I don’t know about the road to Hell, but we’ve already heard from investigative reporter Carey Gillam how the road to piles of yellowish waste can begin with a green dream. That’s because the pathway to an ethanol alternative to conventional fossil fuels follows an industrial process that left the small town of Mead, Nebraska gasping at the sometimes blowing piles of waste left outside an ethanol plant already suspected of contaminating local streams and ground water and harming both birds and bees.
But that story is old news, and so, it seems likely are both ethanol and fossil fuels, both slated for reduction if not elimination as the world moves to a new generation of electric cars. If only this greener substitution were not also tainted by a poisonous production process.
At the heart of the electric vehicle is a lithium battery, best because it is not only light in weight, but also very high in efficiency because of its great storage capacity and rechargeability. To make such batteries, of course, you need lithium, but you need cobalt and nickel as well. To make lithium batteries for all the new electric vehicles about to be loosed on the world, you need lots of lithium, cobalt and nickel, so much that the need has pushed the world into another classic resource race.
Right now, when it comes to lithium mining, the U.S. is running behind, unearthing just two percent of the present global demand for lithium. With future demand set to explode, some see this lack of domestically-mined lithium as a danger to national security, others see it as an opportunity to get rich. Both perspective agree on this — the U.S. needs to step up the pace of American lithium production even if this means handing out federal money to producers and reducing environmental protections that could slow down production and profits.
And make no mistake, lithium mining impacts the environment, consuming huge amounts of water, contaminating some of it, and yes, leaving lots of waste products in its wake. But, there may be a different path to lithium production, if haste to approve open-pit mines doesn’t lay waste to the timeline of the brining alternative.
Would-be miners in Nevada, California, Oregon, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina are in competition with wannabe briners in California, Nevada, North Dakota and Arkansas, At stake, shares of federal grants, and the shape of federal regulation.
Ivan Penn is a Los Angeles-based reporter covering alternative energy. Before coming to The Times in 2018 he covered utility and energy issues for nearly eight years at The Tampa Bay Times and then The Los Angeles Times.
He also worked at The Miami Herald and The Baltimore Sun, where he was an investigative reporter and covered government, politics and criminal justice. A native of Washington, Mr. Penn grew up in Maryland and graduated from the University of Maryland