A Threat to Land, Air, and Water
by Jared Naimark
Readers of the Desert Report know better than most the unparalleled beauty of desert landscapes. The desert is also full of complex, life-giving relationships that sustain communities and our planet, from tiny fungi storing carbon deep below, to trickling spring-sheds bristling with endemic plants and wildlife and ancient trail networks and cultural landscapes stewarded by Indigenous peoples since time immemorial.
Caring for the desert is essential to confronting our intertwined climate and ecological crises. Unfortunately, the desert is often treated as a wasteland and a sacrifice zone for extractive industries. Toxic pollution from past mining booms represents a major environmental injustice across the desert, with abandoned mine sites yet to be cleaned up. Now the desert is facing a new “white gold” rush for lithium, in high demand for rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles. According to Desert Fog, as of January 2023 there were 83 lithium exploration projects across the Mojave and Great Basin deserts.
Pit lake from an abandoned gold mine, Imperial County, CA. Pit lakes often have poor water quality and can be extremely acidic, requiring perpetual treatment. Photo: Jared Naimark
We need a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, and electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries are an important part of the solution. But this must be a just transition, not one where communities and ecosystems are sacrificed to profit-driven industries. Global mining companies are trying desperately to rehabilitate their image. Drumming up fear of China, they say in the interest of national security we need to mine lithium, cobalt, nickel, and rare earths here at home. The result is a greenwashed mineral rush that threatens to irreversibly impact land, air, water, and livelihoods.
If we are serious about climate and clean energy, the best way to secure these minerals is to build a robust recycling system. Rather than mining, we need to focus on building a [ to responsibly source the materials needed for a fossil-free future. Recent research from University of California, Davis and the Climate + Communities Project found that progressive policies, including best case recycling and smaller car size, could reduce projected US lithium demand by 92% in 2050.
Conceptual diagram of circular minerals economy.
Courtesy of Earthworks.
In general, lithium can be mined in one of three ways: in open pits from hardrock or clay deposits, through brine evaporation, or through a new technology called Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE).
Some lithium is found in clay deposits. For example, at Rhyolite Ridge, near Fish Lake Valley, Nevada, Ioneer wants to build an open pit to mine this clay for lithium and process it with sulfuric acid. The project would likely drive the Tiehm’s Buckwheat, recently listed on the Endangered Species Act, to extinction. Subsequently, the company re-submitted a plan of operations which surrounds the plant population and lacks a sufficient buffer to prevent the likelihood of extinction. The project would also desecrate cave springs, an important hunting ground for the Western Shoshone, and a place where cultural knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. Rhyolite Ridge is within the sovereign unceded treaty lands of the Western Shoshone based on the Treaty of Ruby Valley 1863. The United Nations has called out the United States for this ongoing denial of treaty rights, to which the United States has yet to respond.
Photo: Jared Naimark
Lithium is also found dissolved in brine. For example, evaporation ponds from salt flats, known as salares in Argentina and Chile, are a major source of lithium produced globally today. However, these operations have a huge impact on water in already arid environments, depleting aquifers relied on by Indigenous peoples in the Andean highlands. The only active lithium mine in the United States uses evaporation ponds at Silver Peak, Nevada. More brine exploration is underway across the desert. For example, at Panamint Valley, an exploration project was approved under a “finding of no significant impact” despite objections from environmental advocates.
Many proponents of lithium brine mining in the desert say they will use a new technology called Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) instead of, or in conjunction with, evaporation to minimize environmental impacts. DLE refers to a set of technologies, such as adsorption and ion exchange, that use chemical and physical processes to directly remove lithium from brine – similar to how a water softener removes minerals from water. Imperial Valley in southern California is home to one of the largest lithium deposits in the world, dissolved in brine deep below ground on the southern shore of the Salton Sea. This hot brine is currently extracted through geothermal wells to generate electricity at 11 power plants, and then re-injected back underground. Three companies are developing projects to extract lithium at existing and new geothermal plants by using DLE. However, very little information is publicly available about how these technologies work and their potential environmental impacts. Communities have raised concerns about environmental justice: whether DLE would add to the significant environmental health burden that they are already facing due to poor air quality and the receding Salton Sea. Indigenous communities have also raised concerns about impacts to cultural sites at the Salton Sea. In the context of climate change, growth of the lithium extraction industry may be limited by the availability of freshwater from the Colorado River, the majority of which currently goes to agriculture.
Drilling for lithium brine in Imperial Valley.
Photo: Jared Naimark
Proponents of these projects say that lithium extraction must move forward as quickly as possible, despite uncertainties and adverse impacts to the environment, public health, and Indigenous rights. However, true climate justice solutions must look beyond simple technological shifts from fossil fuels to minerals. Instead, we can work towards dismantling the powerful forces that got us here in the first place, and transform society for the better. A daunting task, no doubt, but I would like to offer four recommendations for a better path forward:
- Reform the 1872 Mining Law.
In the past 150 years, mining has become vastly more destructive, but our federal mining law has not been updated to respond to the scale and impact of industrial extraction. Federal agencies still consider mining to be the preferred use of public land. This law should be reformed to require the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) of Indigenous Communities. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international human rights standards enshrine Indigenous Peoples’ right to FPIC on projects affecting their lands, territories, resources, and cultural heritage. This includes the right to meaningful dialogue and the right to say "yes," "no," or “yes with conditions” to a project, and to revoke consent at any time.
- Build a circular minerals economy based on reuse, recycling, and recovery.
Instead of endlessly mining lithium from the ground, we should implement policies to source lithium and other minerals from existing materials. One example is to require recycling of electric vehicle batteries, which has the potential to reduce demand for mined lithium by at least 25%. There’s even a bill introduced in California to do just that. At the federal level, Congress passed the Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act in 2021, which provided resources to develop sustainable battery design, labeling, and recycling. Later this year, we expect Congress to consider new legislation that may help put those circular economy models into practice.
- Build cars with smaller batteries, and reduce dependency on cars all together.
Demand for mined lithium can be reduced even further if we support building efficient, smaller vehicles with less battery material. Similarly, if we support public electric transportation instead of private electric vehicles, drastically less lithium will be required.
- Stand in solidarity with frontline communities defending land, air, and water from mining in both the global North and global South.
Implement Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC), for projects impacting Indigenous lands and peoples. We need to respect the treaty rights of Indigenous peoples such as the Treaty of Ruby Valley. And we need to implement the Jemez Principles in advocacy and organizing to center communities that are most impacted since those closest to the problem are closest to the solutions.
We don’t have to buy into the mining industry’s narrative that pits electrification against desert conservation. With these four solutions as a starting point, we can escape that false choice and chart a better path forward. Protecting desert landscapes from the impacts of lithium mining will be crucial for climate justice, and it will take all of us joining in to steward the places we love.