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Correction: This segment stated that the Salton Sea area alone could produce nearly six times the lithium currently produced globally. This was a miscalculation. The region could produce an amount of lithium roughly equal to existing annual global output, not six times the amount.
The demand for electric vehicles is surging in the U.S., sparked in part by the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act and the subsidies it offers. But a looming supply shortage of lithium threatens to stall the EV transition. Stephanie Sy traveled to California's Salton Sea where lithium deposits could help meet the country’s energy needs and support an economically devastated region.
The demand for electric vehicles is surging in the U.S., sparked in part by subsidies offered by the federal government. But a looming supply shortage of lithium threatens to stall the E.V. transition.
Stephanie Sy traveled to California's Salton Sea to report on the promise and remaining challenges of building a new lithium valley to meet the country's energy needs.
In the most southeastern stretch of the Southern California desert sits a most unusual piece of the planet. It's like a Dr. Seuss book with sound effects.
Wow, it's fascinating. What we're hearing is what?
Michael McKibben, University of California, Riverside: CO2.
Carbon dioxide is generated by reactions between superheated salty water called brine and rock deep in the bowels of the earth.
Geologist Michael McKibben says the brine is full of lithium.
The attractiveness of geothermal brines and oil field brands is that the plumbing system is already there. The fluid is already been brought up.
This sound of the gurgling…
Is, well, the sound of bad plumbing.
It's the sound of economic opportunity. Since the 1980s, companies have tapped into the hot brine for geothermal energy, it would take just a few more steps to recover the lithium in the used brine.
Today, the U.S. sources most of its lithium from South America and processes it in China. But what if the supply chain could all be right here? It's a natural twofer?
And it could supply all of the U.S. needs of lithium could come out of this geothermal field.
The Salton area could produce an amount of lithium roughly equal to existing annual global output.
And McKibben says the way it could be done here would be less harmful to the environment than other methods, such as crushing it out of hard rocks. The only barrier remains affordable technology that can extract lithium efficiently at a massive scale.
A newer player in town, Controlled Thermal Resources, has been testing their lithium extraction protocols in the area known as Hell's Kitchen.
Jim Turner, COO, Controlled Thermal Resources:
We have a process. It works great.
Is the process scalable?
Oh, yes, definitely.
Chief operating officer Jim Turner says the plant was designed to reuse and recycle as much as possible, including the water that's needed to separate lithium.
For every ton of lithium produced, some 50,000 gallons of water will be needed. And as evidenced by the shrinking Salton Sea, water is increasingly scarce here. What does come from the Colorado River mostly goes to municipalities and agriculture, the economic backbone of the valley.
You do think that, if Colorado River water really starts to go down, that there could be a little bit of tension?
Yes, there probably will be a lot of tension. There already is. And that's a very difficult problem to solve.
Frank Ruiz, Audubon California:
We are experiencing the worst drought in modern history, but I don't even call it a drought anymore. I call it the new normalcy, because the water is simply not here.
Frank Ruiz is the Salton Sea program director for Audubon California and sits on the state's Lithium Valley Commission.
He says the ecosystem, a crucial habitat for millions of migratory birds, is near collapse.
This is probably one of the worst environmental crisis on the West. In California, we have lost over 97 percent of the wetlands in the last few decades, either to the agricultural industry or to urban developments.
Lithium extraction here could easily grow to a multibillion-dollar industry that drives the transition away from fossil fuels.
If California is going to electrify every single vehicle by 2035, we're going to need every piece of lithium we can get. But — and I understand that sense of urgency. But we also need to be careful not to rush it in a way that we're going to be cutting corners here.
But, if done right, many say lithium could benefit the long-suffering region, one of the poorest in the Golden State.
The Buckshot Deli & Diner sits on the deserted highway leading to the concentration of geothermal power plants. It may be the only eatery for miles, but it also serves up a mean plate of machaca con huevos.
Ruben Hernandez owns the establishment with his wife.
What are your concerns about the lithium industry coming here?
Ruben Hernandez, Owner, Buckshot Deli & Diner: Well, the concern is for the revenue for the little town, this little town, some of the companies come, and they just want — the first time they come, and they say, oh, here is money, and they leave. Then they take all the profit, and they don't leave nothing here.
He says the surrounding towns needs services, especially better access to health care.
Elizabeth Jaime, North Shore Resident (through translator):
There are a lot of people who have allergies, have asthma or nosebleeds. And there's been a lot of research, but we have never been given a clear answer on the cause.
Elizabeth Jaime's family has lived in the North Shore neighborhood for 12 years with a view of the Salton Sea from the backyard.
Her son, Lorenzo, has asthma, which researchers have linked to the toxic dust blowing off the Salton Sea's exposed lake bed. The region has some of the worst air quality in the country, and the children have a higher rate of asthma-related E.R. visits than in most parts of California.
Jamie is worried lithium extraction will bring more health hazards.
Elizabeth Jaime (through translator):
We don't know what is in the air. This is why we are worried about lithium. What more problems is it going to bring?
They say it's going to have less of an impact, but they're not saying there's going to be no impact.
Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA):
What we have here is momentum that we haven't seen around the Salton Sea.
Representative Raul Ruiz, whose district includes the Salton Sea, wants to leverage that momentum by getting the burgeoning lithium interests to help foot the bill for the community's problems.
Rep. Raul Ruiz:
They have been sick and tired of politicians that come in and promise to fix the Salton Sea. And they haven't seen any progress.
But what does the lithium industry have to do with the Salton Sea? Why should they have to pay for that?
Because they're benefiting from the resources of the environment that is at jeopardy to the local residents.
Even before lithium has proven a viable industry here, California has enacted a tax on any lithium produced that will go partially toward Salton Sea remediation efforts and local community programs.
Not everyone agrees with the move. But, so far, the tax hasn't scared off developers. And local officials have even bigger hopes for the area.
This is an incredible opportunity, not just for the local community, the state, but also for our nation, because it is a matter of national security to have our own steady source of lithium and batteries, instead of relying on other countries like China.
Back at the diner, Ruben Hernandez says he'd just like to know when the lithium plants will be open, so he can prepare for more customers.
All of that people, they are going to need their housing. They're going to need service. And maybe the town going to grow up.
Maybe growth this time won't leave the community behind, and the locals will also be able to afford electric cars one day too.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in the Imperial Valley, California.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
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