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The mining conundrum for critical minerals

The battery economy is still an extraction economy. Can we build it differently?

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AI-generated image credit: Gold Flamingo

AI-generated image credit: Gold Flamingo

Editor’s note: This is part two of a five-part feature series on global battery supply chains. You can read the first part here. The reporting borrows from a new season of The Big Switch called “The Great Battery Boom,” produced by Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy and Latitude Studios. Listen to episode two below, or find the show anywhere you get your podcasts.

In late January, after a decade of development and fundraising, Controlled Thermal Resources broke ground in California’s Imperial County on a project to build a geothermal energy plant that will also extract lithium. 

Dubbed Hell’s Kitchen, the site is expected to initially produce 25,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide each year. That’s more than quadruple the current U.S. production. It’s one of a handful of lithium projects in various states of development near the Salton Sea, an area that California Governor Gavin Newsom calls “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.” The Department of Energy estimates the Salton Sea area holds enough lithium to power 375 million electric vehicle batteries.

With global demand for lithium expected to grow tenfold by 2050, the rush to develop America’s massive lithium reserves is on, fueled in part by recent Treasury Department requirements to source battery minerals domestically. 

Despite demand, only one U.S. lithium mine is currently operating, Nevada's Silver Peak, producing around 5,000 metric tons of lithium annually – tiny compared to the 86,000 metric tons that Australia, the world’s top producer, mined last year. In fact, the U.S. produces just 1% of global supply. Investors hope the U.S. will catch up soon. Thacher Pass, another Nevada mine in development, is expected to start operation in 2026, producing 40,000 metric tons per year.

But as the U.S. rushes to expand domestic production of critical minerals, it’s renewing debate over the tradeoffs and impact of mining.

Plans for large scale lithium extraction in the U.S. have triggered pushback from environmental and indigenous rights groups concerned about pollution and threats to sacred lands. 

California approved a per-ton lithium extraction tax in 2022 to help fund restoration and address the needs of impacted communities, but that has not quelled all concerns. Comite Civico del Valle has threatened to sue the Imperial County Board of Supervisors over its approval of Hell’s Kitchen, citing insufficient environmental impact studies.

In Nevada a years-long battle to stop the Thacher Pass lithium mine has failed. Indigenous groups who oppose the extraction because it would harm a sacred site say they were excluded from the decision to approve the project. 

Three hundred miles further south, another lithium deposit known as Rhyolite Ridge has stirred up its own controversy. 

As Ernest Scheyder, author of "The War Below: Lithium, Copper, and the Global Battle to Power Our Lives," explained on The Big Switch podcast, the future of Rhyolite Ridge centers around a rare flower found nowhere else on the planet; a flower that loves lithium-rich soil. 

“Right now there's this uneasy truce where the company is working to develop this mine by basically digging around the flower at the site,” he said. The flower is emblematic of the hard choices communities are being forced to make as the U.S. works to produce more critical minerals domestically.

This tension is as old as the mining industry — and it’s being felt all over the world as critical minerals production expands. 

An NGO called the Initiative for Responsible Mining envisions a new industry paradigm that confronts those tensions head on.

IRMA’s executive director Aimee Boulanger told The Big Switch podcast that there are some things about mining that can’t be changed. “You've got to go to where minerals are. You can't say, hey, five miles away, that would be a lot less sensitive,” she said. 

But she thinks the way mining companies, governments, and impacted communities approach mining projects can and should be improved.  

That starts with recognizing the rights of indigenous groups, because critical minerals mining is directly tied to the rights of indigenous peoples. If those issues are not addressed together, she said, “you're going to face blockaded roads and increasing human conflict and no security in your supply chains.”

That’s exactly what happened in mid-January, when several hundred protesters in Chile, led by Indigenous groups, blocked roads leading to a lithium mine. The mining company had forged an agreement with the Chilean mining agency, but protestors said they hadn’t been consulted.

IRMA has developed a voluntary scoring system and hopes mining companies will use it to compete against each other on ESG metric. 

“It's a way to try to use the market to drive more responsible practices,” said Boulanger, comparing it to labeling standards for shade-grown coffee or organic produce. “It's looking at the materials that come from mines, which then go into our cars or our laptops or wind turbines,” she explained.

