Lithium project caught in Portugal’s red tape
Savannah Resources (AIM: SAV), the company building western Europe’s largest lithium mine, said on Wednesday it shared its shareholders’ frustration regarding the time it has taken Portugal to review its application, but noted it was a political process over which the company had little control.
Savannah Resources said it has been two years since it submitted the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for an open-pit mine to Portuguese regulator Agência Portuguesa do Ambiente (APA).
The company filed the study in May 2020 and it was requested to provide additional information a few months later, which granted it a preliminary stamp of approval in April last year.
APA then launched a public consultation on the project, which has faced local opposition, but the watchdog is yet to announce its final decision.
“We passed the second anniversary of lodging the EIA,” King said. “This time last year, we had expectations that the decision would have been received by now but the finalization of the EIA is a political process over which Savannah has little control.”
The company acquired a 75% interest in Mina do Barroso in May 2017, maintaining a fast paced development approach since. January’s snap parliamentary election in Portugal, King said, had impacted the timing of the assessment as meetings with government officials were postponed.
Mina do Barroso open pit lithium mine would be Europe’s first significant producer of spodumene, a hard-rock form of the battery metal.
The project holds a resource estimate of 27 million tonnes of lithium with over 285,900 tonnes contained Li2O, at an average grade of 1.06% Li2O, which the company believes to be enough to supply a “material proportion” of Europe’s lithium demand over the coming decades.
The mine will also yield a feldspar and quartz co-product used in the ceramics industry, which will be sold to customers locally and in neighbouring Spain.
Recent results from the latest phase of metallurgical test work program at the mine highlights the potential for lower capital and operating costs than those originally estimated.
Portugal, already Europe’s top lithium producer, accounts for about 11% of the global market, but its output is entirely used to make ceramics and glassware. That’s why Europe relies on lithium imports from Latin America’s “Lithium Triangle,” as well from Australia and China, Mining writes.
Petition against mining in Pombal
A total of 1,003 people have signed two petitions against “any type of prospecting, research or extraction of tripoli deposits and other minerals” in the localities of Casal da Rola and Casais do Porto, in the municipality of Pombal, district of Leiria.
In two information leaflets distributed among the population of the two villages and sent to Lusa agency, it is read that the Directorate-General for Energy and Geology (DGEG), on February 15, published a public notice that “aims at prospecting and researching deposits of tripoly minerals and other associated minerals by the company Clariant Ibérica Producción S.A.”.
According to the leaflets, when prospecting and research is allowed, the “peace that reigns” in the villages of Casal da Rola and Casais do Porto, in the parish of Louriçal, “will have its days numbered”.
“The impact of a mineral exploration is harmful for any population and the return is illusory when compared to the harmful consequences that result from this type of exploration (earth movement, high traffic of machines and trucks, water pollution, environmental noise, pollution of the environment, air, destruction of the fauna and flora of our village and devaluation of the real estate heritage of the land adjacent to the quarry)”, adds the leaflet.
The documents appeal to land owners not to allow a company to access them and carry out “any type of collection/analysis”.
One of the signatories of the initiative, Catarina Soares, explained to Lusa that the petitions were sent to various entities, including the DGEG, the Attorney General’s Office and the Portuguese Environment Agency, with the knowledge of the Chamber and the Louriçal Council.
According to Catarina Soares, what worries her the most is “the fact that it is a multinational and that it has great power over the different institutions”.
“From the moment of authorisation of the requests, the company can proceed with the exploration request and then we automatically lose control of the situation”, considered Catarina Soares, Portugal News writes.
Lithium could help end the EU’s oil addiction
Europe’s desire to wean itself off fossil fuels and end its reliance on Russian energy is not only going to involve a sea change in consumer habits, but it is also going to require a lot of lithium.
Given that the Old Continent barely produces any of the metal: is it just swapping one dependency for another?
European leaders have extolled the virtues of the New Green Deal which plans for the 27-country bloc to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. To achieve this, the EU aims to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to the 1990s level, bring emissions from new cars by 2035 down to zero and boost its share of renewables in the bloc’s energy mix to 40%.
Lithium is increasingly used for batteries in electronics from smartphones to television as well as to store energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines and in electric cars.
According to the World Bank, the production of minerals, such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, would need to increase by nearly 500% by 2050 in order to meet climate goals while EU officials estimate that to achieve climate neutrality by mid-century, the bloc will require 18 times more lithium than it currently uses by 2030 and almost 60 times more by 2050.
Yet, Europe only has one lithium mine, in Portugal, and the very vast majority of its needs is currently met by imports.
