The lithium gold rush: Inside the race to power electric vehicles
The lithium gold rush: Inside the race to power electric vehicles
Echoing past contests and wars over gold and oil, governments are fighting for supremacy over minerals that could help countries achieve economic and technological dominance for decades to come
By Ivan Penn and Eric Lipton
Published: May 8, 2021
Members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe protest outside the offices of the federal Bureau of Land Management in Winnemucca, Nev., on March 18, 2021, before beginning a prayer run to Thacker Pass, the site where a new lithium mine would operate. A race is on to produce lithium in the United States, but competing projects are taking very different approaches to extracting the vital raw material. Image: Gabriella Angotti-Jones/The New York Times
Atop a long-dormant volcano in northern Nevada, workers are preparing to start blasting and digging out a giant pit that will serve as the first new large-scale lithium mine in the United States in more than a decade — a new domestic supply of an essential ingredient in electric car batteries and renewable energy.
The mine, constructed on leased federal lands, could help address the nearly total reliance by the United States on foreign sources of lithium.
But the project, known as Lithium Americas, has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers and environmental groups because it is expected to use billions of gallons of precious groundwater, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.
“Blowing up a mountain isn’t green, no matter how much marketing spin people put on it,” said Max Wilbert, who has been living in a tent on the proposed mine site while two lawsuits seeking to block the project wend their way through federal courts.
The fight over the Nevada mine is emblematic of a fundamental tension surfacing around the world: Electric cars and renewable energy may not be as green as they appear.
Production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel that are essential to these technologies are often ruinous to land, water, wildlife and people.
That environmental toll has often been overlooked in part because there is a race underway among the United States, China, Europe and other major powers. Echoing past contests and wars over gold and oil, governments are fighting for supremacy over minerals that could help countries achieve economic and technological dominance for decades to come.
Developers and lawmakers see this Nevada project, given final approval in the last days of the Trump administration, as part of the opportunity for the United States to become a leader in producing some of these raw materials as President Joe Biden moves aggressively to fight climate change. In addition to Nevada, businesses have proposed lithium production sites in California, Oregon, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina.
But traditional mining is one of the dirtiest businesses out there. That reality is not lost on automakers and renewable-energy businesses.
“Our new clean energy demands could be creating greater harm, even though its intention is to do good,” said Aimee Boulanger, executive director for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a group that vets mines for companies like BMW and Ford Motor. “We can’t allow that to happen.”
This friction helps explain why a contest of sorts has emerged in recent months across the United States about how best to extract and produce the large amounts of lithium in ways that are much less destructive than how mining has been done for decades.
Just in the first three months of 2021, U.S. lithium miners like those in Nevada raised nearly $3.5 billion from Wall Street — seven times the amount raised in the prior 36 months, according to data assembled by Bloomberg, and a hint of the frenzy underway.
Some of those investors are backing alternatives including a plan to extract lithium from briny water beneath California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, about 600 miles south of the Lithium Americas site.
At the Salton Sea, investors plan to use specially coated beads to extract lithium salt from the hot liquid pumped up from an aquifer more than 4,000 feet below the surface. The self-contained systems will be connected to geothermal power plants generating emission-free electricity. And in the process, they hope to generate the revenue needed to restore the lake, which has been fouled by toxic runoff from area farms for decades.
Businesses are also hoping to extract lithium from brine in Arkansas, Nevada, North Dakota and at least one more location in the United States.
The United States needs to quickly find new supplies of lithium as automakers ramp up manufacturing of electric vehicles. Lithium is used in electric car batteries because it is lightweight, can store lots of energy and can be repeatedly recharged. Analysts estimate that lithium demand is going to increase tenfold before the end of this decade as Tesla, Volkswagen, General Motors and other automakers introduce dozens of electric models. Other ingredients like cobalt are needed to keep the battery stable.
Even though the United States has some of the world’s largest reserves, the country today has only one large-scale lithium mine, Silver Peak in Nevada, which first opened in the 1960s and is producing just 5,000 tons a year — less than 2% of the world’s annual supply. Most of the raw lithium used domestically comes from Latin America or Australia, and most of it is processed and turned into battery cells in China and other Asian countries.
