Codelco and Minera Salar Blanco hope to structure a sustainable lithium project in the Salar de Maricunga, with a view to launching a third lithium operation in Chile, to take advantage of current market conditions.

Both companies recently signed a non-binding agreement that will be framed within the terms of a Special Lithium Operation Contract (CEOL in Spanish) signed by the Mining Ministry and Salar de Maricunga SpA (a subsidiary of Codelco) regarding technical, economic and corporate governance standards.

If an agreement is reached, Codelco and Salar Blanco would build a robust project from a huge exploitation area, which considers the mining properties and the project developed by Minera Salar Blanco, together with the exploitation and commercialization permits of Codelco (granted for a CEOL and by the Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission, respectively) and its mining properties.

Exploration of mining properties to determine their geological potential would begin in the short term, while project construction is estimated for the end of 2020, after raising the required finance.

Codelco’s path

The President in 2016, Ms. Michelle Bachelet, requested the State copper company to enter the battery business and take advantage of this resource in Chilean soil. Accordingly, it began the search for a partner. However, bureaucracy has delayed its plans.

In 2017, Codelco requested the Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission (CCHEN) to authorize the extraction of 137,388 tons of lithium equivalent over a period of 36 years from the Salar de Pedernales.

The regulator only authorized 40,000 tons in 2018, as reserve studies did not justify a larger figure. This limit has become an obstacle in the search for partners.

A comparison of the income generated from copper exports of US$11.6 billion and lithium exports of US$828 million might indicate that lithium is not a priority for Codelco.

Minera Salar Blanco’s conversations with the authorities began in August 2018, when the company submitted a formal request for a CEOL for 2,574 ha in concessions located in the Maricunga salt flats.

At that time, the company abandoned its lawsuit against CODELCO and its intention to develop a lithium project in the Maricunga salt flats.

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