About 87% of unrefined lithium the EU sources comes from Australia — the rest from Portugal — while Chile, the US and Russia provide 78%, 8% and 4% respectively.
China is also a particularly big player. Although it has about an estimated 7% of the world’s reserves in lithium, 13% of the lithium extracted in 2019 was in China while over half of the lithium extracted that year was processed in the country.
More than 70% of the lithium-ion batteries that entered the market last year were produced in China.
Brussels is aware of this dependency and added lithium to its list of critical raw materials list in 2020.
A Commission spokesperson acknowledged to Euronews that “the production and refining of lithium are heavily concentrated in a handful of foreign countries, which raises our vulnerability to various supply risks.”
They added that “given the economic and technological relevance of this resource, as well as the external dependencies it generates, it is our responsibility to ensure that the European economy can benefit from a sustainable and resilient supply of lithium.”
“Although the EU will continue to cultivate its international partnerships, significant lithium extraction potential exists within our borders and its exploitation could create thousands of jobs. Developing local lithium mining and processing operations will not only enhance our strategic autonomy and reinforce our economy, but will also allow us to better monitor and contain the environmental impacts of mining industries, which are far more difficult to control beyond the EU’s borders,” they said.
Opposition to mines
There are currently 10 potentially viable lithium projects in the EU: three in Portugal, two in Spain and Germany each, with the remaining three in the Czech Republic, Finland and Austria respectively.
For Rene Kleijn, associate professor at the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML) at Leiden University, “if all these plants become operational, it would probably be enough for our own supply.”
Problem solved, then? Well, not quite.
Getting all these projects off the ground will not necessarily be easy. A €2.2 billion lithium mine project in Serbia was shelved earlier this year after strong local opposition over environmental concerns. There is also fierce opposition to lithium mining in Portugal.
The mining process for lithium is primarily done in two ways. There is the traditional open-pit approach with the metal extracted from hard rock and the second one involves pumping huge amounts of underground water to the surface to remove lithium from the briny liquid that comes up as the water evaporates.
Both are seen as disruptive to the landscape and local population with a potential risk of air and water pollution. Using water to extract lithium is also controversial as water becomes more scarce in some areas due to climate change. Large parts of Portugal and Spain, for instance, have been suffering through a winter drought resulting in near-depleted reservoirs.
But there is a third, greener, way of mining lithium, called Direct Lithium Extraction and that is being implemented for the potential project in Germany. It relies on geothermal energy to pump the brine to the surface to allow for the extraction of lithium before being pumped back into the underground geothermal reservoir.
From extraction to production
Mining however is just the tip of the iceberg. Once extracted, lithium needs to be refined, batteries made and eventually recycled.
In fact, the latter is really where lithium shines.
“One of the largest sources of pollution in Europe and CO2 emissions is road transport,” Julia Poliscanova, Vehicles & e-mobility lead at Transport & Environment, a clean transport campaign group, told Euronews,
Transport generates about a quarter of the EU’s total emissions with road transport accounting for about 70% of them.
“The best way to decarbonise one of the largest climate problems is electrification, and for that, we need batteries. And for that, we need lithium.
“However, it is indeed important to stress that any mining, any raw material extraction, oil, nickel, lithium, gas comes with an impact. When it comes to lithium, the impact per car is significantly less so. When you have a car, you would burn 17,000 litres of oil over the use of that car,” she said.
“For a battery, an electric vehicle, you need about five or six kilogrammes of lithium that you can then recycle and reuse again and again. You just need to get it into your first batteries and then after some time, it can become a circular loop. So the impact of lithium is significantly less than the impact of oil.”
US and China move faster
But again Europe is running behind on the entire supply chain infrastructure.
The European Battery Directive of 2006 was written before lithium-ion batteries became increasingly prominent due to a more lukewarm approach towards fighting climate change then and thus did not set any targets for the recycling of lithium. Nowadays, almost no lithium is recovered in the EU, whereas recycling efficiencies are estimated at about 95 % for cobalt and nickel, and 80 % for copper.
“We could have anticipated this much earlier. For example, in the US we now have policies that basically come from Cold War times that are now being implemented by President Biden in order to secure supply chains for batteries, and electric vehicles,” Kleijn said.
Washington’s Defence Production Act allows the White House to exert control over domestic industries in times of crisis. It was used by President Trump to limit exports of medical goods at the start of the pandemic and by Biden to accelerate vaccination.
It has now once more been invoked by Biden “to secure American production of critical materials to bolster our clean energy economy by reducing our reliance on China and other countries for the minerals and materials that will power our clean energy future” including lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and manganese.
