In the 1950s and ‘60s, California’s Salton Sea was a tourist hot spot. Its popularity waned with sinking water levels and rising salinity, but today the nearly abandoned lake is getting new life—as a valuable source of lithium, the critical mineral required for EVs and other clean technologies, according to DW.com.
What’s going on: “As the edges of the Salton Sea recede, pools of salty, lithium-rich brine are left below ground. In this way the death of the Salton Sea, which is being caused partly by drought conditions worsened by climate change, is becoming part of the solution for mitigating climate change.”
- In 2021, President Biden signed an executive order requiring that half of all cars sold in the U.S. by 2030 be electric, “but the US isn’t prepared to manufacture electric vehicles at that level. A critical limiting factor is that the US produces very little lithium domestically.”
Why it’s important: Currently, the U.S. relies heavily on imports for its lithium needs—which is troubling from both humanitarian and environmental standpoints.
- Overseas, “hard rock lithium mining involves digging vast, open pits to pull out rocks like spodumene, which then need to be roasted and dissolved in acid. It’s a fossil fuel-intensive process, and has a devastating impact on the local environment.”
- In Myanmar, for example, the cost is very high, according to an AP investigation. The villagers in one northern forest that boasts rich supplies of critical minerals “face the threat of death” if they complain about the environmental toll of the mining taking place around their homes, the AP reports.
- They also regularly experience “theft of land … and the funneling of money to brutal militias, including at least one linked to Myanmar’s secretive military government. As demand soars for rare earths along with green energy, the abuses are likely to grow.”
The U.S. difference: Increasing domestic lithium extraction is the answer.
- At the Salton Sea, “three companies are racing to tap into this immense lithium resource. If their projects succeed, they will establish a method for extracting lithium without the negative impacts of conventional lithium mining,” DW reports.
- Unlike hard rock lithium mining, the Salton Sea projects would connect to existing geothermal power plants that pump hot brine from underground and use the steam generated to create electricity.
On-site battery production: The U.S. also plans to build battery factories near the body of water, “which could change the EV battery supply chain on a global scale,” according to DW.com.
- “By manufacturing batteries on-site, the carbon emissions from shipping lithium around the world are cut. Additionally, the US gains the strategic advantage of controlling part of the lithium supply chain, which could be of vital importance if conflicts between China and the US were to trigger sanctions.”
The last word: “The U.S. has the most thorough regulatory oversight of any democracy in the world—and we shouldn’t see that as an obstacle in critical mineral extraction, but rather as an opportunity to ensure minimal environmental impact, the promotion of human rights, U.S. economic competitiveness and more,” said NAM Senior Director of Energy & Resources Policy Nile Elam.
- “However, there is room for improvement when it comes to permitting of these projects. The NAM has long argued for meaningful permitting improvements and the elimination of duplicative reviews. These changes could legitimately improve domestic critical mineral supply chains and strengthen countless industries with the raw materials necessary for their products.”