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Cova do Barroso lithium mine: “Battle has only just begun”

Population digs in as geologist warns ‘lithium fever’ may be delusional

Since Portugal’s environmental agency APA gave its conditional approval to the country’s first lithium mine in the rolling hills of Covas do Barroso, citizens have mobilised, promising to defend what is World Agricultural Heritage to the final instance – meaning the very last court in which this issue can be decided.

And while local outrage that majority opinion and ways of life are considered secondary to perceived economic gain, geologist and specialist in lithium Carlos Leal Gomes has been telling Euronews – for a special Green Week of programmes – that the whole ‘political verve for lithium’ could well be delusional.

He stresses in a clip that has also been produced in English (click here), that the significant reserves that have been famously bandied about are “inferred, they are not effective reserves.

“We (hear) a lot of this thing that (Portugal) is the 5th place, 6th place, 8th place (with the largest lithium reserves). But this is exactly the same as saying nothing”, he tells his interviewer. “You only know the place when you start exploring…”

According to Dale Ferguson, CEO of British-based mining company Savannah Resources which has been gunning for its green light at Covas do Barroso for years, “We want to produce around 25 thousand tons of lithium hydroxide, which is enough material to make batteries for around 500 thousand new electric vehicles per year”.

Quite apart from this being impossible (as Savannah itself has conceded the mine will have a limited life span of potentially only 17 years; other expert opinion points to roughly 10), Carlos Leal Gomes warns these numbers “are only indicative, because the calculated proven reserves are actually very few (…) As a possible mine for the production of lithium concentrates, it is nothing extraordinary, not even in terms of the quantity of reserves, nor in the ores. Especially in the ores that it has”, he adds. “The ores are not the best. It will take a lot of work in technical and technological terms”.

There are also the arguments (now much more widely accepted) that electric vehicles almost certainly are not the answer. 

Perhaps the most popular recent explanation as to why having come from  car buff/ comedian Rowan Atkinson who himself embraced the concept of EVs, until he realised their limitations (click here)

Operators like Savannah do not agree with Rowan Atkinson’s view, nor have they been put off by the determination of the populations of Covas do Barroso.

“We’ve spent many millions of dollars doing all the testing and we can confirm, through all that work and the last 30 or 40 years of development around spodumene (lithium concentrate), that spodumene can be removed from rock very effectively. It’s a very simple process”, Dale Ferguson assures Euronews.

Be that as it may, Carlos Leal Gomes’ warnings are not the only ones from the scientific community. There have been others, particularly from former environmental secretary (PSD) and university professor Joaquim Poças Martins who is adamant that “Batteries won’t be the solution (…) It is simply not possible: there aren’t enough materials in the earth for this effect”.

Martins told Lusa last year, that in his opinion the way forwards is hydrogen. “Everything is pointing more towards hydrogen as a form of storing energy than batteries”.

In “half a dozen years”, he warned, 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”.

Thus APA’s ‘green light’ for what has been a very political metal in recent years is not daunting opponents who believe right, sense and sustainability is on their side.

Nélson Gomes, one of the leading lights in the “Associação Unidos em Defesa de Covas do Barroso’ has told reporters “the battle has only just begun”.

In Gomes’ mindset, the political mantra that lithium is vital for decarbonisation simply doesn’t wash. “We do not understand how, in order to clean up pollution, we have to destroy forests, the environment, water courses and the lives of the people who live here,” he told Euronews.

The United in Defence of Covas do Barroso association has the full support of its local municipality.

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