A crucial role in President Joe Biden’s green energy plan is the expanded lithium production, as 2021 saw the largest rollout of electric batteries in United States history.
But as the Biden administration scrambles to abandon fossil fuels, lithium mining has revealed itself to be a major contributor to environmental pollution.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced the investment of over $3 billion for the production of lithium batteries. The investment is a crucial part of Biden’s goal to have t least half of all vehicle sales in the U.S be electric by 2030.
Lithium mining involves wo main methods: Hard rock ore mining and brine extraction.
Although the carbon emitted depends on the rock it’s extracted from, for a very ton of lithium harvested, this technique produces at least 15 tons of CO2 – hardly ‘green.’
Mineral extractions like lithium and coal are, to put it bluntly, bad for the environment.
To put things in perspective, the mining industry generates between 1.9 and 5.1 gigatons of carbon emissions yearly.
Another method of accessing lithium involves removing the metal from brine in areas with salt flats, but this approach requires 500,000 gallons of water to procure a single ton of lithium.
Although this is a less carbon-intensive process, brine extraction produces tens of thousands of gallons of highly toxic wastewater, which needs adequate storage or disposal.
Tip of the iceberg
Another heavy pollution withdrawal are elements like cobalt and nickel, which are also crucial for renewable technologies like electric car batteries.
Open pit hard rock mining is the technique set for use at Thacker Pass, the largest lithium reserve in the U.S. Wind, solar, and electric-car batteries depend on the world’s lightest metal to function.
Now experts are sounding the alarm over the reality of renewable energy.
“While lithium-ion batteries are light-weight and convenient for modern-day electronics, they not only emit a large amount of carbon dioxide to produce, but they also tap into precious water reserves,” chief operating officer of Greenly, Matthieu Vegreville, told The Epoch Times.
Vegreville said lithium mining typically produces more carbon emissions in comparison to other fossil fuel extractions like coal and oil. This is because lithium products need a more material-intensive process.
“And as the demand for battery material increases, it doesn’t make the process any easier,” he added.
Rich Nolan, the President of the National Mining Association, noted that Biden’s push for increased lithium production would make America more energy independent in the so-called transition away from fossil fuels.
Nolan added the U.S need to approve new hard rock mines or depend on minerals from other countries, which is currently “completely dominated by China.”
According to Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s investment in electric battery production would give the U.S “the jolt it needs to become more secure and less reliant on other nations,” in a May 2 press release.
Same pollution, different marketing
But some environmental experts believe that the end doesn’t justify the means in lithium extraction.
“Our position is: mining is very destructive to the environment and communities. It needs to be approached judiciously,” John Hadder, director of Great Basin Resource Watch, said.
Hadder says if politicians were really worried about reducing greenhouse gasses, there are much cheaper, faster, and easier ways to do it.
“If you want to reduce greenhouse gasses quickly, we can do that by changing existing energy and public transportation usage,” he said before adding, “We already know it’s possible. We did it during Covid.”
The Thacker Pass project has faced massive resistance from environmentalists.
Earlier this year, Hadder’s organization filed an appeal with the Nevada State Environmental Commission, challenging the state’s water pollution control permit. But the appeal was denied after the State Environmental Commission affirmed the contested permit.
Due to concerns over groundwater contamination, the Nevada government only approved drilling above the water table for Thacker Pass.
Hadder said that lithium ore extraction would use a technique called an acid-leech process, which requires the use of sulfuric acid.
But most of the sulfur needed for this process would be purchased from the oil and gas industry because it is the cheapest way to acquire the chemical.
“How long will it be seeping, and what does the management look like down the road? This hasn’t been adequately addressed,” he said.
Vegreville compares lithium extraction to plastic, “Once it’s created, it can’t be destroyed.”
Last year, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres remarked, “We’re digging our own graves” with mining, drilling, and burning during a world leader’s summit on climate change.
Other hazards in lithium production
But rather than the Biden Administration addressing the impacts of lithium production, they have opted to rebrand the same heavy polluting industries, and market them as “green energy.”
Vegreville explained although batteries can be recycled, lithium-ion units are hazardous due to fire hazards.
“One of the most ecologically friendly ways to dispose of a lithium-ion battery is to dismantle it,” he said.
Experts are concerned that lithium production, which is set to become a $116 billion industry, may outstrip the industry’s ability to handle waste correctly.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the influx of electric batteries would require special recycling and hazardous waste facilities – to put that into perspective; one standard electric car battery weighs over 1,000 pounds on average.
This means the recycling end would become another highly regulated multi-million dollar industry to reduce pollution and fire hazards.
Hadder says the current gold rush mentality for lithium is anything but green.
“What we’re seeing now is a repeat of patterns and practices of the past,” Hadder said.