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Lithium

‘The challenge is to extract what we need without destroying the environment

Lithium (stone in Greek) is a soft, light, silvery-white metal and a key ingredient in batteries for electric cars and mobile phones. Worldwide, Australia has the highest production (40,000 tonnes each year). Portugal is one of Europe’s largest producers of this so-called ‘white gold’ with a modest reserve of about 60,000 tonnes.

Across the country, a battle is going on between companies eager to exploit the mineral and Portuguese locals determined to block exploration as the manufacturing process causes significant environmental hazards, such as water pollution and ecosystem degradation.

Last month the anti-mining movement reacted furiously over the way in which the government – only days after the local elections – launched an ‘international tender’ for the attribution of lithium mining in the Serra d’Arga region, while the Serra is an ‘Area of Protected landscape of Regional Interest’.

Four civic movements from the districts of Viana de Costelo and Braga are joining their forces against a report of the Lithium Prospecting and Research Program for launching tender procedures in eight areas in the north and center of the country, where most lithium can be found.

The current government is keen to develop a new industry, particularly when that can be linked to clean energy. However, on October 28 – on the eve of Parliament being dissolved after the collapse of the state budget – the Ministry of Environment and Climate Action signed in one day 9 new contracts conceding mineral exploration.

The minister of Environment João Pedro Matos Fernandes defended the signing by declaring that lithium is essential for the decarbonization of the economy. ’Portugal should only take out the minimum amount necessary but not suffer by importing lithium it can extract’.
Lithium exploration in Portugal is not viable at all says Oscar Afonso, president of the Fraud Economics and Management Observatory, instead. ‘Reserves are insignificant and explorations could well be abandoned early’.

Quercus, one of Portugal’s oldest environmental NGOs draws attention to the fact that nearly 30% of the regions affected by the threat of lithium prospection are ‘areas the State has promised to protect and safeguard’ and that not all contracts have completed the Environmental Impact Assessment (EAI) processes.

Demand for ‘critical’ minerals – including lithium – will increase sixfold, says the IEA (International Energy Agency) if the world is to reach its target of net-zero carbon emissions. Japan’s National Institute for Environmental studies even estimates a sevenfold increase in demand by 2050.

The question now is if Portugal will stick to the promise of its minister to ’only extract from the earth the minimum amount of lithium necessary’ for its own use.


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(Públic/Observad)