How lithium-rich Chile botched a plan to attract battery makers

SANTIAGO – In March 2018, the Chilean government unveiled big news: Corporate investors, including South Korean electronics giant Samsung, would build three factories in Chile to produce battery parts for electric vehicles.

Chile had lured the companies with an enticing offer. In exchange for helping the South American country, the world's No. 2 miner of lithium, jumpstart its own EV battery industry, the firms would get a guaranteed supply of the coveted metal at attractive prices for nearly three decades amid a global race to lock down supplies.

Now that arrangement is falling apart. Chile's government has failed to deliver the bountiful, bargain-priced lithium it had promised in a fast-changing market, according to a Reuters review of regulatory filings and internal documents from a state development agency.

Chilean chemical company Molymet, which had planned to build one of the battery parts factories, last week announced it is scrapping that effort; it declined to say why. That follows a similar defection by South Korea's Posco. The steelmaker in June said it was pulling out of a joint venture to build a Chilean plant with Samsung's battery unit, citing worries about lithium supplies. Samsung told Reuters it is now reviewing the project.

China's Sichuan Fulin Transportation Group Co, meanwhile, has yet to get its planned Chilean factory off the ground. Fulin did not respond to requests for comment.

The deals hinged on the globe's top producer of lithium - Albemarle Corp - boosting output from its Chilean operations to supply the planned factories. But Albemarle's expansion has been hampered by technological and regulatory hurdles. The US-based miner has feuded with Chile's government over the price battery makers would pay for its lithium. And it does not produce lithium hydroxide in Chile, the type of processed lithium required by Posco-Samsung.

While Chile possesses the world's largest reserves of the "white gold", it has not capitalized fully on those riches. Like Albemarle, the nation's other big lithium miner, SQM, has struggled to boost output amid strong global demand, which is expected to triple by 2025. The government, meanwhile, has been slow to allow new players to enter the market.

Chile's latest stumbling effort to woo battery makers shows that uprooting that industry from Asia will not be easy, says Emily Hersh, a managing partner with the Washington, D.C.-based consultancy DCDB group.

"It's a big reality check," Hersh said. "Chile is a powerhouse in the production of battery chemicals. If they can't do this, everybody needs to pay attention and figure out why."

RARE DEAL

Then-President Michelle Bachelet in late 2016 struck an unusual deal with Albemarle, the source of nearly half of Chile's lithium production.

Her center-left government gave Albemarle the green light to more than double its output through 2043. In return, Bachelet mandated the US-based miner guarantee a quarter of its annual production at favorable prices to battery makers willing to set up shop in the country.

Chilean development agency Corfo opened a tender to prospective investors in April 2017 with the hopes of new factories breaking ground by early 2020. It received 12 bids.

But behind the scenes, Chile worried about its ability to deliver the promised lithium, according to government documents viewed by Reuters describing the decision-making process.

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