Serbian elections could improve chances for Rio Tinto’s lithium project

Jadarite is a mineral containing lithium and boron that was discovered by the Rio’s geologists in 2004. (Image courtesy of BHP.)

Rio Tinto (ASX, LON: RIO) might have a chance to see the licence for its $2.4 billion Jadar lithium project in Serbia reinstated if the country’s pro-mining president, Aleksandar Vučić, and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) win the elections this weekend, analysts believe.

The country heads to the polls on Sunday to vote for both president and parliament, with opinion surveys showing that Vučić is likely to win another five-year term and that the SNS is also set to win a majority.

An SNS victory is likely to deal a blow to the environmental movement blossoming in the country since September 2021, Capucine May, Europe Analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft said.

Over the past five months, green groups such as Ecological Uprising and Kreni Promeni have used high-profile mining projects — notably Rio Tinto’s Jadar lithium project – as rallying points for their cause, May said.

Protests gained momentum when the government attempted to reform the referendum and expropriation laws in November 2021, which activists saw as easing the way for foreign miners into the country.

“This gave environmental protests an anti-government element and proved to be a unifying force for the historically fragmented political opposition in Serbia,” the Verisk Maplecroft expert noted.

May believes Belgrade’s latest concessions, including pulling the plug on Jadar and leaving expropriation laws unchanged, were part of a political strategy to secure a win on April 3.

Thousands protest against Rio Tinto’s lithium project in Serbia
Thousands blocked major roads across Serbia in November to protest against two new laws that pave the way for foreign companies to mine the country’s resources. (Screenshot from: Sharjah24 News | YouTube.)

“Once re-elected, we expect the SNS will maintain its pro-mining stance,” May said. “The fact that the government has so far refused to consider a potential lithium mining ban in Serbia points in this direction.”

While rather unlikely, there is a chance the SNS will re-issue permits for Jadar, May noted, adding that locals have reported that Rio Tinto continues to buy land in the Western Serbian region, which is rich in jadarite. The new mineral containing lithium and boron was discovered by the Rio’s geologists in 2004.

Vučić’s critics say his popularity is due to his autocratic style of rule, which includes firm control of media and benefits such as employment in state-run firms that they say are reserved for his supporters.

The Verisk Maplecroft analyst believes Serbia’s governance reputation could be affected should Vučić reinstate Rio’s licence for the Jadar project. She predicts such move, while unlikely, would trigger a fresh wave of protests.

Battery ambitions

Rio Tinto had invested $450 million on pre-feasibility and other studies for Jadar as of January this year.

It has also spent years developing technology to economically extract lithium from jadarite and it even shipped a pilot lithium processing plant last year to Serbia in four 40-foot (12 m) shipping containers of equipment.

The Jadar lithium project was slated to be Europe’s biggest mine of the battery metal, with a production of 58,000 tonnes of refined battery-grade lithium carbonate per year, enough to power one million electric vehicles.

Over the past five years, the company has tried expanding its footprint in the battery market. In 2018, it reportedly attempted to buy a $5bn stake in Chile’s Chemical and Mining Society (SQM), the world’s second largest lithium producer. 

In April 2021, the miner kicked off lithium production from waste rock at a demonstration plant located at a borates mine it controls in California. 

Rio took another step into the lithium market this week, completing the acquisition of the Rincon lithium project in Argentina for $825 million, which has reserves of almost two million tonnes of contained lithium carbonate equivalent, sufficient for a 40-year mine life.