Serbia buries the largest lithium mine project in Europe

Posted on Jan 21, 2022 at 4:37 PMUpdated on Jan 21, 2022 at 6:39 PM

This is a setback for the development of lithium supply sources on the Old Continent. The Serbian government has buried the Rio Tinto project which wanted to exploit the largest lithium deposit in Europe. Thursday evening, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic announced that she had put “an end” to the ambitions of the Australian giant. In her statement broadcast by public television, the leader explains that she “satisfied all the demands of the protesters”.

In the Jadar Valley in western Serbia, the mining group intended to extract enough lithium to power the construction of more than a million electric vehicles a year. To achieve this goal, he was prepared to invest $2.4 billion. This mine, a few hours drive from Germany, the beating heart of the automotive industry, would have propelled Rio Tinto and Serbia among the main producers of lithium by 2030. With the explosion in demand, prices white gold explode.

Road blockages

The populations of the region, however, rose up massively at the end of 2021, occupying and blocking major roads, including one of the highways that crosses Belgrade. Residents and environmentalists denounced the environmental impact of such a project, while Serbia is already one of the most polluted countries on the continent.

The government and President Aleksandar Vucic have even been accused of secretly agreeing with Rio Tinto and concealing the impact studies. The subject has become so sensitive that it has come to parasitize the political class three months before the presidential elections. To calm things down, the executive initially promised a referendum and Rio Tinto agreed to freeze its project. Under pressure, the government finally had to give in and withdrew the mining permits.

The Australian group claims to have always acted in accordance with Serbian regulations and is currently reflecting on the future of its activities in Serbia. But for him, it’s a double snub. First, this withdrawal delays the group’s positioning in energy transition metals. Above all, Rio Tinto is still unable to restore its image, damaged by the blasting of an archaeological site of inestimable value, a 40,000-year-old cave considered sacred by the Aboriginal community in Australia.

The mines are not popular

This dossier is symptomatic of the great paradox of the energy transition. The world needs a colossal amount of metals – to achieve carbon neutrality, global lithium demand will increase 42 times by 2050 – but mining projects face ever-increasing local opposition. This phenomenon even affects countries accustomed to mining, such as Peru and Chile for copper mines, which are viewed with suspicion because of their water consumption.

At the European Union level, the abandonment of the project undermines ambitions to secure the supply of metals. An electric car battery contains on average 45 kg of lithium. For the moment, almost all the raw materials are imported, particularly from China. However, Brussels wishes by all means – opening of mines or recycling – to reduce this dependence vis-à-vis foreign countries. Another mine project in Portugal is struggling to move forward due to local opposition there too.

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