At Protect Thacker Pass, we’ve heard from people who think that companies should mine lithium in Imperial Valley (“Lithium Valley”) at the Salton Sea because it would be “better” than mining lithium at Thacker Pass.
To be clear up front: Protect Thacker Pass opposes all lithium mining, no matter where it is happening. All lithium extraction is harmful for the environment and unsustainable in the long term (lithium is a nonrenewable material). There is no “better” place to mine lithium.
Earthworks has published a new report that shows the devastating impacts from mining lithium from brine using direct lithium extraction with geothermal power plants. As the report states, there are currently three companies developing this technology.
Their report shows that direct lithium extraction in the Imperial Valley at the Salton Sea will have devastating impacts on the environment, beyond those already created by geothermal energy extraction. These include air pollution, consuming vast quantities of freshwater, degrading the already imperiled Salton Sea ecosystem, hazardous waste, and the potential for earthquakes to cause industrial disasters in the area.
We’ve included the two pages from the summary report as images in this post. The full Earthworks Report is worth reading if you’re interested in learning more about how geothermal power plants work and how direct lithium extraction works in conjunction with geothermal. However, we disagree with some of the conclusions in their report.
Like most large environmental groups, Earthworks believes that mining lithium is important to address the climate crisis, and their conclusions reflect this. They state that the mining should proceed as long as full, prior informed consent of regional tribes is obtained; if hazardous wastes and air pollution are dealt with properly; if companies and local communities “carefully consider” trade-offs with freshwater use; and if the mining companies design power plants with “high standards for seismic safety.”
What they seem not to recognize is that there is no safe way to extract non-renewable materials like lithium from the environment without significant impacts to ecosystems. Ensuring that this extraction is safer doesn’t mean it’s safe. The report also ignores the many other impacts of building technologies like batteries that rely on lithium, or the harms these technologies themselves do to the environment. Lithium extraction is just the first step in a long list of harms on the way to a final product.
Again: we oppose all lithium mining, and indeed, all extraction, for luxury goods that humans can live without. Our priority is the health of the natural world, without which no human or any other living being on Earth can survive.
All images are from the Earthworks report Environmental Justice in California’s Lithium Valley. You can download the full report and summary sheet from https://earthworks.org/resources/lithium-valley/.