lithium from europe

Europe’s Lithium Boom Is Sinking Here

Europe needs lithium for the construction of electric cars – but has so far been completely dependent on imports. The EU Commission wants to push ahead with the mining of European deposits. But the projects are stagnating, as satellite images show.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article written in German by “Andreas Menn“. Access the original article here.

Citizen protests are paralyzing the development of several promising lithium mining sites in Europe. That’s according to analysis of recent satellite imagery from LiveEO. In Serbia, for example, where the most important European mining project to date was under development, thousands of protesters blocked roads and highways in Belgrade and other cities over several weekends in December.

Stone of contention here: The planned lithium mine near the town of Loznica in the west of the country. Environmentalists fear that it will pollute farmland, groundwater and nearby rivers. The protests had an impact: The Serbian government put two planned bills on hold that were supposed to push the mining project forward.

The Loznica City Council also suspended a development plan for the mine project for the time being. The British-Australian mining group Rio Tinto, which is behind the raw materials project, is now trying to limit the damage. It says it wants to enter into a stronger dialog with local residents and push ahead with the project.

The satellite images now show that Rio Tinto has already made preparations for lithium mining in recent years: One day, access roads were created through the greenery on fields, and open spaces were left in the landscape where the company could drill test holes. But since then, grass has already grown over the facilities again, and according to the recordings, these paths have been plowed up again by farmers.

small farms wide fieldsScars gap in the landscape
Loznica, Mačva, Serbia
16.10.2018 (left picture): Small farms, wide fields: Agriculture still characterizes the Jadar River valley in western Serbia.
28.08.2020 (right image): Scars gap in the landscape: mining company Rio Tinto has undertaken test drilling in search of lithium.

However, the project east of Loznica is only one of many lithium projects that were announced in Europe – but are now hardly making any progress. Everywhere, the projects are meeting with resistance from local residents and environmentalists who fear for their fields and incomes and for the preservation of nature.

In Brussels, this is likely to worry some officials. After all, last fall the EU Commission presented an action plan to make Europe’s supply of raw materials more secure. By 2030, it said, Europe would need 18 times more lithium to produce batteries for electric cars and energy storage. At the same time, the EU wants to give a massive boost to domestic battery production for electric cars with the European Battery Alliance.

Currently, the EU sources most of its lithium from China, where it is refined from raw material. The raw material, in turn, is mined primarily in North and South America as well as Australia, where the world’s largest deposits are located. Because demand for the element is now rising massively worldwide, however, smaller European lithium deposits are becoming attractive to investors and mining companies.

In Portugal, for example, geologists estimate that there are 60,000 tons of lithium. This means that the country has the world’s ninth-largest reserves after Zimbabwe and Brazil. The British mining company Savannah Resources wants to exploit this treasure: In 2017, the British bought mining rights for a deposit around the town of Covas do Barroso in northern Portugal.

landscape near covas do barroso in northern portugalnothing changed landscape of covas do barroso in northern portugal
Grandao” deposit, Covas do Barroso, Portugal
10.07.2020 (left picture): A wild pattern runs through the landscape near Covas do Barroso in northern Portugal – test drilling for a lithium mine.
26.07.2021 (right picture): One year later, nothing has changed. The mining company Savannah Resources has still not received any mining licenses due to protests.

In recent years, the mining contractors around Covas do Barroso have already kicked up a lot of dust: the satellite images show how the group has laid out roads and drilling sites in several places over the past few years to investigate the deposit.

But not much has happened here in the last two years, the footage shows. The company is waiting for the green light to mine the lithium from the Portuguese environmental authority. It wants to reach a decision this spring.

  • drilling site in the barroso region
  • plants have grown in the barroso region
  • waiting for permission from savannah resources

The Portuguese government wants to use lithium mining to set up a new industry and profit from the megatrend of electromobility. But here, too, the mining plans are meeting with massive protests. The mine operator promises hundreds of new jobs for the region. But local residents fear that most of the workers will come from out of town – and drive home again in the evening.

The planned mine, on the other hand, will only harm the existing economy in the region, fear opponents of the project, who have joined together in a citizens’ initiative to defend Covas do Barroso. In the mountainous agricultural landscape, which is still quite pristine, farmers practice comparatively sustainable agriculture and breed Barrosa cattle, which were still threatened with extinction in the early 1990s. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has designated the area a globally significant agricultural heritage site, one of only seven in Europe.

  • sustainable agricultural economy
  • standstill at this drilling site
  • company plans to dig

The residents now see this heritage in danger. Mining, they fear, will tear a wound in the landscape, pollute the groundwater, pollute nature. Beekeeping, agriculture, and tourism would be threatened. The citizens’ initiative considers Savannah Resources’ assurances that it will adhere to environmental standards to be “propaganda.

Around 250 kilometers to the southeast as the crow flies, in the Spanish region of Extremadura, a similar tussle is taking place between mine opponents and lithium prospectors. Just one kilometer outside the gates of the medieval city of Cáceres, a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1986, the Australian company Infinity Lithium wants to develop a deposit that would be enough to power more than ten million electric cars. The city council has so far refused permission, but the company has not yet given up on the project and intends to fight for permission through the courts.

  • construction pits
  • large industrial hall has been built
  • factory of the Phi4Tech

It’s not just about lithium mining, but about the entire value chain. The Spanish company Phi4tech also wants to build a cathode production facility in Cáceres for 200 million euros.

About an hour’s drive away, in the city of Badajoz, Phi4tech is also planning a battery factory in which another 400 million euros are to be invested. In 2023, it will produce batteries with a total capacity of two-gigawatt hours, and by 2025, ten-gigawatt hours.

spanish mining project
Cañaveral, Cáceres, Spain
01.07.2021: The planned Spanish mining project Las Navas near Cañaveral. Lithium Iberia has already examined the rock here.

Phi4tech wants to obtain the lithium from nearby – from the supplier Lithium Iberia. The company wants to excavate a lithium mine near Cañaveral, 40 kilometers from Cáceres. Regional politicians are hoping for new jobs here. But in Cañaveral, too, an action group called “No to the Mine” is campaigning against the project. In the countryside, the environment is to be polluted so that traffic in the cities becomes cleaner, that’s how they see it here. Europe’s shift to electromobility, it is clear, will not be without conflict.

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