Tantalum miner threatens expansion at Australia's biggest lithium mine

MELBOURNE – June 25 (Reuters) – A partner in one of the world's largest lithium mines said on Monday trial dates have been set to determine whether expansion at the Western Australian mine, in which China's Tianqi Lithium holds a stake, would unfairly impact its minerals rights.

Private-equity backed Global Advanced Metals (GAM) owns the rights to tantalum and other minerals produced at Greenbushes, the world's largest hard rock lithium mine, and has requested the courts to halt mine expansion plans to ensure that its rights are secure.

Talison Lithium, a joint venture between units of lithium giants Tianqi Lithium, and U.S.-based Albemarle Corp, owns only the lithium rights at Greenbushes. Tianqi and Albemarle hold 51 percent and 49 percent of Talison each.

Talison aims to double production at Greenbushes by mid-2019, as its owners race to secure more lithium to feed an expected boom in demand for electric vehicle batteries. However, any court injunction could delay the mine's expansion.

The trial dates of Oct. 16-Oct. 31 were set by the Western Australia Supreme Court, GAM said, and were further to an injunction action launched by the company in July 2017 over its mining deal with Talison.

"It is GAM's strongly held view that Talison's expansion of lithium mining and processing at Greenbushes… threatens to waste tantalum resources at Greenbushes," GAM Chief Executive Officer Andrew O'Donovan said in the statement.

"GAM, therefore, initiated legal action to ensure that Talison's expansion is carried out in a way that recognises GAM's rights to tantalum and other minerals."

Tantalum is used in advanced electronics such as medical devices.

GAM, which is 80 percent owned by private equity house RCF, processes tantalum extracted as a by-product of lithium production at the mine and then ships it to its downstream facilities in the United States and Japan.

"We remain confident in our legal position and in the meantime, are getting on with the job of expanding the Greenbushes' lithium operation, creating hundreds of new jobs and building on the success of this significant contributor to the West Australian economy," a Talison Lithium spokesman said.

He confirmed the mine's expansion plans were on track, and it will be completed in the second quarter of next year.

(Reporting by Aaron Saldanha in BENGALURU; Editing by Tom Hogue and Sherry Jacob-Phillips)