residues and by-products.”
Dangerous substances, including hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, lithium hydroxide monohydrate, calcium hydroxide, sodium carbonate, natural gas and diesel, would be used at the lithium conversion unit, according to the proposal.
“Only natural gas and diesel are likely to fall within the scope of the established regulations in the RPAG (Regime Juridico de Prevençao de Accidentes Graves), and this framework depends on the maximum quantities present at the time compared with the threshold quantities referred to in Annex I of Decree-Law No. 150/2015, of 5 August.”
Albermarle Corporation opened a lithium conversion plant in Antofagasta, Chile, in June.
How Aurora Lithium Would Work
For the chemical transformation, the lithium conversion plant would use spodumene concentrate from lithium mining to obtain lithium hydroxide monohydrate as a final product, which is used to manufacture the cathode of electric batteries, according to the proposal. Considering the trends, there would be the possibility that the conversion plant also would receive as raw material other intermediate lithium products that would result from treatments upstream in the value chain (such as lithium sulfate, carbonate technical grade lithium).
“The Lithium Conversion Unit project is strongly framed in the principles of circular economy. By-products resulting from the production process (namely, aluminosilicates, gypsum and sodium sulfate) would be used directly in industrial processes (in ‘normal industrial practice’ activity) that ‘circularize’ these by-products, reintroducing them into the value chain. Examples of potential users are the local cement and/or pulp and paper industry.
The lithium plant would consist of the following:
- Reception, storage, mixing and, if applicable, grinding area of feedstock;
- Calcination unit (calciner);
- Mixing unit with acid (acid roasting):
- Water leaching unit;
- Neutralization unit;
- Purification unit;
- Causticization Conversion Unit;
- Sodium sulfate and lithium hydroxide crystallization units:n Drying and packaging unit, and
- Reagents and services unit.
The spodumene concentrate would be received and stored and, subsequently, transported by a conveyor belt to the calciner. The concentrate can be mixed and ground, if necessary, before entering the calciner. With this equipment, the spodumene concentrate is calcined between 1050-1100 degrees C for activation of spodumene. The result is then mixed with sulfuric acid at about 250 degrees C to form lithium sulfate.
The lithium sulfate solution would then be leached with water to dissolve the lithium sulfate and lithium extraction. At this stage, aluminosilicates, which, as they are a by-product, would, in principle, be sent to the cement industry (such as Secil, Cimpor). The lithium sulfate solution is then purified by raising the pH in two steps:
First Step (Neutralization)
Calcium carbonate or calcium hydroxide would be added, which would neutralize the solution and produce gypsum, which, as a by-product, in principle, would be sent to would be sent for use in industrial laminate, or the gypsum or cement industry.
Second Step (Purification)
Sodium carbonate and sodium hydroxide would be added to remove impurities such as calcium, magnesium and manganese, which, in principle, would be transported to landfill.
Next, there would be an ion exchange to reduce impurities such as calcium to parts-per-million levels.
After the impurities are removed, the purified lithium solution would undergo a conversion process with sodium hydroxide to produce lithium hydroxide. Sodium sulfate is produced as a by-product, which, in principle, will be sent to the detergent or pulp or paper industry (such as The Navigator Company).
Finally, lithium hydroxide is crystallized and dried to be sent to the market in the form of lithium hydroxide monohydrate.
Cabrito de Barroso is an indigenous goat breed, which has been granted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, in the proposed mining area of Montalegre.
Who and What Is Left Behind
Now. What happens to the shepherds when the meadows of grass and the mato (scrubland) are gone, to the beekeepers when their Iberian bees mourn the purple heather, and to the olive oil producers after their trees have been wrenched from their deep and ancient roots?
What happens to the indigenous sheep and goats, the bees and the olive trees?
What happens to those by-products through the principles of circular economy?
Responsible extraction involves investigating local biodiversity, water flows and the concerns of local communities to figure out how to reduce harm, said Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, which offers a third-party certification of mines, reported The New York Times (August 26).
Boulanger said that she often hears the argument that the urgency of the climate crisis means that the world does not have time to extract those metals in a meticulous way.
“Maybe we would not live in the climate-stressed world we live in right now if we had looked at the impacts of sourcing oil and gas,” she said. “We don’t have time to make more messes as we try to solve this problem.”
Joao Torres has a career of 40 years in the energy sector, reported Expresso (August 26). For 15 years, he led EDP Distribuçao (now E-Redes). In January, he assumed the presidency of the Associaçao Portuguesa da Energia (APE), which is the national committee of the World Energy Council in which Portugal has been represented since the 1930s.
Joao Torres, president of the national organization, Associaçao Portuguesa da Energia (APE) gave his first interview to Expresso (August 26):
Expresso: Will Portugal manage to create a value chain in the lithium area?
Joao Torres: I’m not even sure that lithium is the solution that will succeed. It is one of the solutions that is now known to work. There is a global dispute. Portugal has the skills to gain access to resources and means, and to able to play a relevant role in this innovation issue. Portugal has an openness to the new, which is an advantage at this time.”
Expresso: What are the APE’s priorities?
Joao Torres: What we have as a key mission is to ensure reflection and debate on energy, calling on the entire value chain.
Expresso: Not a lobbying agent?
Joao Torres: We are not a lobbying association. We want to play a role in informing public opinion because energy in Portugal deserves debate.
Founded in 1923, the World Energy Council is an independent organization that brings together more than 80 countries through national committees in which governments, companies, academia, non-governmental organizations and other entities, according to its website. It contributes to the development of energy transition strategies by organizing high-level events, such as the triennial World Energy Congress, publishing studies and facilitating global dialogues on energy policies.
The site of the proposed Romano mine in Montalegre, Vila Real District, is recognized as part of a United Nations Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System.
How to Participate Until September 13
First, you must register if you have not already done so. If you have, go to #8:
1. Click on Registo in the upper right-hand corner,
2. Click on Individual;
3. Fill in your name, email, password, confirmation of password and, from a dropdown menu, your concelho (municipality);
4. Tick the Agreement with Conditions on the bottom left-hand corner;
5. Click Submeter (Submit) in the bottom right-hand corner;
6. You will receive an email;
7. Choose the issue, “PDA do EIA da “Unidade Industrial do Conversao do Litio” ;
8. There are three mustard yellow boxes: Participiar (Participate), Seguir (Follow) and Partilhar (Share);
9. Click on the first and choose from a drop-down menu. Click on DISCORDANCIA if you object and CONCORDANCIA if you support it.
10. You may add text;
11. Click on Submeter;
Muito obrigada (Thank you very much)!