By María M. Mur |
Santiago de Chile (EFE).- The Chilean Minister of Mining, Marcela Hernando, said in an interview with EFE that the national lithium strategy recently announced by her Government does not seek to nationalize the mineral – “it has been since the dictatorship” -, and that the objective, beyond the country recovering its leading position, is to increase production “because the world needs it.”
“Are we interested in being leaders? Of course they do, but what we are most interested in is producing more lithium, because the world needs it. Obviously, we are also interested in placing it well in the markets”, indicated Hernando.
Chile, the country with the most exploitable reserves in the world, is the world’s second largest producer of lithium (and the first copper), behind Australia, but Argentina follows closely and could overtake it in the coming years.
According to a report from the US bank JP Morgan last February, in 2030 Argentine production would surpass Chilean production.
“As a State, we have taken a long time to react, to investigate. We have 9.6 million metric tons in the Salar de Atacama, but we have another 45 salt flats in which we do not know how much reserve there is,” the minister acknowledged.
Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced at the end of April his long-awaited lithium policy, which seeks to turn the State into the main promoter and controller of the industry through a public-private model and a national company.
Today, only two private companies exploit lithium in the Salar de Atacama, which concentrates 90% of the country’s reserves: the American Albemarle and Sociedad Química y Minera SQM, controlled by the Chinese Tianqi and the son-in-law of former dictator Augusto Pinochet. (1973-1990), Julio Ponce Lerou.
In 2022, Chile exported 6,877 million dollars of lithium carbonate, which represents an increase of 777% compared to 2021, according to the Central Bank.
The strategy received a barrage of criticism from the industry, which Hernando blamed on the “enormous interest” aroused by lithium, known as “white gold” for its massive use in batteries and its enormous potential for electromobility.
“There are also geopolitical reasons and pressures at the international level. We are a very small country but with a very open economy and we are subject to this type of pressure,” stressed the minister, who was a deputy for two terms and mayor of northern Antofagasta, the capital of the powerful Chilean mining industry.
The state-owned Codelco -the largest copper company in the world- and Enami will be in charge of implementing the first phase of the strategy until the national lithium company begins to operate, whose creation has to be approved by Parliament, where the Government does not have a majority but he arrives with the intention of “dialogue”, according to Hernando.
“It was implied that this was a nationalization. The truth is that only what is private is nationalized. Here lithium is declared a non-concessible strategic element in the 1980 Constitution, that is, it is owned by the State and the State is the one that decides”, the official clarified.
“Nor are we intervening in the contracts that exist with the two private companies that operate it. What we are doing is setting the rules so that there is a good use of this resource,” added Hernando, who gave the interview days after the approval by a large majority of a tax on large-scale mining that aims to collect 0.45 of the GDP.
more sustainable techniques
The lithium “boom” is especially worrying environmentalists because of the enormous amount of water needed for its exploitation and because Chile is the country with the greatest water stress on the continent: it is estimated that each tonne requires the evaporation of two million liters of lithium. water.
The minister explained that the objective is to “migrate towards more sustainable techniques” and that the strategy establishes that any company that wants to participate in this industry must do so through direct extraction and not through evaporation.
“We cannot continue evaporating the water. The method is also inefficient because it cannot extract more than 60% of the lithium from the brine”, he stated.
Another of the great challenges that Chile faces is to prevent lithium from becoming a new nitrate and the industry from being merely extractivist.
“Australia mines lithium from rock and exports concentrate, which is mainly processed in China. What we are interested in is leaving the added value in Chile”, stressed Hernando, who assured that there are fifty companies from 12 countries that have already contacted the Government and that are interested in participating in different stages of the production chain. .
The world demand is so great, he warned, that “even if all the projects that are planned in Argentina start up and Bolivia starts producing (the three countries make up the so-called “lithium triangle”), we would not be able to satisfy it.”
The entry Chilean Minister of Mining: “We want to produce more lithium because the world needs it” was first published in EFE Noticias.