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Climate ChangeWhy the Rush to Mine Lithium Could Dry Up the High Andes

Why the Rush to Mine Lithium Could Dry Up the High Andes

What environmental price should the world be willing to pay for the metals needed to modify to electric vehicles? The query is being asked urgently in South America where there are growing fears that what is sweet for the worldwide climate could also be a disaster for a number of the world’s rarest and most precious ecosystems — salt flats, wetlands, grazing pastures, and flamingo lakes high within the Andean mountains.

This distant region straddling the borders between Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile has develop into often known as the Lithium Triangle, since it is the sudden focus of a worldwide rush for the metal vital in making lithium-ion batteries to decarbonize the world’s automobiles. Demand for lithium is predicted to quadruple by 2030 to 2.4 million metric tons annually, and in anticipation, prices on world markets have risen near tenfold prior to now 12 months.

In line with the U.S. Geological Survey, greater than half of the world’s lithium reserves are dissolved in ancient underground water throughout the Lithium Triangle. Global mining conglomerates are competing to grab the metal by pumping that water to the surface and evaporating it within the sun to pay attention the lithium carbonate that it accommodates.

Lithium is the lightest of all metals. Soft and malleable with a high capability to store energy, it is good material to make lightweight, rechargeable batteries. Demand for the metal for lithium-ion batteries to power mobile devices has risen strongly for 3 a long time. But while mobile-phone batteries require only a tenth of an oz of lithium carbonate, a typical electric-car battery requires 130 kilos — around 20,000 times as much.

The Lithium Triangle region.
Yale Environment 360

With the world’s automotive fleets transitioning to electric propulsion, Argentina, with reserves of as much as 60 million metric tons, in keeping with government estimates, is well-positioned to cash in on the lithium rush. Lax regulation and low taxes make its a part of the Lithium Triangle — within the northwestern provinces of Jujuy, Salta, and Catamarca — “especially attractive for foreign investors,” in keeping with Lucas Gonzalez of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), a government agency in Buenos Aires. The country could soon develop into the world’s second-largest lithium producer, after Australia, and the biggest producer from evaporative mining.

But every ton of lithium carbonate extracted from underground using this low cost, low-tech method typically dissipates into the air about half 1,000,000 gallons of water that is important to the arid high Andes. The extraction lowers water tables, and since freshwater often sits on top of salty water, this has the potential to dry up the lakes, wetlands, springs, and rivers that flourish where the underground water reaches the surface.

Hydrologists and conservationists say Argentina’s lithium rush is about to show the region’s delicate ecosystems to abandon. Meanwhile, the Indigenous people of the high Andes increasingly fear that the scarce water on which they rely for domestic use — and to maintain alive the pastures on which their livestock depend — is being sacrificed in a worldwide drive for green vehicles to fight climate change.

The Lithium Triangle comprises a series of enclosed basins greater than 10,000 feet up within the Andes. Rainwater from the encompassing mountain peaks has for hundreds of years flowed into the basins, forming lakes, wetlands, and salt pans, in addition to accumulating underground. The water has brought with it large quantities of lithium carbonate and salts of sodium, boron, potassium, and magnesium which are eroded from the mountains.

The saltiness of the water within the basins varies from place to position. Recently arrived freshwater vital for wildlife and human communities is often found across the fringe of the basins, whereas saltier water is mostly closer to the middle, where a long time of evaporation in the extraordinary high-altitude sunlight has reduced the water and concentrated the lithium and other salts.

Some 50 mining projects are currently licensed or under lively discussion in northwest Argentina alone.

Now, mining corporations intend to extract lithium by dramatically accelerating this natural evaporation, by pumping salty underground water from wells into vast evaporation ponds they’re creating across tens of square miles of the salt flats. In total, some 50 projects are currently licensed or under lively discussion in northwest Argentina alone, covering an area larger than Delaware.

Typically, after a 12 months or so within the sun, when the concentration of lithium carbonate within the water exceeds 3.5 percent, the brine can be sent by truck for further chemical treatment to extract the lithium. But by this time, about half 1,000,000 gallons of water may have evaporated for each ton of lithium carbonate collected, calculates Victoria Flexer, a chemist at CONICET.

