Rural Utah residents express worry over plans to extract lithium using Colorado River water

A project to extract lithium, the shiny white metal used in electric vehicle batteries, in southeast Utah is causing concern about its potential impact on water from the Colorado River.

An Australian company and its U.S. subsidiaries are currently studying the saline waters found in the Paradox Basin. This geologic formation, located in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, is known for its groundwater that is abundant in lithium salts and other minerals. The basin’s history dates back millions of years ago when it was a marine basin that experienced multiple flooding and draining events.

The company has also obtained the rights to access freshwater from the nearby Green River. This has raised concerns regarding the potential impact of their lithium production plans on the environment, as it raises questions about the connection between groundwater and river water. It is important to note that the Green River is a tributary of the Colorado River, which is already heavily utilized and supports the water needs of approximately 40 million individuals in the Western region.

Lauren Wood, a third-generation resident of Green River, Utah, a town of 900 near a site being considered by Anson Resources, voiced her concern about seeking quick-fix energy solutions on a drought-stricken river. “We need to transition to renewable energy, but perhaps we should explore alternative options given the current state of the river,” she stated.

In the extraction of minerals, open pit mining is a common method. However, an alternative approach for lithium extraction from saline water using chemicals is being explored. This method has the potential to be faster and less environmentally disruptive compared to the conventional practices of drilling, blasting, and excavation in mining operations.

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The project serves as a small component in the worldwide effort to increase lithium production. This surge in production aims to meet the growing demand for batteries used in clean energy storage, such as wind and solar power, as well as in electric vehicles. Although alternative batteries that do not require lithium are being researched, lithium remains the primary component in the majority of electric vehicle and electrical grid batteries.

According to Anson, their extraction process, which has no equivalent at scale in the U.S., is both low-carbon and environmentally responsible. However, this claim has not managed to alleviate the concerns of certain environmentalists and residents.

Anson has been utilizing abandoned oil wells to investigate the quantity of lithium present in brine, a saline solution, located deep underground.

According to the company, the brine contains a sufficient amount of metal to produce approximately 10,000 tons (around 9,072 metric tons) of lithium carbonate annually. This quantity is capable of meeting the demand for approximately 200,000 average U.S. electric vehicle battery packs.

According to the plan, the liquid will be pushed upwards from a depth of over a mile (around 2 kilometers) by natural pressure. Afterward, an absorbent will be employed to separate the lithium from the water, which will then be pumped back underground. To wash the mineral, freshwater from the Colorado River will be utilized. Anson assures that almost all of this freshwater will be recycled and reused.

“We understand the value of water in our dry surroundings,” stated Anson CEO Bruce Richardson. “The lithium we are extracting will be used in electric vehicles, which are designed to minimize environmental impact.”

Geologists and Earth scientists, like Michael McKibben, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, have expressed uncertainty regarding the actual water-intensive nature of direct lithium extraction.

According to him, there hasn’t been enough time for the technology to establish a significant commercial track record.

The technology has been put into use in Argentina and a few projects in Qinghai, China.

Anson has obtained rights to 2,500 acre-feet of water from the Green River, which is enough water to serve two to three U.S. households for a year. Although the company does not plan to utilize the entire amount, they have not provided further clarification on their usage plans.

According to the company, brine and freshwater should not be considered the same as brine is not suitable for consumption or any other practical use. They further explained that the brine found in the Paradox Basin is isolated from freshwater aquifers by a substantial distance of over a mile, which is comprised of thick layers of impermeable salt and sandstone.

The Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management expressed concerns last year regarding Anson’s proposal to extract 13,755 acre-feet of groundwater annually near the Green River. Officials from the Department highlighted the potential connection between the aquifer and the river, emphasizing the need for Anson and its U.S. subsidiaries to provide a thorough explanation of the potential impact on the Green River resulting from the groundwater withdrawals.

The final decision on the water permits will be made by Utah’s water rights division, a process that could take several months or even years.

Several other companies in the U.S. are currently exploring direct lithium extraction projects. One notable example is ExxonMobil, which acquired rights in the Smackover formation located in southern Arkansas. This area is considered one of the most promising lithium resources in North America. Additionally, Century Lithium is carrying out a pilot project in Nevada’s Amargosa Valley, situated approximately 90 miles (145 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas.

Nevada is currently the sole producer of lithium in the United States, despite growing interest from both the government and industry to increase domestic production. The majority of lithium is currently sourced from countries such as Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina.

Ren Hatt, the mayor of Green River, expressed that the town’s economic limitations create a sense of urgency to consider Anson’s project, despite the doubts and concerns of residents like Gayna Salinas regarding its proximity to the town.

He said that it is challenging to decline anything in a tight-knit community like Green River.

Salinas, a resident of the rural community and whose family works in farming, expressed her skepticism towards the potential economic advantages of a venture like Anson’s. She pointed out the history of uranium mines and oil and gas drilling in the area, which were once operational but are now defunct.

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