New lithium hydroxide factory in Western Australia wins federal approval

Earthworks for a new lithium hydroxide factory in Western Australia are expected to begin this month after the $1bn project received federal environmental approval.

The plant owned by the world’s largest lithium producer, the US chemical company Albemarle, was approved by the WA government in October and is estimated to create up to 500 jobs in construction, with another 100 to 500 operational jobs once it is operational.

Australia’s trade minister, Simon Birmingham, said the plant would provide a much-needed local jobs boost and supply a growing global demand for lithium, which is used in renewable energy storage.

“This is a welcome investment and vote of confidence in our local lithium industry that will help attract further investment into the future,” Birmingham said.

Albemarle announced on Thursday that earthworks at the site at Kemerton Strategic Industrial Estate, just north of Bunbury, were on track to begin soon.

“Achieving this milestone underscores our commitment and confidence in developing LiOH [lithium hydroxide] operations and in our overall strategy to drive significant shareholder value and meet our customers’ demands,” said Eric Norris, the president of Albemarle’s lithium division.

The plant will process spodumene ore from the Greenbushes lithium mine, about 90km south of the industrial estate, and produce 60,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide annually with capacity to expand to 100,000 tonnes.

It will also produce a byproduct of up to 200,000 tonnes of sodium sulfate, and a million tonnes of tailings per annum.

The company has been ordered to identify a new breeding and foraging habitat for WA’s three threatened black cockatoo species – Carnaby’s cockatoo, Forest red-tailed cockatoo, and Baudin’s black cockatoo – to offset habitat lost by clearing the 89ha plant site, including 54ha of coastal plain vegetation that is home to a number of threatened native orchids.

The director of the Conservation Council of Western Australia, Piers Verstegen, said the environmental impacts of the project were “manageable”.

“We think on the whole it’s a positive development for the south-west and one that could provide an alternative source of employment to the coal-based jobs in Collie,” Verstegen said.

Collie, about 70km east of Bunbury, is home to four of WA’s five coal-fired power stations, fed by two open-cut coalmines.

The Albemarle plan will run on gas, but Verstegen said he hoped the company would look into running it on renewable power.

WA is the world’s largest producer of lithium, and the plant at Kemerton is the second significant lithium hydroxide manufacturing plant approved in the state since 2016.

The state established a task force aimed at promoting the lithium industry last year, and the premier, Mark McGowan, met with the directors of Albemarle on a trip to Washington DC in February.