Lithium is an alkali metal that, due to its various forms of use, has seen its production increase exponentially.
Lithium can be found in the Earth's crust and, in Portugal, it is used, for example, in ceramics and the production of glass. In Northern Portugal, there is the largest known reserve of lithium in the European Union. In 2020, the European Commission defended the exploitation of lithium in Portugal, to reduce dependence on imported raw materials.
There are in Portugal eight districts between the North and the Centre of the country where analysis has been made for the exploration of lithium: Arga (Viana do Castelo), Seixoso-Vieiros (Braga, Porto and Vila Real), Massueime (Guarda), Guarda – Mangualde (between Guarda, Viseu, Castelo Branco and Coimbra) and Segura (Castelo Branco).
Despite all the positive economic consequences, such as the self-sufficiency of the European Union, the exploitation of lithium has consequences that will affect the environment, which divides opinions regarding the exploitation of the metal.
On its website, Greensavers, a digital newspaper focused on the environment, listed some of the environmental impacts caused by lithium exploration. According to the website, although the Portuguese lithium trade ends up being beneficial to the economy, other sectors such as agriculture may be affected, due to mining in fields that used to be agricultural fields. The landscape and the natural image of the area will be altered and, consequently, the terrain morphology will change. Soil contamination is also a possibility, as there may be fuel spills from industrial machinery necessary for mining, which may also affect the quality of water due to the infiltration of oil into the soil.
Besides all the environmental problems lithium exploration may cause, some political issues regarding the activity have also been discussed. On 1 October, the “Movimento SOS Serra d’Arga” shared a press release affirming that the City Halls were not consulted or informed about the Preliminary Environmental Assessment Report, placed by the Directorate-General for Energy and Geology, regarding the exploration of the metal, which is illegal, according to the paragraph three of articles three and five of Decree-Law 232/2007 of 15 June. Regarding this area, in Viana do Castelo district, a protected area is predicted to be in danger once the mining starts, that is why four municipalities of the district are trying to guarantee the protection of the area, which is considerd to be of regional interest.
In the municipality of Montalegre, in Viana do Castelo district, an enterprise called Lusorecursos is working to explore lithium in Mina do Romano. The mine is in Alto Barroso, near Montalegre and it is estimated that works in the mine started after the First World War to explore tin. According to the enterprise website, the mining done in the past created changes in the soil that could make the exploration of lithium easier. Currently, the main objective of Lusorecursos is the exploration of lithium to produce lithium hydroxide monohydrate, used for example, to purify the air absorbing carbon dioxide or to produce batteries. The enterprise knows that there are available at least 15 million tons of lithium in the mine, however double this amount is expected to exist.
To begin the mining works, the Portuguese Environment Association (APA) needs to approve the project, to avoid major environmental damages in the area. According to Lusa, in April 2021, APA refused a project sent by Lusorecursos due to “gaps and inconsistencies, not only regarding the Environmental Impact Study but also to the project itself”, as seen in a communiqué sent to the news agency.
Lusorecursos told The Portugal News that the company does not want “to create debate around the situation”, since the new project sent on 24 August is still not evaluated yet. Even though Lusorecursos wants to have the project accepted, according to Lusa, the population of the locations nearby, such as Rebordelo and Carvalhais, do not want the mining works to start, fearing any farming, health, or environmental consequences.
The demand for lithium has escalated, Lusorecursos on its website predicts that in 2028 “there will be a structural deficit” because the demand of the metal will not correspond to the amount of lithium available in the market.
Lithium is a metal used to produce batteries and due to the highest production of technological materials such as mobile phones or laptops that need batteries, the demand for the metal will continuously grow and European Union classifies it as one of the 30 most important resources in the world.