Activist short seller J Capital Research has put ASX market darling Vulcan Energy (ASX:VUL) in its cross hairs, calling the company a “wannabe lithium miner” which “based highly optimistic assumptions for (its) project on work done by small consultancies that were owned by management and acquired by Vulcan.”

Vulcan Energy, J Capital — game on

Vulcan owns the Zero Carbon Lithium Project in Germany’s Upper Rhine Valley, where it promises to produce both renewable electricity and lithium on a ‘carbon negative’ basis from deep geothermal wells.

Excitement around the project has seen Vulcan raise more than $300 million from investors this year alone, secure lithium offtake deals with Umicore and LG and bring Australia’s richest person Gina Rinehart on board as a backer.

The company’s shares are up more than 6,000% since its management engineered a reverse takeover of minerals explorer Koppar Resources, having dropped in recent weeks from a high of more than $16 — 80x Vulcan’s 20c share price in early 2020.

That market exuberance transferred through to Kuniko (ASX:KNI), an arguably run of the mill Scandinavian base metals explorer spun out of Vulcan that mooned on listing in August.

Vulcan has also been the subject of some scepticism. While it maintains both its component parts of geothermal energy generation and direct lithium extraction are well understood and existing commercial technologies, no geothermal lithium project has entered commercial production to date.

“They claim the project is a twofer: profitable geothermal power and “green” lithium,” J Capital’s Tim Murray wrote in the note, titled ‘Vulcan: God of Empty Promises’.

“Neither assertion is likely to be true. ”

“Our research shows that the project may never actually get under way: the costs are higher than the company claims, output will be lower, the environmental impact is brutal enough that public outcry will block permits, as has happened before in the area, and the quality of the lithium resource is low.

“Many experts agree with us that this project is a non-starter.”

What was Vulcan’s response?

Pre-market indicators on Commsec suggested Vulcan, which was trading at $14.99 and a market valuation of $1.87 billion, was looking at 13% hit to its share price on the open this morning (now more like 10% according to Commsec).

It is now in a trading halt to prepare a detailed response to the J Capital Research note, after issuing a brief riposte this morning.

In it, Vulcan took aim at Murray’s background, as well as J Capital’s disclaimer that it plans to profit off shorting the stocks it reports on and does not hold an Australian Financial Services License.

“The report is authored by a Mr. Tim Murray, co-founder of J-Capital, who according to his own bio has lived in China for 19 years and has a degree in “Chinese Political Economy”,” Vulcan said.

“Based on his online profile, it is not apparent that Mr. Murray has any technical qualifications in geothermal energy or lithium extraction.”

“Mr. Murray’s report makes a large number of inaccurate statements and assertions regarding Vulcan and its Zero Carbon Lithium™ Project — in particular its Pre-Feasibility Study (PFS) published over nine months ago.

“Given the warning on J Capital’s website, it is clear the report is merely an attempt to profit from ‘shorting’ Vulcan.”

Vulcan went on to trumpet the “globally unique experience in geothermal energy project development and direct lithium extraction” across its 80 person team, saying it was committed to delivering the project.

“We are highly motivated towards achieving our goals of decarbonising these industries, and will always happily dedicate time and effort to answer any questions about our Zero Carbon Lithium™ Project that come from stakeholders with a genuine interest in the Company and the Project,” Vulcan claimed.

A more detailed response to the claims made in the J Capital report appears to be on its way.

What did J Capital claim?

J Capital claimed in its report that several positive claims made by Vulcan in its January pre-feasibility study were inflated. The PFS gave the Zero Carbon Lithium Project a 2.8 billion Euro NPV.

Murray said “assumptions in the PFS that beautify the project are easily disproved.”

He claims Vulcan has likely overstated its flow rates and recoveries in the PFS, and ignored evidence of community opposition to geothermal energy projects in Germany and adjacent regions of France.

He also criticised the use of Vulcan co-founder Horst Kreuter’s consultancy Geo-T, later purchased by Vulcan, in its PFS.

Murray claimed Kreuter received 1.5m performance shares on the successful completion of the PFS, and resigned as a director on March 25.

Vulcan also acquired Gec-co, which had worked on the PFS, having appointed its CEO and owner Thorsten Weimann as COO of Vulcan.

“Gec-co and GeoT provided a key assumption for the PFS, for flow rate, that is unrealistic,” Murray claimed.

“The recovery rate for lithium is also unrealistic. Realistic assumptions would halve the output of lithium and kill the commercial viability of the project.”

Among a litany of other claims, J Capital says Vulcan has published an unrealistic production schedule and is likely to face significant public opposition, something MD Francis Wedin said was not likely in an interview with Stockhead in July, and that geothermal wells often have a high failure rate.

Although it released a statement this morning, Vulcan requested a trading halt “pending an announcement to the market in order to prepare a response to an online report.”

Vulcan Energy share price today: