Perspective: The troubling health costs of the ‘energy transition’

Photo: Dust storm over Salt Lake City in 2012

A dramatic increase in lithium mining will have serious consequences for Utah

Toxic air pollution already blows around Utah. It is about to get a lot worse.  Dust storms, as seen above, will grow more frequent as plans for lithium mining mature. Toxic air pollution will increase as the mining throws dust into the air.  This is not a result of climate change, but of government decisions.

The federal government recently approved what is to become the second largest lithium mining operation in the world. The lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nevada, will have severe environmental and health impacts on both Nevada and Utah. The federal government is subsidizing the mine with $700 million in loans. The mine is owned by Lithium Americas Corporation, with Ganfeng Lithium as a large shareholder.

Lithium is an essential component of the Li-ion batteries for electric vehicles. The Thacker Pass mine is estimated to contain 13.7 million tons of lithium carbonate, equal to 2.6 million tons of lithium metal.

Let’s put that into context. In 2021, nearly 100,000 tons of lithium was produced globally.  A 2021 European Union study estimates that 1 billion tons of lithium metal is required in the “energy transition” to phase out fossil fuels by 2050. In other words, nearly 10,000 times the 2021 production of lithium metal must be mined and refined to build the autos, wind turbines and other devices that create and consume the electricity that is to replace fossil fuels.

This means 383 Thacker Pass mines must be found and mined out in the coming 27 years. Mines require 12 to 15 years to reach full production. The urgency of the federal government to license mines and to ignore all other concerns reflects the relatively short time remaining before 2050. Global lithium production must be increased by 50 times immediately or the planned renewable energy system cannot be built. Is that ramp-up possible?

The U.S. Geological Survey has identified lithium mining sites in the Great Basin, including sites near Salt Lake City and in Nevada. Recent academic studies have shown that the Great Basin dry lake beds represent an indigenous source of lithium, but also that the dust contains high amounts of arsenic, cadmium and other toxic metals. Mining operations will churn up huge areas and expose them to wind erosion, spreading the toxic dust.

Furthermore, industrial scale mining requires a lot of water. The rivers in the region are already heavily exploited. If more water is diverted for mining, it could easily sound the death knell for the Great Salt Lake, which depends on river inflow to survive, and is already of great concern to Utahns.

The health concerns of Utahns and the environmental consequences, however, have been placed below the growing need for lithium. The reason, according to climate czar John Kerry, is that “climate change is a greater threat to humanity than nuclear war.”  Decarbonization and deindustrialization of the West are supposed to limit climate change.  Decarbonization depends, in substantial part, on how much lithium is mined for batteries.

But which would you rather face: climate change or a nuclear war?

The seriousness of climate change is asserted repeatedly on news shows, and most Utahns probably agree that climate change is serious. Most Utahns probably do not know that more than 37,000 American scientists and engineers disagree, and many disagree in the strongest possible terms. Utahns may also not know that the UN “My World Survey” polled nearly 10 million ordinary folks around the planet. The millions who were interviewed placed climate change at the bottom of a list of 16 concerns in their lives. Education, good jobs, health and a responsible government were at the top of their concerns.

Utah is far away from Washington, and to the feds, it sometimes seems, not very important.  Utahns will have to decide just how much of their clean air and their health they are willing to sacrifice to lithium mines.

This commentary was first published at Deseret News, July 3, 2023.

William Hayden Smith holds a doctorate in chemistry from Princeton University and is now a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. His most recent studies are at the interface of climate and energy and can be seen at www.unpopular-truth.com.

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