An environmental impact assessment (EIA) for CODELCO’s Maricunga project was qualified by the Commission of Atacama Environmental Assessment on 5 November, following a commendation of approval by the Atacama Environmental Assessment Service in October. Qualification of the EIA allows CODELCO to undertake exploration at the project to determine the environmental and economic potential for commercial-scale lithium brine extraction and processing. Exploration is scheduled to take up to 10 months, during which a mineral resource estimate is expected to be calculated.
The Maricunga project has long been a target of lithium development companies and CODELCO. In 2016, the company was requested to investigate the salar jointly with the Chilean Ministry of Mining. Ownership of the salar is distributed between multiple parties such as SQM, Bearing Lithium and Lithium Power International, which CODELCO has made attempts to consolidate through joint development agreements.
Historically, regulation limiting the exploration of lithium deposits in Chile has hindered project development. More recently, project development has been hindered by the fragmented ownership of tenements covering the salar, introduction of lithium royalty payments in Chile and falling lithium prices, making investment unattractive.
Development of the Maricunga project would be a significant step for Chilean lithium production, which has been confined to the Salar de Atacama despite the increase in lithium demand and prices during the mid to late 2010s and significant foreign interest in developing projects in the country. Whilst the Maricunga project itself may not represent a significant source of lithium, being relatively small compared to the Salar de Atacama, and with water usage regulation being at the forefront of many Chilean developers, its development could unlock further development of the many other Chilean based salars which have been identified to contain lithium bearing brines, such as the Salar de Pedernales and the Salar Piedra Parada.
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