Chile to nationalize lithium that powers EV battery business

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Chile’s President Gabriel Boric said the country would nationalize its lithium industry, the world’s second largest producer of the metal essential in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, Reuters news report said.

The move in the country with the world’s largest lithium reserves would in time transfer control of Chile’s vast lithium operations from industry giants SQM and Albemarle to a separate state-owned company, Reuters news report said.

It poses a fresh challenge to electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers scrambling to secure battery materials, as more countries look to protect their natural resources. Mexico nationalized its lithium deposits last year, and Indonesia banned exports of nickel ore, a key battery material, in 2020.

“This is the best chance we have at transitioning to a sustainable and developed economy. We can’t afford to waste it,” Boric said in an address televised nationwide.

Future lithium contracts would only be issued as public-private partnerships with state control, he said.

The government would not terminate current contracts, but hoped companies would be open to state participation before they expire, he said, without naming Albemarle and SQM, the world’s No.1 and No.2 lithium producers respectively.

SQM’s contract is set to expire in 2030 and Albemarle’s in 2043.

SQM and Albemarle supply Tesla, LG Energy Solution and other EV and battery manufacturers.

Albemarle said the announcement would have “no material impact on our business” and it would continue talks on investing in further growth and using new technologies in Chile.

SQM has a larger footprint in Chile, with 81,000 hectares (about 200,000 acres) for lithium extraction compared with Albemarle’s 16,000 hectares.

In a statement, SQM it was “analyzing the strategy delivered by the government.”

South Korean battery maker SK On, which has a long-term supply contract with SQM, said it would monitor the development and respond with a long term view.

The announcement by Chile did not trigger a reversal in lithium prices , which have plunged more than 70 percent from a November peak due to weakening EV demand in China, the world’s biggest auto market.

The most-traded lithium carbonate futures on the Wuxi Stainless Steel Exchange in China fell 3.4 percent as of 0618 GMT on Friday.

“When or if battery makers renew their contracts with lithium firms in Chile, contract conditions would likely become more difficult than what they saw in the past when there was no state involvement,” said Cho Hyunryul, an analyst at Samsung Securities.

The move is likely to spur a shift in future investment in lithium to other countries including Australia, the world’s biggest producer, analysts said.

“Policy stability is very important for any mining project … Mining-friendly jurisdictions like Australia would be places where incremental funds get invested,” said Harsh Bardia, an analyst at National Australia Bank’s private wealth arm JBWere.

Boric said state-owned Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, will be tasked to find the best way forward for a state-owned lithium company and he would seek approval from Congress for the plan in the second half of the year.

Codelco and state miner Enami will be given exploration and extraction contracts in areas where there are now private projects before the national lithium company is formed.

A division will be dedicated to advancing technology to minimize environmental impacts, including favoring direct lithium extraction over evaporation ponds.

Privately held Summit Nanotech Corp, which is developing direct lithium extraction technology, welcomed the announcement.

By late Friday trading, Chilean firm SQM’s U.S.-listed shares tumbled some 18 percent, while Albemarle was down nearly 9 percent. SQM’s lithium contract in Chile is set to expire in 2030 and Albemarle’s in 2043, giving it more insulation from the potential move.

Separately, Chilean economic development CORFO said Chinese automaker BYD plans to build a $290 million lithium cathode factory in Chile’s northern Antofagasta region.