The Place With the Most Lithium Is Blowing the Electric-Car Revolution
A California-sized piece of South America is stifling production of the metal at a time when battery makers desperately need it
Evaporation ponds at an Albemarle Corp. lithium mine in Chile.
By Ryan Dube / Photographs by Tamara Merino for The Wall Street Journal
Aug. 10, 2022 10:41 am ET
SALAR DE ATACAMA, Chile—Hailed as the Saudi Arabia of lithium, this California-sized chunk of terrain accounts for some 55% of the world’s known deposits of the metal, a key component in electric-vehicle batteries.
As the Chinese EV giant BYD Co. recently learned, tapping into that resource can be a challenge. Earlier this year, after BYD won a government contract to mine lithium, indigenous residents took to the streets, demanding the tender be canceled over concerns about the impact on local water supplies. In June, the Chilean Supreme Court threw out the award, saying the government failed to consult with indigenous people first.
“They want to produce more and more lithium, but we’re the ones who pay the price,” said Lady Sandón, president of one of two Atacameño indigenous hamlets that filed a lawsuit against the auction. A BYD spokeswoman declined to comment.
Similar setbacks are occurring around the so-called Lithium Triangle, which overlaps parts of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. Production has suffered at the hands of leftist governments angling for greater control over the mineral and a bigger share of profits, as well as from environmental concerns and greater activism by local Andean communities who fear being left out while outsiders get rich.
“All the major car makers are completely on board with electric vehicles now,” said Brian Jaskula, a lithium expert at the U.S. Geological Survey. “But the lithium may just not be enough.”
In Bolivia, the government nationalized its lithium industry years ago and has yet to produce meaningful amounts of the metal. Mexico, a smaller player, also recently nationalized lithium. In Argentina, output is only starting to take off.
Here in Chile, where lithium is already tightly controlled, President Gabriel Boric’s new leftist government plans to create a state lithium company after criticizing past privatizations of raw commodities as a mistake. A new constitution, if approved in a September referendum, would strengthen environmental rules and indigenous rights over mining.
“This is a strategic resource for the energy transition,” said Chile Mines Minister Marcela Hernando. Ms. Hernando recently told Chile’s congress that while the government didn’t have the know-how to mine lithium on its own, it would insist on majority control of any joint venture with private firms.
Evaporation ponds at an Albemarle Corp. lithium mine in Chile.
A brine reservoir, a step in the lithium-extraction process.
A few years ago, Chile was the world’s largest lithium producer, turning out slightly more than Australia. While Chile has expanded output at its existing operations by 80% since 2016 to about 140,000 tons annually, it hasn’t opened a new mine in about 30 years. It now produces about half as much as Australia, which has quadrupled its output in the past five years, according to the USGS.
Unlike oil, which is produced all over the globe, lithium is less common. South America, Australia and China are the key locations. Outside South America, it’s extracted from hard-rock. In the region, lithium is found in salty, underground water that is evaporated by the sun after being pumped into large man-made ponds. South America’s lithium is less expensive to produce, but miners say the drawback is it takes far longer to build a mine—about eight years.
Chilean officials and environmentalists worry about the impact on water supplies. Willy Kracht, Chile’s undersecretary of mining, said recently that up to 2,800 cubic meters of water are needed to produce one ton of lithium in Chile, versus 70 cubic meters for a ton of copper.
Environmentalists believe that mining has caused some nearby lagoons to dry up, harming the population of wild flamingos that rely on them to feed on shrimp and build nests. “The damage is irreversible,” said Cristina Dorador, a biologist who was a member of a special assembly that wrote the draft for Chile’s new constitution.
Lithium miners deny their operations have affected lagoons, which they monitor with local communities.
In 2017, Tim Fernback was upbeat about his lithium project in Chile, a free-market leader in the region that has usually welcomed foreign miners digging up copper and other metals. His Vancouver-based firm, LiCo Energy Metals, acquired property in the Salar de Atacama, a vast salt flat surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes.
Mr. Fernback, who was LiCo’s chief operating officer, said he met with locals to explain the firm’s plans and offered to build a plant to provide clean drinking water. He thought the meetings went well. When it came time to drill through the salt-crusted surface, residents blocked roads in protest, citing environmental concerns. Believing the project was hopeless, LiCo abandoned Chile in 2019.
“It felt like back stabbing,” said Mr. Fernback. “We went in there, we spent a lot of money on the property, which we had to exit. Who else is going to want to do that?”
Chile lost its global lead on lithium in part because the state has maintained tight control since the 1970s, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship declared it a strategic resource because it is a component in nuclear bombs.
The two lithium miners that operate here rent their land from a state agency, which limits how much they can produce. Export also requires a special permit from the government’s nuclear agency.
Albemarle officials examine the brine reservoir.
Mario Tapia, Albermarle’s operations supervisor, holds a piece of salt from the lithium mine.
To expand its output, U.S.-based Albemarle Corp. signed a new contract in 2016 that requires it to pay royalties of up to 40%, an industry high. Hoping to add value domestically rather than just export raw material, the government required Albemarle to provide up to 25% of its lithium production at a low market price to companies processing it locally. The company also gives part of its sales to indigenous communities.
