Environmentalism crashes into a lithium iceberg

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By Duggan Flanakin 

The once-Titanic environmental movement has is dead — crushed by the climate iceberg. The world has shifted from clean air and clean water to “clean” energy that is not clean at all. Real environmental concerns over renewable energy – damage to endangered right whales and bald eagles from wind turbines, water use and contamination and toxic waste from lithium and cobalt mining – are not even part of the conversation.

The ill-fated voyage of the Titanic ended when it ran smack dab into a giant iceberg, 90 percent of which was below the surface. The worldwide push for electric vehicles, which has no greater cheerleaders than U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is like a killer iceberg with dirty little secrets hidden far under the surface by a compliant media.

Biden just this week stepped up his crusade to force Americans to buy lithium-battery electric vehicles with proposed CO2 emission standards. This despite the fact that a large majority of people today still prefer the internal combustion engines they have relied upon for over a century.

The crusaders have turned carbon dioxide, which increases plant growth and can be used to produce synthetic e-fuels, into a monster that must be exterminated. This hypocritical position is shared by those eager for eliminating many carbon units (humans) to “save the planet.”

The Biden proposal avoids asking whether the tradeoff between presumed lower carbon dioxide levels and higher air and water pollution is worth it. The negative pollution impacts have until now been concentrated in countries (including Chile, Argentina, and Australia) where those most affected cannot vote in U.S. elections.

The world now knows that lithium mining is not pretty. Even the lithium industry admits that “the mining and extraction process of lithium resources produces pollutants and has a great impact on the surrounding environment.” Moreover, “lithium mining conditions are not good.” Therefore, “the extraction process of lithium ore has become a major problem.”

As Paul Homewood explains, “the [lithium mining] process depletes ground water and leaves behind toxic wastewater that contaminates fields and harms wildlife.” Lithium mining also releases 15,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions for every ton of lithium extracted.

Lithium mining involves drilling into salt flats to pump out a salty, mineral-rich brine that is placed in evaporation pools. The process takes months – and about 500,000 gallons of water per ton of lithium. Thus, lithium mining lowers the water table, pollutes nearby aquifers, and reduces locally available drinking water.

The Institute for Energy Research reported that residents of Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto believe lithium operations have contaminated streams used for drinking water and crop irrigation. In Chile, mountains of discarded salt and canals filled with contaminated water mar the landscape. Chilean lithium battery expert Guillermo Gonzalez lamented that, “This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”

Despite predictions, you will hear none of these concerns in today’s articles touting the “lithium revolution.” Just as the EPA ignores concerns over the likely link between offshore wind turbines and whale deaths, the Biden EPA ignores the negative impacts of lithium mining in its manic quest to force Americans into electric vehicles or no vehicle at all.

Damn the environment! Saving the planet requires drastic steps!

Buoyed (or bribed?) by massive subsidies under the misnamed Inflation Reduction Act, General Motors announced it would invest $650 million to gain exclusive rights to the first fruits from Lithium America’s Thacker Pass, Nevada, mine.

Almost immediately afterward, U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du ruled that the Bureau of Land Management had properly approved the mine’s permit, paying the way for the company to begin supplying enough lithium for a million EV batteries a year beginning in 2027.

A month earlier, the Department of Energy announced plans to lend $700 million to Australia-based Ioneer Ltd., for the smaller Rhyolite Ridge lithium mining project, also in Nevada. That project has been slowed by (misguided?) proponents of protecting the endangered wildflower, Tiehm’s buckwheat, but the triumph of climate over environment makes this a likely done deal.

The DOE said the loan demonstrates the Administration’s commitment to strengthen the nation’s battery supply chain, electrify the transportation sector, and cut reliance on fossil fuels and foreign suppliers of raw materials. A spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity called the loan commitment “a fairly transparent effort … to build political momentum for the project.”

The only other U.S. lithium mine, Silver Peak (also in Nevada), is owned by Albermarle, maybe the world’s largest lithium producer. Albemarle has announced plans to double production from the mine. The company was also awarded a $150 million DOE grant, under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to finance construction of a new, commercial-scale lithium concentrator facility in North Carolina.

The push by the Biden Administration to activate the Thacker Pass and Rhyolite Ridge mines and to pour money into Albemarle’s operations marks a significant departure from past Biden policies that have thwarted would-be mining operations in AlaskaMinnesota, and Colorado – and from longstanding Democratic Party anti-mining policy.

No one ever asks where the water for these massive mining operations is coming from – in the drought-plagued American West.

President Biden’s “little brother up north,” Prime Minister Trudeau, is celebrating a revived lithium mining industry. There, oil and gas production has long been demonized as catastrophic to the environment, yet in-situ oil mining leaves only a tiny footprint and cleans the soils and open-pit oil mines must restore the affected acreage to its pristine state after ridding the soils of polluting oil.

While oil mining remains far from pristine, so is lithium mining. Yet across Canada, new lithium mines are being touted as the wave of the future and Canada’s contribution to saving the planet from warmer weather (which most Canadians would likely celebrate).

In 2020 the Saskatchewan government gleefully announced a new joint lithium project by Prairie Lithium Corp and LIEP Energy Ltd. The press release, which did not even address pollution, noted that the project can earn transferable royalty credits worth 25 percent of eligible capital and operating expenditures.

Last July Northern Miner issued a glowing report on lithium mining’s future in Canada, including prospective investments into petroleum brine production techniques in Alberta, a fast-growing battery and EV manufacturing base in Quebec and Ontario, and other projects.

The report cited Canada’s “more attractive” regulatory environment, noting that mine permitting times in Canada are far shorter than in the U.S. and that the government had proposed $3.8 billion (Canadian) to support the mining sector. It never mentioned water or waste management.

Last November, CBC News announced that the startup of production at the La Corne, Quebec, lithium concentrate mine would position Quebec as a Canadian lithium leader. This despite faint cries from environmental groups and the Long Point First Nation that lithium projects threaten water quality and the Anishinabeg way of life. [A small price to save the planet!]

Earlier this month, Canadian North Resources Inc. (CNRI) announced plans to explore the potential for lithium minerals during 2023 at its Ferguson Lake property in British Columbia. CNRI says it has discovered extensive granitic pegmatite minerals on the property and says the regional geology and tectonic environment are favorable for lithium mineralization.

Just two years ago, when Imperial Metals applied to the British Columbia government for an exploratory permit to drill for gold around the source waters for the Skagit River, an international coalition of over 200 Indigenous groups, businesses, and environmentalists announced their opposition and made worldwide news. Today, crickets.

Just like icebergs (and even Frosty the Snowman) melt, it is quite likely that the lithium boom may run into problems with a human population unhappy at being bullied into accepting a future that diminishes their freedom, their pocketbooks, and their enjoyment of life. By then, though, the unspoken environmental damage done to land, water, people, and animal and plant life will have likely also wrecked economies that will no longer be able to pay for their restoration.


  • Duggan FlanakinDuggan Flanakin
  • Duggan Flanakin is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas.
  • A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, “Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout.”