But lithium deposits nationally not such a ‘big deal’
News today from State news agency Lusa is that Savannah Resources – the British based company that five years ago set itself up to become the first significant raw material lithium producer in Europe – has submitted a revised environmental report and mining plan for the lithium project it meant to start years ago.
If all goes well this latest attempt to get mining approval will find itself successful in 2024. This means production is unlikely to get started much before 2026, say observers.
Savannah’s new CEO Dale Ferguson has said in a statement: “We believe that the revisions we have made address the key points that have been highlighted to us on how to find ways to further reduce the impact of the project on the environment and local people, while creating socio-economic benefits that can be shared locally and nationally”.
“Today we have reached an important milestone for Savannah and I expect the coming months to be a defining period for the company and for Portugal as we play our part in developing a direct lithium value chain in Europe.” he stressed.
But news from Brussels suggests that the ebullient ‘lithium razzmatazz’ of the last few years with regard to Portugal’s relevance has been drastically overly-hyped.
A summary of a meeting in Brussels in November last year with representatives of the Northvolt/ GALP joint venture heard that they are not confident in the projects in Northern Portugal, as they are not able to ramp up supply as quick as needed and by current forecasts only for a limited duration of 10 years.
Short version: the Aurora joint venture that seeks to construct Europe’s largest lithium plant in Setúbal does not see Portugal as the lithium El Dorado it was cracked out to be, and “is actively seeking other suppliers throughout the world that can assure supply for the project”.
In today’s statement NGO MiningWatch Portugal highlights that ”no promoter has so far proven the financial viability for the short-lived extraction of low grade lithium ores present in national deposits, including the hard-rock spodumene in the Barroso region” (where Savannah has its project).
Thus, “almost five years into the lithium boom”, and Portugal still hasn’t got to the point where it is even tying up its shoelaces.
NGOs like MiningWatch Portugal and Spanish partner Fundação Montescola have been monitoring activity (for that read ‘lack of activity’), highlighting risks – even challenging them through the courts. But they are concerned, largely because Europe’s message these days is that supply chains for lithium and all sorts of other ‘critical raw materials’ have to be sourced pronto ‘to secure the EU’s green and digital future’.
Today, for example, sees the European Commission trailing the European Critical Raw Materials Act – a set of proposals “to ensure the EU’s access to a secure, diversified, affordable and sustainable supply of critical raw materials”.
Entities like MiningWatch and Fundação Montescola fear the Act could see authorities enable projects to ‘cut corners’.
In a press release this week, Nik Völker, founder of MiningWatch Portugal, says that if the Critical Raw Materials Act is passed “we will probably see even more cases of environmental or social incompliance related with quarries and mines in Portugal”.
The press release points out that “in the last years, Portuguese authorities, even with the existing extended time frames for the attribution of mining concessions and environmental permits, have shown that they are not able to monitor and comply with the current legislation on mining and quarries – falling short of the expectations of both industrial actors and civic society.
“Examples are the inconsistent management of its lithium exploration and exploitation intentions and incidents like the Borba Tragedy of 2018, where the collapse of a municipal road into a quarry pit took five lives”.
Joám Evans, director of the Fundação Montescola fears the Act could allow projects through under the mantle that they were ‘strategic’ (because they responded to Brussels’ requirements) without being accepted by the public or even compliant with legislation
He warns: “In countries like Portugal and Spain, struggling with the management of extractive industries since decades, State aids and timelines proposed by the Commission will only aggravate the records of systematic mismanagement, e.g. as listed by the Iberian Mining Observatory (MINOB.org).”