Earlier this year, the world’s two biggest lithium producers publicly celebrated new deals with Chile’s government that will allow them to vastly increase output of the ultralight battery metal from the Atacama, the world’s driest desert.
U.S.-based Albemarle Corp and Chile’s SQM operate just 3 miles (5 km) apart in the remote Salar, a basin in the Atacama that is home to one of the world’s richest deposits of high-grade lithium. Lithium-ion batteries are key components for most consumer electronics, from cellphones and laptops to electric cars.
In celebrating the new contracts, the two companies said they were confident they could significantly boost output without drawing more than their current quotas of lithium-rich brine, or saltwater, that has for millennia accumulated in pools beneath the Atacama. The rivals said each had all the brine they needed for current and future production.
“I don’t see any issue with our ability to get (the brine) … today, tomorrow and throughout the term of that agreement,” which ends in 2043, Albemarle CEO Luke Kissam told investors in August.
But a Reuters review of filings with Chile’s environmental regulator shows Albemarle striking a different tone, expressing concern about how much brine rival SQM had been drawing and the impact that could have on future production from the area.
The true state of the Salar’s water supply, both fresh and saltwater, has become an obsession of lithium industry watchers because of the area’s huge importance in satisfying soaring global demand for the powdery white metal. The area is the most cost-efficient place in the world to mine the metal, and both SQM and Albemarle have staked much of their future production on the Salar.
In the filings, which have not been previously reported, Albemarle voices concern about a 2016 investigation by Chilean authorities that found over a period of several years SQM sucked up more of the lithium-rich brine from beneath the Salar than its permits allowed.
In a March 2017 filing, for example, Albemarle said it was critical for the authorities to determine how much SQM had overdrawn because that could affect the availability of brine for other projects.