Lithium mine project draws hope, anxiety in French region hit by deindustrialisation
A lithium mining project has drawn hope of economic revival in a region hit by deindustrialisation in central France, but the project promoters are confronted with mounting anxiety from residents and, in some cases, opposition from elected officials.
The Beauvoir mine project in the Allier region, first announced in October 2022, could become a bellwether for the green transition in France and the EU.
The European Union wants to boost the domestic supply of energy transition minerals such as lithium as part of its flagship Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), tabled by the European Commission in March.
To meet the rising demand for electric vehicles and other green technologies, France is preparing a “major mining inventory” to explore the resources of its subsoil and has seen rising interest in domestic lithium mining projects.
This is where the Beauvoir mine could play a central role.
In October last year, French mining company Imerys unveiled its EMILI project to exploit the large reserves of lithium found in a former kaolin mine.
Prospectors identified a deposit of around 1 million tonnes of lithium, exploitable over 25 years, which could prove to be a bounty for the region.
The project, which aims to be sustainable and local, has received government backing at the highest level, with Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire saying it will contribute to France’s objective of producing “two million electric vehicles in France by 2030” and “drastically reduce our need to import lithium”.
According to Imerys, the aim is to produce 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide annually by 2028, enough to equip around 700,000 vehicles annually.
The investment envisaged is substantial – around €1 billion in total to cover the extraction, processing and transport of the precious mineral, including the construction of a new purification plant to extract the lithium from the granite and the renovation of a local railway station to transport the white alkali metal between the two sites.
The project could create around 1,000 direct and indirect jobs, raising the hopes of an entire region marked by decades of deindustrialisation and gloomy economic perspectives.
However, the project is also subject to environmental constraints.
Located on the border between the Allier and Puy-de-Dôme departments, the Beauvoir site is in an area rich in biodiversity. The quarry lies within the 2,000-hectare Colettes forest, a Natura 2000 site home to some of the finest beech trees and many endangered species.
Elected ecologists from the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region quickly took an interest in the project and organised a visit to the mine a month after the project was announced.
Aware that lithium is essential for storing renewable electricity and that this project would enable France and the EU to strengthen their energy sovereignty, the local Greens argue that this lithium mine, located on a former industrial site, could also revitalise a region hit by decades of deindustrialisation.
But the ecological party also have their red lines. “Many things are still unclear, including the crucial issue of water. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this one,” said Anne Babian-Lhermet, a green deputy elected to the Regional Council for the Allier department.
Parliament moves to bolster EU’s ‘strategic projects’ for critical minerals
The European Parliament’s political groups want to strengthen social and environmental safeguards for “strategic” mining projects in Europe and abroad as the EU scrambles to access key raw materials needed for the green and digital transitions.
In the Green Deal, the European Commission underlined that “active public participation and public confidence in the transition are essential if policies are to work and be accepted”.
However, projects linked to the green transition give rise to strong local opposition, leading to delays and even cancellations.
The Beauvoir mine project is no exception.
Despite five public meetings held between November and December 2022, residents’ associations have formed, determined to see the project abandoned.
The collective “stopmines03” and the association “Préservons la forêt des Colettes”, which are at the forefront of this local opposition, have constantly publicised the risks of this mining project for the environment.
In particular, they point to the risk of water pollution in the Bosse massif, often considered the region’s “water tower” with its 350 listed springs. The associations estimate that two million cubic meters of water will be needed to operate the mine, equivalent to the annual consumption of 26,000 inhabitants.
They say that extracting two million tonnes of rock yearly would also cause noise and vibrations, affecting fauna, flora and the local population.
In its reply to residents, Imerys said impact studies would be conducted.
However, opposition is not limited to local associations. The town council of Saint-Bonnet-de-Rochefort has voted against any plans to convert the local railway station for lithium transport.
To avoid confrontation and fulfil its obligations to consult and work with the communities affected by the project, Imerys turned to the National Commission for Public Debate (CNDP) on 13 July.
The CNDP has decided to organise a debate on the EMILI project next year for four months maximum. At the end, a report containing the arguments put forward by the public will be sent to the project owner.
If necessary, the project may be modified or cancelled.
Lithium project ‘bonanza’
How the Beauvoir mine case plays out in the Allier region could set the tone for future lithium mining projects in France.
In the same region, Sudmines company has applied for lithium and hydrogen exploration permits in the municipalities to see a revival of its mining industry to support the green and digital transition. However, V, but local resistance and lengthy permitting procedures could prove to be ic-Le-Comte, Coudes and Parent without informing the mayors.
“This is a clear case of dysfunction on the part of government services,” said Vincent Tourlonias, the mayor of Parent, on France 3 Auvergne.
This situation is all the more surprising given that a prospecting file has been available since the end of 2022 and has even been declared valid by State authorities. Moreover, a public consultation was held without the mayors being informed.
This episode is unlikely to create a climate of trust among citizens and local elected representatives.
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The European Union eyes a revival of its mining industry to support the green and digital transition but local resistance and lengthy permitting procedures could prove one of the main stumbling blocks to achieving this goal.