The author lives in the foothills of the Serra da Estrella which, until February 2022, had been considered for lithium exploration. She opposes lithium mining in Portugal. (Illustration by Pep Boatella/The Guardian)
While the Portuguese Environment Agency conditionally approved a mixed open pit and underground lithium project in Portugal’s only U.N. Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System in the northern province of Tras-os-Montes, the opposition’s resolve grew even more resilient with its resounding, “No to Mines. Yes to Life.”
The project of Lusorecursos Portugal Lithium is a 13-year mining operation with a 20-year minimum lifespan of industrial facilities in Montalegre Municipality, Vila Real District, which borders Spain. Lithium mining is planned for 637.5 hectares of which 29.7 hectares would be open pit and the remainder underground. The concession is 825.4 hectares. The project is the second lithium mining plan to receive approval in Portugal.
Investment had been estimated at 650 million euros. However, that figure included a refinery, which the Portuguese Environment Agency excluded from this project and said “must be the subject of an autonomous EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) procedure to be submitted in the implementation of the project phase.”
The Portuguese Environment Agency published a five-paragraph statement on its website on September 7. The introductory paragraph said:
“The Portuguese Environment Agency made the exploration of lithium in Mina do Romano, in the municipality of Montalegre, environmentally viable, with the issuance of a favorable Environmental Impact Declaration (DIA) subject to compliance with a broad set of conditions.”
What seems like a simple and elegant solution for a cleaner environment is not green, say opponents. Lithium mining creates its own demands on limited natural resources, such as water, and it is fraught with hazards for traditional livelihoods and health of the people as well as the preservation of flora and fauna.
Opposition against lithium mining in Portugal has broadened into a coalition of 26 local, national and international groups, including the European Environmental Bureau, which consists of more than 180 groups in 40 countries.
Armindo Pinto, coordinator Montalegre com Vida, the community group that spearheaded opposition to the project, told Capital Verde (August 23):
“We are convinced that the project will not happen. Let’s do everything we can. We don’t expect much from the government and APA (Portuguese Environment Agency). But we already have a case in court, and we are working on a new case. We may appeal to national and even European courts. We won’t stop.”
The environmental agency’s decision on Lusorecuroso, issued on September 7, followed an extended public consultation which ended on July 24, on a revised Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
According to Lusorecursos, construction could begin on the Romano mining project, named for the prior Roman tin mine, could begin in 2025, including the respective access tunnels to the underground mine, and would last two years, with entry into exploration scheduled for 2027, reported Jornal Negocios (September 7).
The increased demand for electric cars has propelled lithium into the category of “white gold” as mining companies compete for extraction contracts around the world. Besides car batteries, the light metal also is used in batteries for telephones and laptop computers.
Portuguese Environment Agency on Lusorecursos
The second of the five-paragraph statement of the Portuguese Environment Agency said:
“As has already occurred for similar projects, the assessment took into account the strategic interest of lithium in meeting the goals of carbon neutrality and energy transition, as highlighted by the Roadmap for Carbon Neutrality. The assessment also ensured the high level of environmental requirements that should guide an activity of this nature and which is an international reference.”
The Portuguese Environmental Agency is referring to The Roadmap for Carbon Neutrality (2050): Long-Term Strategy for Carbon Neutrality of the Portuguese Economy by 2050 (2019). The strategy says:
“In 2016, the Portuguese government pledged to ensure neutrality of its emissions by the end of 2050, outlining a clear view on intense decarbonization of the national economy, as a contribution to the Paris Agreement and in line with the most ambitious efforts under way at an international level.”
The third paragraph of the Portuguese Environmental Agency statement said:
“In addition to mining exploration, this project also includes a Mining Annexes Complex (CAM), where raw ore is processed. This is an obvious added value of the project, due to the added value generated and the significance of the positive impacts associated with it. The DIA (Environmental Impact Declaration) determines that the CAM must be the subject of an autonomous EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) procedure to be submitted in the implementation of the project phase.”