“If lithium regulation in Chile was like copper regulation, I can assure you there would be a lot more mines,” said Albemarle’s country manager in Chile, Ignacio Mehech. “We have to be able to produce the lithium that the world needs.”
The operating environment for lithium miners is set to get even more complicated given the rise of a new group of left-wing leaders in Latin America, a region whose history is marked by battles over the state’s role in the development of its natural riches.
With economies battered by the pandemic and people grappling with soaring inflation, officials in some Latin American nations say robust state control over lithium will help boost local development and pad public coffers.
It’s a gamble, however, that risks derailing lithium production if government demands make it too costly and difficult for overseas investors with the expertise and capital to build mines, say industry analysts. Public enterprises, meanwhile, risk mismanaging the resource in a region where state-run firms have long been mired in corruption and nepotism.
“Latin America specializes in killing golden geese and one of the quickest ways to do so is through resource nationalism,” said Benjamin Gedan, a Latin America expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center who closely tracks the region’s lithium industry. “This boom could very quickly turn to bust if bad policies are brought forward.”
Mr. Gedan calls Bolivia the ultimate cautionary tale. One of the world’s poorest nations, Bolivia nationalized lithium in 2008 under ex-President Evo Morales, who promised to turn the country into a mining power that builds batteries and electric vehicles. The government created a state lithium company, Yacimiento de Litio Bolivianos, or YLB. Bolivia spent about $900 million on a factory and other infrastructure to extract lithium from the windswept Uyuni salt flat in Potosi, Bolivia’s poorest state and where the Spanish Empire once pillaged for silver.
Years after the factory’s 2013 opening, production is virtually nonexistent. In 2021, Bolivia produced just 540 tons of lithium carbonate, according to YLB, or what Chile produces in a day and a half.
Juan Carlos Zuleta, an economist who briefly ran YLB in 2020, said that because of a lack of know-how and technology, the company was able to recover only about 9% of the lithium it extracted from brines, making it commercially unviable. Chile’s two big existing lithium mines have a recovery rate of about 50% or higher.
“The government has spent almost 14 years trying to develop lithium in the country and it’s failed,” said Mr. Zuleta. “I’m certain that we are missing a golden opportunity.”
Juana Gutierrez, shown with her husband, Gerardo Cruz, at the Catarpe indigenous community, says Albemarle funded a new town hall and solar panels for homes.
Guadalupe Martinez, says she received electricity for the first time a few years ago.
In Rio Grande, a town on the edge of the salt flat, residents expected lithium to bring jobs and modernity. But the village’s roads remain unpaved. The nearest hospital is an hour and a half away. There are no police, banks or Wi-Fi. Young people, unable to find work, migrate to Chile.
Donny Ali, a Rio Grande native, built the Hotel Lithium, anticipating an influx of business people. Today, the hotel’s eight rooms are empty. “This place remains forgotten,” said Mr. Ali.
Like others in Potosi, Mr. Ali was suspicious of outsiders wanting to develop Bolivia’s lithium, believing locals wouldn’t benefit. Now, he believes foreign companies are needed.
“The nationalization policy hasn’t taken us down a good path,” he said. “They’ve used the state’s resources but there’s nothing to show for it.”
Bolivia’s Energy Ministry and YLB didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The brightest spot for lithium output in South America has been Argentina, which so far has been more open to private investment, a source of much-needed foreign currency for the cash-strapped government. Officials provide companies with tax stability agreements and have eased some currency controls that suffocate other sectors, according to firms that operate there.
As a result, the country has received an influx of investors, such as Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto PLC, Chinese battery maker Ganfeng Lithium Co. and French multinational Eramet SA. Global auto giants are increasingly betting on Argentina too, with Toyota holding a stake in a local mine. Ford and BMW have deals to receive Argentine lithium.
Argentina could have 19 lithium mines by 2031, up from two now, said Lukasz Bednarski, a lithium analyst at IHS Markit, a London-based consulting firm. Annual production could hit 230,000 tons by the end of the decade, about a sixfold increase from now, according to the government.
“We’re seeing a boom in mining investments and that is going to continue,” said Matías Kulfas, who was production minister until June.
Chile’s Atacama desert.
Some observers note Argentina’s failure to develop other promising resources, including a massive shale gas deposit in the far south that elicited a similar rush of excitement a decade ago. The country’s ruling Peronists have a history of intervening in key economic sectors and reneging on agreements. And, some lawmakers are already calling for a greater state role over lithium.
The country, which is grappling with fuel shortages, is far behind in building the energy infrastructure needed to power its new lithium projects, said Emily Hersh, chief executive of Luna Lithium, an exploration company.
Ms. Hersh, an economist, noted that the country’s long-running economic volatility will also undermine lithium development. “I’d hope that anyone operating in Argentina has adequately priced in and prepared for economic catastrophe at any given time,” she said.
Write to Ryan Dube at email@example.com