Is direct lithium extraction safe?

Mar 25, 2024

A test well blow out for a proposed lithium extraction operation in southern Utah is raising questions about the safety of direct lithium extraction, a new and untested method of obtaining the soft, silvery metal critical to the renewable energy transition. Direct lithium extraction poses risks to both the quality of water in the West, as well as the quantity, since it requires sucking water from underground aquifers in a region already struggling with aridification.

Direct lithium extraction involves pumping brine from deep aquifers to the surface, where lithium and other minerals are extracted from the water before it is pumped back underground. This process is touted by the mining industry as having fewer environmental impacts than traditional lithium extraction, but questions remain about whether it can be done safely and at scale.

In the case of the Utah test well, the water pumped from deep underground contains levels of chloride exceeding those found in fresh water. The test well was relatively shallow, but the company behind the operation plans to dig much deeper wells to extract lithium, which will draw up water with a much higher chloride content. If that water were to spill into the nearby Green River, a tributary to the Colorado River, it could contaminate it.

“We are not opposed to lithium,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, an organization focused on water issues in Nevada and Utah. “We are opposed to unsustainable and dangerous appropriations of water under the false assumptions that this new technology is absolutely harmless.”

Colorado officials oppose Boebert oil and gas bill

U.S. Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado is facing pushback from elected officials in her own state amid House passage of her bill, the Restoring American Energy Dominance Act. The bill would repeal reforms to the federal oil and gas leasing program passed as part of the Inflation Reduction Act as well as block a Bureau of Land Management rulemaking that seeks to improve the leasing program. The House passed the bill last week on a 216-200 vote.

Over 100 elected Colorado officials sent a letter to House leaders ahead of the vote, calling her bill “harmful” and said that it was not supported by their respective constituents. The letter says that Boebert’s bill “disregards the views of tens of thousands of Coloradans,” noting that during the comment period on the BLM’s proposed changes, out of the more than 260,000 received comments, over 99 percent were in support of the rule.

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Quote of the day

Oak Flat is like Mount Sinai to us—our most sacred site where we connect with our Creator, our faith, our families and our land.”

—Wendsler Noise of Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit fighting to protect the area, Grist

Picture This

moose eating green leaves


Sundays in the life of a moose: wearing his magnificent antlers and eating lots of food. Nom nom!

Moose antlers can be many textures and are heavy! Pairs of antlers from mature bull moose average 45–50 pounds in Alaska, with the heaviest weighing up to 75 pounds. Photo by NPS


Feature image: The Chemetall Foote Lithium Operation in Nevada is the only operating domestic lithium resource in the U.S. It extracts lithium salts by brine evaporation. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Doc Searls