Some anti-mining groups say mining companies will just use IRMA for greenwashing. But IRMA does not argue that voluntary scoring will replace government regulation and oversight — rather, it’s a tool “to do more than what’s just legally required,” said Boulanger.

The reality is that a decarbonized economy is still an extraction economy. According to the International Energy Agency, we need to increase production of lithium and other critical minerals like copper and nickel sixfold by 2040 to hit net-zero goals. It's a monumental task that highlights the tradeoffs of the energy transition – more critical mineral mining and processing means more emissions and often more negative impacts on indigenous communities and the local environment.

“These are really sticky issues that as a global society, we really need to be thinking through,” Scheyder said.

“We don't just show up to a store and buy a cell phone or a wind turbine or an electric vehicle,” he said. “The copper in those products has to come from somewhere. Should that copper come from a mine that sits on a traditional indigenous sacred site? Should that sacred site be blown up so we can have the copper to fight climate change?”

Want to dig in further? Listen to the second episode of “The Great Battery Boom” with Dr. Melissa Lott, as she explores the complexity of battery supply chains, from mining to manufacturing.

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Melissa Lott: Last time on The Big Switch ... I hear we're going to blow up a battery?

Dan Steingart: Well, hopefully, it won't blow up, but we're going to cut it open in a way that it's really not meant to be cut open because we are trained professionals.

Bret Schumacher: What we have, actually, is a really long foil of electrodes.

Dan Steingart: Almost everything that's in a battery by mass is a metallic or metal-like element.

Tom Moerenhout: We are mainly looking at lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper, as well. The needs by 2040 are scary, but by 2030, they might be even scarier.

News clip: China leads the EV race in part because it controls the supply chain of raw materials for batteries.

Jason Bordoff: If every country says we need to own the entire supply chain because we want all of those economic benefits, it's going to make the clean energy transition so much harder.

Melissa Lott: There are parts of the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile where no rainfall has ever been recorded. Picture this, 40,000 square miles of harsh, desolate terrain. I'm talking about an endless expanse of rocks and sand baked under a cloudless sky. This area is so otherworldly that NASA actually uses the Atacama as a test site for future space missions.

News clip: The researchers there at NASA, they study the Atacama Desert to get an idea of what we might find on Mars.

The work we're doing here is looking to future missions, so we're studying the Atacama Desert to understand how to search for life on a planetary surface.

Melissa Lott: Back in 2022, Tibisay Zea, who's a reporter for the public radio show called The World, traveled out to the Atacama.

Tibisay Zea: So the Atacama Desert is really an extraordinary place. It always has these deep blue, super clear skies. And the landscape of the Atacama Desert is also exceptional, we see volcanoes, we see mountains, rocks, salt flats. The desert looks like the surface of the moon.

Melissa Lott: And Tibisay wasn't in the Atacama to report on test runs for the next Mars rovers, though, she was there to cover something that honestly can feel equally surreal.

Tibisay Zea: When you enter the mining operations, you immediately see this huge evaporation pools that have different colors of blue and green, even yellow, indicating the different concentration of minerals.

Melissa Lott: The brightly colored evaporation pools of the Salar de Atacama, or the Atacama Salt Flats, are so incredibly massive that they can be seen from outer space. If you take a look at satellite images, you can see the evaporation pools, which look a bit like stained-glass mosaics. You see these grids of turquoise, cobalt, and green rectangles against this big sea of brown, and in those pools, there's a mineral that is so crucial to the energy transition that some compare it to precious metals.

News clip: Lithium is one of the most coveted materials in the world right now. Some call it white gold. It's a critical material used in batteries, and of course, demand is skyrocketing as energy companies and car makers move away from fossil fuels.

Melissa Lott: Moving to net-zero means producing a lot of batteries, and according to the International Energy Agency, we're going to need to increase production of lithium and a lot of other critical minerals, like copper and nickel, by six-fold, and we have to do that by 2040. It's a monumental task, and it can feel like a catch-22. If we want to save the planet, we have to mine more minerals, but mining and processing those minerals increases emissions, and often negatively impacts both indigenous communities and the environment.

Aimee Boulanger: If you're talking about materials that go into energy transition, that is intricately connected today with the rights of indigenous peoples. Those are not two separate subjects, these issues are intimately tied, and we're going to deal with them at the same time, or you're going to face blockaded roads and increasing human conflict, and no security in your supply chains.

