Rio Tinto’s stealth moves in WA lithium grab

Rio Tinto has quietly entered the lithium land grab unfolding in Western Australia as it looks to secure its future in battery minerals, racking up exploration tenements spanning more than 145,000 hectares in the red-hot jurisdiction that has minted billionaires and fanned takeover battles.

The Australian Financial Review can reveal that Rio has claims covering more than 61,000 hectares close to the Kathleen Valley lithium project being developed by $6.6 billion takeover target Liontown Resources.

It is also in the process of shoring up almost 46,000 hectares of exploration ground directly north and to the south-east of the Mt Ida lithium project owned by Gina Rinehart and Chris Ellison-backed Delta Lithium.

Rio’s exploration activity – most of which is pending approval by WA authorities – means it is vying for a place alongside New York-listed Albemarle and Chile’s SQM to secure lithium assets essential to the global decarbonisation effort.

Rio appears to be banking on exploration success in an area of WA dubbed the lithium “corridor of power”, and already home to its vast iron ore operations.

Chief executive Jakob Stausholm said in May that Rio was likely to sit out M&A because of the high valuations of listed lithium players. Last week, Mrs Rinehart escalated interest in the sector, snaring 7.2 per cent of Liontown, which itself is the target of a $3-a-share takeover by Albemarle.

Rio declined to comment when asked about its intentions as a potential consolidator and the exploration ground it has accumulated in roughly a 250-kilometre line from Kathleen Valley to Mt Ida. It has interests in Argentina and Serbia, too.

One of the tenement packages covers about 40,000 hectares, and is near Sandstone, where Rio has an existing partnership with ASX-listed lithium hopeful Everest Metals. Rio lodged several tenement applications in August last year and has expanded on this work with further applications made this year.

On top of its stake in Delta, Mrs Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting is exploring for lithium near Mt Ida through a partnership that involves the Indian government-backed Legacy Iron and Hawthorn Resources.

Andrew Forrest’s great-great uncle Sir John Forrest is credited for naming Mt Ida in 1869, which became the site of a gold rush in the 1890s.

Juno Minerals boss Greg Durack observed the activity centres around a geographic phenomenon known as the Mt Ida fault. Hancock is also one of the biggest shareholders in Juno, a junior exploration company with ground next to the fault.

“So far it is ticking all the boxes. Of course, you’ve got to drill holes and that’s what we’re going to do, and so we’re pretty excited about that,” Mr Durack said. “We started looking at all that lithium because of the region that we’re in.”

Mr Durack, who consulted to Pilbara Minerals for six years and ran the feasibility study on its Pilgangoora mine, said miners had pegged ground all around the fault.

ASX nickel and lithium producer IGO has a big footprint in the area through joint ventures with St George Mining and Venus Metals, and its own exploration tenements.

IGO is on the hunt for more lithium to go with its stake in the Greenbushes mine in WA’s south-west, after its moves on Essential Metals were thwarted by Mr Ellison. He subsequently backed a bid from Bill Beament’s Develop Global.

Mr Durack said Juno, whose other big backers are South Korea’s POSCO and AMCI, started paying attention to the lithium potential of its tenements just over a year ago. Until then, the company’s main focus had been its hematite iron ore project linked to Esperance port and a big magnetite iron ore deposit.

Mr Durack said the rise in lithium in WA since his days on the ground floor with Pilbara Minerals was extraordinary.

Rio managing director of battery minerals Marnie Finlayson told The Australian Financial Review last month that she was keeping an eye on the lithium projects springing up in the wider Goldfields region, where she grew up.