As you’ve probably noticed, your regular host Molly Wood is off the show while she’s been creating a new Marketplace podcast called “How We Survive” about tech solutions to the climate crisis. This season is all about batteries. They’re key to getting off fossil fuels. But most batteries in the world need lithium, a metal that must be mined.
Most lithium is mined in South America and Australia. The U.S. is starting to try to mine its own, but of course, mining is controversial and sometimes involves a lot of dynamite.
Wood visited the Marigold Mine in Valmy, Nevada, where General Manager Don Dwyer described it like this: “We blast Monday to Thursday. And that’s a really thrilling experience.”
Mining executives say mining in the U.S. is high tech, highly regulated and safe.
Wood also visited a lithium mining lab where they said their process won’t involve any dynamite. The following is an edited transcript of my conversation with Wood.
Molly Wood: They kind of, like, shake the clay around in water for a while until it separates into all of these different minerals and metals. And then they use sulfuric acid to really refine out the lithium from this clay. And it is not very high-tech sounding. It’s not like a magical technique. But it is interesting, because it has never been done at scale. Right now, it’s only been done in the lab. They’re obviously very confident that it’s going to work. But it’s a bit of a gamble.
Marielle Segarra: What stuck out to you when you visited?
Wood: There’s so much upset about this mining proposal. And some of that has come from communication. The community feels they weren’t consulted or that they’re being run over. There are real concerns about whether there are remains of indigenous people on this land. But when I visited the lab, I came away thinking that the project is actually pretty responsible. They’re hoping to eventually use renewable energy. They’re going to burn sulfur at extremely high heat to create sulfuric acid, but capture the steam to create renewable energy. And they’re planning to restore the land as they dig it up. So if you imagine, you know, you dig one part, you fill it back in, the plants regrow. It’s the sort of rolling process. And we talked to other sort of industry watchers, people who have studied the mining industry for a long time, even an environmental activist and professor who said all things considered, this mining project is pretty responsible.
Segarra: I feel like the most obvious example would be we need lithium for batteries for electric cars. But what other kinds of climate change solutions would need them?
Wood: Yeah, it’s so interesting, because a lot of this conversation centers on electric cars. And that is a big part of that. And in fact, a lot of U.S. automakers are driving a ton of demand, no pun intended, for batteries and lithium-ion batteries specifically. We think about wind and solar. But the wind doesn’t blow all the time. And the sun isn’t shining all the time. And the best way right now to store that energy and sort of distribute it out evenly is to store it in batteries. And as that demand increases globally — whether it’s electrifying cars, or buses and trucks, or tractors, but also literally, the energy grid — they’re the core, they are literally the center of transitioning the world’s energy use away from fossil fuels and onto renewables.
Segarra: So that sounds really hopeful.
Wood: I think so. Although, that said, we also talked to members of the Biden administration, specifically U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who said that the U.S. needs to come up with ways to responsibly produce lithium that are also just. And that even if this mining proposal itself, the details of the mine are relatively responsible, it is part of our long history with mining that we trample people. That we make people sacrifice. That we ignore the the rights of indigenous people or poor people, or even just communities as a whole. And so there is still a sense that when it comes to communities and cooperation and buy-in, we can do better.
Segarra: The U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, you just mentioned her, she said that if the U.S. can show a way to responsibly produce lithium, that there’d be a giant global market for it, right?
Wood: Yes, definitely. Part of the reason that the United States needs to get in the game quickly is that, first of all, we don’t currently control our own lithium supply. We’re entirely dependent on getting it from other countries and these other outside deals. But also, this market is expected to grow phenomenally quickly, well into the billions and potentially even trillions. So there’s a huge economic incentive to do this quickly, at least according to the administration, to do it responsibly, to do it right.