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Prices for lithium, the building block of electric-vehicle batteries, shot to a record this year, amplifying concerns there won’t be enough of the metal to fuel the switch away from combustion engines. In that climate, now should be a prime time to build a mine.

Rio Tinto is finding out otherwise. Within months of unveiling plans for a $2.4bn mine in western Serbia, local opponents organised a movement that’s rocked the government and brought cities to a standstill as thousands of protesters march in the streets. Authorities subsequently suspended a land-use plan for the proposed mine, though they didn’t reject the project completely.

“The entire Jadar project is just another way for multinational companies, with the help of our state, to make profit and cause damage to the people of Serbia,” said Slavisa Miletic, an activist living near the planned mine.

The opposition Rio faces is replicating around the world, and industry executives consider it their biggest challenge going forward. Southern Copper is struggling to get government support for a controversial $1.4bn project in Peru, and Lithium Americas was taken to US federal court over its planned mine in Nevada. 

Historically, mining offered jobs and economic development to typically poor areas, with taxation and royalties to fill government coffers. But all too often, people living nearby paid a price for environmental degradation and occasional catastrophe.

That’s changing. Locals are pushing back, deciding that the economic benefits don’t outweigh the costs to their quality of life. Governments also are increasingly unwilling or unable to override those concerns.

“It’s become more difficult to build a mine today than it ever was before,” said Ben Davis, a mining analyst at Liberum. “It’s far easier to organise opposition, often in rural and isolated communities.”

To placate critics, the Serbian government offered a referendum on the mine, but that itself became controversial, with the opposition saying recent legal revisions tilted the balance in the government’s — and Rio’s — favour.

Protesters also blasted an effort to speed up ownership changes for both state and private projects. The outrage forced President Aleksandar Vucic to send the proposal back to parliament for reworking.

“Environmental issues were long neglected in Serbia because economy and living standard dominated for years,” said Bojan Klacar, director of the Belgrade-based Center for Free Elections and Democracy. “Priorities have changed.”

When Rio, the world’s second-biggest miner, announced the project in July, it seemed like a slam dunk for new CEO Jakob Stausholm.

Lithium is a future-facing commodity critical for global decarbonisation. The biggest automakers, from Tesla to Volkswagen to Toyota , need an ever-growing supply of battery materials to accelerate the roll out of EVs, with BloombergNEF expecting demand for the minerals in lithium-ion packs to grow fivefold by 2030.

A global index of lithium prices has more than tripled this year, and BNEF forecasts that lithium-ion battery prices will increase next year for the first time since 2010.

Plus, the mine would be built on farmland, not virgin forest, and be just a 10-hour drive from Germany’s car-making epicentre. The project, which Rio says could create more than 2,000 jobs, is scheduled to open in 2026 and hit full production in 2029.

Yet that laundry list of supposed benefits doesn’t matter to many. Mining’s dark past includes a plethora of deadly disasters, from cyanide leaks to dam collapses.

Just last year, Rio’s CEO was forced out after the company destroyed an ancient Aboriginal site at Juukan Gorge in Australia.

“We do have a history of things in our organisation that we’re not proud of, and Juukan is No. 1 on that list,” said Sinead Kaufman, head of the Rio unit planning to build the Serbian mine.

And it’s not just lithium that’s becoming problematic. Copper is an essential metal for the energy transition, with demand expected to grow by almost 50% in the next decade, according to Chilean miner Antofagasta . Mines typically take about 15 years to go from discovery to production.

Even so, many of the best prospects are in limbo. Rio’s proposed Resolution copper mine in Arizona, which could satisfy a quarter of US demand, is being reviewed by the federal government after opposition from the San Carlos Apache tribe, whose leader refused to meet Rio’s CEO earlier this year.

“Despite mining’s contribution to almost every aspect of modern life, the industry is still seen as one that takes more than it gives,” Mark Cutifani, CEO of Anglo American, said in a speech in London this month.

Rio’s challenge now is to convince Serbs the Jadar mine won’t be like the mines of old. The company says it will be built to the highest standards, reuse nearly all its water, and use electric trucks.

“A mine that’s going to get built in the 2020s, that’s going to be around for decades, is going to look very different from something built 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago,” Rio’s Kaufman said. “That’s the message we need to get across.”

More stories like this are available on Bloomberg.com


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