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There’s A Race to Secure The World’s Supply of Lithium & It’s Not as “Green” as You’d Imagine

Employees are preparing to begin blasting and digging out an enormous pit atop a long-dormant volcano in northern Nevada, which will serve as the first new large-scale lithium mine in the United States in more than a decade — a brand new home supply of a crucial ingredient in electric automobile batteries and renewable energy.

The mine, built on leased federal property, might help the U.S. reduce its near-total reliance on overseas lithium suppliers.

However, members of a Native American tribe, ranchers, and environmental groups have objected to the project, known as Lithium Americas, since it is expected to use billions of gallons of scarce groundwater, poisoning some of it for 300 years while avoiding a massive trash heap.

“Blowing up a mountain isn’t green, no matter how much marketing spin people put on it,” Max Wilbert, who has been living in a tent on the planned mine site while two lawsuits seeking to halt the project progress through federal courts, said.

The battle over the Nevada mine is symptomatic of a broader issue that appears throughout the world: electric vehicles and renewable energy are probably not as green as they appear. The extraction of raw materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, which are critical to these technologies, may be hazardous to land, water, animals, and people.

That environmental toll has typically been overlooked, in part because the United States, China, Europe, and other major nations are in a race. Governments are fighting for supremacy over minerals that would help international countries gain financial and technical domination for many years to come, similar to historical competitions and conflicts over gold and oil.

As President Biden strikes aggressively to combat local weather change, developers and lawmakers see this Nevada project, which received final approval in the final days of the Trump administration, as part of the opportunity for the United States to become a pacesetter in producing some of these uncooked supplies. Companies have proposed lithium production locations in California, Oregon, Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Nevada.

On the other hand, traditional mining is one of the dirtiest businesses on the market. Automakers and renewable-energy businesses are well aware of this reality.

“Our new clean-energy standards may end up doing more harm than good,” said Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance. This group screens mines for companies like BMW and Ford Motor. “That’s not going to happen.”

This friction helps to explain why, in recent months, a battle of sorts has erupted throughout the United States over how best to extract and create huge amounts of lithium in ways that are far less destructive than how mining has been done for many years.

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According to Bloomberg, U.S. lithium miners like these in Nevada raised about $3.5 billion from Wall Street in the first three months of 2021, which is seven times the amount raised in the previous 36 months and a sign of the current frenzy.

Some of these investors support alternative solutions, such as a scheme to mine lithium from saline water beneath California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, some 600 miles south of the Lithium Americas website.

Traders intend to extract lithium salt from the hot liquid pushed up from an aquifer more than 4,000 feet under the Salton Sea’s surface using specially coated beads. The self-contained technologies will be linked to geothermal energy vegetation that generates emission-free electricity. In the process, they want to raise funds needed to repair the lake, which has been polluted for years by toxic runoff from space farms.

Businesses are also attempting to extract lithium from brine in Arkansas, Nevada, North Dakota, and at least one other state in the U.S.
As manufacturers scale up the production of electric vehicles, the U.S. needs to find new sources of lithium as quickly as possible. Lithium is used in electric vehicle batteries because it is light-weight, can store a lot of energy, and is recharged several times. According to analysts, lithium consumption is expected to increase tenfold by the end of this decade, as Tesla, Volkswagen, General Motors, and other manufacturers debut dozens of electric vehicles. Other materials, like cobalt, are desired to keep the battery stable.

Despite having some of the world’s greatest deposits, the United States now only has one large-scale lithium mine, Silver Peak in Nevada, which began in the 1960s and produces about 5,000 tonnes per year — less than 2% of the world’s yearly supply. The majority of the raw lithium used in the United States originates from Latin America or Australia. The majority is processed and utilized in battery cells in China and other Asian countries.

In a recent interview, Mr. Biden’s energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, said, “China recently put out their next five-year plan.” “They want to be the go-to destination for battery guts, but we already have these minerals in the U.S.” We haven’t mined them because we haven’t taken advantage of them.”

She announced incentives in March to improve the manufacture of critical minerals. She stated, “This is a race to the future that America will win.”