Melissa Lott: Aimee Boulanger has spent the last 12 years working on something that can seem like a contradiction, responsible mining.

Aimee Boulanger: Those who know industrial scale mining know that it involves impacting tremendous landscapes and the people who live around it. It can contaminate water and leave mountains of waste. What could possibly be responsible about it?

Melissa Lott: Aimee is the executive director for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, or IRMA, and every day, she wrestles with this question of how we find a balance between our growing need for critical minerals and the rights of local communities. And it's really not easy, but neither is the energy transition.

Aimee Boulanger: You've got to go to where minerals are. You can't say, hey, five miles away, that would be a lot less sensitive an ecosystem, let's go over there for our lithium. Sorry, there's no lithium over there, five miles away. Minerals are in the ground where they are, you can't move that the way you could move lots of other business locations. And in many cases, you're having to move vast amounts of rock to get to tiny amounts of the minerals you're looking for, and so, moving lots of landscape means that you've moved the people on it off, you've moved the creatures who live on it off, you've moved the topsoil off. You may be drilling deep down into the earth and pulling water up in arid environments.

A lot of that is just a really big impact. However, we are in a moment right now where we've said we must transition our energy types. Staying with oil, gas, and thermal coal is not an option for a climate which is already heated and continuing to heat, and so, we need to look at, how do we do this extraction in a way that's not further undermining our goals to transition to a planet with fewer carbon emissions?

Melissa Lott: This is The Big Switch. I'm Dr. Melissa Lott, and I'm the senior director of research at Columbia University's SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy, and I study the technologies and systems that power our world. This season, we're digging into batteries. From cars and heavy equipment to the electric grid, they're finding their way into everything around us, but scaling up battery production to meet the demands of a net-zero economy is really complicated and it's contentious. In a complex battery supply chain, we're asking the question of, what gets mined, traded and consumed on the road to decarbonization?

This is the second installment of our five-part series. In our last episode, we talked about the geopolitics of battery supply chains. In this episode, we're going to start at the beginning. We're going to talk about mining. Specifically, we looked at lithium mining. Why does so much ride on where and how we source this critical metal, and is there a world where we can find a balance between our growing lithium demand and the needs of local communities and the land?

Oil and gas extraction laid the foundation for the modern economy, and having those cheap fossil fuels lifted billions of people out of poverty and improved public health around the world. But that extraction also brought immense negative consequences for communities, ecosystems, and also, our health, not to mention all of the negative stuff that comes with climate change. As we move to net-zero, we have to acknowledge the fact that low-carbon resources, I'm talking about renewables, batteries, nuclear, well, they all rely on a lot of extraction. The clean energy economy is still a natural resource economy, but this net-zero energy economy is fundamentally different from today's energy economy in two big ways.

First, the extraction that we need for a net-zero economy will be a lot less than our current energy systems require, and a big reason for this is recycling. When we burn fossil fuels, it's this one-way street. We burn them, we get the things we want out of them, and then we have to do more drilling and make more wells to replace them. In a net-zero economy, most of the materials that we extract can be collected, recycled, and reused, made as good as new. The second thing is that while a net-zero economy means extracting less things, it also means extracting different things, which means different impacts for different communities. For example, we will need a lot less oil and gas in the net-zero economy, but we will need much more lithium and copper. And at a local level, mining for those minerals will have huge impacts on the people that live near those mines. But this energy transition also offers a chance to do things differently. The way that we extracted things in the past is not how we will or should extract them going forward.

We have learned a lot about how to extract things, and we have the opportunity to use those lessons to make sure that we extract minerals and other materials more responsibly. And we can find pathways that allow us to accelerate the clean energy transition while honoring local priorities and values, while minimizing the downsides, and ensuring that the opportunities are accessible to local communities. So how do we do that, and what are the challenges and potential solutions? In this episode, we're going to examine the complexities of scaling up mining to meet the demands of the clean energy economy. And that brings us back to Chile. Companies have been mining in Chile for decades, digging up things like copper and gold, silver, and a lot of other metals.

News clip: Setting off 27 tons of dynamite in a single blast, engineers shake loose 187,000 tons of copper ore from one of the great Chilean mines, copper ore by the train load.

Melissa Lott: But recent increases in the production of lithium-ion batteries has supercharged demand for lithium, and Chile's massive reserves have made it a key part of what's known as the lithium triangle.

