Discussions of the coming energy transition tend to lack nuanced information on the impacts that lithium mining has on the environment and local mining communities. The lack of nuanced information hinders our ability to ensure that the coming energy transition is a just energy transition. To help remediate this issue, this article lists resources (from the limited research available) that describe what impacts lithium mining actually has. This list focuses on evaporative mining practices in the lithium triangle, but a few articles describe the impacts of hard-rock lithium mining as well. The end of this article also includes a quick list of resources that describe the growth in lithium demand and some of the opportunities for Argentina associated with that growth. Hopefully, through these resources, you can bring more nuance to discussions about the energy transition and better contribute to making it a just one.

Impacts of Lithium

  1. Lithium recovery from brines: A vital raw material for green energies with a potential environmental impact in its mining and processing, Science of The Total Environment, 2018.
  2. This source discusses the significant water demands of lithium brine mining and its large volumes of waste. It gives details on the specific geologic setting of the lithium triangle. The source also mentions the difficulty of predicting the exact impacts of lithium mining because techniques to successfully exploit one deposit will not be best for another. Finally, the article reviews “both the current available technology and new proposed methodologies [for lithium mining]. We make a special focus on an overall sustainability analysis, with particular emphasis to the geological characteristics of deposits and water usage in relation to mining processes.”
  3. Huella Hidrica como Indicador del Consumo de Agua en la Mineria del Litio en la Puna Argentina, Universidad Nacional de Salta, 2022.
  4. This study’s goal was to estimate the water consumption of lithium mining in the Argentine Puna. “It was determined that the volume of water used in the mining project is represented in its entirety by the blue water footprint, which is estimated at 584.1 m3/tn of Li2 CO3 produced. 92% of the overall value of the indicator is associated with brine consumption, while the remaining 8% is involved in freshwater consumption.” This is a good source to understand specific water issues for lithium mining in Argentina.
  5. Storage & Transfer Technologies Lithium Resources Article
  6. This source gives a broad overview of the lithium extraction process with a bit of information on its environmental impact.
  7. Potential environmental impacts of lithium mining, Journal of Energy & Natural Resources Law, 2020.
  8. This article explains how lithium mining is conducted and processed, what issues arise with the mining and chemical processes, and what the potential environmental impacts are from a technical and mining engineering perspective. It also discusses a way to decrease environmental impacts. For example, “There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the current lithium mining methods can be improved to protect the environment without compromising economics, while still protecting social and environment systems. Improvement measures include a broad range of efforts such as water recycling, minimising waste products, more efficient processing of brines, creating footprints of relatively smaller acreage, developing technology that is readily transferable from site to site, extracting several raw materials from the same brine, and minimising surface subsidence.”
  9. Environmental impact of direct lithium extraction from brines, Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, 2023.
  10. This source analyzes the environmental impact of evaporitic and DLE mining techniques. Identifies that water consumption of DLE needs to be urgently quantified as it might require more water than evaporitic practices.
  11. Environmental Justice and the Transition from Fossil Fuels to Renewable Energy, Environmental Law Reporter, 2023.
  12. This article has information on: how much earth has to be moved to make one EV battery, the existing legal frameworks for environmental justice, the IRA measures on critical minerals, the prevalence/need of lithium in Native American land (For example: “Among these key energy-transition metals, 97% of nickel, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt reserves and resources in the U.S. are located within 35 miles of Native American reservations”), and e-waste.
  13. Conexiones Multiescalares para la Produccion de Litio en Argentina, ResearchGate, 2021.
  14. “This chapter analyzes the connections that make up lithium production in Argentina, based on the coding of approximately 650 documents and a multi-scale analysis of the projects that are in production. The results show that the multi-scale connections, in addition to materializing in space, have local social and territorial consequences that call into question the fairness of the lithium production process within the framework of decarbonization.”
  15. “We are not allowed to speak”: Some thoughts about consultation process around lithium mining in Northern Argentina, The Extractive Industries and Society, 2022.
  16. This study reviews the consultation process, or lack thereof, that was carried out around lithium mining in the Catamarca province of Argentina. It finds that “the fairness of this particular consultation process was compromised by limits imposed on access to transparent information and by barriers imposed to local participation. We conclude that in order to move towards a fair energy transition it is imperative to address the vulnerability of local communities, to guarantee greater transparency of information about lithium projects, and to hold FPIC according to the spirit and the letter of international conventions.”
  17. Oportunidades de la asociacion estrategica birregional a la configuracion de una recuperacion mas verde, Fundacion EU-LAC, 2021.
  18. Only Essay 1 (pages 1-17). The authors propose a need for bi-regional cooperation, based on equitable principles, to move towards a just energy transition.
