Increasing domestic lithium production plays a crucial role in President Joe Biden’s green energy plan, as 2021 marked the largest deployment of solar, wind and electric batteries in US history.
Nevertheless, lithium mining has quietly emerged as a significant contributor to environmental pollution in the headlong rush to abandon fossil fuels.
On May 2, the Biden administration announced the investment of more than US$3 billion to manufacture more lithium batteries and their components. It’s a critical part of the president’s goal to have at least half of all vehicle sales in the United States be electric by 2030.
Currently, there are two main ways to obtain the wanted item: hard rock ore mining and brine mining.
While much of the carbon emitted by mining depends on the rock it is extracted from, this technique still produces at least 15 tons of CO2 for every ton of lithium harvested.
Generally speaking, mining is a dirty business. Mineral extractions like lithium and coal – a fossil fuel – both fall under this umbrella. Collectively, the mining industry generates between 1.9 and 5.1 gigatonnes of carbon emissions per year.
The other approach to accessing the lithium is to remove the metal from the brine in the salt pan areas. However, this approach requires, on average, 500,000 gallons of water to source a single ton of lithium. Although a less carbon-intensive process, brine mining still generates tens of thousands of gallons of highly toxic wastewater requiring proper storage or disposal.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of green power manufacturing behind the scenes.
Elements like cobalt and nickel are also crucial for renewable technologies such as electric car batteries, which is another highly polluting levy.
Same pollution, better marketing
Surface hard rock mining is the planned method for Thacker Pass, the largest lithium reserve in the United States.
Wind, solar and electric car batteries depend on the world’s lightest metal to function.
In the meantime, some experts are sounding the alarm about the not-so-green reality of renewables.
“While lithium-ion batteries are lightweight and convenient for modern electronics, they not only emit a large amount of carbon dioxide to produce, but they also tap into precious water reserves,” the chief executive said. of Greenly, Matthew Vegreville, told The Epoch Times.
Vegreville explained that the carbon footprint of lithium mining, compared to other fossil fuel extractions like coal and oil, generally produces more carbon emissions. This is because lithium products such as batteries require a more material-intensive process.
“And as the demand for battery materials increases, that doesn’t make the process any easier,” he added.
National Mining Association President Rich Nolan noted in a press release that Biden’s efforts to increase domestic lithium production will make America more energy independent as the country continues to grow. away from fossil fuels.
Nolan added that the United States must build on this green momentum and approve new hard rock mines or face a continued geopolitical reliance on minerals that is “completely dominated by China.”
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Biden’s historic investment in electric battery production and recycling would give the United States “the shock it needs to become safer and less dependent on other countries.” “, in a May 2 press release.
Although some environmental experts believe that when it comes to lithium mining, the end does not justify the means.
“Our position is that mining is very destructive to the environment and to communities. It needs to be approached wisely,” John Hadder, director of Great Basin Resource Watch, told The Epoch Times.
Hadder fought for Nevada to address the regulatory oversights and environmental return of the controversial Thacker Pass project in that state. He also argues that if politicians were really concerned about rapidly reducing greenhouse gases, there are cheaper, faster and easier ways to do it.
“If you want to reduce greenhouse gases quickly, we can do it by changing the current use of energy and public transport,” he said before adding: “We already know that it’s possible. We did this during Covid.
The Thacker Pass project has encountered considerable resistance from environmentalists.
In March, Hadder’s organization filed an appeal with the Nevada State Environmental Commission, challenging the state’s water pollution control permit. The appeal was dismissed on June 28 after the state Environmental Commission upheld the disputed permit.
Although due to concerns about groundwater contamination, the Nevada government only approved drilling above the water table for Thacker Pass.
Hadder added that mining the lithium ore will use what is called an acid leech process, which requires the use of sulfuric acid.
Ironically, the majority of the sulfur needed for this will be purchased from the oil and gas industry, as this is the cheapest way to acquire the chemical.
Added to this is the lack of leak analysis for the project, which Hadder says creates an environmental powder keg.
“How long will it seep in and what will the steering be like on the road? It was not dealt with adequately,” he said.
Vegreville added that the problem of mining lithium is similar to the problem of plastic: “Once it’s created, it can’t be destroyed.”
In November 2021, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, “We are digging our own graves” with mining, drilling and burning at a global climate change summit.
Either way, the data and impacts of lithium production have been ignored in favor of rebranding the same high-polluting industries with the “green energy” label.
The battery problem
At the other end of the lithium debate are used batteries. Improperly disposed lithium batteries can be very unstable, causing discharge fires that can last for years. The resulting toxic chemicals released into the air can also impact air quality and carbon emissions.
Vegreville explained that batteries can be recycled, but lithium-ion units are particularly dangerous due to fire hazards.
“One of the greenest ways to dispose of a lithium-ion battery is to take it apart,” he said.
Although the demand for lithium batteries is set to become a US$116 billion industry by 2030, some experts fear that production will exceed the industry’s ability to properly manage end-of-production waste.
The US Environmental Protection Agency admits that special recycling and hazardous waste facilities are needed to deal with the influx of electric batteries. A standard electric car battery weighs over 1,000 pounds on average.
In other words, the end of recycling will have to be a highly regulated, multi-million dollar industry in its own right to reduce pollution and fire hazards.
Additionally, Hadder argues that the current political demand for lithium could end in a push toward more toxic and unsustainable long-term projects. And while he broadly supports a transition to renewables, the current lithium gold rush mentality is anything but green.
“What we’re seeing now is a repeat of past patterns and practices,” Hadder said.