“This is really like hard core state interference in the markets to make sure that your industries are able to survive and also are not dependent on autocratic states or other states that you might not want to be dependent upon. And this is not the kind of policies that Europe is famous for,” Kleijn argued.
“And I’m not even talking about China. I mean, in China, it’s completely state-operated. Large Chinese state-owned mining companies are involved in mining all of these materials all over the world, whether it’s cobalt in Africa or lithium in Australia. The biggest miner for the biggest Australian mining of lithium, for example, is one-quarter owned by a Chinese state-owned company. So you can see how the Chinese government is also heavily involved in securing the supply chains also overseas,” he added.
2030 and beyond
Investments are being made across Europe in battery production to curb reliance from abroad.
About 24 lithium-ion battery cells giga-factories were expected to open across the EU between 2021 and 2030. Tesla, for instance, opened its gigafactory in Germany last month.
The association of European Automotive and Industrial Battery Manufacturers now forecasts that the EU battery market value will grow from €15 billion in 2019 to an estimated €35 billion in 2030 — with lithium-ion accounting for about half — while the global market value will grow from €90 billion to 150 billion.
Still, even in the best-case scenario, with all potential mines opening by 2025, “I don’t see how Europe will achieve sufficiency in this decade,” Poliscanova flagged.
“But moving after 2030, depending on how smart our policy on recycling is, Europe can become self-sufficient,” she concluded, Euronews reports.
Portugal: Lithium- White gold
Mining Lithium in Portugal is a very controversial subject, but there are some simple facts that can’t be ignored.
Sales and manufacturing of electric cars are growing. Governments want to ban petrol and diesel cars. Electric cars need batteries. Batteries need lithium. There isn’t enough lithium available to meet demand. Portugal has lithium.
The price of lithium has quadrupled in the last year. While Chile, Australia, Argentina, and China are home to the world’s highest lithium reserves, other countries also hold significant amounts. Chili holds the world’s largest reserves of lithium, but apart from any other consideration, Chili is a long way away from Europe, and transport alone adds a lot to the cost of delivery to Europe.
China holds massive reserves of lithium but mostly uses it for its own manufacturing of batteries.
Where to find lithium in Europe?
Portugal is believed to sit on some of Europe’s biggest lithium deposits and as a result has been picked for Europe’s biggest lithium mining and treatment plant.
Compare to other countries with large deposits of lithium
United States — 750,000 MT.
Canada — 530,000 MT.
Zimbabwe — 220,000 MT.
Brazil — 95,000 MT.
Portugal — 60,000 MT.
It’s obvious why Portugal holds a unique advantage for supplying Europe. A UK based mining company Savannah proposed to join forces with Galp to explore what they said will be Europe’s largest lithium mine in Mina do Barroso. This project seems now to be wholly owned by Savannah as Galp did not take up an option they had rights to.
The Mina do Barroso Lithium Project is located in northern Portugal approximately 145 km northeast of Porto and the industrial port of Leixões. Having taken an initial 75 percent stake in the Project in May 2017, Savannah has subsequently become its sole owner and expanded the Project, adding the adjacent, 3 block, ‘Aldeia’ Mining Lease Application to the original granted Mina do Barroso Mining Lease, valid until 2036, (extendable for 20 years). The Project is now well established as Western Europe’s most significant lithium project.
Fierce opposition to the mine
Opposition to the lithium mine has been very strong, but Savannah, advises that its’ wholly owned subsidiary, Savannah Lithium Lda., has been joined as the counter-interested party in litigation brought by the Parish of Covas do Barroso as plaintiff in the Mirandela Fiscal and Administrative Court against the Republic of Portugal and the Ministry of Economy as defendants. The C-100 Mining Lease which contains the Barroso Lithium Project is fully authorised, has a term of 30 years to 2036 and remains in good standing. The advice from Savannah’s lawyers is that the claim is without foundation and will be challenged by Savannah as the counter-interested party alongside exploring all potential options, including making a claim for damages against the plaintiff.
What are the objections to lithium mining in Portugal?
The idyllic landscape near the village of Covas do Barroso is the site of the new open cast lithium mines. Needless to say the local residents are up in arms, in fairness, so would I be if it was near my property. We are all ‘NIMBYS’ at heart (not in my back yard). The chairman of a local action group, Nelson Gomes, says the plan is to mine lithium here in four locations initially. “There will be huge mine dumps, and rivers will be redirected.” “The whole landscape and its ecological balance will be destroyed.” The group’s motto “Yes to life, no to the mine” is seen hanging on more and more facades and traffic signs. “We’ve been involved in sustainable farming for centuries,” Gomes said. “We’re small family-run businesses, keeping afloat without much help from the state — and we’re not going to give this up just like that; we’ll fight against the mine right until the end.”
