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Vučić: Serbia to reapprove Rio Tinto’s stalled lithium project with EU guarantees

Vucic Serbia reapprove Rio Tinto stalled lithium project EU guarantees

Photo: Aleksandar Vučić / Facebook

Published

June 17, 2024

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Published:

June 17, 2024

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More than two years after revoking most of the permits, Serbia is ready to again endorse Rio Tinto’s lithium mining and processing project, according to President Aleksandar Vučić. In addition to new guarantees from the company for the Jadar investment, the European Union is close to offering commitments regarding the value chain and environmental protection, he claimed.

Rio Tinto never stopped developing its project in Serbia. Even though the government halted the investment in a proposed lithium mine and processing unit in January 2022 amid massive environmentalist protests, President Aleksandar Vučić left the door open for revamping it when the time is right.

The new guarantees from the Anglo-Australian mining giant, combined with the expected commitments from the European Union, are poised to enable a breakthrough, he hinted in an interview with the Financial Times. Vučić expressed confidence that EU leaders would provide assurances on investments in electric vehicle and battery factories.

His demands concern “the whole value chain plus perfect environmental protections,” he was quoted as saying. If there is such a deal, according to Vučić, he expects “business and political leaders” to officially relaunch the project in Belgrade in July. The president went further to estimate that the mine could begin operating in 2028.

Lithium can help Vučić improve relations with West

The Jadar facility could churn out 58,000 tons of lithium per year, Vučić noted and added that it would currently cover 17% of electric vehicle production in Europe – 1.1 million units.

The article points out that reapproval of Rio Tinto’s project under the EU’s blessing would signify Serbia’s dedication to the West’s geopolitical stance, as opposed to economic and political initiatives from China, Russia and Arab countries in the Persian Gulf.

Rio Tinto is back on the offensive with regard to the Jadar lithium investment, backed by the government and the expected official endorsement by the EU

EU officials thought the government would cede the project to “the Chinese,” Vučić stressed and vowed to “deal with the EU.” He claimed some “European states,” which he failed to identify, have helped organize the protests that began in 2021, but that they later came on board.

Commodities research firm Fastmarkets said the production of lithium from the jadarite mineral in the Jadar area could cover 13% of the expected demand in 2030 in the continent, the news outlet wrote.

Activist vow to continue resistance

Reacting to Vučić’s latest remarks, environmentalist groups Ekološki ustanak (Ecological Uprising) and Kreni-promeni (Go-Change), which in the meantime evolved into political opposition movements, vowed to keep resisting Rio Tinto’s planned investment.

The Jadar project can be “a world-class asset that could act as a catalyst” for the establishment of an electric vehicle value chain in Serbia, the company told Reuters.

Government officials have revealed that the country may ban lithium exports to ensure that the material is domestically used in the manufacturing of high-value products.

Last week Rio Tinto released what it called preliminary drafts of environmental impact assessment studies.

In 2022, activists submitted a petition with more than 38,000 signatures, under a law on people’s initiatives, to ban lithium and boron exploration and mining in Serbia, but the government and parliament ignored it.

The European Union is working to achieve a so-called strategic autonomy, implying a diverse supply of key components for the energy transition from friendly countries. Serbia is counting on the controversial Critical Raw Materials Act – CRMA, which sets the stage for establishing strategic partnerships in the sector. The two sides signed a letter of intent in September, without any public announcement.

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