Codelco's lithium push fades in favor of copper

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - With the global race to secure lithium heating up in 2016, Chile’s president Michelle Bachelet wanted to be sure her country seized the moment. Home to half the world’s lithium reserves, Chile tapping its state-run miner Codelco to ramp up production seemed a sure bet.

Chile’s most trusted public enterprise, she said, could hunt for private partners to help it mine its own lithium for the good of all Chileans, and take part in the global boom for the battery metal used to power electric vehicles.

A review of regulatory filings, court documents and interviews with Codelco officials shows the strategy was deeply troubled from the start. Dwindling support inside Codelco to prioritize lithium projects over copper, company insiders said, was compounded by legal and regulatory hurdles that stalled development of the company’s two flagship salt flats known as Pedernales and Maricunga.

As a result, Codelco has yet to find a partner for either project years into the initiative to boost output of the metal. Global automakers, meanwhile, are planning a $300 billion surge in spending on electric vehicle technology, including the vital battery technology, over the next five to 10 years.

Codelco’s projects, once thought a shoo-in to boost global supply and lower prices, have largely fallen off forecasts, and Chile has ceded its position as the world’s top producer of lithium to Australia.

The stagnation means lithium supply from Chile, the world’s second largest producer of the white metal, will hinge on the water-constrained Atacama salt flat, home to privately held top producers SQM and Albemarle. Authorities are weighing water conservation measures at Atacama that could crimp Lithium output.

As the world’s largest copper miner, Codelco officials told Reuters they felt they had to choose between two metals, and it was an easy decision. Any enthusiasm for former President Bachelet’s lithium drive fizzled once the center-right government of Sebastian Pinera took over from Bachelet last year, according to the Codelco officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to publicly discuss the projects.

Pinera’s government focused Codelco on its core Chilean copper assets and imposed an ambitious 10-year, $39 billion program to overhaul its mines, a necessity as ore grades have begun to decline for much of its century-old deposits.

One top Codelco official told Reuters the lithium business was simply "too marginal" compared with copper to warrant substantial investment given tight budget constraints. Chile's total lithium exports in 2017 were $800 million, less than one-tenth of copper revenues at Codelco, which hit $11.6 billion the same year. The sprawling public miner last year produced nearly one-tenth of the world´s copper, another key metal in the electric vehicle revolution. 

Another high level Codelco executive said that the company had assigned “zero priority” to its lithium projects, adding it was nonetheless “going through the motions.”

A third Codelco executive told Reuters several miners, which they would not name, had met with the company to discuss a potential partnership in lithium. But they had been turned off by a lack of detailed studies quantifying Codelco’s assets, the person said.

Codelco, in a written response to questions submitted by Reuters, acknowledged it had faced challenges at each site but added that it was nonetheless pushing forward with plans to begin explorations and to find partners at the Maricunga and Pedernales flats.

At Maricunga, Codelco said regulators had granted it a reasonable production quota but said it needed to partner with neighbors at the site in order to make developing its comparatively small piece of the flat worthwhile. At Pedernales, Codelco said the quota it had received was “insufficient to develop a long-term project,” while adding that regulators had left the door open for Codelco to provide evidence for increasing output there.

Codelco’s struggles have thrown cold water on the conventional wisdom that partnering with a Chilean state enterprise is the best way to quickly and efficiently move a project forward in the country´s tightly controlled lithium industry. That has left potential investors with few other options, said Juan Carlos Guajardo, of Santiago consultancy Plusmining.

“There just isn´t much space for newcomers,” Guajardo said. “Codelco could have done something about that...but progress has been slow.”

Click here to continue reading...

Subscribe to the RSD email list and get the latest resource stock activity directly to your inbox, for free.

Part of the Stock Digest family of websites

Small Cap Stock Digest

MARKET SUMMARY

INDICES

Name Last Change
DOW 25962.50 0.84%
S&P 500 2854.88 1.07%
NASDAQ 7838.96 1.40%
TSX 16244.59 0.47%
TSX-V 641.21 0.00%

Resource Commodities

Name Last Change
Gold 1308.30 0.57%
Silver 15.48 0.13%
Copper 2.90 0.020
Platinum 858.34 0.02%
Oil 59.98 0.42%
Natural Gas 2.82
Uranium 26.00 0.95%
Zinc 1.30 0.00%

@RSDigest ON TWITTER