Several mining corporations approached to comment on concerns concerning the impact of their activities didn’t respond. The U.S.-based Livent Corporation says, “Responsible stewardship of the environment is important to our work. We utilize a comprehensive system to administer and record environmental parameters resembling water flows, chemical transport, and salinity.” Nevertheless, many independent hydrologists are skeptical that the extraction might be achieved without impacts on ecosystems and the water supplies of local communities.

The hydrology of the basins of the Lithium Triangle is poorly understood, in keeping with Brendan Moran of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who has conducted detailed isotopic studies to find out the age and sources of the water. “The water often lies deep underground and flows across great distances and over long periods of time.”

Lithium-rich brine is pumped into evaporation pools at a mine in Potosi, Bolivia.

Lithium-rich brine is pumped into evaporation pools at a mine in Potosi, Bolivia.
Carlos Becerra / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The basins are often hydrologically linked below ground, so lowering the water table in a single place may lower it in others, in keeping with Marcelo Sticco, a hydrogeologist on the University of Buenos Aires. “The extraction of water can affect wetlands and communities in an area persistently larger than the surface area” of the projects, says Roman Baigun, program manager for saving high Andean wetlands on the Wetlands International, a conservation organization. “Billions of liters of water are evaporated, never to return to the system.”

The forerunner for future lithium mining in Argentina is the Fenix project within the Salar del Hombre Muerto (Dead Man’s Salt Flat) covering 230 square miles of northern Catamarca, which has been operated by the Livent since 1997. With rising demand from auto manufacturers resembling BMW and Tesla, the corporate recently accomplished a $640-million expansion that may double annual output to 40,000 tons. With reserves estimated at 1.2 million tons, it could keep that up for 30 years. But production requires pumping about 170,000 gallons of water from underground every hour to fill its giant emerald-green lagoons.

A good larger project, Sales de Jujuy within the Olaroz basin in Jujuy, began extraction in 2014. It’s a collaboration between Australian mining company Orocobre and Japanese carmaker Toyota Tsusho, which has first rights to its annual output of some 42,500 tons. In the identical basin, one other project, often known as Minera Exar, is in preparation by Lithium Americas, a Canadian company, and Chinese giant Ganfeng Lithium. It plans to supply 40,000 tons annually for the following 40 years.

Environmental impacts may only accrue regularly, with what experts called the “slow, hidden and insidious depletion of water.”

Dozens more projects are being developed by local speculators, and as lithium prices have soared, global mining corporations have been moving in to purchase them up. Earlier this 12 months, the 1.6-million-ton Tres Quebradas project was bought by Chinese mining giant Zijin, and a part of the 1.4-million-ton Rincon salt pan reserve was purchased by the world’s second largest mining company, Rio Tinto.

Studies by local researchers have underlined the unique biodiversity that’s threatened by developments that may drain the realm’s wetlands, that are home to pumas, Andean foxes, vicuna, hairy armadillos, and endangered Andean mountain cats and short-tailed chinchillas. The wetlands’ bird life can also be spectacular, says Patricia Marconi, an ornithologist and president of the Yuchan Foundation, an Argentinian conservation group. Some 70 percent of the world’s Andean and Puna flamingos live here, moving between the wetlands to feed on microscopic algae often known as Bacillariophyta which are present in abundance.

Except for such iconic species, the high Andes’ wetlands are amongst probably the most unusual ecosystems on Earth, Marconi says. They’re wealthy in a number of the earliest life forms on the planet, resembling stromatolites, microbial mats, and mud-like organic deposits often known as microbialites that “potentially could provide information concerning the early evolution of life.”

There are wealthy Indigenous cultures based around high Andean pastures that sustain herds of llamas and alpacas. The communities also harvest salt, cut peat for fuel, farm, and show sunscreened tourists around their blindingly white salty landscapes.

