The future may no longer lie in oil, but in lithium, a metal vital to the batteries in electric cars. And The Salton Sea area could become a major player in lithium extraction.
“With The Salton Sea we can produce the second to most exporting lithium country in the world,” said Representative Dr. Raul Ruiz.
Which sounds beneficial, but environmental justice advocates say they’ve heard these elaborate promises before.
“We’ve seen wind, we’ve seen solar, those came with the same promises and really we didn’t see those benefits end up in the economically depressed areas or environmental justice communities of our region, it’s just not there,” said Luis Olmedo, Executive Director of Comite Civico Del Valle.
Part of the worry, the possibility of dangerous emissions like lead, barium, and arsenic.
“Don’t force them to be bad actors because they can’t make a profit unless they are polluting,” added Olmedo.
However, Rod Colwell, CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, says the process is safe.
“We’re taking it from an existing geothermal reservoir two and a half kilometers down, bringing that brine up. It’s a closed-loop system, there’s no by-product or any products that come from it… the most sustainably produced lithium on the planet known today,” explained Colwell.
In fact, they’re already recovering lithium in a smaller pilot program.
“There are three major projects at the Salton Sea called ‘Lithium Valley,’ controlled thermal resources with its ‘Hell’s Kitchen” lithium and power development,” said Colwell.
Other leaders are concerned locals already living near the sea won’t be the ones to see the economic benefits.
“I would love to see this happening, opportunities, pipeline opportunities for young people to get the training so that we don’t need to bring labor from outside the area,” explained Frank Ruiz, Salton Sea Director with Audubon California.
“We’re an economically depressed area but then we are rich in natural resources. we have all the ingredients to succeed,” explained Olmedo.
Colwell and his team are already looking towards the future, they’re hoping there won’t just be lithium extraction in The Salton Sea, but also battery plants.
“We’re just a very small footprint, a very small part of the picture, the big picture is actually evolved around cathode and battery and supply chain, so I think there is a wonderful opportunity for Imperial Valley,” said Colwell.
Part of the reason some local leaders are so enthusiastic about the plan, is that if the Salton Sea region starts to turn a huge profit, that could accelerate the revitalization of the sea itself.
“We can’t put the burden of this on geothermal or lithium, they are there to operate their business, this is something that all that water was displaced and now it’s creating a hazard,” added Olmedo.
Still, Olmedo is cautiously optimistic about the future of lithium valley.
“I think that is maybe the more affordable way to do it. subsidize it and help them bring the resource and put in good laws,” said Olmedo.