Toxic air pollution is already blowing through Utah. It’s going to get much worse. Dust storms, such as seen in Phoenix, Arizona, will become more common as lithium mining plans mature. Toxic air pollution will increase as mining throws dust into the air. This is not the result of climate change, but of government decisions.
The federal government recently approved what is to become the second largest lithium mining operation in the world. The lithium mine in Thacker Pass, Nevada, will have serious environmental and health impacts in both Nevada and Utah. The federal government is subsidizing the mine with $700 million in loans.
There can be no arguing that the new mines will be unhealthy for Utah residents. The Thacker Pass Mine (and others in the Great Plains) will have profound environmental and environmental impacts, impacts ignored in the rush to approve the mining operation. What is the importance of lithium that such urgency exists?
Lithium is an essential component of Li-ion batteries for electric vehicles. The Thacker Pass mine is estimated to contain 13.7 million tons of lithium carbonate, equivalent to 2.6 million tons of lithium metal.
Let’s put that in context. In 2021, almost 100,000 tons of lithium will be produced worldwide. A 2021 European Union study estimates that 1 billion tons of lithium metal is needed in the “energy transition” to phase out fossil fuels by 2050. In other words, nearly 10,000 times the production of lithium metal in 2021 needs to be extracted and refined to replace the cars, wind turbines and other devices that generate and consume the electricity that fossil fuels need.
This means 383 Thacker Pass mines need to be found and mined over the next 27 years. Mines take 12 to 15 years to reach full production. The urgency of the federal government to license mines and ignore all other concerns reflects the relatively short time left until 2050. Global lithium production must immediately be increased by 50 times or the planned renewable energy system cannot be built. Is that ramp-up possible at all?
The U.S. Geological Survey has identified lithium mining sites in the Great Basin, including sites near Salt Lake City and in Nevada. Recent academic studies have shown that the dry lakes of the Great Basin are an indigenous source of lithium, but also that the dust contains large amounts of arsenic, cadmium and other toxic metals. Mining activities will turn up huge areas and expose them to wind erosion, spreading the toxic dust.
In addition, mining on an industrial scale requires a lot of water. The rivers in the region are already heavily exploited. If more water is diverted for mining, it could easily spell the death knell for the Great Salt Lake, which relies on the river’s inflow for survival, and is already a major concern for Utah residents.
However, Utahns’ health concerns and environmental impacts have been placed beneath the growing need for lithium. The reason, according to climate czar John Kerry, is that “climate change poses a greater threat to humanity than nuclear war.” Decarbonization and deindustrialization of the West should limit climate change. Decarbonization largely depends on the amount of lithium extracted for batteries.
But which would you rather deal with: climate change or nuclear war?
The seriousness of climate change is repeatedly asserted on news shows, and most Utah residents would probably agree that climate change is serious. Most Utah residents probably don’t know that more than 37,000 American scientists and engineers disagree, and many disagree in the strongest possible terms. Utahns may also not know that the 2015 United Nations My World Survey surveyed nearly 10 million ordinary people around the world. The millions of people interviewed placed climate change at the bottom of a list of 16 concerns in their lives. Education, good jobs, health and responsible government were at the top of their list of priorities.
Utah is a long way from Washington and to the FBI sometimes it doesn’t seem very important. Utahns will have to decide how much of their clean air and their health they are willing to sacrifice to lithium mines.
William Hayden Smith received a PhD in chemistry from Princeton University and is now a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. His most recent studies are at the intersection of climate and energy and can be viewed at www.unpopular-truth.com.