Is South America hindering the growth of the global EV industry?
Chile holds more than half of the world’s lithium reserves, but government policies are hindering its production as the global EV industry is taking flight, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing industry figures and economists. The country’s government has thrown curveballs at private sector players looking to get in on mining the resources — which is critical for the production of electric vehicle batteries — partially because it is wary of privatization, and partially over environmental concerns.
The foreign miners that do operate in Chile face several challenges: The few licensed lithium producers in the country rent their land from the state, with limitations on production and export capacities enforced by the government’s nuclear agency, according to the WSJ. US-based chemicals producer Albemarle, for example, has an agreement that sees it pay royalties of up to 40% to the state, in addition to providing a quarter of its lithium production at a reduced market price to local lithium-processing companies, and allocating a chunk of its sales to indigenous communities, the WSJ adds.
In spite of poor mining infrastructure, the Chilean administration is adamant on nationalizing lithium and on keeping foreign players out: Some of Chile’s MPs think previous privatization of raw commodities led to economic deterioriation, Chile’s Mines Minister Marcela Hernando told Chile’s congress. President Gabriel Boric’s new leftist government plans to create a state lithium company to tackle commodities’ privatization. A new constitution may strengthen environmental rules and indigenous rights over mining, if it is approved in a September referendum, Hernando said.
Other governments in the Lithium Triangle, an area in South America overlapping parts of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina are similarly nationalizing their lithium in a bid to boost local development. Bolivia has nationalized its industry just as Chile’s new government hopes to do the same, the WSJ details. Bolivia’s state-owned lithium company Yacimiento de Litio Bolivianos (YLB) will be implementing strong limits on foreign investment in extraction and processing of lithium in coming years, the chief of Bolivia’s state-owned lithium company Juan Carlos Zuleta told Reuters. Bolivia, like Chile, will not be inking agreements in the short-term to allow foreign firms with the technical know-how to come in and help accelerate extraction, Zuleta said, adding that Bolivia would instead look to strengthen local expertise.
EV experts worry that nationalization efforts could impede the growth of the EV industry: The transition to renewable energy sources is turbocharging demand for lithium and has sent the metal’s prices up 750% since 2021, according to the WSJ, but EV industry analysts say South America could become a “major bottleneck” for the growth of the EV market. “Latin America specializes in killing golden geese and one of the quickest ways to do so is through resource nationalism,” Benjamin Gedan, a Latin America expert who closely tracks the region’s lithium industry at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center told WSJ.
A prime example of the failure of commodity nationalization is Bolivia, according to Gedan. The Bolivian government invested some USD 900 mn on YLB, and on mining infrastructure in 2008 to mine lithium from the country’s Uyuni salt flat. Bolivia’s production capacity remains unimpressive however, with the country producing a meager 540 tonnes of lithium carbonate in 2021, the equivalent to what Chile produces in a day and a half, due to a lack of technical know-how and poor local expertise, according to Gedan.
Private sector inclusion accelerated Australia’s ascension to the lithium production throne. The country produced 217k tonnes of lithium carbonate in 2021 alone, compared to 26k tonnes generated by Chile, the world’s former top lithium producer, in the same year, according to Statista. Australia is set to produce some 68k tonnes of lithium in 2022, according to mining centered-publication Mining Technology.The lithium production boom has been attributed to impactful private sector involvement. Companies like Talison Lithium, and Pilbara Minerals have helped provide the needed infrastructure to help accelerate the nation’s mining efforts. The latter has one of the world’s largest independent hard-rock lithium operations.