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Lithium miners in Argentina join forces to boost sector

Lithium Americas’ Caucharí-Olaroz project, located in Argentina’s Jujuy province. (Image courtesy of Lithium Americas)

Lithium miners operating in Argentina have created an industry group that aims to boost the development of new projects and enable a transparent setting of prices for the battery metal on international markets. 

The association, named Calbafina, has set as a first goal to create a lithium carbonate index to track and publish the price of the light metal, which is key to the development of electric vehicles. The “USD INDEX LI” would list lithium prices per tonne in US dollars.

Calbafina aims to boost the development of new projects and help companies obtain financing

The London Metal Exchange (LME) has a potential contract in the works but it’s still months away and initial producer reaction has been cautious.

Fastmarkets, the LME’s pricing partner, assesses 27 prices in the lithium production chain from hard-rock spodumene to high-purity lithium hydroxide.

Calbafina also intends to help companies obtain financing and strike deals with governments and local institutions leading to improved lithium exploration, production and sales.

Argentina is part of South America’s “lithium triangle,” which includes neighbouring Chile and Bolivia, and which is home to more than 60% of the world’s annual lithium production.

Covid effect

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the South American nation was working towards becoming a $2.1 billion lithium export market, according to a government presentation. The figure compares to the $190 million the sector generated last year, when it shipped 50,000 tonnes of the white metal.

Some companies have begun resuming halted projects and operations. US-based Livent Corp (NYSE: LTHM), which had suspended operations at its Argentine facility leading to layoffs for some local contractors, restarted operations in April. The company, however, withdrew its 2020 guidance due to the global uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Last week, Australia’s Galaxy Resources (ASX:GXY) announced that development of its Sal de Vida lithium brine project in Salta province had progressed to the design stage.

Others decided to walk away. French mining and metals group Eramet scrapped plans for a $600 million lithium project due to economic uncertainty created by covid-19. It had aimed to produce 24,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent per year in a first phase.

Lithium Americas (TSX, NYSE: LAC) momentarily suspended activities at its Cauchari-Olaroz lithium project in Jujuy in March. Last week, it had to halt work again as two workers tested positive for coronavirus.

Known challenges

Argentina’s push to grow lithium exports has already faced challenges, with main rivals Australia and Chile developing deposits faster and depressed prices hurting investment.

Global lithium demand tripled between 2015 and 2017. According to the latest report from Citi, that demand could jump by another 500% by 2035.

Prices, in turn, are expected to fall a further 5% in the three months to September to $4,800 per tonne, but should recover in the fourth quarter of the year, the investment bank predicts.

By 2022, prices could rise 42% to $7,200 per tonne and to $9,000 per tonne by 2030.