In the northern Montalegre region in Portugal locals spent years fighting to halt lithium mining project, a cornerstone of Lisbon’s raw materials policy.
“At this moment I see the possibility of having a lithium mine in Montalegre as very unlikely,” João Pedro Matos Fernandes said.
The EU is trying to set up an independent stream of crucial raw materials to ensure it’s not dependent on third countries. It imports almost all of its lithium — a key ingredient in the batteries used to power electric vehicles. The European Commission estimates that demand for lithium will grow 18 times by 2030 and 60 times by 2050. That’s set off a race to open mines in Europe, with projects being eyed in Finland, Spain, Serbia, the Czech Republic and Austria, as well as Portugal.
The Montalegre project’s concession license will be “rejected due to a lack of professionalism” on the part of LusoRecursos, the company awarded a government exploration contract in 2019, Matos Fernandes said. He said the company submitted a “clearly insufficient” environmental impact study, and added that it won’t be long before “that license is completely canceled.”
Informed about the scheme’s impending cancellation, an incredulous LusoRecursos CEO Ricardo Pinheiro said his company would bring a “nice lawsuit in the courts.” The minister’s comments signal the end of one of Lisbon’s signature raw material schemes, just one week before the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the EU hosts a conference on green mining.
The €500 million project aimed to build a massive mining and industrial processing complex in a bucolic corner of northern Portugal bordering the Gerês-Xurés biosphere reserve. It had been strongly opposed by locals for environmental concerns. The scheme involved leveling a mountainous, 825-hectare site, with parts of the new project located just meters from residents’ properties.
LusoRecursos claimed that up to 30 million tons of lithium petalite could be extracted from the site and potentially used to make everything from e-vehicle batteries to storage infrastructure for renewable energy. The company’s bid to survey the area was greenlit over a decade ago, but the idea only started to move in 2019, when the government signed a contract giving LusoRecursos exploration rights.
“The mining project would have destroyed the landscape and made farming here impossible,” said Armando Pinto, coordinator of Montalegre com Vida, the community group that spearheaded opposition to the project.
The region’s traditional farming economy has earned it recognition as a United Nations Globally Important Agricultural Heritage site. Locals like farmer Justino Dias credit this mode of farming — along with a burgeoning rural tourism sector — with stemming the exodus of young people from the area, a serious problem in much of Portugal’s interior. The mining complex “would threaten all of that,” said Dias. The project’s impact on the agricultural sector would also jeopardize local access to the EU farming subsidies that are key to the area’s survival, he added. Pinto said residents were also concerned about the risk to water flows from nearby mountain springs and the possibility that runoff from the complex’s industrial facilities could contaminate the neighboring Alto Rabagão reservoir.
“Most of northern Portugal drinks water that comes from here; it’s shocking that national authorities have even considered this,” he added.
Although protests against the mining project drew national attention, locals say Lisbon failed to listen and allowed the scheme to move forward despite some red flags.
“The central government signed this contract without ever speaking to us,” Pinto said. “We wrote to the president of the republic, we went to parliament, spoke to the parliamentary groups, but no one from the government ever spoke to us.”
LusoRecursos CEO Pinheiro rejected criticism of the Montalegre project, saying it would have revitalized the region, including with a residential development scheme for the highly skilled workers he said would have been employed at the complex.
“I’ve never understood the opposition to this project … There’s been a lot of disinformation,” Pinheiro said. “This is like when people go on Google to look up symptoms to figure out if they have cancer … People find it easier to believe that things are going to be bad.”
The Portuguese government may have given up on the Montealegre project, but another lithium mining scheme in the region is moving forward, according to the Portuguese environment minister. Matos Fernandes confirmed that a bid by U.K.-based commodities group Savannah Resources to develop the 680-hectare Barroso mine project near the village of Boticas is now undergoing a public consultation of its environmental impact study.
“Without being able to predict the results” of the study, Matos Fernandes said he applauded the professionalism of the proposal. “There’s a huge difference between this developer and the lax attitude shown by others.”
But Carlos Leal Gomes, a geologist at the University of Minho, warned that the country may not be seeing much of a lithium boom. “Portugal doesn’t have the lithium resources to justify these kinds of projects right now,” he said. In contrast to the easily processed lithium spodumene deposits found in Australia’s Greenbushes deposit or Brazil’s Minas Gerais region, the lithium petalite found in northern Portugal requires processing that makes it economically uncompetitive, Leal Gomes said.
“What we have are old mines that were used to extract minerals for producing ceramics,” he said. “The owners of the sites are trying to monetize them now, but it isn’t viable … There’s been a lack of serious calculation here.”
Matos Fernandes defended the government’s policy, saying the pandemic had shown that Europe needs to shore up its access to raw materials required for the bloc’s green transition.
“Perhaps your academics haven’t hard of a little thing called COVID … But it’s obvious that we have to shorten production and supply chains,” the minister said.
But the argument that the mine is needed to help the EU’s decarbonization efforts was dismissed by Pinto, the local activist.
“Green mining doesn’t exist,” he said. “Politicians need to stop trying to get rid of pollution in cities by polluting our villages instead.”