Chile holds line on lithium exploration limits despite price rise

LONDON, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Chile is sticking to its policy of limiting the exploitation of its vast lithium reserves, the country’s mining minister told Reuters on Wednesday, despite a surge in prices for the battery and electronics ingredient.

Battery-grade lithium prices tripled to more than $20,000 a tonne in top consumer China over the summer as demand surged, but Chile continues to consider the mineral as “strategic” and limits its production.

Private investors, desperate to cash in on the demand-fuelled boom for lithium, which is used in electric vehicles, have criticised Chile’s policy of limiting production of a mineral that is no longer really used in nuclear applications.

“What we are saying is lithium is in the hands of the state,” Chilean mining minister Aurora Williams told Reuters on the sidelines of the LME Week industry conference in London.

Chile, which has one of the world’s most plentiful supplies of lithium, is pushing ahead with new policies to develop those reserves, with state copper miner Codelco expected to decide on a partner to develop lithium assets in the Maricunga and Pedernales salt flats in the first quarter of 2017.

The government has also signed a deal to allow U.S. firm Albemarle to increase output.

However, it said earlier this year that it would not change the way that lithium is administered, leasing out the rights to its exploitation and restricting the amount produced via quotas.

Williams said Chile had no preference as to what type of company Codelco partners with, nor does it have any front runners to date.

“We think Codelco, one of the world’s largest mining companies, can create the business model to (explore and mine lithium). It’s a (business) model that’s been tried and tested.”

By 2035, some 140 million lithium-using electric vehicles will be on the road versus just 1 million now, global miner BHP Billiton told investors at an LME Week event.

Major global lithium producers include Chile’s SQM . (Editing by Alexander Smith)