The environmental agency has removed the Mining Annexes Complex from this project, which had been a controversial stumbling block for Lusorecursos, leaving the proposed refinery for a later date as a separate project. At the start of the year, the agency had approved the project conditionally but rejected the location of the refinery due to the presence of a pack of Iberian wolves, an endangered species, and its violation of Montalegre’s Municipal Master Plan due to ecological and tourism safeguards, reported Visao (February 1). It gave the firm six months to submit a revised plan, which it did in July.
In its rejected Environment Impact Assessment of November 2021, Lusorecursos had said:
“The fact that the project is not limited to extracting ore rich in lithium but also to its value added through on-site transformation into lithium hydroxide will allow the planned investment, in the order of 650 million euros, to translate into added value for local populations in terms of job creation and development of economic activities in the region.”
Without the refinery, the investment amount is unclear.
With regard to the number of jobs, the Lusorecursos’ proposal of November 2021 said that “the industrial process has an estimated value of 205 jobs, which constitute more than twice the number of jobs associated with the extraction/mine (85).
“Although it is desirable to create jobs with the local population, the specificity of some of the jobs, which require skilled labor, and also the absence of any labor available in a region with an aging population and a reduced percentage of active population, presupposes the recruitment of a workforce outside the municipality of Montalegre.”
The fourth paragraph of the Portuguese Environment Agency statement said:
“The project already includes a package of socioeconomic compensations, including the allocation of 75% of exploration charges (royalties) to the municipality of Montalegre.”
Jornal Negocios (September 7) reported: “Lusorecursos estimates an annual production of 18,000 tons of lithium hydroxide, which could result in revenues of more than half a million euros.”
The fifth and final paragraph of the Portuguese Environment Agency said:
“The decision recognizes, in this context, the importance of the project’s value chain being located in the aforementioned territory as a way of enhancing positive impacts at the local level.”
Lithium Race in Portugal
Let us look at what else is happening in the race for lithium in Portugal.
Savannah Lithium Plan OK’d in May
In May, Savannah Lithium was the first lithium mining firm to reach the stage of its plan’s approval in the environmental vetting process of Portugal. Within six to nine months, it expected to submit the Execution Project Environmental Compliance Report (RECAPE) to the Portuguese Environment Agency (APA).
The proposed Savannah mine, like the proposed Lusorecursos mine, is located in the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System, one of 60 in the world, five in Europe and the only one in Portugal. The United Nations designation is reserved for world-renowned examples of traditional agricultural systems, led by local communities. The Barroso Agro-Sylvo-Pastoral System integrates farming, livestock raising, forestry and nature conservation. The region is famous for its cheese, honey and unique breeds of cattle, sheep and goats.
Lithium Battery Plant Proposal
Public consultation on a lithium-battery plant ended on March 20. China Aviation Lithium Battery (CALB) submitted a plan to develop the unit in an industrial zone of Sines, Setubal District.
The Portuguese Environmental Agency said in April that the lithium battery company needed to elaborate on its proposal contents, reported Expresso (July 4).
Galp/Northvolt Lithium Conversion Plant Plan
A proposal for a €700 million lithium conversion industrial unit, which Galp and Northvolt plan to develop in Setubal, was available for public consultation until September 13, 2022.
European Union (EU)
The European Battery Alliance (EBA) was initiated in October 2017. The annual market value is estimated at €250 billion from 2025 onwards. The industrial development program of the European Battery Alliance, the EBA250, is managed by EIT InnoEnergy, a subsidiary of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), which is another body of the European Union. EBA250 brings together 250 entities from mining to recycling “with the common objective to build a strong and competitive European battery Industry”.
Lusorecursos Portugal Lithium has an institutional partnership with the European Battery Alliance/EBA250 and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), according to the mining firm’s website.
