Australian miners ramp up search for lithium to meet EV demand

Image: The Pilgangoora lithium-tantalum project. (Courtesy of Pilbara Minerals.)

Exploration spending by Australian-listed miners hit an eight-year high in the fourth quarter of 2021, driven by the search for new lithium resources to meet surging demand from battery and electric vehicle makers. 

Miners invested A$973 million ($700 million) in the three months ended Dec. 31, according to a report by consultancy BDO, up 11% on the prior quarter. The spending lift was supported by a record A$3.75 billion worth of financing flowing into the sector through equity and debt raisings.

“It’s not just a continuation of the trend we’ve seen in the last three or four quarters, it’s a substantial increase,” Sherif Andrawes, BDO’s Global Head of Natural Resources, said in a phone interview. Miners were spending more on investment and exploration, while steady access to capital meant they had been able to replenish their funds, he added. 

Prices for a wide range of raw materials, from copper and nickel to iron ore, have surged on the back of government stimulus spending to boost the economic recovery from the pandemic. The mining industry is stepping up its efforts to find new resources to meet strong demand and cash in on the strong price environment, but is playing catch up after years of under-investment. 

Cash flowed freely into the lithium sector, as producers scrambled to bring new resources on stream to help reduce a supply deficit forecast in the years ahead. 

The key battery mineral overtook gold in attracting the most capital, receiving over A$2 billion in financing in 2021. Liontown Resources Ltd., which is developing a lithium project in Western Australia, had the single biggest fund raising in the December quarter, earning A$450 million via an equity issue. 

“The time is right for lithium now,” Andrawes said. He also noted a trend toward lithium producers investing in processing infrastructure, to allow them to play a broader role in the EV battery supply chain. 

“By doing so, these companies have positioned themselves to become more than just a lithium mining company, but also a provider of battery products and components that feed into the EV and renewables industries,” the report said. 

BDO expects growth in exploration activity to continue, backed by strong capital inflows, although the sector may be constrained by the availability of resources, Covid-related travel restrictions and a shortage of skilled labor. Some 740 junior miners lodged quarterly cashflow reports to the Australian exchange in the December quarter, up from 704 the previous quarter.

(By James Thornhill)

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