Rio Tinto pulls offer for stake in world’s largest lithium miner

Processing area of SQM’s lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat, the world’s second biggest, and the largest lithium deposit currently in production, with over a quarter of the world’s known reserves. (Image: SQM via YouTube.)

Global miner Rio Tinto (ASX, LON:RIO) is said to have ditched plans to own a stake in Chile’s Chemical and Mining Society (SQM), the world’s largest lithium producer, due to a mix of tricky politics and the fact that such miner is currently the target of several claims.

Chilean authorities accuse SQM of underpaying royalties, environmental violations and illicit political financing, which have made the sale process complex, raising at the same time the specter of delays or a steep price discount, local paper Diario Financiero reports (in Spanish).

Decision to withdraw offer for Nutrien’s 32% stake in SQM, worth about $5 billion at current market prices, doesn’t mean Rio Tinto has abandoned plans to capitalize on the electric-car boom.

The company has denied those allegations, adding it is sure a high-stakes arbitration with the government over royalties in Chile’s Atacama salt flat will be resolved in its favour.

Rio’s decision withdraw an offer for Nutrien’s 32% stake in the Santiago-based lithium miner, worth about $5 billion at current market prices, doesn’t mean the company has abandoned plans to capitalize on the electric-car boom, the article says.

The firm is already working on developing its 100%-owned lithium and borates mineral asset in Jadar, Serbia. The project, which is in the early stages of development, could meet about 10% of current global demand for the white metal.

Nutrien, formed through Canada’s Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan (TSX, NYSE:POT) recent friendly merger with Agrium, must sell its stake in SQM to meet a condition imposed by Indian regulators when approving that link-up.

They have given the fertilizer company until April 2019 to divest its stake in the Chilean miner.

SQM, which has a market value at just over $15 billion, produced roughly 44,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate last year and is developing new projects both in its home-country and Australia.

Laws enacted in the 1970s and 1980s classify lithium as a “strategic” commodity for Chile on the grounds it can be used in nuclear-fusion power plants. While the South American nation is very unlikely to build one of those facilities any time soon, controls on lithium production remain and only two firms — SQM and US chemical company Albemarle Corporation (NYSE:ALB) — are currently allowed to mine the white metal used in electric car batteries.