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ECONOMY | 11-10-2023 08:10

Billionaire Paolo Rocca has a Plan B for lithium if alpha bid fails

Billionaire Paolo Rocca’s oil drilling unit will enter the lithium business one way or another.

Billionaire Paolo Rocca’s oil drilling unit will enter the lithium business one way or another — saying it’s lining up other options in case it fails with a US$1-billion plan to develop a project in Argentina. 

Tecpetrol SA is giving shareholders in Alpha Lithium Corp until October 20 to accept a “best and final offer” that’s worth US$210 million to US$230 million, said Vice-President of Energy Transition Jorge Dimopulos. If it manages to gain control of the Vancouver-based firm, Tecpetrol will plow ahead with an US$800-million investment to build Alpha’s project in Salta Province. If not, it will turn its attention to other lithium opportunities. 

“There are other companies that are trading much lower in the space and there are other things that we are pursuing,” Dimopulos said in an interview Tuesday. “We want to be a player.”

Tecpetrol is joining other Argentine oil drillers Pluspetrol SA, Pan American Energy Group and YPF SA developing projects for the battery metal in South America’s lithium triangle, which is more than 1,000 miles north of the shale fields of Vaca Muerta.

It’s counting on the support of the steel, construction and technology components in Rocca’s Techint empire to speed up development of Alpha’s project, with the goal of producing 20,000 to 25,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent by 2028. The investment would be financed in-house, with some funds possibly coming from debt or credit. Tecpetrol has also “visited all stakeholders in Chile” as the neighbouring country looks to open up new areas for lithium extraction, Dimopulos said.  

The group’s steps into lithium, wind power and hydrogen don’t mean it’s giving up on fossil fuels. Tecpetrol, one of Vaca Muerta’s biggest gas producers, plans to move into shale oil as Argentina seeks to become a significant exporter of the fuels. 

“A transition is a composition of things moving at different speeds — some accelerating and some diminishing,” he said. “There’s still room in a country like Argentina for fossil sites to develop while we are speeding new sources.”

The company is moving forward with its lithium plans ahead of pivotal presidential election — in fact, its Alpha bid expires is just two days before the first-round vote. Opposition candidates Javier Milei and Patricia Bullrich, both of whom gained momentum in a primary vote in August, promise to deregulate the heavily-controlled economy.

The outgoing administration supports lithium as another way to boost Argentina’s export revenues — though it recently announced a new tax on producers and a requirement to keep back some lithium for local battery projects.

Dimopulos said that whoever wins, Argentina’s lithium industry is an opportunity worth seizing in the long term. “Definitely the challenge has been that it’s difficult to attract investment, but Argentina is desperate to create wealth through capital investment. And that’s something the different politicians have understood.”

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by James Attwood & Jonathan Gillespie, Bloomberg

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