He may well be right, but this project is too important to the Portuguese economy to be ignored. According to Nuno Forner from the environmental pressure group Zero, foreign companies are interested in mining lithium in Portugal, but less so in refining the mined metal locally. That is no longer factual.
What about the processing of lithium in Portugal?
Once mined lithium needs to be processed and this is where Galp is clearly focusing its efforts. They have formed a joint venture with the Swedish company Northvolt. It’s clear that the lithium needs to be processed in Portugal, not exported for other countries to benefit from Portugal’s ‘white gold’.
Swedish battery storage company Northvolt and Galp have agreed to set up a joint venture called Aurora with the goal to build Europe’s largest and most sustainable integrated lithium conversion plant. The facility in Portugal is set to have an initial annual output capacity of up to 35,000 tonnes of battery grade lithium hydroxide, a material needed in the production of lithium-ion batteries.
That will be sufficient for batteries in about 700,000 electric vehicles.
Galp and Northvolt are still searching for the best site for their lithium conversion plant, which they envisage to start commercial operations in 2026, pending a final investment decision. Some report suggested that Sines was the preferred location, but other locations nearer the mines are under consideration. The plant could represent an investment of about €700m and create up to 1,500 direct and indirect jobs.
It doesn’t take a financial genius to see the obvious facts. Vehicles are going electric. They need batteries, batteries need lithium. Portugal has one of the largest reserved of lithium in Europe. The Barroso Project will produce enough lithium each year for approximately 0.5 million electric vehicle battery packs. Local people will protest, I don’t blame them, but it’s going to happen.
Portugal has ‘white gold’ and Europe wants it, Portugal News writes.
“Lithium is not the answer”
Another voice has spoken out against the government plan to excavate vast swathes of heritage landscape in the rush to mine lithium.
And this voice is not simply concerned with heritage; it joins a number of ‘expert warnings’ that lithium is not the answer to Portugal’s path towards decarbonisation .
It belongs to former environmental secretary (PSD) and university professor Joaquim Poças Martins.
Mr Martins argues that the way forwards for Portugal will be in ‘green hydrogen’ – a strategy already being developed by PS Socialists.
He told Lusa: “You cannot destroy a mountain in order to extract a few kilos of lithium”.
This has always been the contention – the outrage expressed by local people in areas ‘identified’ for being ‘rich in lithium deposits’: where is the justification in destroying lives and landscapes for the sake of a few electric batteries for electric cars?
“Batteries won’t be the solution”, Mr Martins insists. “It is simply not possible: there aren’t enough materials in the earth for this effect.
“I am thinking more of hydrogen. Everything is pointing more towards hydrogen as a form of storing energy than batteries”.
He simplified his argument by explaining that “in half a dozen years” the lithium deposits ‘identified in Portugal’ may well have run dry.
Then “we will have a serious problem” – not least because of the destruction the lithium mining itself will have created.
“On the other hand, so called green hydrogen can be produced, and when it burns the final product is water, not carbon dioxide”
Energy, in the final analysis, “is one of the principal problems for the future” as well as being “part of the solution.
“The world of safe, abundant, cheap energy will allow many more people to live on earth, everywhere, and live better”, he stressed. But this “does not come from current solutions”.
Even when it comes to hydrogen, “the technology is still in maturity, that is the large-scale industrial development of green hydrogen in which, for example, solar energy is used in abundance to produce hydrogen, which can be used when there is no sun”.
The specialist who has headed up Porto University’s hydraulics, water resources and environment section of the Faculty of Engineering for decades, says “everything points” to an increasing use of offshore photovoltaic (solar) and eolic (wind) energy, along the lines of the model in Viana do Castelo, with massive turbines.
“The science is there”, he explains. It is simply that technology is taking its time to catch up: a car powered by green hydrogen, a plane, everything in fact, would be “much too expensive now because the technology is not yet mature enough, but it will be in five or 10 years time.
“This is the solution, it won’t be (lithium) batteries”.
Nonetheless, he accepts that in areas where “social and environmental impacts” would be negligible, then “yes” lithium mining makes some sense.
“Destroying entire hillside ranges, displacing people, to extract a small quantity of lithium for private use, much less so”.
Joaquim Poças Martins’ comments have been widely repeated by national media today, but it is unclear how the government will receive them.
Less than two months ago, environment minister João Pedro Matos Fernandes – albeit a minister who may well be replaced in the new government to emerge in February – has said that “exploration of lithium (in Portugal) is an inevitable path” and that “lithium is essential for decarbonisation” and for “digitalisation”.
