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Portugal OKs 6 Out of 8 Sites for Lithium Prospecting

Updated: Feb 16


The Directorate-General of Energy and Geology map of the six approved areas

 

After completing a Strategic Environmental Assessment, the Portuguese government approved six out of eight sites for controversial lithium prospecting.


Lithium is a light metal used in batteries for phones, laptops and electric cars. 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.


In Portugal, there has been consistent opposition to lithium mining from citizen and environmental groups and municipal presidents, who advocate protecting people, animals and plants and from rural families who are traditional shepherds, beekeepers, cheese makers, vintners and olive oil producers, who argue that their livelihoods and heritage would be destroyed by this activity.


Yet, mining for lithium was not an issue in Portugal’s national election on January 30. The contested land area is a depopulated one in central and northern Portugal, far away from the capital of Lisbon. Indeed, it is more or less the same area that burned in the huge fire of October 2017 that killed 50. Protesters who live there, including me, know that when land is burned or mined, it will not return to its previous state.


It was a different story in Chile, the second-largest producer of lithium, and Serbia, which Rio Tinto said would be the largest producer in Europe. After Chile’s election of a new president, the country began to write a new constitution, which will determine the future of lithium amid a “climate and ecological emergency”, according to The New York Times (December 28, 2021).


Before a national election in April, Serbia revoked lithium mining contracts and closed the door to future mining after years of being wooed by the second-largest mining company, according to Reuters (January 20, 2021).


Back in Portugal, the Directorate-General of Energy and Geology (DGEG) wrote in a statement reported in Jornal de Noticias (February 2):


“In the next 60 days, the tender procedure for the attribution of lithium prospecting and research rights will be able to advance.


“After the tender procedure and prospecting (to take place within a maximum period of five years), lithium exploration can begin, with each of the projects being subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment.”


Arga and Segura were excluded due to environmental restrictions that inhibit exploration:


1. Arga – District Viana de Castelo – Municipalities (Concelhos) Camina, Vila Nova de Cerveira, Viana de Castelo, Ponte de Lima, Parades de Coura (247.7 square kilometers);


2. Segura – District Castelo Branco – Municipalities Castelo Branco, Idanho-a-Nova (311.3 square kilomters).


“In the case of the area called Arga, it appears that, given its expected classification as a protected area, more than half of the surface is considered prohibited or to be avoided. In the area called Segura (Castelo Branco), the planned redefinition of the limits of the Special Protection Zone of International Tagus led to its exclusion”, according to DGEG.


Publico (February 2) reported:


“The inclusion of the Serra d’Arga in the lithium tender motivated some of the biggest protests against mining in Portugal, taking into account an area of 25,000 hectares. . . . This mountain was in the process of being classified as a Protected Landscape Area of Regional Interest, in a joint initiative of those four municipalities in the district of Viana do Castelo to precisely guarantee the protection of that territory from possible prospecting or exploration projects for lithium and other minerals.”


In the six approved areas as shown on DGEG maps, the land area was reduced by nearly half.


“Areas of greater urban, functional and demographic density were excluded, with a reduction of 49 percent of the total area initially subject to environmental assessment,” said the government statement. They are as follows:


1. Seixoso-Vieiros – Districts Braga, Porto, Vila Real – Municipalities Fafe, Celorico de Basto, Guimaraes, Felgueiras, Amarante, Mondim de Basto (proposed 243.7 square kilometers reduced to 144.215 square kilometers);


2. Massueime – District Guarda – Almeida, Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, Pinhel, Trancoso, Meda (proposed 499.7 square kilometers reduced to 438.651 square kilometers);


3. Guarda, Mangualde (C) – Districts Castelo Branco, Guarda – Municipalities Belmonte, Covilha, Fundao, Guarda (proposed 421.5 square kilometers reduced to 162.872 square kilometers);