Ernest Scheyder: The lithium triangle refers to a portion of the South American continent where three countries come together, you've got Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. And that portion where these three countries come together is certainly very mountainous and filled with a lot of brine deposits that sort of wash down from the Andes Mountains. And so, it's a very lithium-rich region, depending on which part of the lithium triangle you're in. And Chile, I would say, between all three, has really mastered for the past 20 or 25 years, its lithium operations.

Melissa Lott: Ernest Scheyder covers critical minerals for Reuters, and is the author of a book called The War Below: Lithium, Copper, and the Global Battle to Power Our Lives. This book is all about the lithium-ion battery supply chain, but I find it really interesting because Ernest also spent a decade covering shale oil, which has given him some really interesting perspectives on the impacts of energy development. And from where he sits, the demand for lithium is only going up.

Ernest Scheyder: Lithium demand is spiking right now across the world. So just by way of sheer numbers, the world produced about 13,000 metric tons of lithium in 2020. By 2030, at least one estimate says the world is going to be producing 3.2 million metric tons of lithium. So that's a gargantuan increase. And even still, that number is expected to fall short of demand by 500,000 metric tons.

Melissa Lott: And it's not just lithium that we need more of. Do you remember back in episode one where we unrolled that lithium-ion battery? Well, to get to net-zero, we're going to need millions of batteries like these, which means we're going to need 30 times more cobalt, 20 times more nickel, and 25 times more graphite than we needed in 2020. And extracting all those minerals from the earth doesn't just have big implications for the world, it also has really big implications for individual communities where that mining is happening.

Ernest Scheyder: If we think climate change is the existential threat facing our planet, we have to be having a broad conversation about where we want to get the minerals that build these products. We don't just show up to a store and buy a cell phone or a wind turbine or an electric vehicle, the copper in those products has to come from somewhere. Should that copper come from a mine that sits on traditional indigenous sacred sites? Should that sacred site be blown up so we can have the copper to fight climate change? These are really sticky issues that us as a world, us as a global society, really needs to be thinking through. And we didn't do it 100, 150 years ago, as the petroleum-based economy started to take off, and as a consequence, we got global conflict over oil production, we got climate change. We need to be having a discussion about, what are the trade-offs we're willing to accept?

Melissa Lott: Resource extraction has widened social divides, and it's also sparked conflict, like we saw in Chile in 2019.

News clip: Chile is extending the state of emergency to cities in the north and south.

Protests began after a rise in ticket prices for the capital's metro, but anger has widened amid the huge inequality between the rich and poor.

Melissa Lott: More than a million people took part in demonstrations, and 30 people died in clashes with police and soldiers. And in the wake of those protests, Chileans elected a new president in 2021, and they drafted a new constitution that would've led to sweeping, left-leaning changes for things like reproductive rights, gender parity, and also, healthcare, and it would've given indigenous groups more autonomy and a stronger voice in decision-making.

News clip: The recognition of plurinationality in the new constitution opens the way for indigenous nations to demand internal self-determination. It implies exercising their cultural rights and defining and administering their economic resources, which currently is impossible.

Melissa Lott: For Chile's mining industry, it would mean water could no longer be the property of mining companies, and in Chile, when you talk about mining lithium, you're talking about mining water. But that constitution did not pass. In September of 2022, Chileans rejected it flat out. Many said it was just way too radical, and Juan Carlos Jobet had a front-row seat to the debate.

Juan Carlos Jobet: I'm Juan Carlos Jobet, I'm Chilean. I'm a distinguished visiting fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Melissa Lott: Juan Carlos used to be Chile's Minister of Mining, and now we work together at Columbia University. And back in April of 2023, he took a trip to Northern Chile with some of our colleagues from the Center on Global Energy Policy. They wanted to see how lithium is mined in the salt flats of the Atacama Desert. That's the place we were talking about at the top of the show.

Juan Carlos Jobet: There's a beautiful town right next to the south side that's called San Pedro de Atacama. The skies are so clear, the mountains out there, the colors you get from the desert are amazing, and the geology of the place is a very kind of spiritual place, and people who live there are very kind of attached to that place.

Melissa Lott: On a walk through San Pedro de Atacama one day, Juan Carlos and his colleagues were reminded that the attachment to place is often at odds with the country's goals to expand lithium mining.