Mr Matos Fernandes has also said it is vitally important for Portugal to ‘exploit” (in this case mine) the raw materials that it has, as there is currently a worldwide lack of raw materials.
Environmental assessment of lithium “is insufficient” in analysing the impacts on natural values
Environmental association Zero has stated that the environmental assessment of lithium “is insufficient” in analysing the impacts on natural values
The public consultation of the preliminary environmental assessment report of the Prospecting and Exploration Program (PPP) ends today in the eight potential lithium areas to be submitted to a public tender procedure for the attribution of prospecting and research rights.
On the “participa.pt” portal, 1,168 participants were submitted to this public consultation, which began on September 28th.
Zero participated in the procedure and welcomed the Government’s initiative, “in promoting a strategic environmental assessment that allows the identification and characterisation of territorial limitations for the possible exploitation of mineral resources, such as lithium, a resource that, in light of the transition climate, could play a relevant role at this time”.
However, Zero considered that “the environmental assessment should have gone further, namely in the connection between prospecting and research and subsequent exploration”, arguing that it would “require that, at the very least, a set of guidelines for the future be presented”.
In a statement Zero says, “exploitation requires the approval of an environmental impact assessment procedure and a mining plan, but conditioned favourable decisions are, incomprehensibly, a common practice of environmental authorities, who are always more concerned with reconciling and mitigating all impacts identified, than in safeguarding the public interest”.
“It is in this context of permissiveness that very general considerations are made about the implications for biodiversity, with the presentation of numbers regarding species with importance for conservation and the indication of overlapping of the polygons with the limits of the Natura 2000 Network”, they stressed.
Zero also said that the assessment “forgets a set of existing and important strategies in territorial terms, such as the 2027 tourism strategy, according to which there are ongoing investments that could conflict with this ‘national plan’ for mining exploration.”
The association demanded, in the event that the Government proceeds with an international tender for the attribution of prospecting and research rights, “specifications that safeguard the sustainability of the areas of intervention, limiting the existence of prospecting and research situations with unacceptable results, such as those that occurred in Covas do Barroso (Boticas) should be determined and met”.
For Zero, public policy “cannot and should not have a short-term vision based only on a wasteful aspect of geological resources”, but should be “closer to a vision of respect for sustainability and for the territory in the long term”.
An influx of mining concessions in Portugal
An influx of mining concessions in Portugal, combined with an increase in protests from local communities has led to heavy criticism of the government.
Most political parties have stated that the Government has ignored the concerns of the population with the approval of more contracts for mining concessions, and that the legislation is ambiguous and ends up facilitating mining in any location.
Three parliamentary appraisals were discussed, by BE, PCP and PEV, and PSD parties regarding the decree-law that regulates the legislation that changed the bases of the legal regime for the disclosure and use of geological resources existing in Portugal, in terms of respect to mineral deposits.
PSD, BE, PCP, PAN and PEV focused their criticism on what they consider to be the gaps present in the legislation that end up facilitating mining in protected areas, and on the inconsistency between the opposition of the population and the decisions of the Government.
PSD deputy Luís Leite Ramos defended that “it is not worth everything in the fight against climate change”, considering that, “to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions” one cannot “devastate protected areas” and “sacrifice the health and quality of life for populations living close to mineral deposits”.
Leite Ramos accused the Government of acting “as a promoter of mining projects, touting the merits of the ecological transition and the wonders of lithium”, without, however, “assuming in a clear and transparent way the defense of the environment”.
“Therefore, the minister cannot be surprised at the loss of confidence that mining causes among mayors and local communities: it was his Government who turned the word ‘lithium’ into a swearword, due to the opacity in the licensing processes, the web of interests and negotiations that grew around them, due to the Government’s deafness to the appeals and complaints of the populations in the defense of their territories and their lives”, he said.
Blocist deputy Nelson Peralta considered that the legislation “is written at the customer’s will”, since it “prohibits everything and at the same time allows everything”.
“Contrary to what was promised, it is not a law for green mining. It is a green way for the mines and, in the case of lithium, there is no speed limit”, added the deputy.
Nelson Peralta argued that for populations in areas targeted for mining “the risks and transfer of wealth remain”, since “with a mine, many other traditional economic activities are at risk”.
For the PCP, deputy Duarte Alves said that the State is playing a “mere role of promoting agent and facilitator of business”.
The PCP bench proposes that a survey of the country’s resources be carried out and, based on this information, “decide based on economic, environmental and quality of life criteria for the populations, whether in each concrete case these resources should or should not be explored”.
