Lithium and the Salton Sea: Preservation or Progress?

Channel avatar Environmental Social Justice

Environmental Social Justice

Our increasing demands for Lithium have necessitated the requirement to mine new sources, and the most recent target is the Salton Sea. In March 2020, the California Energy Commission (CEC) released a paper regarding the harvesting of Lithium from mineral rich geothermal brines within the Salton Sea in Southern California, which contains more than 60,000 tons of Lithium-carbonate with an averaged value of $7.2 billion. 

With Gavin Newsom’s Electric Vehicle (EV) executive order, the demand for Lithium will dramatically increase where the vehicle market growth is projected to rise from 1.7 million vehicles in 2020 to 26 million vehicles in 2030 and 54 million by 2040 (The Desert Review Oct 12, 2020). With this new demand, California State Legislature passed AB 1657 and on September 29th Gavin Newsom established a Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction in California. As most EV batteries are lithium based and with the incentive for everyone to “go electric”, Lithium has never been more in demand. 

New Energy Nexus, an international non-profit that supports clean energy entrepreneurs with funds, accelerators, and networks announced in October their intent to create “Lithium Valley” in the Salton Sea area. By building a geothermal plant to harvest these minerals, there is the potential to create between 7,000 – 9,000 jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and generate revue for the community by means of land leases which would be used to support restoration projects. 

We are now faced with an important decision. Do we move forward with revitalizing the Salton Sea community by building a plant or do we preserve an ecological and biological region that is unique to the Salton Sea? 

Although the creation of Salton Sea was accidental, where floodwater from the Colorado River breached and flowed into the Salton Sink in 1905, the unique characteristics of the high salinity of the water have created a critical resource for resident and migratory birds in North America. 

Some would still argue that the Salton Sea is an abandoned resort community, having a population of only 355 people, unhealthy air and inhospitable waters. Building a plant would provide jobs, remediate contaminated grounds and improve air quality all for the societal benefit of electrified transportation. Or, one could argue that the existing Salton Sea community prefers their isolated lifestyle and do not wish to be “salvaged”. Do we have the right to intrude for the sake of productivity?

 

Wendy E. Nystrom MA, CRIS, ENV SP

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