“China just put out its next five-year plan,” Biden’s energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, said in a recent interview. “They want to be the go-to place for the guts of the batteries, yet we have these minerals in the United States. We have not taken advantage of them, to mine them.”
In March, she announced grants to increase production of crucial minerals. “This is a race to the future that America is going to win,” she said.
So far, the Biden administration has not moved to help push more environmentally friendly options — like lithium brine extraction instead of open-pit mines. The Interior Department declined to say whether it would shift its stand on the Lithium Americas permit, which it is defending in court.
Mining companies and related businesses want to accelerate domestic production of lithium and are pressing the administration and key lawmakers to insert a $10 billion grant program into Biden’s infrastructure bill, arguing that it is a matter of national security.
“Right now, if China decided to cut off the U.S. for a variety of reasons, we’re in trouble,” said Ben Steinberg, an Obama administration official turned lobbyist. He was hired in January by Piedmont Lithium, which is working to build an open-pit mine in North Carolina and is one of several companies that has created a trade association for the industry.
Investors are rushing to get permits for new mines and begin production to secure contracts with battery companies and automakers.
Ultimately, federal and state officials will decide which of the two methods — traditional mining or brine extraction — is approved. Both could take hold. Much will depend on how successful environmentalists, tribes and local groups are in blocking projects.
On a hillside, Edward Bartell or his ranch employees are out early every morning making sure that the nearly 500 cows and calves that roam his 50,000 acres in Nevada’s high desert have enough feed. It has been a routine for generations, but the family has never before faced a threat quite like this.
A few miles from his ranch, work could soon start on Lithium Americas’ open-pit mine that will represent one of the largest lithium production sites in U.S. history, complete with a helicopter landing pad, a chemical processing plant and waste dumps. The mine will reach a depth of about 370 feet.
Bartell’s biggest fear is that the mine will consume the water that keeps his cattle alive. The company has said the mine will consume 3,224 gallons per minute. That could cause the water table to drop on land Bartell owns by an estimated 12 feet, according to a Lithium Americas consultant.
While producing 66,000 tons a year of battery-grade lithium carbonate, the mine may cause groundwater contamination with metals including antimony and arsenic, according to federal documents.
The lithium will be extracted by mixing clay dug out from the mountainside with as much as 5,800 tons a day of sulfuric acid. This whole process will also create 354 million cubic yards of mining waste that will be loaded with discharge from the sulfuric acid treatment and may contain modestly radioactive uranium, permit documents disclose.
A December assessment by the Interior Department found that over its 41-year life, the mine would degrade nearly 5,000 acres of winter range used by pronghorn antelope and hurt the habitat of the sage grouse. It would probably also destroy a nesting area for a pair of golden eagles whose feathers are vital to the local tribe’s religious ceremonies.
“It is real frustrating that it is being pitched as an environmentally friendly project when it is really a huge industrial site,” said Bartell, who filed a lawsuit to try to block the mine.
At the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, anger over the project has boiled over, even causing some fights between members as Lithium Americas has offered to hire tribal members in jobs that will pay an average annual wage of $62,675 — twice the county’s per capita income — but that will come with a big trade-off.
“Tell me, what water am I going to drink for 300 years?” Deland Hinkey, a member of the tribe, yelled as a federal official arrived at the reservation in March to brief tribal leaders on the mining plan. “Anybody, answer my question. After you contaminate my water, what I am going to drink for 300 years? You are lying!”
The reservation is nearly 50 miles from the mine site — and far beyond the area where groundwater may be contaminated — but tribe members fear the pollution could spread.
“It is really a David versus Goliath kind of a situation,” said Maxine Redstar, leader of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, noting that there was limited consultation with the tribe before the Interior Department approved the project. “The mining companies are just major corporations.”
Tim Crowley, a vice president at Lithium Americas, said the company would operate responsibly — planning, for example, to use the steam from burning molten sulfur to generate the electricity it needs.
“We’re answering President Biden’s call to secure America’s supply chains and tackle the climate crisis,” Crowley said.
A spokesperson noted that area ranchers also used a lot of water and that the company had purchased its allocation from another farmer to limit the increase in water use.
The company has moved aggressively to secure permits, hiring a lobbying team that includes a former Trump White House aide, Jonathan Slemrod.