The PAN party, through Deputy Bebiana Cunha, recognised that “there are implicit principles” in the mining law that, “if they were to be clarified, would in fact better protect the environment and people”, but said that what the law clarifies is that these principles only materialise “whenever possible”.
Now, ‘whenever possible’ does not protect our habitats, our natural heritage, the populations that have been, in practice, a verb in the passive form, so ignored that they have been, in recent decades, by successive Governments”, he stressed.
In response to the parties, the Environment Minister acknowledged that mines “clearly” have environmental impacts, but assured that, in Portugal, mining “will be the most rigorous from an environmental point of view” and guaranteed that “there will never be any mine that has not previously had an environmental impact assessment”.
“The purpose of the regulation of the mining law is to defend environmental conditions, involve communities, and to share and promote the creation of contracts of value as much as possible,” he said.
With regard to coordination with local populations, Matos Fernandes defended that the exploitation of mines is done in a way to “share with those who live close to the spaces where these mines will exist, as much of the wealth generated and created as possible” and recalled that in law, municipalities issue a binding opinion when “the purpose of exploitation is a purpose that comes from a private individual”.
Citizens groups fighting a government plan to allow lithium mining in various areas of northern Portugal have received an unprecedented boost to their campaigns
Citizens groups fighting a government plan to allow lithium mining in various areas of northern Portugal have received an unprecedented boost to their campaigns.
Today, the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee has for the first time since its implementation in 2001 communicated the preliminary admission of a case against a public authority in Portugal.
The decision refers to an action brought against environment agency APA for “non-disclosure of environmental information on the Mina do Barroso lithium project” promoted by British-based mining company Savannah Resources.
Savannah has made no bones about the fact that it sees the Barroso project as a means to become the first significant lithium producer in Europe.
Plans involve various open pit mines which local people are adamant would destroy their communities’ sustainable ways of life, pollute groundwater and obliterate heritage landscape.
In a bid to study every detail submitted by Savannah to APA, NGO Fundação Montescola requested access to information – which is its right.
A press release put out today explains the NGO actually tried first taking its requests through the Portuguese courts and CADA, the national commission for access to administrative information.
CADA considered APA’s non-disclosure of environmental information “a violation of both national and international legislation” – but still APA ‘did not play ball’.
Hence campaigners’ recourse to the Aarhus Convention last summer – and today’s official answer.
Says the press release put out jointly by Fundação Montescola, MiningWatch Portugal and Associação Unidos em Defesa de Covas do Barroso : “During the last Aarhus committee hearing on October 19th, the Association Unidos em Defesa de Covas do Barroso, representing the community affected by the mining project, said: “We face insurmountable obstacles when it comes to free access to information. The claim to carry out effective and fair participation of all citizens has been jeopardised from the very beginning of the process.”
“During an earlier hearing in July, the mayor of Boticas, Fernando Queiroga, commented: “To all that has been said it should be added that, despite being a legal requirement, no physical paper copy of the Environmental Impact Assessment has so far been made available at the offices of this municipality. Therefore it is still inaccessible to the most vulnerable and info-excluded parts of the population in our council. We consider that APA, despite being a public body with added national responsibilities, has time and again been trampling on national and European legal environmental regulations.”
This is just the latest round in what has developed into a bitter struggle from both sides: citizens and environmentalists are convinced of the validity of their claims; Savannah CEO David Archer appears equally convinced that lithium exploration will bring jobs and much-needed economic growth to the interior region and be carried out in accordance with all the industry’s ‘best practices’.
On the periphery however are serious reservations that lithium reserves in Portugal are all that they are being made out to be.
Citizens groups growing by the day (a new one – Movimento Contra a Mineração do Massueime – appeared most recently) refer to the interview given to Rádio Renascença by Óscar Afonso, president of the Fraud Economics and Management Observatory (Observatório de Economia e Gestão de Fraude), in which he said lithium exploration in Portugal was not viable, and could be a fraud.
He told the station that lithium reserves in Portugal are “insignificant” and that he imagines explorations could well be “abandoned early”.
A lecturer in economics at Porto University, he said “only in an extreme context”, in which the world’s lithium reserves had been exhausted, could he imagine any viability for mining lithium in Portugal.
Indeed, he went as far as to say the “eventual use of (European) community funds for the installation in Portugal of a lithium refinery could be seen as a fraud…”
He explained: “If I consider that people know (lithium mining) is not profitable but they still move forwards with it – because the objective is to access community funds which compensate for it and therefore ‘they don’t care’, then that is a fraudulent thing in relation to the people who live there, and in relation to the rest of Europe. If I believe that people know all this and even so want to move forwards: it is fraud”.
