By Dave Sherwood and Ernest Scheyder
SANTIAGO/HOUSTON (Reuters) - Albemarle Corp (ALB.N) has launched an aggressive lobbying campaign after Chilean regulators denied its request to boost lithium output, stressing the company's importance to Chile's economy and workers, according to records reviewed by Reuters.
The behind-the-scenes moves come even as Albemarle has publicly brushed off worries from analysts and investors about rising regulatory pressure in Chile, home to the world's largest reserves of lithium, a crucial ingredient in electric car batteries and mobile phones.
Ellen Lenny-Pessagno, who became Albemarle's Chile country manager in October, met with the Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission (CCHEN) on Nov. 23 to discuss the rejection, according to filings with Chile's lobbyist transparency website that have been previously unreported.
The nuclear agency, which oversees lithium sales and export from Chile, had rejected Albemarle's request in September to increase its quota to sell lithium. That effectively stunted the long-term expansion plans of the world's top producer of the ultralight metal.
Albemarle Chief Executive Luke Kissam stressed in a November conference call with investors that the rejection from CCHEN was "not a big deal, OK? It's not a big deal."
But Lenny-Pessagno, a former diplomat who has held senior roles with the U.S. State Department advocating for U.S. renewable energy companies in Spain, Chile and Colombia, told CCHEN's interim director, Mauricio Lichtemberg, that the regulator's September decision was having an impact on its workers and investors, according to minutes from the meeting.
Albemarle did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Lenny-Pessagno discussed "how important Albemarle is to Chile from an investment standpoint, as a source of direct employment and for contractors," the minutes show.
Albemarle pays Chile more than $100 million annually in lithium royalties, giving it some financial and political sway in the country.
Lenny-Pessagno's visit to CCHEN was the second in as many months by an Albemarle executive. Eric Norris, chief of Albemarle's lithium division, had flown to Santiago from the company's North Carolina headquarters in October, shortly after the rejection, according to the lobbyist transparency records.
AUSTRALIA VS. CHILE?
Lenny-Pessagno also referred to the U.S.-based miner's investments in other countries, meeting minutes show.
She told Chile's nuclear regulator that Albemarle was making new investments in Australia, which vies with Chile to be the world's top lithium producer.
The day before the meeting, Albemarle had announced a $1.15 billion deal to form a joint venture with Australia's Mineral Resources Ltd (MIN.AX).
That venture, if finalised, would eventually produce more lithium than Albemarle has authorization to sell from Chile.
CCHEN's Lichtemberg reiterated to Lenny-Pessagno the same points it had made in the initial ruling in September, the minutes show.
The agency has not responded to Reuters requests for comment on the details of the rejection.
But it has said that Albemarle had failed to provide requested details about how it plans to triple lithium production from Chile's Salar de Atacama without using more water.
Regulators are cracking down on water use by both copper and lithium miners in the salar, which lies at the heart of the world's driest desert.
Last month, Reuters reported that environmental regulators had rejected Albemarle's plans to build a plant to process 42,500 tonnes of lithium carbonate annually on Chile's coast, another critical facet of its long-term plans.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder and Dave Sherwood, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)