Nutrien says SQM top shareholder seeking to block Tianqi deal for ‘personal benefit’

Brine pools and processing areas of SQM’s lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat, the world’s second biggest. (Image courtesy of SQM.)

Canada’s Nutrien (TSX:NTR), the world’s largest potash miner whose attempt to sell its 24 percent stake in Chilean lithium miner SQM to China’s Tianqi has been hindered by a row about competitive risks, accused SQM’s largest shareholder of blocking the deal for “personal benefit”.

In an interview with a Chilean newspaper El Mercurio (in Spanish), Nutrien’s executive vice-president Michael Webb, described Julio Ponce, the Chilean miner’s top shareholder and former chairman, as a “hypocrite” and urged him to “look beyond himself.”

Webb said he believed that Ponce was trying to block the $4.1 billion-deal only to keep his dominant position in SQM, the world’s second largest producer of the metal used in electric-vehicle batteries.

Executive vice-president Michael Webb described SQM’s top shareholder and former chairman, Julio Ponce, as a “hypocrite” and urged him to “look beyond himself.”

“His stance is undoubtedly hypocritical, considering that we know he was trying for a year to sell 80% of his investment in SQM to a number of actors, including Tianqi,” Webb said, adding that Nutrien would “protect its interests”.

Earlier this month, Chile’s antitrust court signed off on an agreement struck by Tianqi with the country’s competition regulator FNE over its proposed acquisition of Nutrien’s stake in SQM, which keeps a lid on the Chinese miner’s influence in the lithium miner.

But Ponce objected to the extrajudicial agreement, arguing that it would still give Tianqi  “unrestricted access” to “confidential and sensitive information.”

Lithium carbonate prices have been drifting lower from highs in December, trading around the $12,000 a tonne according to the latest estimate from the Metal Bulletin. The figure is still considerably higher than the $6,450 per-tonne-price at the beginning of 2015.

Unlike cobalt, another crucial battery ingredient, the so-called “white petroleum” is abundant and existing brine producers in South America have the capacity to quickly increase output. Combined with many hard-rock projects coming on stream in Australia, last year’s roughly 220kt of production could more than triple within less than a decade.