Chile’s National Lithium Strategy Progress Update

# Chile’s National Lithium Strategy: Progress and Prospects

The Progress of Chile’s National Lithium Strategy

On April 20, Chilean President Gabriel Boric unveiled the National Lithium Strategy, aiming to position the South American nation as a global leader in the industry of ‘white gold.’ As we stand almost seven months post-announcement, one might wonder how far the strategy has come. Sputnik News engaged with industry experts to gain insight into developments.

The Ambitious Strategy of the Boric Government

The Boric administration’s ambitious plan includes five key pillars, notably involving the state throughout the entire productive cycle of the mineral, culminating in the creation of a National Lithium Company. Chile boasts 41% of the global metal reserves—that’s 9.200 million metric tons—positioning it, alongside Argentina and Bolivia, within the so-called Lithium Triangle, known for its abundant regional resources.

Vice-president of the National Center for Alternative Development Studies, Manuel Riesco, discussed with Sputnik how the proposed strategy “recovers for the State of Chile the management of mineral exploitation, the cornerstone of any rational national policy regarding natural resources.” Riesco, who served on the National Lithium Commission established by former President Michelle Bachelet, pointed out that 100% of lithium exploitation is concentrated in the Salar de Atacama, in the country’s northern region.

The state-run Production Development Corporation oversees the resource, but exploitation rights through concession contracts are currently held by two private companies: the Chilean Chemical and Mining Society (Soquimich), until 2030, and the American company Albemarle, until 2043.

Challenges in Realizing the Lithium Strategy

According to Jaime Morales, director of the Mining Center at the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaiso (PUCV), the strategy’s implementation is progressing slowly and lacks clarity on operating modes after the concessions end. Indigenous consultation poses a significant challenge, with unclear terms for indigenous participation and potential delays to new mining concessions or in the exploration and exploitation methods of the salars.

“The salars are fragile ecosystems that need to be protected under suitable norms,” Morales stated, emphasizing the need for strategic and protected salar territories. He expressed concern that delays on these critical issues could make the strategy develop very slowly, possibly making lithium exploration and exploitation less attractive to private investors.

China’s Investment in Chile’s Lithium Industry

During his official visit to China in October, President Boric announced that Tsingshan Group from China would invest approximately $230 million in a lithium battery plant in the northern port of Mejillones. The fact that currently, lithium is not refined in Chile and is exported as lithium carbonate in its most basic form makes this announcement noteworthy.

“We will not be limited to just extracting the non-metallic mineral but will also create value chains and transfer knowledge,” Boric mentioned while discussing exchange programs between countries. For Morales, the lithium battery manufacturing is a significant milestone in the progresses of the national strategy.

He pointed out that the Chinese investment would define Mejillones as a new development hub in the Antofagasta region, leading to vital technology transfers.

Focusing on 2030: A Pivotal Year for Chile’s Lithium Ambitions

For Riesco, 2030 will be pivotal for Chile, when the nation will regain complete control of the Atacama Salt Flat exploitation, as this is when Soquimich’s contract concludes. This company is responsible for 80% of the mineral’s exports from the country.

The state-owned National Copper Corporation of Chile (Codelco) is negotiating with Soquimich to potentially partner up as a minority, enabling Codelco to take control of the country’s most significant deposit immediately. However, the contract’s delay shows that, despite Codelco’s sincerity and good intentions in the negotiations, there is no urgency on the part of Soquimich.

As Chile navigates its lithium potential, environmental considerations, indigenous rights, and international collaborations remain at the forefront of its battery-powered future. With adequate policies and strategic partnerships, Chile aspires not just to extract lithium, but to position itself as a crucial player in the evolving landscape of global energy production and storage.

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