September 27, 2018 / 6:20 PM / in 18 days

Foreign-backed miner hopes to begin Chilean lithium project in 2020

SANTIAGO, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Foreign-backed Salar Blanco expects to begin construction on its lithium mining project at the beginning of 2020 in Chile’s north, once its environmental permit is approved by the government.

The approval process for the necessary environmental permit for the initiative, which includes an investment of $527 million, began this month. Salar Blanco CEO Cristobal Garcia-Huidobro said he expects it to be approved by the end of next year. Garcia-Huidobro said the company is in talks with Chilean authorities to finalize the project’s operation, considering it already has the permission of the nuclear power regulator.

“We are working very closely with the ministry of mining in order to define what will be the best structure to use,” Garcia-Huidobro told Reuters.

The Maricunga salt flat, where Salar Blanco’s project is located, lies about 450 miles (740 kilometers) northeast of capital Santiago and 3,756 meters above sea level. It is a highly prized deposit in the lithium triangle, a concentration of the largest reserves below Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.

Lithium is a key ingredient in batteries used for products ranging from cell phones to electric vehicles.

Garcia-Huidobro said the mining company has the necessary water rights for the entire project amid concerns about water scarcity in Chile.

Salar Blanco aims to produce 20,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year and 58,000 tons of potassium chloride. EXPANSION POTENTIAL

Salar Blanco said it identified 2.15 million tonnes of lithium carbonate at the site of its Maricunga project.

“We have resources that probably more than triple the size of the project. Therefore, the future growth capabilities of this project will depend on how the market develops,” García-Huidobro said.

In July, the company dropped a lawsuit against Chile to block state-run Codelco from exploiting a lithium deposit where both have claims.

Garcia-Huidobro attributed the decision to a positive attitude in the administration of center-right President Sebastian Pinera to encourage investments aimed at growing the economy of the world’s largest copper producer.

The company is in talks with China’s Sichuan Fulin Industrial Group, which has plans to construct a materials plant in Chile with an investment of $100 million in its first phase.

Fulin was one of the favored companies in a bid by Chile to develop investments linked to lithium in an agreement with local miners SQM and Albemarle in order to offer a preferential price for companies that operate in the country. (Reporting Fabian Cambero, writing by Cassandra Garrison Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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