Lithium mining key to climate action under new review in Chile

SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, Chile – Plans to expand lithium mining in Chile, the world’s second-largest producer, encountered political hurdle...


SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, Chile – Plans to expand lithium mining in Chile, the world’s second-largest producer, encountered political hurdles this week, raising new questions about the supply of a high-demand metal as the world is moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources.

Lithium is used in batteries, including those that power electric vehicles, and demand is skyrocketing globally. It is also at the heart of a deep debate among Chileans, who disagree about the social and environmental risks of lithium mining. The New York Times reported last week on the consequences of mining for lithium in the ecologically sensitive salt marshes of northern Chile and how a new constitution, being drafted by an elected body, could change the mining sector, water rights and the country’s response to climate change.

The outgoing government of President Sebastián Piñera in October launched a call for tenders to private companies to increase lithium production to 400,000 tonnes per year. But that plan has come under renewed scrutiny.

On Tuesday, center-left opposition MPs Partido por la Democracia, or Party for Democracy, lodged an objection with an appeals court in the capital, Santiago, demanding that the bids be stopped. And on Wednesday, the centrist Christian Democrats introduced a bill to the Chilean legislature to prevent sitting presidents from inviting new mining contract bids in the last 90 days of a term.

Also on Wednesday, advisers to President-elect Gabriel Boric, who takes office in March, met with the current government to express their concerns over the lack of a national policy on the future of lithium. The latest call for tenders would create lithium mining contracts over a 29-year period.

Mr. Boric’s supporters have in the past urged the outgoing government to withhold offers.

Diego Pardow, one of Boric’s advisers, said the president-elect’s team favored what he called “common ground” between the outgoing government and the incoming administration.

Juan Carlos Jobet, the outgoing government’s energy and mines minister, said he would look into the new government’s “legitimate concerns”, including the suspension of the bidding process.

How to manage lithium production is possibly one of the most difficult issues facing Mr Boric, a former leftist student leader who campaigned on the pledge to expand the social safety net and take ambitious action for the climate. With soaring prices in the global market, lithium mining could bring in huge sums of money for its government, even though it carries as yet unknown risks to the region’s ecology. Finally, the extraction of lithium divides the indigenous peoples of the region.

Mr. Boric has said little about his lithium projects, other than proposing the creation of a national lithium company. Currently, two companies, Albemarle and Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile, or SQM, produce lithium under contracts with the government.

Somini Sengupta contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Lithium mining key to climate action under new review in Chile
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