The growing demand for lithium represents new challenges, but the U.S. has an opportunity to implement guidelines from the start that would help minimize the environmental impacts of lithium extraction.
Today, experts from The Nature Conservancy and the University of California, Los Angeles released research that finds that while the United States has great potential for lithium extraction, careful consideration must be taken to avoid and limit negative impacts on water sources and biodiversity and to consider the needs of local communities. The report, Potential Lithium Extraction in the United States: Environmental, Economic, and Policy Implications, analyzes potential environmental and economic impacts of lithium extraction and offers recommendations for policymakers as the United States ramps up systems that depend on lithium, such as electric vehicle charging, powering portable electronic devices and creating entire grid storage systems.
The Nature Conservancy developed this study to highlight potential impacts on the environment if lithium extraction proceeds in the places currently under investigation. The authors provide recommendations to reduce or avoid such impacts where possible. As a new energy industry in the U.S. and a new area for science, this report sheds light on some of the key environmental questions that must be considered, in addition to important community and tribal considerations.
“We are at the beginning of a necessary and major transition in our energy and transportation sectors as we aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. Battery storage will be critical to that transition, and lithium is central to renewable battery production,” said Dr. Sophie Parker, lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy in California. “We also know we have to move quickly. We have the opportunity to be smart from the start and prioritize less risky projects with fewer negative impacts and avoid the most damaging projects to our environment as we choose how and where we extract this lithium.”
In recent years, demand for lithium has escalated. As of today, less than 1% of global lithium production occurs in the U.S., at a single Nevada facility. However, the U.S. holds the potential to become a major producer and extract from substantial lithium-containing rocks, clays, and brines in Arizona, Arkansas, California, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. The report estimates that, before application of environmental and social questions and analysis, the contiguous U.S. has enough lithium to theoretically supply the world for more than a century based on global lithium demand in 2021. The presence of abundant resources across a wide variety of landscapes should make it possible for public policy to prioritize the least impactful extraction sites first.
“We included an economic analysis of projected lithium stores in this report to understand where there is the most potential for extraction, to estimate the volume of lithium that could be produced, and to analyze possible tradeoffs between economic and environmental impacts,“ said Dr. Brad Franklin, economist at The Nature Conservancy. “Economic factors need to be taken into consideration when evaluating the total costs and benefits to society arising from lithium production and to help us understand where economics are more likely to drive activity. Such information could help us facilitate the transition to a green economy while avoiding permanent environmental damage and ensuring good outcomes all around.”
In examining three main extraction methods of lithium (surface mining, evaporative concentration from brine and direct lithium extraction from brine), the study found that while all have the potential for environmental impacts, direct lithium extraction (DLE) could have a smaller environmental impact than either surface mining or evaporative concentration. However, some locations may not be appropriate for any type of lithium extraction activity.
Contamination and overuse of groundwater, which could affect entire ecosystems and drinking water sustainability for the long term, emerged as a top environmental concern at the 72 sites examined in the study. For example, where underground brines or freshwater are pumped to the surface for a lithium extraction project, irreversible damage could occur if connections between different groundwater aquifers, or between groundwater aquifers and surface waters, like rivers or springs, are not taken into account during the planning phase of the project.
“The emergence of lithium use and extraction represents a new environmental challenge, but we can’t sit back and do nothing. We know we need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions to battle climate change, and lithium is a critical part of that equation right now. We also know there are many unknowns. To address the risk presented by these unknowns, we need to target project locations and use extraction methods that are the least likely to cause negative impacts first. Then we can learn from these initial projects and adapt as we learn,” said Parker.
The study covering nine states examined threats to water sources and habitats that could impact hundreds of plant and wildlife species, including 248 rare and/or special status species within 72 proposed lithium extraction sites.
In order to avoid a modern-day “gold rush” of lithium extraction, surrounding communities and policymakers can hold conversations at the local, regional, and state-wide level to prioritize lithium projects that will avoid harm to communities, address climate change and do the least environmental damage.
The report includes two case studies involving stakeholder input—the Salton Sea in California and Thacker Pass in Nevada. The responses of those interviewed underscore the importance of communicating new technology and processes for extraction in a way that is understandable and facilitates community engagement.
“One of the biggest challenges uncovered by the study’s policy survey was that the highly technical aspects of lithium extraction make it difficult for communities to meaningfully engage, evaluate projects or effectively advocate for the community’s best interests,” said Andrew Williams, UCLA policy researcher. “Scientific expertise is concentrated in the industry itself and often out of reach for communities that most need clear, transparent information on how extraction will take place and any tradeoffs that may come of it.”
The report further recommends expanding state and federal environmental agency capacity to provide clear communications necessary to allow for communities to advocate for their needs and provide the best long-term outcomes for local communities.
The full report is available here: www.scienceforconservation.org/products/lithium
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in more than 70 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.