This year’s political moves surrounding Mexico’s lithium reserves have tested the limits of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s (AMLO) pledges to keep the country’s most precious natural resources firmly in Mexican hands.
In October, AMLO unveiled a sweeping energy reform bill that included nationalizing Mexico’s lithium deposits as a strategic mineral – a move that threw into doubt China’s ability to lock in a critical reserve of lithium to support its green energy transition plans.
Also known as “white gold” and “the new oil”, lithium is a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries that are used for green energy storage, including powering electric vehicles.
China’s Ganfeng Lithium had set its sights on upping its stake in a massive lithium mining project in Mexico’s Sonora state by buying all the concessions held by its partner in the project, United Kingdom-based mining, and exploration giant Bacanora.
After the news of AMLO’s nationalization plans hit the markets in October, the government scrambled to assure firms with active lithium mining permits in Mexico that they would be exempt from any new legislation. That, in turn, was interpreted to apply to Ganfeng, because construction had started on the Bacanora Sonora Lithium deposit in February.
Last week, Mexican regulators made good on that theoretical grandfather clause and without fanfare gave the green light to Gengfeng’s takeover of Bacanora’s Sonora lithium mining concessions.
The official exemption illustrates that AMLO’s government is willing to concede some of Mexico’s natural resources to a foreign economic power. It also reveals what analysts see as a vector of tension between AMLO’s quest for Mexican strategic mineral sovereignty and the much larger geopolitical race surrounding lithium.
Not everyone was supportive of Ganfeng’s takeover of Bacanora’s Sonora lithium mining rights.
A cohort of individual shareholders in Bacanora who call themselves the “Think BIG” Bacanora investors group, has campaigned against the takeover.
Think BIG spokesperson Dawood Patel, told Al Jazeera that they were originally promised that Ganfeng would “not try to monopolise” the Sonora lithium reserves that had “proven to be larger with every survey.” He also said that private shareholders had been “recommended” by Bacanora’s board to accept Ganfeng’s offer, even though “a significant proportion” of the risks associated with mining exploration had already been mitigated, allowing Ganfeng to “solely profit”.
“We feel the Board and Ganfeng only spoke about partnerships and production to keep us small shareholders invested until Ganfeng could take control at an opportune moment,” Patel said, adding that his group is also concerned about “the geopolitical risks in allowing one of the world’s largest lithium resources to fall under the control of a single country”.
“This is a resource that the world – including Mexico – should benefit from,” he said.
The global race for lithium
As economies around the world decarbonise, the race has only intensified to lock in lithium supply chains.
Ganfeng, which supplies Tesla with lithium, accounted for 24 percent of the global output of lithium hydroxide last year, according to China Minmetals – a substantial increase of the 18 percent market share it commanded in 2019.
With warnings of potential lithium shortages looming, Mexico’s lithium deposits, as well as those in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, have become prime prizes in the ever-heating competition between Washington and Beijing for economic supremacy and influence over the most powerful industries of the near future.
Margaret Myers, director of the Asia and Latin America Program at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, said that China “will rely on lithium in order to ensure that it grows efficiently in the coming years”.
As such, lithium in Latin America is “a critical mineral for its (China’s) own growth, and also a potential choke point” with the US or with other countries that may rely heavily on lithium, as well as rare piles of earth and other tech essential minerals.
Source: El Financiero