Andean flamingos on a lagoon in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

Andean flamingos on a lagoon within the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.
Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images

These communities have been divided over whether to embrace the lithium rush. Some have been desirous to take the handful of jobs on offer on the mines, they usually welcome company inducements, resembling schools and web access not previously provided by the federal government. This has resulted within the Olaroz basin becoming a fast-growing hub for lithium extraction.

But others have grown more fearful. East of Olaroz, the 33 Atacama and Kolla indigenous communities around Salinas Grandes, the biggest salt flat in Argentina, banded together a decade ago to set terms for allowing mining. But when those terms were rejected, they selected outright opposition. “That is our territory. We decided that lithium won’t be mined here, and they will should respect us,” Veronica Chavez from the village of Santuario Tres Pozos told journalists.

After the Canadian company A.I.S. Resources began exploratory drilling in 2018, the communities held protests and blocked the foremost highway across their land to Chile. The corporate left and has yet to return.

Hydrologists warn that the threats from mining should not all the time obvious. Environmental impacts may only accrue regularly, with what Gonzalez and Richard Snyder of Brown University recently called the “slow, hidden and insidious depletion of water.” Still, as environmental impacts grow, they are saying, “buyer’s remorse” is increasing in Olaroz and elsewhere.

The Argentinian government and provincial authorities have taken a hands-off approach to mining, critics say.

On the Hombre Muerto salt flat, locals say pumping for the 25-year-old Fenix operation has lowered the water table a lot that the Trapiche River, a significant source of water for his or her meadows, has dried up, leaving their livestock nowhere to graze. The communities there have now mobilized to stop the identical thing happening to their other foremost source of water, the Patos River, which they imagine is threatened by latest wells.

The Argentinian government and provincial authorities have taken a hands-off approach to mining. They supply “little oversight,” say Gonzalez and Snyder, giving the businesses freedom to prepare each their very own environmental assessments and community liaisons.

Marconi says that this has not resulted in good corporate practice. When she analyzed 11 company environmental impact assessments for lithium extraction, she says, she found that none included full hydrological evaluation or rigorous assessment of the impact of evaporation ponds on local water supplies and wetlands.

Corporations also skimp on local consultation, in keeping with critics. In theory, they’re required to acquire the “free, prior, and informed consent” of local communities for mining. But Pia Marchegiani, director of environmental policy on the Argentinian NGO Environmental and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN), found that in practice, local communities were either bypassed or bamboozled with reports in technical language they may not understand, while being denied information on the potential risks and environmental impacts of the projects. “The one information available is that provided by corporations,” Marchegiani concluded. “Projects are gaining approval with little critical review.”

The Indigenous Kolla village of Susques, Argentina, near the Salinas Grandes lithium plant.

The Indigenous Kolla village of Susques, Argentina, near the Salinas Grandes lithium plant.
Ricardo Ceppi / Getty Images

Critics of the present approach say that the likely environmental impacts should not an inevitable price for the rapid delivery of the raw materials needed for electric vehicles.

For one thing, there are alternatives to lithium. Zinc and nickel are each potential substitutes for lithium in rechargeable batteries. There are also ways of obtaining lithium which are less destructive than evaporating the metal from precious saline ecosystems.

A rival source is a lithium ore often known as spodumene, present in igneous rocks often known as pegmatite. The world’s largest hard-rock lithium mines are in Western Australia. One other major source is under development within the Democratic Republic of Congo. But hard-rock supplies are currently costlier than those from evaporating brine, and mining them has the next energy demand.

Flexer says lithium might be extracted from brine using other techniques that don’t exhaust water supplies, including reverse osmosis and membranes that filter out the lithium. But currently, evaporating the dear water supplies of the high Andes is thought to be the quickest and most cost-effective method for a world in a rush for lithium.

Priorities could change, nevertheless, if battery manufacturers, automakers, and their financiers began demanding metal from sources which are less environmentally destructive, says Jonathan Stacey of Birdlife International. “Now’s the time to plan for certified lithium.”

“A really sustainable energy sector,” says Marconi, “would consider the complete life cycle of the battery [from] cradle to grave.”


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