So yet, the Biden administration has done little to encourage more ecologically friendly options, such as lithium brine extraction instead of open-pit mining. The Interior Department has refused to indicate if it would change its mind about the Lithium Americas permit, which it is now defending in court.

Mining industries and related businesses are pleading with the administration and key senators to include a $10 billion grant program in Vice President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package, citing that it is an issue of national security.

“Right now, we’re in trouble if China decides to cut us off for a variety of reasons,” said Ben Steinberg, a former Obama administration official who now works as a lobbyist. Piedmont Lithium, which is planning to establish an open-pit mine in North Carolina and is one of many companies that have formed a trade association for the industry, recruited him in January.

Investors rush to obtain licenses for fresh new mines and begin production to secure contracts with battery companies and autos.

Federal and state officials will ultimately decide which of the two options is permitted — traditional mining or brine extraction. Both may need upkeep. Much will hinge on how profitable it is for environmentalists, tribes, and native groups to oppose plans.

Edward Bartell or his ranch staff are out early every morning on a hillside, ensuring that the almost 500 cows and calves roaming his 50,000 acres in Nevada’s extreme desert have enough food. It’s been a tradition for centuries, but this is the first time the family has faced a threat quite like this.

Work on Lithium Americas’ open-pit mine, which will include a helicopter landing pad, a chemical processing plant, and trash dumps, might begin soon just a few miles from his property. The mine is expected to reach a depth of roughly 370 feet.

Mr. Bartell’s main concern is that the mine would deplete the water supply that keeps his livestock alive. The mine would use 3,224 gallons every minute, according to the business. According to a Lithium Americas guide, this might cause the water table on Mr. Bartell’s land to drop by an estimated 12 feet.

According to regulatory documents, the mine may cause groundwater pollution with elements such as antimony and arsenic while generating 66,000 tonnes of battery-grade lithium carbonate each year.

The lithium will be recovered by combining mountainous clay with 5,800 tonnes of sulfuric acid every day. This entire process might generate 354 million cubic yards of mining waste, which will be filled with discharge from the sulfuric acid treatment and may contain somewhat radioactive uranium, according to documentation.

According to a December Interior Department assessment, the mine would impair approximately 5,000 acres of winter range used by pronghorn antelope and harm sage grouse habitat throughout its 41-year lifespan. It would very certainly also destroy a nesting location for a pair of golden eagles, the feathers of which are vital in the local tribe’s ceremonial rites.

Mr. Bartell, who filed a lawsuit to stop the mine, said, “It’s incredibly aggravating that it’s being presented as an ecologically benign enterprise when it’s a large industrial site.”

Anger over the project has boiled over on the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, resulting in some fights between tribe members as Lithium Americas has offered to hire tribal members in jobs that could pay an average annual wage of $62,675 — more than twice the county’s per capita income — but with a significant trade-off.

“Tell me, what water will I drink for the next 300 years?” As a federal official came to the reservation in March to brief interim tribal officials about the mining proposal, Deland Hinkey, a member of the tribe, screamed. “Anyone, please respond to my question. What will I drink for the next 300 years after you poison my water? “You’re telling the truth!”

Although the reserve is about 50 miles from the mine site — and far outside the area where groundwater may be poisoned — tribal members are concerned that pollution will spread.

“It’s a David versus Goliath situation,” said Maxine Redstar, the chief of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, noting that the tribe had a limited meeting with the Interior Department before the project was approved. “Mining firms are big corporations,” says the narrator.

Tim Crowley, a vice president at Lithium Americas, stated that the firm would act ethically, stating that it planned to use steam generated by the combustion of molten sulfur to provide the electrical energy it requires.

Mr. Crowley stated, “We’re responding to President Biden’s demand to safeguard America’s supply chains and address the climate issue.”
A representative stated that area ranchers used a lot of water and that the corporation had purchased their allocation from another farmer to limit the increase in water consumption.

The corporation has pushed hard for safe permits, deploying a lobbying team that includes Jonathan Slemrod, a former Trump White House adviser.

Next year, lithium Americas aims to start mining operations, estimating a $3.9 billion price for recoverable lithium at the location. Ganfeng Lithium, a Chinese firm, is the business’s major stakeholder.

