Tianqi buys stake in lithium miner SQM from Nutrien for $4.1 billion

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - China's Tianqi Lithium Corp 002466.SZ has purchased a 23.77 percent share in Chilean lithium miner SQM SQMa.SN from Canadian fertilizer giant Nutrien NTR.TO, the Chilean stock exchange said on Monday, for a total sale price of $4.066 billion.

The sale to Tianqi comes as Chinese companies increasingly scour the globe for the raw materials necessary to ramp up Chinese production of electric vehicles.

Lithium is a key component in the batteries that power everything from cellphones to electric vehicles.

“A minority stake in SQM is great from our perspective, especially when we look at long term growth and expectations for the lithium industry,” said Ashley Ozols, business development manager for Tianqi, after the deal closed.

Tianqi struck a deal earlier this year to buy the stake from Nutrien, the company formed by the merger of Agrium and Potash Corp of Saskatchewan. As part of that deal, Nutrien was required to sell the stake.

But the Tianqi deal immediately met with scrutiny from regulators, competitors and consumer groups.

Chilean authorities initially expressed concerns that a tie-up between Tianqi and SQM would give the Chinese company a near monopoly over the global lithium market and unprecedented pricing power.

Tianqi, through Talison Lithium which it controls, is also in a joint venture with SQM's top competitor, No. 1 lithium producer Albemarle Corp ALB.N in Australia, that owns the world's biggest lithium mine, Greenbushes.

A Chilean antitrust court eventually approved the transaction, placing conditions on the sale that limit Tianqi’s access to SQM business secrets and sensitive information.

Ozols said Tianqi would nominate three directors to SQM’s board following the Chilean miner’s shareholder meeting in April.

Several groups, including SQM itself, filed appeals against the antitrust court’s decision to authorize the deal, but each was struck down, allowing it to proceed.

The country’s Constitutional Court in late October also rejected a last-ditch lawsuit by former chairman Julio Ponce Lerou, who controls SQM’s majority shareholder Pampa Group, to overturn the antitrust court’s decision.

“We will reach out to the Pampa Group and others and obviously form a good relationship so we can work together for the benefit of all SQM shareholders,” Tianqi’s Ozols said.

Nutrien has said it plans to use proceeds from selling stakes in SQM and two other companies to expand its network of farm retail stores in the United States and establish one in Brazil.

Reporting by Antonio De la Jara Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Ed Osmond and Jeffrey Benkoe