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Chile wants to nationalize its priceless lithium supply as the EV revolution heats up

Lucas Aguayo Araos/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The electric vehicle revolution could be worth over $1 trillion before the end of this decade, and countries are realizing that they need to carve out their role in the burgeoning industry before it’s too late. Chile, one of the biggest suppliers of crucial materials used in EVs, is the latest nation to stake its claim.

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Gabriel Boric, Chile’s president since March 2022, announced plans to nationalize and safeguard the country’s precious supply of lithium on Thursday, framing the new policy proposal as an unmissable opportunity for Chile to place itself in a stronger position as demand heats up for green technologies that require the valuable metal.

“Chile holds one of the largest reserves of lithium in the world, a mineral used for battery storage, energy, and electric vehicles, is key in the fight against the climate crisis, and is an opportunity for economic development that will likely not be repeated in the short term,” Boric said in a public address Thursday.

“Our challenge is to turn our country into the primary producer of lithium in the world,” he continued, laying out a five-point plan to turn Chile into a global lithium powerhouse, which includes “the state participating in the entire productive cycle” of lithium under the guidance of a state-owned national lithium company.

Chile is indeed home to one of the world’s largest deposits of lithium, the metal used to manufacture everything from EV batteries to smartphones. The country holds 11 million tons of the metal, the third-largest reserve in the world behind neighbors Bolivia and Argentina, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Chile’s reserves are located in the Atacama Desert, in an area overlapping the three countries known as the Lithium Triangle where two-thirds of global proven reserves and half of its current supply hail from.

But Chile, as well as its neighboring countries, have relatively little say in the global lithium market, which could be worth over $20 billion by 2030. China accounts for around 60% of the world’s lithium processing capacity, meaning that despite being responsible for only 14% of mining, China is the runaway leader in downstream areas, such as lithium refinement and global shipping.

China is especially dominant in South America, where it gobbles up a large portion of Chile’s reserves. Since 2018, Sichuan-based Tianqi Lithium has also held a near-quarter stake in SQM—one of only two companies that extract and produce lithium in Chile. Chinese EV giant BYD—which boasts the largest fleet of electric cars in the world—also announced on Friday plans for a nearly $300 million lithium cathode factory in northern Chile.

In Boric’s proposal to nationalize the country’s lithium supply, the state will target getting a larger stake in mining projects with SQM and U.S.-based Albemarle—the other primary lithium company—to oversee the remainder of their contracts. Meanwhile, Codelco, a state-owned mining firm that is the world’s largest copper producer, will be tasked with overseeing new mining contracts and establishing a framework for a dedicated state-owned lithium company to operate at a later date.

“Any private company, whether foreign or local, that wants to exploit lithium in Chile must partner with the state,” Boric said. The proposal still needs legislative approval, which Boric said he would seek later this year.

“This is the best chance we have at transitioning to a sustainable and developed economy,” he added. “We do not have the luxury of wasting it.”

Countries began taking lithium’s economic opportunity more seriously in 2021 when lithium prices soared owing to high demand and insufficient mining and processing capacity. Between January 2021 and the commodity’s last price peak in November 2022, lithium prices rose over 500%, sparking fears in the mining industry and among EV leaders including Tesla CEO Elon Musk that the world was facing a severe lithium shortage that would be unable to keep up with surging demand for EVs.

Lithium prices have fallen precipitously since late 2022, however, down 30% this year as a result of slowing EV sales in key markets, particularly China. Prices are still high relative to historical levels, and analysts say the market is normalizing after an unusually long run.

Chile isn’t the only country to take steps toward nationalizing lithium as the electric vehicle revolution takes hold. Zimbabwe, with 690,000 tons in reserves, banned raw lithium exports last year in a bid for greater control of the mineral’s supply chain, claiming it was losing billions of dollars outsourcing refinement to foreign companies. Mexico, with 1.7 million tons, began the nationalization process of its own industry last year, and in February President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador signed a new decree enabling the country’s energy ministry to “take the actions necessary” toward nationalization.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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