Chile’s president, Gabriel Boric, wants to create a plan to require state involvement in and control of any lithium contracts going forward in the country with the world’s largest lithium supply.
Boric says that the plan will protect biodiversity and indigenous rights and will help to distribute the gains from Chile’s mineral wealth more broadly among Chileans.
Chile is home to the world’s largest lithium reserves in its vast northern Atacama desert. The desert is known for its salt flats, large flat areas where water has evaporated and left concentrated solids on the land. Lithium can then be extracted from brine pools on these salt flats.
The desert also reaches into neighboring Bolivia and Argentina, and the area has been referred to as the “lithium triangle.” It is thought to hold roughly half of the world’s lithium reserves, though the resource is still reasonably common elsewhere.
Currently, the world’s largest lithium exporting country is Australia, with Chile in second place. But other countries, including China, Argentina, Brazil, and even the US, have significant lithium reserves and production capacity, and everyone is aiming to increase production in the coming years.
And some other countries have exerted control over their EV battery resources, with Mexico recently nationalizing its lithium deposits and Indonesia banning exports of nickel in hopes of keeping that industry domestic.
Lithium prices have been volatile in recent years, with the resource shooting up about 400% in price in late 2021 due to supply chain challenges and extremely high electric car demand, which supply was not able to keep up with.
But most expected prices to drop precipitously this year, and since the beginning of the year, they have. Prices are still high compared to historical averages but are dropping quickly and getting close to those averages.
And, despite being in the name of lithium-ion batteries, each electric car only needs about 20 lbs of lithium. At recent prices, there is a few hundred dollars worth of lithium in each EV battery.
Boric’s plan would affect two of the world’s largest lithium suppliers, Albemarle and Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile (SQM), both of which operate in Chile. Albemarle is a multinational formed in 1992 as a spin-off of Ethyl Corporation, the company responsible for putting lead in gasoline. SQM was originally founded as a Chilean state-owned company in 1968 but is now owned by Chilean billionaire Julio Ponce Lerou, son-in-law of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The companies dipped 21% and 10% in the stock market today after Boric’s plan was announced.
Chile would not instantly take control of these companies’ operations. Instead, the plan would go into effect upon renewal of the companies’ contracts. Currently, SQM’s contract will expire in 2030, and Albemarle’s in 2043. Boric hoped that companies would be open to earlier participation by the state.
But so far, this plan has only been announced by Boric and will have to go through Chile’s National Congress first. He plans to present it to Congress later this year, though the body has blocked many of his proposals in the past.
Chilean politics is going through a lot of change right now. The country saw sustained protests starting in 2019 demanding a new constitution to replace the current one, which was implemented under dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1980.
Then in 2021, Boric, a socialist who, at 37, is one of the world’s youngest state leaders, won a wide victory over far-right opponent Jose Antonio Kast, who had previously served under Pinochet and whose grandfather had been in the Nazi army. So, the choice was stark.
With this mandate, Boric proposed a new constitution with many progressive reforms. One of those proposed reforms (Article 27) would have been to nationalize mining operations, but it was rejected before the constitution went to a vote. Instead, it included a provision that miners must put aside resources to repair damage from mining activities.
The proposed constitution was supported by most Chileans at first, particularly young Chileans and those on the political left. But as the referendum for its approval came closer, polls turned against it, and the proposed constitution failed by a wide margin. The country is now drafting a second proposal, as most Chileans still want to replace the constitution of Pinochet.
But this would not be Chile’s first brush with the nationalization of the extractive industry. In the late 60s and early 70s, Chile pushed to nationalize several industries, particularly the extraction of copper (and even created an early “internet” to manage it).
Chilean president Salvador Allende, a socialist, won in 1970 with the promise of nationalizing copper outright without compensation to the various (largely, US-based) companies currently operating in the sphere. The copper industry was nationalized soon after his election, with modest compensation to these companies, which drew the ire of the US.
Then, in 1973, a US-backed coup led to the deposal and death of democratically-elected Allende and his replacement with the new dictator Pinochet.
Boric’s announcement stops short of Allende’s in that it does not aim to immediately nationalize the industry without compensation. It also stops short of the proposal in Article 27, as that would have given the state exclusive mining rights across many resources, whereas Boric’s current proposal seeks to enforce public-private partnerships in lithium specifically.
But the Chilean state still owns the nation’s copper extraction industry via Codelco, which supplies 11% of the world’s copper. Boric would have this company take a role in finding the best way to manage any public-private partnerships for lithium extraction.
The US currently has a free trade agreement with Chile, in force since 2004. This is relevant for new battery critical mineral guidelines from the US, requiring that battery minerals be sourced from the US or free trade countries in order to qualify for tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act.
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