The debate is likely to resume after the announcement of the exploitation of a deposit in the Allier, “one of the largest lithium extraction projects“ Europeans.
Ensuring Europe’s energy sovereignty, guaranteeing employment, enabling the desired energy transition… The exploitation of a large lithium deposit in the Massif Central until 2027, the first in France, seems to concentrate the good news. But the horizon is not as clear as it seems.
On the battery side, Imerys, the French industrial minerals group, has “34,000 tons of lithium hydroxide per year from 2028 for a period of at least 25 years” that will allow “equipping the equivalent of 700,000 electric vehicles in lithium”. -ion batteries” per year. Which “will help Europe to decarbonise”, according to its CEO.
“A Question of Sovereignty”
In the long term, 1,000 direct and indirect jobs will be added in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, at two sites. An “exemplary project in environmental and climate terms, (which) will drastically reduce our lithium import needs,” Bruno Le Maire welcomes, adding that the group will have the support of the French government. Because lithium production is dominated by only a handful of countries: Australia, which has 20% of the world’s reserves, and Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, which concentrate 60%. China has 17% of lithium production. This dependency is all the more problematic as Europe’s lithium needs will increase 18-fold by 2030 and 60-fold by 2050.
“The opening of this mine is quite good news because it is a matter of technological sovereignty, either we multiply trade agreements with producing countries and remain dependent, or we extract lithium ourselves to produce our batteries and manage our energy transition and drive growth. green with these jobs,” explains Guillaume Pitron, journalist and author of The War of Rare Metals.
A Breton people mobilized against the mining project
But at first glance, the reality of lithium mining is not entirely rosy. Address the town of Tréguennec, 350 inhabitants, in Finistère. On February 26, more than 600 people came together to say “no to lithium mining”. A mobilization in reaction to the words of the Minister of Ecological Transition, Barbara Pompili, 9 days earlier: “France must extract lithium in her territory”, she launched in an interview with Echoes.
“The Minister’s interview was the trigger for our mobilization. We have known for years that there is lithium but no one has talked about it until now. We wanted to show from the beginning that the inhabitants were opposed to such a project: the site is in a protected natural area, in a quiet town of 300 inhabitants, near the sea, we cannot imagine a mine in this place, with the inconvenience that would entail , and the risks of contamination”, says Catherine, at the origin of one of the main Facebook groups of opponents of the project.
Macron supports lithium mines
Eight months and one re-election later, in the same newspaper, Emmanuel Macron affirms his ambition “We have lithium mines in France and we are going to develop them thanks to the new mining code, it is key to our sovereignty.”
According to a report by the Geological and Mining Research Office (BRGM), there are 66,000 tons in the basement of Tréguennec, the second largest deposit in France, behind the Massif Central.
In Serbia and Portugal, the population is delaying projects
In Serbia, the Australian giant Rio Tinto had to give up exploiting the largest lithium deposit in Europe, after a major mobilization of the population, which brought the government to its knees. At the end of 2021, residents and environmentalists occupied and blocked the main roads, including one of the highways that cross Belgrade, to denounce the environmental impact of such a project.
In Portugal, a mobilization of neighbors is also underway in front of the lithium mine project, in the north of the country, where the project is currently suspended.
“Accept to participate in the energy transition”
“Like Tréguennec, citizens do not want to hear about a mine close to their homes. The challenge is to accept the social utility of the project, for the common good. Mining code so that the mines are socially acceptable. There is also an educational issue because they are wrongly told that the electric car is a clean car, but when we open a lithium mine we realize that this generates pollution”, continues Guillaume Pitron, who asks “to accept participating in the energy transition with the opening of these mines” .
Because the exploitation of deposits has a cost. About two million liters of water are evaporated to produce one ton of lithium. And in the Chilean desert, where lithium is as abundant as water is scarce, the exploitation of deposits becomes problematic and threatens the local balance.
Concerns about environmental consequences
The water tables have dried up, farmers can no longer raise their animals, the green hills have now dried up and the pink flamingos, emblematic of the region, have disappeared, says the BBC. The concern: running out of drinking water for the local population. According to a study carried out by Corfo, the amounts of water extracted from the Salar de Atacama exceed 21% of what the water table can support sustainably, Liberación reported.
“It won’t be perfect, but it’s better to have a responsible mine in France or Europe, where environmental standards are strict, than an irresponsible mine elsewhere, with no environmental requirements,” summarizes Guillaume Pitron, recalling the astronomical amounts of water used in Bolivia for lithium, or the use of coal by China to produce the electricity necessary for production.
Environmental associations mobilize
Consequences on nature visible on the other side of the world, and of concern in the Allier, before the announcement of the exploitation of the deposit. “The company already exploits a quarry in the Colettes forest. It is an important biodiversity reserve with two Natura 2000 classified spaces. There are different watercourses and there are rare species that appear on the red list of threatened species, there are also very rare plants. It is feared that the project will lead to partial deforestation, “he says. Michelle Petit, manager of France Nature Environnement in Allier.
An even more present concern after a particularly dry summer. “This is a project that requires a lot of water for lithium extraction. However, we have been in a drought restriction all summer, it is worrying, the priority is to protect the water resource”, continues Michelle Petit. Échassières, where the deposit is located, entered a crisis situation during this summer’s drought, which caused significant water restrictions for the inhabitants.
“If it’s to make electric SUVs, it’s nonsense”
But beware, the specialist journalist clarifies, “if we open a lithium mine in the Allier to equip electric SUVs with batteries, to bottle up cities and prolong the use of the individual car, it is nonsense. This must be accompanied by individual changes such as more public or shared transport.
A government-supported mine opening that, in the eyes of France Nature Environnement, is contradictory to the call for sobriety: “We continue to draw on natural resources. We are far from the sobriety that they tell us about. It should rather think in consuming less lithium batteries, so stop renewing your smartphones and computers unnecessarily, and fight against planned obsolescence”, responds Michelle Petit.
One of the ways proposed to limit the extraction of lithium, a resource that is not infinite, is to develop battery recycling. Within the framework of “France 2030”, the government has selected the company Eramet to present a “French offer for the recycling of lithium-ion batteries on a large scale, with a first industrial phase starting in 2025”.
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