The Resident will be putting today’s development to APA as soon as it opens for business following the Bank Holiday.
Savannah CEO David Archer has told us that although he is as yet unaware of the Aarhus committee’s decision, the situation “is the usual sort of harassment from these groups”.
He said as far as he is concerned, APA has been “very conscious of the consultation process” actually extending it “to accommodate the wishes of these groups”.
Lithium Research and Exploration Programme is an opportunity to decarbonise the economy and pursue the energy transition strategy
The preliminary environmental impact assessment report for the Lithium Prospecting and Exploration Programme identified “some risks” in the eight potential areas in the north and centre of the country, but still recognised the opportunity this could have for the economy’s decarbonisation.
According to the evaluation, the Lithium Research and Exploration Programme (PPPLitio) “is an opportunity…to decarbonise the economy and pursue the energy transition strategy.”
“The Lithium working group said that there has been an increase in demand for Lithium driven largely by the importance of this metal, not only in technology, but especially for its use in electric vehicle batteries, and justified by the circumstance that Portugal has geological conditions strongly favourable to the occurrence of Lithium minerals,” it explained.
However, the report also indicated that geological and mining knowledge in the various areas with lithiferous potential is “inconsistent and incomplete”, making prospection and research “more relevant and necessary”.
“When the practice of these research activities, for the most part non-invasive, occur responsibly and sustainably, it allows several benefits to be drawn while causing minimal damage to the environment,” it noted.
Among several proposed measures, the document highlights the development of a documentation plan, the implementation of accessible complaint mechanisms to manage potential conflicts, and the promotion of joint monitoring actions of exploration activities between the Directorate General of Energy and Geology (DGEG) and other entities.
For the tender act, the PPPLítio’s environmental report warned that areas of greater urban, functional and demographic intensity should be excluded from prospecting operations.
According to the document, local suppliers and labour should also be favoured in the different activities, not affecting archaeological or architectural occurrences classified with heritage value, warning that intervention in the subsoil should be minimised in a strip of at least 300 metres around the respective water line.
“Companies carrying out prospection and research should present a water efficiency and protection plan for potentially affected water resources. The best available techniques should be used to minimise possible impacts,” it noted.
The report also added that “prospecting and exploration may have effects on the quality of the environment” and water in particular, but that the “vast majority” of mining activities “do not generate impacts on water and hydrogeological resources on a local and regional scale”.
“If they do exist, they represent a very low risk to the environment and society,” it concludes.
The DGEG on Tuesday placed on public consultation the preliminary environmental assessment report of the Lithium Prospecting and Exploration Program of the eight potential areas for launching a tender procedure until 10 November.
The preliminary environmental assessment report analysed eight areas in the North and Centre of the country: Arga (Viana do Castelo), Seixoso-Vieiros (Braga, Porto and Vila Real), Massueime (Guarda), Guarda – Mangualde (four areas spread over Guarda, Viseu, Castelo Branco and Coimbra) and Segura (Castelo Branco).
The government has decided to go ahead with an environmental impact assessment to allocate rights for lithium prospecting and exploration in eight areas instead of the 11 considered in the initial list.
“In the first phase, sites were listed where lithium deposits are thought to exist,” an official from the environment ministry told Lusa. These consist of 11 zones, as announced in October by the executive.
“Areas with environmental protection status were removed from the initial list,” the official added, referring to areas classified as reserves or natural parks.
The prospection activities aim to discover the existence of lithium mineral deposits, their quantities, and the economic viability of their extraction but exclude areas with environmental protection status or where an environmental impact assessment is already being carried out.
According to the government, the tender for awarding rights to prospect and explore lithium – after a strategic environmental assessment has been carried out – “will allow for the installation of reference industrial projects and the creation of research and development hubs in the area of batteries.”
Meanwhile, the environmental association Quercus on Wednesday warned that 28% of the areas allocated for lithium exploration are inside nationally protected areas.
“It’s a shame the Government continues to insist on the lithium exploration plan. And here in the region [district of Castelo Branco], we will fight to the last consequences, with residents”, Quercus’ Samuel Infante told Lusa news agency.
“We are talking about areas that the Portuguese State has undertaken to protect and safeguard and which have unique conservation values and development models”, Quercus maintained.
In the Castelo Branco district, Infante said that the programme involves Serra da Estrela Natural Park, Serra da Gardunha, the Natural Park of International Tagus (PNTI) and the Geopark Naturtejo Geopark of the Meridional Meseta (UNESCO World Geopark).
