The Serbian government on Thursday revoked the license of Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto to explore and mine lithium after months of protests, ending a project the Balkan nation once hoped for will help boost its weak economy.
The project, with a potential $2.4 billion investment from Rio, will make the company and the country one of the world’s largest producers of the metal, which is key to battery production and in demand. extremely high as the world transitions to electric vehicles.
But the government in Belgrade, which faces elections on April 3, has bowed to strengthen the project’s resistance to potential environmental costs. It has said that it will hold a referendum on the subject after the day of the vote.
“All decisions [linked to the lithium project] and all permits have been cancelled,” said Ana Brnabic, prime minister, in Belgrade. She added that the government had heeded a request from environmental organizations to halt the project.
The decision comes as a surprise after Brnabic said a decision would not be made until after the election. Rio marked a one-year delay to the project but still keeping the plan.
The mine was planned, in the Jadar . valleySerbia, which is considered a threat to the lives of dozens of communities in the picturesque region and has drawn increasing attention to the country’s environmental pollution, one of the problems worst in Europe.
“As far as the Jadar project is concerned, this is an end,” Brnabic said. “Rio Tinto has not provided enough information for both the local community and the government [about the impact of the project]. ”
Environmentalists hailed the decision as a breakthrough but said they would also insist on another demand that would be to ban mining by any company that mines lithium and certain other minerals in the country. in the next two decades.
“One more step! We’re close… Give Rio Tinto and his gang of criminals a one-way ticket to Australia tonight,” said Savo Manojlovic, leader of protest group Kreni Promeni (Move). , change!) Writing on Twitter and Facebook “Serbia is not for sale!”
The revocation of existing licenses for the project comes amid strained relations between Serbia and Australia, where Rio earns the most money and has also listed on the stock exchange, over the decision Expel tennis star Novak Djokovic.
However, a person close to Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, said Rio’s decision was completely unrelated to the Djokovic story. Vucic accused Australian authorities of “harassing” Djokovic and called the court’s decision to expel the world number one tennis player “a farce”.
Earlier this week, Rio delayed production for the first time from Jadar by at least a year to 2027 because of slow progress in obtaining the permits needed to complete a critical environmental assessment.
Lithium is a key material used in batteries that power smartphones and electric vehicles, and demand is expected to grow over the next decade. Prices have surged in recent months due to strong demand from China.
Jadar will be one of the largest lithium mines in the world if the project goes ahead.
Rio has options to expand with lithium. Last month, the company agreed to pay $825 million for the Salar del Rincón lithium project in Argentina’s Salta province, its first major acquisition in a decade.
However, if forced to abandon Jadar it would be a blow to CEO Jakob Stausholm, who has signaled his desire to bulk up electrified metals. The company now makes most of its income from iron ore, a steel-making commodity.
Rio on Thursday night said it was deeply concerned by Brnabic’s statement. It added: “During the implementation of the Jadar project, we have always operated in compliance with the laws of the Republic of Serbia. Rio Tinto is reviewing the legal basis of this decision and the implications for our activities and our people in Serbia. ”