Argentina hopes to topple Chile as Latam’s leading lithium producer and exporter

‘white petroleum’

Chile's Atacama salt flats contain some of the world's biggest reserves of lithium, a relatively rare light metal.

BUENOS AIRES – Argentina is en route to becoming Latin America’s leading producer and exporter of “white petroleum” lithium.

The country is disputing with its neighbor Chile, which is South America’s top producer of the mineral lithium – a key ingredient for the production of electric cars and its rechargeable batteries – allowing them to retain energy far longer, and as a consequence its price has soared more than 30% to a record US$ 12.000 a ton this year.

Since Argentina’s business friendly president Mauricio Macri took office in December 2015 and opened the country to foreign capital, Argentina has received more investment than any other country in the ‘lithium triangle’ – the border region including parts of Chile and Bolivia that contains over half the world’s known reserves of so-called “white petroleum.”

Australia’s Orocobre, which produces some 14,500 tons of lithium carbonate per year at a mine on the Olaroz salt flat, has announced plans to more than double its total production to 35,000 tons by 2019, in conjunction with its partner Toyota Tsusho Corp.

“There is a real potential that Argentina will leapfrog over Chile in terms of production in five years’ time,” Richard Seville, chief executive of Brisbane-based Orocobre, said during a visit to the mine. “It is going to be a very important player.”

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The arid conditions of the lithium triangle high in the Andes, some 4,000 meters above sea level, are ideal for evaporating the brine to leave lithium residue. Argentina holds vast reserves of the white dust but for years, its production trailed its western neighbor as investors remained wary of the successive populist governments of Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernandez from 2003 to 2015.

Argentina is the world’s third-largest producer, with some 30,000 tons per year, but that is less than half of Chile’s annual output of 70,000 tons. Australia, the world’s largest lithium miner, produces 76,000 tons, data from the governments show.

Yet with Macri’s two-year-old government making lithium a priority, Orocobre and other miners are bypassing Chile and heading for Argentina. “We’re looking to becoming the world’s leading exporter of lithium in the near future”, president Macri was quoted during a recent business forum.

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Executives at Canadian miner Lithium Americas Corp, whose US$ 425 million Cauchari-Olaroz development is close to Orocobre’s mine, said Argentina’s lithium output could triple in the next five years.

“The shift in mindset around looking at Argentina more favorably has happened very quickly over the last couple of years and obviously that has a lot to do with politics,” said Chris Berry, a spokesman for Lithium Americas.

Argentina’s energy ministry expects lithium exports to increase to US$ 800 million in the coming years from US$ 191 million in 2016.

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Lithium Americas is basing its investments on expectations that global production will triple to 600,000 tons by 2025, up from 200,000 tons currently.

To attract investment to the sector, Macri’s market-friendly government has eliminated an export tax on mineral products and ended a ban on companies sending profits earned in Argentina back to their overseas headquarters.

At least five projects aim to add some 45,500 tons of production annually by 2019 and possibly more than 200,000 tons beyond that.–MercoPress