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Rio expands in battery metals with $2.4bn lithium mine

In the latest sign that the biggest miners are pushing into metals poised to benefit from the green-energy transition.
Image: Bloomberg

Rio Tinto Group plans to spend $2.4 billion building a lithium mine in Serbia, in the latest sign that the biggest miners are pushing into metals poised to benefit from the green-energy transition.

The biggest producers are churning out record profits after commodities rallied this year, raising the question of what the industry will do with all the extra cash. Most have been focused on returning money to shareholders through dividends and buybacks — analysts are expecting more big payouts in the coming weeks, including from Rio itself when the world’s second-biggest miner reports financial results on Wednesday.

But there are also signs that the industry is increasingly keen to invest more in growing production of key “future facing” commodities like battery metals or fertiliser. Rio’s announcement marks the first big move by a mining major into lithium, which is used in rechargeable batteries.

Earlier Tuesday, larger rival BHP Group announced plans to buy the owner of a Canadian nickel project — another vital component of the types of batteries that power electric cars or back up renewable energy. Rio in May acquired a stake in a Canadian copper project, while BHP has been building a holding in a company planning to develop a giant copper mine in Ecuador, and is expected to sanction a giant potash project as soon as next month.

It also comes at a time when the biggest miners are looking to shift away from fossil fuels, increasingly shunned by investors. Rio sold its last coal mine in 2019 and is the only major miner to be fossil-fuel free. And its peers are slowly following. Anglo American Plc has agreed to sell its last thermal coal mines, while BHP is in the process of exiting thermal coal and is considering getting out of oil and gas.

Rio has been working on the Jadar project in Serbia for years, and had been expected to make an investment decision this year. The mine will help the company diversify away from iron ore, which dominates its earnings, and will allow it to produce lithium close to the key German carmaking industry.

Rio said on Tuesday that the project is expected to start operating in 2026 and hit full-production in 2029. The investment, which still depends on getting the necessary approvals in Serbia, would make the company a top-10 lithium producer.

Still, there may be obstacles. The Serbian government has promised voters it will hold a referendum on the project, while touting its benefit as a huge growth driver for the Serbian economy. Serbian authorities are opposed to exporting lithium carbonate as raw material for batteries and want to see local production of lithium-based batteries, possibly even electric-vehicles.

“The Jadar project would scale up Rio Tinto’s exposure to battery materials, and demonstrate the company’s commitment to investing capital in a disciplined manner to further strengthen its portfolio for the global energy transition,” Rio said in a statement Tuesday.

© 2021 Bloomberg

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