4. Guarda, Mangualde (E) – District Guarda – Municipalities Almeida, Belmonte, Guarda, Sabugal (proposed 497 square kilometers reduced to 420.576 square kilometers);


5. Guarda, Mangualde (W) – Districts Guarda, Viseu – Municipalities Mangualde, Gouveia, Seia, Penalva do Castelo, Fornos de Algodres, Celorico de Beira ( proposed 376.6 square kilometers reduced to 173.899);


6. Guarda, Mangualde (NW) – Districts Viseu, Coimbra – Municipalities Viseu, Satao, Penalva de Castelo, Mangualde, Seia, Nelas (proposed 444.9 square kilometers reduced to155.244 square kilometers).


Along with this tender, three lithium concessions already are being advanced in Portugal at different stages of development: in Argamela, whose contract was issued in November 2021; in Montalegre, where the Lusorecursos concession remains controversial and is stalled due to litigation between the involved parties, and Boticas, where the Savannah Resources concession is more advanced and is the basis of a partnership with Galp for a refinery in Portugal in a location yet to be defined, reported Publico.


(Savannah Resources ended operations in Mozambique and the consortium agreement it had with Rio Tinto to focus on the Barroso lithium project in Portugal, the company announced in a statement, according to Lusa news agency (December 1, 2021).


(“The consortium agreement concluded with Rio Tinto – originally announced on October 11, 2016 – will be amicably terminated with immediate effect” and “Savannah will also withdraw its remaining assets from Mozambique,” read the document.


(The companies entered into the agreement in order to “jointly define a potential mining heavy minerals sands operation for a strategically located world-class ilmenite rich deposit,” according to Savannah Resources website.


(Rio Tinto paid $9.5 million (€8.37 million) in cash to Savannah Resources “for termination of the consortium agreement and the transfer of the team,” reported Lusa.)


The preliminary environment assessment report, Lithium Prospecting and Research Program for the Launch of the Tender Procedure for Assignment of Prospecting Rights and Lithium Research, was prepared by the Instituto de Ambiento e Desenvolvimento (Institute of the Environment and Development) at the University of Aveiro. It was released in September 2021. Subject to public consultation, which was extended, between September 28 and December 10, 2021, there were a total of 1,168 participants.


In Chile, an appeals court suspended a million-dollar state lithium tender issued two days earlier that had generated controversy for coming just two months before the end of a conservative president’s term, reported France 24 (January 15).


Leftist president-elect Gabriel Boric’s team had asked the government to postpone the tenders and set up a ‘roundtable’ to discuss various conditions to apply to the contracts. Boric will take office in March.


The Serbian prime minister, Ana Brnabic, who faces a general election in April, said that all decisions and licenses regarding Rio Tinto’s plans had been annulled because of environmental concerns, reported The Guardian (January 21).


“The decision, in effect, pulls the plug on a potential $2.4 billion (£1.8 billion) investment by Rio Tinto in developing the country’s lithium resources, which could have made Serbia one of the world’s biggest producers of the highly sought-after metal used in the manufacturing of electric vehicles.


“The government U-turn comes after weeks of protests against the project in the capital, Belgrade, and swathes of smaller towns across the country over the environmental and health impact of the project.”


In an evening television news interview on SIC Noticias (February 2), Portugal’s Environment Minister Joao Pedro Matos Fernandes said that lithium exploration will not be carried out at any cost. However, he stressed that lithium is essential for a transition to cleaner energy. He added that there are conditions to proceed with prospecting tenders.


With lithium mining, Environment Minister Joao Pedro Matos Fernandes said that he can create tens of thousands of jobs.


Savannah Resources would generate as many as 2,800 direct and indirect jobs during the construction phase and nearly 1,500 during the operational phase for a total of 4,300 jobs, according to a report by economists from the University of Minho referenced in Proactive (July 27, 2020).


Lusorecursos said that it would create 500 jobs, according to Portugal News (November 22, 2019).


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