Experts agree that reducing carbon emissions is critical to curbing the effects of anthropogenic climate change. To that end, automakers are ramping up efforts to electrify with a range of new EVs, including General Motors, which has announced plans to launch 30 new EV models globally by 2025. However, the batteries that will power these new EV models will require a good deal of lithium, leading to questions over the environmental impacts of lithium mining.
General Motors recently settled a deal with Controlled Thermal Resources to ramp up lithium mining in the Salton Sea, which is located in Southern California. It’s believed that the new mine could provide “a significant portion” of the lithium required for GM’s new EV range, but according to a recent report from Vice, environmental groups are questioning the potential environmental and social impacts of extracting lithium from the Salton Sea.
The Salton Sea was created in 1905 as the result of spill-off from the Colorado River and agriculture runoff. Once a vacation destination, the Salton Sea is now highly toxic, with pesticides and chemicals highly prevalent in its waters. It’s believed that as the Salton Sea dries up, as is the case now with an ongoing drought, the chemicals will go airborne and result in a range of health hazards for locals.
However, the Salton Sea also holds one of the U.S.’s largest stores of lithium brine, which could potentially supply as much as 40 percent of the global demand.
Controlled Thermal Resources claims that its lithium extraction process is environmentally friendly, sourcing the energy required from renewables. To this end, the Salton Sea has 10 geothermal power stations, which utilize underground steam to drive generators, while also creating a lithium-rich saline brine byproduct which would be used as another source of the mineral.
The proposal with General Motors would take advantage of these processes and help to reduce the environmental impact of lithium mining. That said, the process is still water-intensive, which is particularly important in an area already hit by drought. There’s also the question of job opportunities in the region, and whether lithium mining will provide new opportunities for locals.
Environmental groups are now investigating the potential impacts of the new General Motors-backed lithium mining operation, both locally and more generally.