Juan Carlos Jobet: A woman who was running her shop, she asked, what are you doing here? They said, well, we are studying lithium production, because lithium would allow us to basically reduce the carbon footprint of transportation, which is a big source of emissions for climate change. And I think their expectation was that her reaction was going to be very positive. But it was very negative, so she was saying, I mean, you cannot do that. A place in the planet where they've lived for generation, and it's pristine, and it's clean. It's very hard for them, as it is for many other people, to see, if we need to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation, we need lithium.

Melissa Lott: It's a huge trade-off, and a lot of Chileans are conflicted. What do Chileans think of lithium mining and how this could all develop going forward?

Juan Carlos Jobet: An average citizen thinks, first, lithium has an enormous potential, it could be the future of our country. Which is true, but I don't think people understand that the lithium industry, I mean, it changes every day as prices move up and down, but it can be 50 times, 30 times smaller than copper. The other thing that I think people think, that we are not getting a fair share of the value that is being extracted through lithium mining. That is not true, the state gets over 50% of the earnings. So that's a pretty high share of the value that is being created. I think all governments have not done a good job at reinvesting enough of that money into the communities that live next to the mining operations. And I think that's true for lithium, but also, for copper. And for that communities, that is true, that they deal with the consequences, the dust, the lack of water, and so on, but they don't get a fair share of the value.

Melissa Lott: So we know that the communities that live near mining operations always bear the brunt of its negative impacts, but it's important to realize that 85% of the world's lithium reserves and resources overlap with indigenous people's lands, and that's led to pushback. Pushback, for example, from indigenous communities in Australia, where hard rock lithium mining generates the largest share of global supply. And it's also led to pushback in the United States, Canada, and across South America. And in Chile's lithium salt flats, where the sun evaporates these massive pools of brine pumped up from underground, the concern isn't about air pollution or the massive open pit mines, it's about water and how water is defined.

Juan Carlos Jobet: So if you take into account the amount of water that is being evaporated, that was part of the brine, that's a lot of water. The question there, then, is, if we were not evaporating that brine, or the water in the brine, could we use that water somewhere else? And the answer truly is, not really. Brine in the Atacama Salt Flat has between 7 and 10 times more salt than the seawater, so you cannot use that brine as a source of "water", quote, unquote, for human consumption, agriculture, industrial processes.

Melissa Lott: For reporter Tibisay Zea, who we heard from at the top of the show, found that some indigenous communities see a more nuanced value in water.

Tibisay Zea: The mining companies see this brine as a liquid that is reaching minerals that can be extracted and commercialized with positive impacts on Chile's economy. But then, many indigenous people in the area say brine should be treated as water because it's part of their hydrogeological ecosystem, and it has a lot of ancestral value for them, so it's worth preserving.

Melissa Lott: They say that pumping up all that brine from underground affects the entire water table and it reduces the overall amount of usable water.

Tibisay Zea: The problem is that there aren't enough scientific studies to determine the impact on local water supply. And most of the studies that we have, have been funded by the mining companies, so it's really not clear what the impact is at the moment.

Melissa Lott: Mining companies usually make efforts to share benefits with local communities, and they call it securing social license to operate. And that's what happened in the Atacama.

Tibisay Zea: The indigenous communities are divided. Some of them see an opportunity in these mining companies, that they are basically revitalizing this area, that they are bringing jobs, that they are offering the social programs.

Melissa Lott: One of Chile's two mining companies, Albemarle, has made agreements with some indigenous communities that include direct payments. Overall, 3.5% of the mine's income goes to those groups, but it's a complicated situation, and the severity of water impacts just isn't clear. Even Juan Carlos admits to being confused, and that's a problem.

Juan Carlos Jobet: To be fully honest, I spent some time trying to understand this. And I don't think we have a good enough understanding of how this works. Then, if you don't have that clear understanding, what should you do? And that is a very complicated question, especially considering that lithium is essential to stop climate change. Which, by the way, opens up whole other discussion, which is, how do we evaluate and balance and solve the trade-offs in projects that have, inevitably, some negative impact in local environment and ecosystems, but that are essential to stop climate change? And here is, we have trade-offs, we need to deal with that.

