MPs demand explanations as controversy escalates over plans for lithium mining throughout country

MPs are demanding explanations as controversy rages over the government’s perceived determination to grant mining licences for lithium ‘come what may’.

Paramount among concerns is the fact that the environmental consequences may well be irreversible – particularly when it comes to the landscape and purity of underground water sources.

Local communities, municipalities and environmental groups are outraged that their views have not once been solicited.

Thus MPs on parliament’s environmental committee – lead by Bloco de Esquerda’s José Maria Cardoso – have called for environment and energy transition minister José Pedro Matos Fernandes and his secretary of State João Galamba to address parliament and answer some of the ‘burning questions’ that have been peppering the media for days.

It is not explained when Matos Fernandes and his ‘deputy’ for energy transition will address parliament, but the request formulated as a result of proposals by both PAN and PSD parliamentary groups has been classified as ‘urgent’.

National media is now honing in on the lithium ‘issue’, tracing the start of the ‘fever’ for what is often described as ‘white gold’.

It began in 2016 when the global demand for this lightest of primordial metals skyrocketed due to its use in the batteries for electric cars.

Portugal’s then energy minister Jorge Seguro Sanches set up a working group to “identify and characterise the extent of lithium deposits in Portugal, and associated economic activities.

He also encouraged experts to evaluate the possibility of refining lithium – given that up till now, the metal has only ever been exported from Portugal in its raw form.

As reports explained back in 2016, Portugal has the richest supply of lithium in Europe, and ranks as the 6th country in the world with the largest reserves.

The top lithium countries are in South America: Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Between them (they are dubbed the Lithium Triangle), these countries hold between 70% and 80% of the world’s reserves.

Says Diário de Notícias, Portugal has reserves ‘in the order of 60,000 tons’. Put that way it doesn’t sound much. But it has been enough for 30 mining companies to come running with bids for various concessions.

Since then,environmental associations, borough councils and communities have stood up against many of these requests, “with the government defending on the other hand that it is an essential resource for energetic transition”.

So far, the contract that has most ignited controversy is the one signed between Lusorecursos and the government (click here).

Say reports, key areas for lithium in Portugal are Serra de Arga (made up of the boroughs of Caminha, Ponte de Lima and Viana do Castelo), Covas do Barroso (Boticas), Barca d’Alva (Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo), Guarda, Mangualde and Segura (Idanha-a-Nova).

Environmental group Quercus stresses that if the government does press forward with its campaign for lithium exploration in all the areas identified, Portugal “will not be able to reach (its apparent ambition) of carbon neutrality” by 2050.

ZERO on the other hand believes all lithium licences should be subject to Strategic Environmental Impact Assessments before being granted, and never even considered for areas that have any kind of environmental protection.

Right now, the borough of Montalegre – which has UNESCO agricultural heritage protection, Rede Natura 2000 and biosphere reserve classification, as well as incorporating areas of the Peneda~Gerês natural park – is facing requests from seven mining companies to be able to start prospecting.

An RTP ‘pros and contras’ debate on Monday, attended by João Galamba, heard from the president of Montalegre com Vida that if those requests are granted, ‘hundreds of hectares of forest’ will have to be felled, making a mockery – in his opinion – of the government’s pledge to work towards a green economy and decarbonisation.

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