“We are talking about areas with high conservation value. The environmental assessment itself identifies these areas and has identified more than 116 species with conservation interest, in other words, species that are in danger of extinction and that exist in these areas,” he added.
Infante repeated that “it makes no sense” to insist on this type of “heavy, destructive and contaminating industry when Portugal is not a significant player” in this area.
“All activities have positive and negative impacts. But in this case, clearly, the negatives outweigh the possible economic benefits”, he also said.
War over lithium behind the mountains in Portugal
This idyllic landscape near the village of Covas do Barroso is in danger of having to make way for open-cast lithium mining, ironically in the name of environment protection. The mine would extract a crucial raw material for the batteries of electric cars and thus contribute to reducing global CO2 emissions and Europe’s dependence on lithium imports.
Portugal’s government has decided to turn the country into a big player when it comes to lithium mining. The nation sits on an estimated 10 per cent of overall lithium deposits in Europe. But unfortunately, most of the metal is located in beautiful places such as Covas do Barroso, which makes it a breeding ground for conflict.
Severe ecological damage expected
The chairman of a 3-year-old local action group, Nelson Gomes, says the plan is to mine lithium here in four locations initially. “There will be huge mine dumps, and rivers will be redirected,” he told DW. “The whole landscape and its ecological balance will be destroyed, and this has us up in arms.”
The group’s motto “Yes to life, no to the mine” is seen hanging on more and more facades and traffic signs. “We’ve been involved in sustainable farming for centuries,” Gomes said. “We’re small family-run businesses, keeping afloat without much help from the state — and we’re not going to give this up just like that; we’ll fight against the mine right until the end.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has even declared the region a heritage site because of the sustainable farming methods employed there. But this award is at risk now with lithium mining looming in the area.
Portugal’s government, however, is pointing to the big picture. Three years ago, it adopted a multibillion-euro national lithium strategy. It keeps dreaming of a Gigafactory and a refinery for processing lithium ore.
There’s talk of profitable and future-oriented technologies and jobs for highly skilled workers. Lisbon is certainly interested in making a fortune with lithium in the framework of the E.U.’s Green Deal that is to accelerate the bloc’s path toward climate neutrality. Environment Minister Joao Pedro Matos Fernandes said: “We want to use our lithium reserves to profit from the added value chain resulting from decarbonization.”
Will profits really stay in the country?
Whether this will be the case is uncertain, though. According to Nuno Former from the environmental pressure group Zero, foreign companies are indeed interested in mining lithium in Portugal, but they are far less interested in refining the mined metal locally. “There are no concrete commitments by companies to help build a lithium refinery or a battery plan — the odds are the profitable processing of the raw material will happen abroad.”
Nonetheless, the government has already granted two mining licenses and defined nine regions for prospecting in search of what it calls “white gold.” Almost all of these regions are located in northern Portugal and many of them are in the middle of nature protection zones. Some of them are even part of the European Natura-2000 network.
Most of the prospecting areas are in the northern region of Tras-os-Montes (literally: behind the mountains). In that economically depressed region, resistance to the project has been strongest.
More damaging than useful
“If the Barroso mine gets the green light, our region would be destroyed,” said Fernando Queiroga, a district administrator. Despite all the difficulties and basically without any help from Lisbon the locals, he says, have been able to conquer new markets for their protected regional produce. “How are we supposed to keep selling our beef, if it gets associated with lithium mining,” Queirogo asked. “Or how are we supposed to sell our superb honey, if the dust caused by mining activities kills our bees?”
According to Albano Alvares, who heads the local agricultural cooperative, any compensation payments offered so far have been ludicrous. “The damage done to the forest alone would amount to some €70 million ($83 million),” he said. And maybe, mining would create jobs, but then farming does, too, Alvares insists. “Our cooperative alone has created 10 jobs for people graduating from high school.”
He fears that mining will only require people with low skills, and the jobs would only be available for a limited period. He reckons that the mine would close after 10 years or so when lithium reserves in Covas do Barroso are depleted. The ecological damage would stay, though, Alvares warns.
And so the lithium war behind the mountains enters another round. The Portuguese Environmental Agency will scrutinize the environmental impact study presented by the mine operator. This study is rather sloppy, says Zero’s Forner, as it neglects the impact on endangered species such as freshwater bivalves or the Iberian wolf. “We have to think twice before letting our environment go down the drain, even if the use of lithium serves a good purpose.”
The Portuguese government expects work on the mine to start as early as next year. Natural resources are a common good, it argues, and some sacrifices have to be made. But Nelson Gomes insists the people living “behind the mountains” must decide what will happen, adding that the fight against the mine will continue — with all means, if need be.