An Extra Act

The desert sands surrounding the Salton Sea have attracted visitors from all over the world in the past. Hollywood movies such as the “Star Wars” saga have used them as a location.

The lake was created by floods from the Colorado River more than a century ago and has since prospered. At its resorts, Frank Sinatra performed. Drought and bad management have turned it into a source of pollution throughout the years.

However, a new generation of merchants is touting the lake as one of the country’s most promising and ecologically friendly lithium opportunities.

Lithium extraction from brine has long been used in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, where the sun evaporates water from vast ponds over nearly two years. It is quite inexpensive, but it consumes a lot of water in dry locations.

At the Salton Sea, the plan being discussed is very different.

The lake is located above the Salton Buttes, which are underground volcanoes similar to Nevada’s.

CalEnergy, a Berkshire Hathaway firm, and Energy Source, another Berkshire Hathaway company, have been using the Buttes’ geothermal warmth to generate electricity for years. Natural subsurface steam is used in the procedures. Lithium is abundant in this similar water.

Berkshire Hathaway and two other companies — Controlled Thermal Resources and Materials Research — must now build up equipment to harvest lithium once the water goes through the geothermal plants, which should take only two hours.

Rod Colwell, a hefty Australian, has spent most of the last decade trying to persuade traders and politicians to utilize the brine. A backhoe plowed filth on a 7,000-acre website that his business, Controlled Thermal Resources, was developing in February.

Mr. Colwell observed, “This is the sweet spot. This is the world’s most sustainable lithium, created in America. Who would have guessed? This is a huge opportunity for us.”

Berkshire Hathaway recently notified state officials that the business expected to complete its lithium extraction demonstration facility by April 2022.

The supporters of the Salton Sea lithium projects are also collaborating with local groups in the hopes of creating excellent jobs in an area where unemployment is over 16 percent.

“Our territory is rich with natural and mineral resources,” said Luis Olmedo, president of the Comite Civico del Valle, representing space farmworkers. “However, they’re widely dispersed. The whole public has been denied a place at the table.”

The state has handed lithium extraction companies tens of millions of dollars in subsidies. The Legislature is considering mandating carmakers to utilize California sources for a portion of the lithium in the cars they sell in the state, which has the nation’s largest electric-car market, by 2035.

Even these measures, however, have generated some concerns.

Geothermal plants provide energy without emitting greenhouse gases, but they will need tens of billions of gallons of water every year to cool. Lithium extraction from brine also dredges up minerals like iron and salt, which must be removed before the brine is put back into the ground.

Attempts to harvest water from the Salton Sea have previously failed. CalEnergy proposed investing $200 million in 2000 to recover zinc and aid in restoring the Salton Sea. In 2004, the corporation abandoned the project.

However, several companies working on direct lithium extraction, such as Lilac Solutions in California and Standard Lithium in Vancouver, British Columbia, are confident they’ve perfected the technique.

Other companies have started brine extraction demonstration projects, with Standard Lithium tapping into a brine source already being taken from the ground by an Arkansas chemical facility, avoiding the need to draw additional water from the ground.

“This green component is tremendously essential,” said Robert Mintak, Standard Lithium’s CEO, who expects to manufacture 21,000 tonnes of lithium per year in Arkansas within five years provided the business can raise $440 million in funding. “The solution to the lithium problem is not the Fred Flintstone method.”

Lilac Solutions, whose investors include Controlled Thermal Resources, is also working on direct lithium extraction in Nevada, North Dakota, and at least one other unnamed U.S. location. The business estimates that these projects would create 100,000 tonnes of lithium per year, or 20 times what is now produced at home within five years.

Executives from companies like Lithium Americans wonder if these more innovative ways will supply all of the lithium the world requires.
On the other hand, automakers are willing to seek ways that have a far less environmental impact.

“We don’t want to be a party to indigenous tribes being driven out or their water being poisoned or any of those sorts of situations,” said Sue Slaughter, Ford’s purchasing director for supply chain sustainability. “We want to put pressure on the industries from whom we acquire resources to make sure they’re doing it responsibly. We will be purchasing so many of these commodities as an industry that we will have enormous power to manipulate the situation. And that is exactly what we aim to accomplish.”