In November 2023, the U.S. Department of Energy formally acknowledged the Salton Sea region in California as a “rich domestic lithium resource.” This recognition followed years of attention to the region, and how it could potentially boost local lithium production in the U.S. for use in electric cars and other industrial applications.
But there are some lingering concerns, like the environmental risks possibly outweighing any economic benefits, and how industrializing the region could upend the lives of local and indigenous communities. A new video by the Wall Street Journal highlights how the area can make the U.S. self-reliant for its lithium needs, and the challenges it would need to overcome first.
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EV batteries need lithium, but the U.S. produces a scant amount of it.
Most of the world’s lithium demand is met through open-pit mines in Australia and evaporation ponds in South America. The majority of the batteries using this lithium are manufactured in China, making the U.S. inevitably reliant on these countries to meet its EV battery needs.
The Salton Sea’s lakebed has 18 million metric tons of lithium in its “hot geothermal brine”—a naturally occurring mixture of water and dissolved minerals heated by geothermal activity in the Earth. Experts say these reserves are enough to produce 375 million EV batteries. However, this figure loses significance if any associated processes lack efficiency, cost-effectiveness or scalability.
The U.S. Department of Energy, along with companies like Berkshire Hathaway (which operates 10 geothermal plants near the Salton Sea), Energy Source, and Controlled Thermal Resources seem optimistic. A DOE spokesperson told WSJ that the Salton Sea region produces a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
However, lithium extraction and processing is water-intensive, and the region is deprived of it. Moreover, Imperial County residents are concerned that lithium mining can exacerbate the environmental issues in the region—the toxic dust from the area can cause respiratory ailments. There’s even a lawsuit alleging that industrial waste could pollute the nearby Colorado River.
Despite all that, the economic benefits can potentially be huge. Imperial County has the highest unemployment rate in California, and it estimates that the lithium industry could generate 81,000 jobs in the region. The video is worth watching in full, as it explains the bumpy road that lies ahead before California can become a mass producer of the “white gold.”