energy insights

EU Welcomes Clean Energy but Sends Lithium Miners Packing

A world leader in the adoption of electric vehicles, the European Union’s full-throttle drive toward EVs has hit a rough patch as environmental groups oppose proposed lithium mines in Serbia and Portugal.

As the world’s top electric vehicle market, the EU is assessing future availability of lithium, a key ingredient for the batteries that power a growing number of EVs across Europe and around the world.

The International Energy Agency predicts global demand for lithium will be 40-times greater by 2040. But Europe, which imports nearly all its lithium, is not in position to keep pace. According to a French government assessment released in January, the EU will produce less than 30% of its lithium, nickel and cobalt needs by 2030,

“Europe really is not on the map when it comes to mining or processing lithium,” according to Robert Colbourn, an analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. “There are a lot of lithium mines in development today in Europe, or projects trying to come online, but really there is no lithium production” of battery quality.

“Our forecast is that by 2030 Europe is probably going to need over 500,000 tons of lithium a year, which is bigger than the world market today,” said Colbourn.

According to experts, there are lithium resources in Germany, France, Portugal, The Czech Republic and Serbia, but efforts to establish mining production is not adequate.

But nongovernmental organizations and scientists are warning of the environmental impact of increased mining activity in the EU, and plans for at least two mining projects in Europe have been turned back.

The Serbian government in January dropped plans to build a massive lithium mine following weeks of public protests over the $2 billion project's environmental impact.

Mining giant Rio Tinto had been tapped to develop the mine in western Serbia, considered to be among the world's largest. But protests blocked a major highway in the capital city of Belgrade, claiming the mine would devastate agricultural land and water supplies.

“Serbia has fulfilled all demands from the environmental protests and has put an end to Rio Tinto in the Republic of Serbia,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic announced in January.

In Portugal last year, the government canceled a proposed lithium mining operation in the northern Montalegre region, conceding to claims the mine would damage farmland and water.

“The mining project would have destroyed the landscape and made farming here impossible,” said Armando Pinto, leader of the opposition group.

Local farmers said the project's impact on the agricultural sector would jeopardize access to EU farming subsidies, and residents were concerned about water flows from nearby mountain springs and the potential for runoff to contaminate a neighboring reservoir.

But LusoRecursos CEO Ricardo Pinheiro rejected criticism of his Montalegre project, saying it would have revitalized the region’s economy.

“I've never understood the opposition to this project,” Pinheiro said. “There's been a lot of disinformation. This is like when people go on Google to look up symptoms to figure out if they have cancer ... People find it easier to believe that things are going to be bad.”

But, Portugal’s government has not given up. In February, officials announced plans to invite international mining interests to prospect for lithium in six sites within the country, while excluding five other areas for environmental reasons. No matter, activists say. They will continue their fight.

Like their European counterparts, U.S. automakers see a growing market for EVs and are facing similar demand for raw materials like lithium.

Filling this demand with domestic lithium will create American jobs, grow our economy and stimulate development in communities where lithium deposits are found. But, the development and harvesting of these resources must always be done with an eye toward the environmental impacts and using the least invasive extraction processes technology can provide.