Will Salton Sea lithium dreams come true? It will be years before we know

Desert Sun Editorial Board

The underground chemical stew beneath the Salton Sea is believed to hold enough lithium to power millions of cars and homes with green energy. But only if — a big if — enough of that scalding “geothermal brine” can be brought to the surface and the lithium sifted out.
That’s an incredibly complex process. And it’s just about as hard for those who live around the sea to separate reality from dreams when it comes to the impact of all that lithium.
In the best case, we’ve heard over the years, a lithium boom could generate billions of dollars; bring thousands of badly needed jobs for those living near the sea; spur an environmental revival; and give clean energy to a region, the state and beyond. 
Quite a list.
The simple fact is we don’t know how much of it, if any, will come true.
As big drilling projects get underway, excitement over the potential of the Salton Sea lithium deposit is ramping up, leading to recent local and national media attention.
But as a top environmental scientist just told The Wall Street Journal, it will be a few years before it’s clear whether the kind of brine there can be a major source of usable lithium.
The reason that matters is the world’s immense appetite for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Among many other uses, they’re in mobile phones and electric cars, and they can store the power generated by solar panels for later use.
In other words, lithium can power a green energy revolution — if we can get enough of it.
And a report from the California Energy Commission said the Salton Sea area alone could generate more than 600,000 tons per year of lithium carbonate. That’s more than the entire world produced last year, The Wall Street Journal reported.
It would make the region the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” as Gov. Gavin Newsom recently said.
But no one knows whether it will be possible to extract anywhere near that much of the lithium under the sea.
It’s a long road from talk and pilot projects to real change.
Back on the surface, that’s long been true about the Salton Sea itself as it shrinks and becomes more of an environmental disaster by the day. Toxic dust exposed as the shoreline recedes has devastating effects on people and animals.
When it comes to solutions, people are used to studies and promises — and not much more. There are positive steps, like a habitat restoration pilot project recently announced. But we should be well beyond pilot projects by now.
It’s no wonder the growing talk about the promise of lithium seems like welcome news.
Elected officials, labor leaders and others are planning how to make sure nearby residents, including people of color and the low income, get a large share of the jobs that could come.
It’s wise to be skeptical for now of how many jobs that will be. But it also makes sense to be prepared for them, especially because area residents might not yet have the needed skills.
Even if the Salton Sea doesn’t turn out to be the new Saudi Arabia, the process of finding out could hold some potential for the region.
Local colleges may be able to train people in some of the skills companies will need as they do hundreds of millions of dollars in exploratory work. Those would likely not be six-figure engineering jobs, but any decent jobs would be welcome in the area around the sea.
Meanwhile, the state needs to strike a delicate balance between encouraging lithium exploration — as it has with millions in grants — and not regulating it to death, as California too often does.
There are ways for regular people to get involved, too. One is to watch meetings of the state’s Lithium Valley Commission, which includes members from industry, tribes, advocacy groups and local and state government. Its mission is to explore the opportunities lithium presents and make recommendations to the state.
The commission’s next meeting is Wednesday at 9 a.m. and will include a workshop, during which members of the public can speak. The commission’s final report is due to the Legislature by Oct. 1, and you can learn more at tinyurl.com/LithiumValley.
If — that word again — yes, if Salton Sea lithium does turn out to be huge, it could finally spur the long-needed action to halt and reverse the sea’s decline.
When there’s enough money to be made and enough powerful people involved, things get done quickly.

Leave a Reply