Savannah Resources, of which Savannah Lithium is a subsidiary, announced, in May 2020, that it had entered an “Added Value Services Agreement” with EIT InnoEnergy, whose ultimate goal is to facilitate an additional flow of €70 billion of investment into EU-based battery-related projects.
Due to its reported large lithium deposits, Portugal is being touted as a key player in the European Union’s transition to green energy. The European Union is wholly dependent on imported battery-grade lithium in an increasingly competitive global market. The majority of the world’s lithium is mined in Australia and in the Lithium Triangle of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, and more than 97 percent of it is refined in China, reported Inside Climate News (November 7, 2021).
“Currently, 78 percent of the (EU) bloc’s lithium comes from Chile,” according to Politico (July 20).
The European Parliament voted in June 2022 to end the sale of new combustion-engine cars by 2035, reported Le Monde diplomatique (November 2022). Slovakia’s Maros Sefeovic, the European Union’s commissioner for inter-institutional relations and foresight, set a goal for the European Union to become the world’s second-largest producer, after China, of lithium batteries by 2025.
Not long ago, Serbia had been touted by Rio Tinto as having Europe’s largest deposits of lithium. In 2004, Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining giant, discovered jadarite, which is rich in lithium and boron, in Jadar Valley, Serbia’s breadbasket, which produces one-fifth of national agricultural production, reported Le Monde diplomatique.
“Agricultural land already has been ruined by previous drilling, and that was only preliminary. You can see toxic waste in the river. We’re in a closed ecosystem here (in Serbia) – poisoning the land and water would harm the entire food chain,” said Marijana Trbovic Petkovic, a teacher at a secondary school in the Jadar Valley and a member of Ne Damo Jadar (We’re not giving away Jadar).
The rural and urban Serbian populace blocked traffic in major cities in protests against what they viewed would be ecological disaster in an area rich in flora and fauna, including 140 species protected by Serbian or European law. There are also 50 officially listed cultural and historical sites in the area.
In January 2022, Serbia revoked Rio Tinto’s licenses for a €2.4 billion lithium mine, reported BalkanInsight (February 23).
Why Serbia in Europe?
Serbia’s lithium accounts for only 1.3 percent of the world’s total compared to 23.5 percent in Bolivia, 21 percent in Argentina and 3 percent in Germany, reported the U.S. Geological Survey, according to Le Monde diplomatique. Extracting ore from thermal springs in the Rhine Rift Valley, between Basel and Frankfurt, would produce much less carbon dioxide than mining and processing Serbian lithium, but the Greens (the liberal green political party, Alliance 90/The Greens), in the German government oppose it.
The U.S. Geological Survey, created by an act of the U.S. Congress in 1879, is the science arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior. It produced a report on lithium in January 2022 that placed Portugal in 19th place worldwide for lithium resources. It said that “owing to continuing exploration, identified lithium resources have increased substantially worldwide and total about 89 million tons.”
The U.S. Geological Survey identified the distribution of lithium resources as follows: Bolivia, 21 million tons; Argentina, 19 million tons; Chile, 9.8 million; United States, 9.1 million tons; Australia, 7.3 million tons; China, 5.1 million tons; Congo (Kinshasa), 3 million tons; Canada, 2.9 million tons; Germany, 2.7 million tons; Mexico, 1.7 million tons; Czech Republic, 1.3 million tons; Serbia, 1.2 million tons; Russia, 1 million tons; Peru, 880,000 tons; Mali, 700,000 tons; Zimbabwe, 500,000 tons; Brazil, 470,000 tons; Spain, 300,000 tons; Portugal, 270,000 tons; Ghana, 130,000 tons; Austria, 60,000 tons; and Finland, Kazakhstan and Namibia, 50,000 tons each.
Yet, a mining professor, warns against accepting such figures of resources.
“Here, we have this thing of saying that we have the fifth, sixth, eighth biggest reserve . . . that is exactly the same as nothing,” Carlos Leal Gomes, professor at the University of Minho, told Euronews (June 9). “You only know the place when you start the production of lithium.”