Southern Copper Corp, one of the biggest copper producers is considering an investment in a lithium project in Mexico that has also attracted interest from a Chinese firm, according to the company’s CEO Oscar Gonzalez Rocha.

Investing in lithium would be Southern Copper’s first venture into the white metal, which has sparked a flurry of exploration projects because of expectations of strong demand from electric vehicle makers. “It’s interesting and profitable,” Gonzalez said about lithium in an interview in Lima. The company has several mining operations in Peru. Gonzalez added that Southern Copper was wrapping up designs for a new foundry and refinery in Ilo, Peru, which would cost about $1.3-billion.

The proposal will likely be put to Southern Copper’s board for approval “in coming months,” with construction potentially starting this year, he added. Southern Copper would build the foundry and refinery in Ilo regardless of whether it can start work on its $1.4 billion Tia Maria copper project this year, Gonzalez said. Other copper mines in Peru, such as MMGs Las Bambas and Freeport McMoRan’s Cerro Verde, could process their copper concentrates in Ilo to save on shipping costs to China, Gonzalez said.

Tia Maria has been stalled for a decade because of opposition from farmers worried about its environmental impact. The Peruvian government recently indicated that, however, it planned to grant a construction license for Tia Maria before its environmental permit expires in August. “If they don’t give us the license, the country will suffer, the company will suffer and jobs will suffer,” Gonzalez said

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