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Europe’s Biggest Lithium Mine Is Caught in a Political Maelstrom

Only red-roofed houses interrupt the vast carpet of fields that surround the village of Gornje Nedeljice, in western Serbia. To resident Marijana Petković, this is the most beautiful place in the world. She’s not against Europe’s green transition, the plan to make the bloc’s economy climate neutral by 2050. But she is among those who believe Serbia’s fertile Jadar Valley—where locals grow raspberries and keep bees—is being asked to make huge sacrifices to enable other countries to build electric cars.Around 300 meters away from Petković’s house, according to the multinational mining giant Rio Tinto, there is enough lithium to create 1 million EV batteries, and the company wants to spend $2.4 billion to build Europe’s biggest lithium mine here. But Petković and other locals oppose the project, arguing it will cause irreparable damage to the environment. When asked about that claim, a spokesperson for Rio Tinto told WIRED that throughout the project, the company has “recognized that Jadar will need to be developed to the highest environmental standards.” Petković is not convinced. “I want the western countries to have the green transition and to live like people in Jadar,” she says. “But that doesn't mean that we need to destroy our nature.”Officially, the Jadar mine is not happening. After months of protests against the project, the government conceded, and in January it was canceled. "As far as Project Jadar is concerned, this is an end," Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić said on January 20, after Rio Tinto's lithium exploration licenses were revoked.There is widespread suspicion, however, that the project was canceled to stop protests overshadowing the presidential and parliamentary elections on April 3, and could restart if the government is reelected. “This might have been a pre-election ploy,” says Florian Bieber, a professor of southeast European history and politics at Austria’s University of Graz. “I wouldn't be surprised if the government picks up this issue again once the elections are done, because they see the economic benefits.” A Rio Tinto shareholder expressed a similar expectation to Reuters, adding they expect the mine to be renegotiated after the vote. Rio Tinto denies this is its intention and says it has not planned or implemented any activities contrary to the project’s legal status.Europe has big plans to phase out fossil-fuel cars. In July, the European Union proposed a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035. The bloc wants to replace those cars with electric vehicles, built with locally produced raw materials like lithium. The top lithium producers are currently Australia, Chile, and China. But Europe has ambitions to produce more of the materials it needs for electric cars at home. These materials “are extremely expensive to ship and are transported across the world several times over,” says Emily Burlinghaus, a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Germany. “So it's much cheaper and much safer to have these operations close to battery manufacturing plants or auto manufacturing plants.”For Europeans it’s also a security issue. “We cannot allow [the EU] to replace [its] current reliance on fossil fuels with dependency on critical raw materials,” said Maroš Šefčovič, the commission vice president for inter-institutional relations, in 2020.