Almost two months after the announcement of a national lithium strategy, the Chilean government has published a 33-page document providing details on the policy’s objectives, schedule and main expected milestones.
Copper giant Codelco and the national mining company Enami will be granted lithium exploration and exploitation permits before year-end. These licences will only cover those salt flats where they already have projects in different stages of development, according to the paper.
Codelco, Enami and their subsidiaries will be able to decide whether or not to associate with a private company, it added.
Tenders for lithium exploration will open to private companies in the first half of 2024, the document reads. In cases where results show mining potential, the company that conducted the exploration work will have preferential access to an exploitation licence in association with a state-run firm — the National Lithium.
Chile is the world’s no. 1 copper producer and second largest for lithium, but while its copper output is dominated by Codelco, lithium production has been in charge of private miners SQM (NYSE: SQM) and Albemarle (NYSE: ALB).
According to the document, the Atacama salt flat is the only one qualified as strategic. It is the country’s largest reserve of the metal, with more than 90% of the local sources identified to date.
The government wants to expand production both in the Atacama and in any or all of the other 18 salt flats that have been identified.
Geologist José Cabello of consulting firm Mineralium said the Atacama and Maricunga salt flats host combined lithium potential of 10.8 million tonnes, corresponding to 64% of global reserves.
As anticipated by MINING.COM, the state’s involvement in public-private partnerships for the exploration of lithium will depend on the characteristics of each salt flat, the kind of activity (exploration versus exploitation) and the presence of incumbents, the document describes.
Global demand for lithium, according to Chile’s projections, will quadruple by 2035, reaching 3.8 million tonnes. Available supply by then is expected to sit at 2.5 million tonnes.
According to the Chilean Copper Commission (Cochilco), the nation is set to produce 336,000 tonnes of lithium per year by 2035, double the 2021 level.