SANTIAGO (Reuters) – With residents and courts ringing the alarm about depleted water supplies in Chile’s Atacama salt flat, the world’s top lithium miner Albemarle (ALB.N) quietly filed a proposal in December for a network to monitor flows beneath the parched desert floor.
The previously unreported move is an indication of how important it has become for miners to prove their supplies of the so-called “white gold” battery metal are sustainable as they court automakers preparing for the coming electric vehicle revolution.
Car companies have ratcheted up scrutiny in the Atacama, by far the biggest source of supply in South America’s so-called “lithium triangle,” where one lithium producer is locked in a court battle over pumping of brine and a copper miner has opted for pricey desalination over drawing water from local aquifers.
“What we’re seeing is a scrutiny of how lithium is being produced, and particularly, in the Salar de Atacama,” Ellen Lenny-Pessagno, Albemarle’s Chile manager, told Reuters in an interview in capital city Santiago. “They want data.”
She said a team from Germany’s biggest car maker Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) – which expects to produce 1.5 million electric autos by 2025 – visited the Atacama last month to scope out the social and environmental impact of mining operations there.