Lithium Americas, which estimates there is $3.9 billion worth of recoverable lithium at the site, hopes to start mining operations next year. Its largest shareholder is the Chinese company Ganfeng Lithium.
A Second Act
The desert sands surrounding the Salton Sea have drawn worldwide notice before. They have served as a location for Hollywood productions like the “Star Wars” franchise.
Created by flooding from the Colorado River more than a century ago, the lake once thrived. Frank Sinatra performed at its resorts. Over the years, drought and poor management turned it into a source of pollutants.
But a new wave of investors is promoting the lake as one of the most promising and environmentally friendly lithium prospects in the United States.
Lithium extraction from brine has long been used in Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, where the sun is used over nearly two years to evaporate water from sprawling ponds. It is relatively inexpensive, but it uses lots of water in arid areas.
The approach planned at the Salton Sea is radically different.
The lake sits atop the Salton Buttes, which, as in Nevada, are underground volcanoes.
For years, a company owned by Berkshire Hathaway, CalEnergy, and another business, Energy Source, have tapped the Buttes’ geothermal heat to produce electricity. The systems use naturally occurring underground steam. This same water is loaded with lithium.
Now Berkshire Hathaway and two other companies — Controlled Thermal Resources and Materials Research — want to install equipment that will extract lithium after the water passes through the geothermal plants, in a process that will take only about two hours.
Rod Colwell, a burly Australian, has spent much of the last decade pitching investors and lawmakers on putting the brine to use. In February, a backhoe plowed dirt on a 7,000-acre site being developed by his company, Controlled Thermal Resources.
“This is the sweet spot,” Colwell said. “This is the most sustainable lithium in the world, made in America. Who would have thought it? We’ve got this massive opportunity.”
A Berkshire Hathaway executive told state officials recently that the company expected to complete its demonstration plant for lithium extraction by April 2022.
The backers of the Salton Sea lithium projects are also working with local groups and hope to offer good jobs in an area that has an unemployment rate of nearly 16%.
“Our region is very rich in natural resources and mineral resources,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico del Valle, which represents area farmworkers.
“However, they’re very poorly distributed. The population has not been afforded a seat at the table.”
The state has given millions in grants to lithium extraction companies, and the Legislature is considering requiring carmakers by 2035 to use California sources for some of the lithium in vehicles they sell in the state, the country’s largest electric-car market.
But even these projects have raised some questions.
Geothermal plants produce energy without emissions, but they can require tens of billions of gallons of water annually for cooling. And lithium extraction from brine dredges up minerals like iron and salt that need to be removed before the brine is injected back into the ground.
Similar extraction efforts at the Salton Sea have previously failed. In 2000, CalEnergy proposed spending $200 million to extract zinc and to help restore the Salton Sea. The company gave up on the effort in 2004.
But several companies working on the direct lithium extraction technique — including Lilac Solutions, based in California, and Standard Lithium of Vancouver, British Columbia — are confident they have mastered the technology.
Both companies have opened demonstration projects using the brine extraction technology, with Standard Lithium tapping into a brine source already being extracted from the ground by an Arkansas chemical plant, meaning it did not need to take additional water from the ground.
“This green aspect is incredibly important,” said Robert Mintak, chief executive of Standard Lithium, who hopes the company will produce 21,000 tons a year of lithium in Arkansas within five years if it can raise $440 million in financing. “The Fred Flintstone approach is not the solution to the lithium challenge.”
Lilac Solutions, whose clients include Controlled Thermal Resources, is also working on direct lithium extraction in Nevada, North Dakota and at least one other U.S. location that it would not disclose. The company predicts that within five years, these projects could produce about 100,000 tons of lithium annually, or 20 times current domestic production.
Executives from companies like Lithium Americas question if these more innovative approaches can deliver all the lithium the world needs.
But automakers are keen to pursue approaches that have a much smaller impact on the environment.
“Indigenous tribes being pushed out or their water being poisoned or any of those types of issues, we just don’t want to be party to that,” said Sue Slaughter, Ford’s purchasing director for supply chain sustainability. “We really want to force the industries that we’re buying materials from to make sure that they’re doing it in a responsible way. As an industry, we are going to be buying so much of these materials that we do have significant power to leverage that situation very strongly. And we intend to do that.”