Imerys to open French lithium mine

France’s Imerys announced plans on Monday to become the leading supplier of lithium in Europe through a mining project in central France as a push to make electric vehicles widely available spurs a “white gold” rush for the mineral.

Imerys said results of surveys carried out at its Beauvoir mine in the Allier department in central France allow it to produce 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide for at least 25 years from 2028 to supply around 700,000 electric cars.

The announcement comes as European miners are rushing to launch domestic production of the raw material, a crucial component for electric vehicle production, currently sourced almost entirely from outside the bloc.

Electric cars are a key plank of European Union plans to cut emissions, and the bloc is trying to reduce reliance on battery supplies from Asia through projects with European-based carmakers and battery specialists.

Touring the Paris Motor Show last week, French President Emmanuel Macron told the financial daily Les Echos that his administration wanted to make electric vehicles “accessible to everyone”.

Macron then proceeded to announce a series of measures to enable households to acquire electric vehicles.

With the EU seeking to ban the sale of combustion engine vehicles from 2035, France is trying to gradually phase out fossil-fuel cars.

While the move is seen as an essential step on the road to energy transition, it also poses a serious problem: it will require massive quantities of metals needed to manufacture batteries, especially lithium.

Almost all the critical minerals currently come from outside the continent, with China dominating the global supply chain. The world’s main lithium suppliers also include Australia and Argentina.

Since 2015, production volumes of lithium – also known as “white gold” – have tripled worldwide, reaching 100,000 tonnes per year by 2021, according to the International Energy Agency.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last month that “lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas”, adding that the bloc’s demand for rare earths alone will increase fivefold by 2030.

Various miners are exploring domestic European lithium projects including in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic.

Imery’s French rival Eramet is exploring a project in the Alsace region.

The French project is estimated to involve construction capex of around 1 billion euros, Imerys said, adding that cash cost of the lithium project is estimated to be around 7-9 euros per kilo.

The Beauvoir site has been producing kaolin for ceramics since the late 19th century.

In Serbia, a domestic mining project has been facing stiff opposition from the local population.

Savannah Resources “white gold” rush in Portugal – lithium mining and environmental issues

The remote village of Covas do Barroso, a short walk from Western Europe’s largest lithium deposit, was triggered by government plans to establish the country as Europe’s production hub for the metal, a critical component in electric vehicle batteries. Many locals are determined to halt the development, fearing the mine will scar the landscape, pollute water and disrupt the sustainable farming on which the local economy depends.

David Archer, CEO of Savannah Resources, the United Kingdom–based company developing the nearby lithium mine, is confident the project will help reduce Europe’s carbon dioxide emissions and bring “overwhelming social, economic and demographic benefits” to a poor and thinly populated area. But Archer has foes, even in a region whose lithium deposits have sparked a “white gold rush.”

“Mining is too often a parasitic investment,” says Catarina Scarrott, a spokeswoman for a local movement opposed to the mine. “They take away more than they give back.”

Scores of prospecting licenses are being applied for and an international licensing tender for lithium exploration is due to be launched early this year. The government expects the five most promising areas to attract about $3.6 billion in investment.

Lisbon plans to lock into a European Union drive to advance European production of electric vehicle battery cells by building a lithium refinery at the northern port of Leixões, creating “an end-to-end lithium value chain” in Portugal. All Europe’s battery-grade lithium is at present imported from outside the EU.

“Our aim is to go beyond simply mining lithium and create a whole industrial cluster that will put Portugal in the lead in this area,” says João Galamba, secretary of state for energy.

The rush for mining rights, however, has sparked anti-lithium demonstrations, petitions, social media campaigns and heated parliamentary debates. At issue is not only the future of local communities but also a belief among many campaigners that electric vehicles are not the best way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“We will need to generate more electricity to power them, which will almost certainly lead to the building of more coal-fired generating plants,” says Renata Almeida, who represents an anti-mining movement near the Serra da Estrela mountain range. Fifteen requests for lithium prospection in the area were submitted last year.

During the past decade, investments in organic farming and small-scale sustainable tourism have helped revive local communities in the rural interior of northern Portugal, a region only just beginning to recover from devastating forest fires in 2017.

Many residents fear lithium exploration will disrupt this progress. “Open-pit mining on a scale Portugal has never experienced before will have a big impact on the natural resources and ecosystems on which our jobs, businesses and local products rely,” says Catarina Vieira, who runs a small sustainable tourism business near the Serra da Estrela.

“I started as an individual concerned for my community, now I’m a citizen concerned for my country,” says Scarrott, who grew up in Covas do Barroso and now teaches abroad. “Lithium mining and refining is a huge risk for Portugal and I’m convinced it will damage the country in the long run.”

Archer believes otherwise. “What is a very small development in mining industry terms could play a significant role in helping Europe meet its carbon reduction goals,” he argues.

Archer estimates that over the 15-year life of the mine, it will eliminate close to 110 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions by reducing the need to ship lithium from China, Australia and Latin America and by supplying a vital material for electric vehicles.

He also believes the mine could revitalize a small community in one of the poorest regions of Western Europe. Savannah expects to create 200 jobs in the mine and about 400 indirectly, and Archer estimates the project will generate $278 million in taxes and royalties for the national government and local municipality.

Savannah is one of two companies to have so far been granted lithium exploration concessions in Portugal. The company, which has a market value of close to $39 million, plans to invest about $111 million in the project. After publishing an environmental impact study early this year, it hopes to go into full-scale production in 2022.

Savannah, which has held regular meetings with the local community, has pledged to meet the highest environmental standards. Galamba also guarantees that “all the concerns of local populations will be taken fully into account.”

Campaigners remain unconvinced. “Keeping our countryside and unpolluted environment intact is vital to keeping the rural interior of Portugal alive,” says Almeida. “Our landscape is the raw material on which our livelihoods depend.”