May 23, 2018 / 11:56 PM / 5 months ago

Chile high court declines to weigh in on lithium spat at Maricunga

SANTIAGO, May 23 (Reuters) - Chile's constitutional court said it would not get involved in a dispute between a foreign-backed miner and state-run copper miner Codelco over adjoining lithium deposits in the Maricunga salt flat, according to a court document seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

Salar Blanco, 50 percent-owned by Australia's Lithium Power International, with smaller stakes held by Canada's Bearing Lithium, filed suit in March before the court alleging that Codelco was constitutionally barred from mining lithium.

In an accompanying lawsuit before a lower court that has not yet issued a ruling, Salar Blanco also argued that Codelco's permit overlapped its own and was issued in error.

But the constitutional court on Wednesday declined to weigh in on the dispute. In a written decision, it said it was "the responsibility of the lower-court judge" who is reviewing the case and was not a constitutional issue.

Codelco celebrated the Constitutional Court decision as a victory, saying the decision was "unappealable."

It was unclear when the lower court might issue a ruling.

Salar Blanco did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Codelco was granted a permit to operate in Maricunga by Chile's outgoing center-left government in March, marking the copper giant's first foray into lithium, one of the world’s hottest commodities and a key ingredient in cellphone, tablet and electric vehicle batteries.

At the same time, regulators granted Salar Blanco a permit to extract about 473,135 tonnes of lithium carbonate over 30 years, also in Maricunga.

The dispute between the two miners is being watched closely by investors and foreign miners anxious to invest in Chile, which is home to half of the world's lithium reserves.

Maricunga's 90 square miles (145 square km) make it less than 5 percent the size of the sprawling Salar de Atacama in northern Chile, home to top lithium producers Albemarle and SQM , but Salar Blanco has described it as one of the “highest-grade lithium brine salars globally.” (Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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