Melissa Lott: And dealing with those trade-offs forces us to confront some uncomfortable truths. Remember that statistic from the International Energy Agency that we talked about at the top of the show? Well, in order to hit our net-zero goals, we need to increase production of critical minerals six-fold by 2040. And that means we need a lot more mining, and more mining means greater impacts on those local communities. Finding a middle ground, it can seem close to impossible. And 13 years ago, Aimee Boulanger didn't want to touch this problem.

Aimee Boulanger: When I first heard about IRMA, I thought, I'm not going to work on that. I really don't want to, and I don't think it's going to work. And yet, years after that, I ended up here as one of the first staff, and now, the executive director of the organization.

Melissa Lott: As we heard at the top of the show, IRMA stands for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, which may sound contradictory to some people. Aimee's in charge of heading up efforts at IRMA to find this balance between global mineral extraction and the rights of indigenous and frontline communities. And IRMA's approach is pretty wonky, so let's break it down. In 2018, they developed this sort of scoring system for mines, and a company can volunteer to be graded on this scoring system, which includes a set of responsible mining practice metrics. And the end result of all of this stuff is that you have a kind of rate your mine score that's visible to the public. What are some of the biggest opportunities when it comes to IRMA's approach? Because it's this voluntary setup, nobody's required to do, I think just about anything, when it comes to this.

Aimee Boulanger: The fact that IRMA is voluntary is both a limit to what it can achieve, but also, a tremendous opportunity to why it can move faster than we might change laws and regulation. We can, without going through Congress, spend years talking amongst the people who are most affected by mining, and come up with shared definitions of what would be more responsible practice for protecting people and the landscapes they live on, and then, offering that as a tool to the marketplace, so that, when you've got the purchasers of my material, the people who make our cars and our phones or our jewelry, when they're ready to do more than what's just legally required, they can pick up a standard like this and say, here is a way that will show we're going to be more responsible in our sourcing. Kind of like you might think about organics when you go to the grocery store, or shade grown coffee, it's these tools ... Or buying from your local farmer, it's these ways that you can go above and beyond what's absolutely required by law to try to influence good with how your purchasing is done.

Melissa Lott: What is in the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and how does that impact mining companies and other folks who are in the entire supply chain with mining?

Aimee Boulanger: The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples speaks to the rights of indigenous peoples and their free, prior, informed consent about what happens on their lands. And each of those four pieces of that is so critical, the idea that they can make decisions freely that aren't being coerced or pressured upon them, that they make decisions prior to something happening, so it's not, okay, we started a mine 10 years ago, now, what kind of benefits can we show you for it? But before new action happens, that they can make decisions prior to that, that their decisions are informed, that they have full information on what the opportunities and the risks are that might come from new development on their land.

Melissa Lott: So it's still early days for IRMA, and not many audits have been performed yet, but both of the mining companies that operate in Chile's Atacama Desert, so that's Albemarle and SQM, well, they've already participated in the audits, and their results were published in late 2023. Out of a possible 100 points, Albemarle got a 50, and SQM scored 75. Now, the specific numbers, they may be useful when it comes to tracking progress over time, and we also can use them when comparing different mines, especially as more mines sign up for the audit. But beyond the numbers, Aimee argues that the process itself can help to kickstart deeper engagement with local communities and maybe begin to repair some broken trust.

Aimee Boulanger: I think there's been such broken trust between so many mining companies and communities and NGOs, that it's become almost accepted and expected. Nobody likes it, I don't think, no, I don't think anyone in the mining industry likes it, and certainly, communities don't like that they feel that they don't have negotiating power, but it's almost become expected. And I think now, this idea that there would be a deeper level of engagement and oversight that's not just by your regulatory body, but is by the people and the workers who are closest and most impacted by your operation.

Melissa Lott: When IRMA does an audit, it reaches out to local community members through various channels to seek their input. And in Chile, IRMA representatives even printed out these hard copies of its mine audits and handed them out in surrounding communities, encouraging people to read through them, ask questions, and respond. But at the end of the day, repairing broken trust is really, really hard, and so, it's not exactly surprising that a number of groups that oppose lithium mining in the Atacama refuse to participate. One of the most vocal groups is called the Plurinational Observatory of the Andean Salt Flats. This group said that mining companies were using their IRMA audits to greenwash their activity, and they wanted nothing to do with it.

Ramón Balcázar: It's not a valid method to determine whether a mining operation is responsible or not. Since the beginning, the companies use this as information to validate themselves and to claim they are responsible or they are on their way to be responsible.

Melissa Lott: Ramon Balcazar Morales is one of this group's representatives, and he says that opposition groups are more focused on developing legal tools to protect the Atacama from over-extraction. And he thinks that IRMA is just making corporate players and consumers feel a bit better about the increasing mining needs for the clean energy transition.

Ramón Balcázar: I think it only matters for people in the global north, actually. This has a lot to do with colonial structures, because only because I speak English, I can communicate with you about this. Most of people in the Spanish-speaking spaces have no idea what IRMA is.

Melissa Lott: IRMA has responded to criticisms like these in a statement published on its website. But here's the thing, lithium mines in the Atacama broke ground decades ago, and were often built without free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous groups. And Aimee stresses that even these mines that were developed prior to IRMA's standards don't get a pass.

Aimee Boulanger: For those that didn't have it before, we ask them now, what are you doing to manifest that you are increasing the support of the community in which you're operating in, so it doesn't become a permission slip to just say, we didn't have it, and therefore, we'll just keep doing it the way we've been doing it? What are you doing now to build these agreements and benefit sharing, to build support and consent from your community now, even if you didn't have it prior?

Melissa Lott: Okay, so working towards this vision of responsible mining is going to take a lot of outreach and collaboration and hard work to make sure that we just don't repeat the past, including our history, where the global north has frequently exploited people and places in the global south. And there have been some efforts to make meaningful progress. Two years into his term, Chile's new president, Gabriel Boric is trying to clean up the lithium mining industry. He's put some areas off limits to lithium mining in order to protect natural resources, and he's encouraging the use of a new lithium mining technique called direct lithium extraction.

Ernest Scheyder: That sounds like a wonky term, but it's basically a broad classification of technologies that's sort of aimed to filter lithium out of brine, sort of like your household water softener. And so, you would basically put that pipe into a machine, it would just take out the lithium, but leave the magnesium and calcium and other minerals and metals in the brine, and then you can inject that brine back underground. It's almost like a loop process. That's the hope. And so, you have a lot of companies, both startup and established, that are trying to perfect this direct lithium extraction technology. But the idea of taking this commercial is extremely new and extremely nascent, and so, what Chile's president has done is effectively made a bet on a so far novel, relatively unproven classifications of technology to completely reinvent how Chile produces lithium for the global economy.

Melissa Lott: That's Ernie Scheyder again. Ernie explains that Boric isn't mandating the Chile's two lithium producers, Albemarle and SQM, use direct lithium extraction, but he wants the industry to move in that direction.

Ernest Scheyder: What direct lithium extraction will also help him and Chile do is produce in more regions of the country that might not necessarily have as high concentrations of lithium as northern Chile, but would still allow them to produce the metal elsewhere in the country. So it opens up a lot more deposits and a lot more of these briny salt deposits throughout Chile to produce lithium. The promise of these new DLE technologies is the potential to be able to produce lithium in places across the world where you could never produce it before, and add concentrations that made it too uneconomical before, so we could have a lot more lithium come around. And the analog that I like to give is with the US shale industry. Because of the development of new shale technologies 10, 15, 20 years ago, it made deposits of natural gas easier to tap at a much cheaper price. And so, I think we're going to start seeing that with lithium here in the next 5, 10, 15 years, if and when direct lithium extraction takes off.

Melissa Lott:

But for right now, mines in the lithium triangle rely on this process where they use the intense sun to slowly evaporate water from brine ponds in the desert. And it's this process that is three times less energy intensive than mining lithium from hard rock, but the trade-off is that it takes a lot longer, anywhere from 18 to 24 months, which is why Australia's hard rock lithium mining has grabbed a bigger share of the market in recent years.

But here in the US, we're sitting on some of the largest lithium reserves in the world, so why are we only producing 1% of the world's lithium supply? I asked Ernie to weigh in. So coming back to the United States for a minute, we have a lot of different targets about deploying batteries, and just technologies that require lithium, but we have one operational lithium mine in the US right now, and that's the the Silver Peak Mine in Nevada. And there are a number of different types of lithium mines in development, are being explored right now, but what are the real hurdles and incentives that are kind of creating this push-pull in creating a lithium industry here in the United States?

Ernest Scheyder: So I would say broadly, the United States wants to produce more lithium. Broadly, a lot of Americans see climate change happening in their day-to-day lives, whether that's through stress aquifers or in hurricanes or in tornadoes, there's an assumption that the climate is changing and we need to do something, and so, we need to move to an era where we have a lot of devices powered by electricity, and that will require a lot of lithium.

So when you describe to folks the current supply chain for building a battery that might go into your electric car, or the leaf blower you use in your backyard, when you explain that most of the time, that lithium will either come from Chile or Australia, and then move to a cathode facility in maybe Japan or China before being put into a product that's shipped to the United States, when you describe that long supply chain, folks just immediately think of the large carbon emissions that might come from shipping, as well as the facility in Asia that produces those cathodes. Is it powered by coal? So there's a lot of questions there. So broadly, folks say, well, if we can build these facilities in the United States, if we can extract this lithium in the United States or a nearby country like Canada, why don't we?

Melissa Lott: Ernie says that the answer is complicated, and it gets to the bigger questions about the impacts and trade-offs of mining in communities around the globe. In his book, Ernie tells the story of a proposed lithium mine in Nevada known as Rhyolite Ridge.

Ernest Scheyder: Unfortunately, for the company that wants to develop this, there's a rare flower found nowhere else on the planet at Rhyolite Ridge, and this flower loves the lithium-rich soil. It thrives there, and no place else. So the question that's come up is, what matters more, the lithium or the flower? If we did nothing, would climate change continue unabated and the flower would just go extinct? Or, should we dig up the mine and basically let the flower die or go extinct from the production of this mine? And so, right now, there's this uneasy truce, where the company is working to develop this mine by basically digging around the flower at the site. And so, how that will actually work out in the real world, we will see as the mine moves forward.

Melissa Lott: The story of this particular flower is a microcosm of the challenges that we face in the global energy transition. For every step forward we take to decarbonize the planet, we have to ask ourselves, what are we willing to sacrifice? And for a lot of indigenous communities, there's been a historic precedent of imposed sacrifice.

Aimee Boulanger: Most people, where these materials exist right now, particularly indigenous people, are beginning to say, no, no, no. We've said no. We've had 500 years of gold extraction, and then we had the legacy of diamond extraction, and now, in the name of saving the planet, you want to come and extract more? So you've got a lot more of them just saying a hard no. And so, it's not just a matter that we say, well, it's going to be some impacts, but we'll just accept some sacrifice zones. Well, people who live where these things are, are not accepting.

Melissa Lott: So if we want to get this right, we're going to have to reckon with the fact that a decarbonized economy is still a resource economy, and if there's an upside to this massive uptick in mining around the world, it could come in the form of a more inclusive, transparent, and participatory resource economy.

Aimee Boulanger: We've been mining for a long time, but most people still don't know the materials in their phone or what's in their car, where it came from, and so, the fact that it's now linked to energy transition, we should make sure that our wind turbines and our solar panels and our electric vehicles aren't doing a whole bunch of harm, as well. We sort of already got to that point where we understood, there should be a life cycle analysis here of the whole thing, right? It's not just that the car's tailpipe is no longer kicking out so many greenhouse gases, let's look at the whole piece of producing that battery. So that's a really good thing that has brought that attention.

Melissa Lott: And mining is just the first step in the process. In the next installment of this season of The Big Switch, we move from mining to processing battery metals. It's the part of battery making that doesn't grab headlines, but can have big environmental impacts. The Big Switch is produced by Columbia University's SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy, in partnership with Latitude Studios. If you appreciate the reporting and storytelling that we're doing here, you can rate and review the show on Apple and Spotify.

You can also send a link to a colleague or a friend who you think would like it, and you can find all of our back episodes, along with this current season, wherever you get your pods. The show is produced by Daniel Waldorf, Mary Catherine O'Connor, Anne Bailey, and Stephen Lacey. Anne Bailey is our senior editor, and Sean Marquand wrote our theme song and mixed the episodes. A special thanks to our Columbia team, Harry Kennard, Natalie Volk, Hugh Lee, Jen Wu, and Liz Smith, and also, Tom Morenhout. The show is hosted by me, Dr. Melissa Lott. Thank you so much for listening. Stay tuned for episode three coming next week.

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