  19. Socio-environmental impacts of lithium mineral extraction: towards a research agenda, IOP Science, 2018.
  20. This source supports the idea that research on socio-environmental impacts of lithium extraction has been limited, especially at the local level. It suggests a few ways to fill the gaps in knowledge.
  21. The Lithium future – resources, recycling, and the environment, Society for Conservation Biology, 2011.
  22. Focuses on lithium in Bolivia. The study finds that “lithium extraction is likely to cause substantial water pollution, and—through impacts on native diversity—facilitate human health impacts from cyanobacteria that are normally kept at bay by native flamingos.”
  23. Environmental impacts of lithium production showing the importance of primary data of upstream process in life-cycle assessment, Journal of Environmental Management, 2020.
  24. This source discusses the impacts of rock-based and brine-based lithium mining. Rock-based lithium mining (LRT) effects are dominated by leaching. All 10 of the tracked impact categories are higher for LRT than brine-based lithium mining (LBT). They also find that “the Li-ion battery pack by rock-based lithium offers a 17–32% increase in acidification and global warming potential relative to that by brine-based lithium.”
  25. Spatiotemporal patterns of lithium mining and environmental degradation in the Atacama Salt Flat, Chile, International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation, 2019.
  26. Focused on the Atacama salt flat in Chile. This source shows that lithium mining activities are one of the major stressors to local environmental degradation. The authors believe that their results provide a baseline to evaluate future socio-environmental impacts of lithium mining in the region.
  27. Extractivism and its socio-environmental impact in South America. Overview of the “lithium triangle”, America Critica, 2021.
  28. This article gives an overview of the socio-environmental impacts of the extractive process in South America. The Authors conclude that the transition must adapt local infrastructures to the new technological needs of the sector (eg. green technologies) and focus on projects that benefit the local community both socially and environmentally.
  29. Life cycle environmental impacts of current and future battery-grade lithium supply from brine and spodumene, Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, 2022.
  30. This article describes the differences in environmental impacts based on the grade of lithium brines. Their results show that in brine production “lower-grade lithium brines have higher environmental impacts compared to higher-grade brines.” Spodumene-based production did not have the same result due to the different technical process designs of the facilities reviewed. Further, the study finds that water use impacts are higher in lower grades, which could be an “issue in brine-based production, where brine is extracted from already water scarce regions and evaporated, thus increasing the risk of freshwater availability.”
  31. Interdependencies of lithium mining and communities sustainability in Salar de Atacama, Chile, Journal of Cleaner Production, 2020.
  32. This research assesses the community sustainability in Salar de Atacama, Chile. The study finds that “between 2002 and 2017, the total water storage declined at a rate of 1.16 mm/year. Compared to other uses, water consumption from Li-mining was higher by two orders of magnitude. Mining played a crucial role in creating greater migration impacts, as indicated in a high migration effectiveness index of 85% and 90%, respectively. Labor influx increased 2.3 times, whereas the role of local labor in mining decreased from 52% to 18%. Local social activism increased both in intensity and scale.”
  33. Exhausted: How We Can Stop Lithium Mining from Depleting Water Resources, Draining Wetlands, and Harming Communities in South America, NRDC, 2022.
  34. This report highlights the voices of people whose lives and livelihoods have been negatively impacted by the lithium industry. The authors then propose ways in which lithium extraction’s detrimental effects—water depletion, drained wetlands, and community harm—can be avoided.
  35. The arid Andean plateau waterscapes and the lithium triangle: flamingos as flagships for conservation of high-altitude wetlands under pressure from mining development, Wetlands Ecology and Management, 2022.
  36. This source reviews the Environmental Impact Reports (IIAs) for projects in Catamarca, Argentina, and shows that they do not comply with national guidelines: they do not adequately address water budgets, consider protected area status, engage local communities, or consider cumulative and synergistic impacts.
  37. Dynamics of local impacts in low-carbon transition: Agent-based modeling of lithium mining-community-aquifer interactions in Salar de Atacama, Chile, The Extractive Industries and Society, 2021.
  38. This study develops an “agent-based model,” applied to the lithium extraction in Salar de Atacama, Chile to understand (1) how mining’s brine pumping rates affect groundwater movements and (2) how changes in water resources affect social-stress dynamics under multiple projections of mining activities. The results show that groundwater declines significantly in the area of mining with impacts spreading outwards to nearby communities. Communities near mining operations are most vulnerable to mining expansions, while more distant residents experience long-lasting impacts due to lower compensation and delayed groundwater recovery.
  39. Climate change and lithium mining influence flamingo abundance in the Lithium Triangle, The Royal Society, 2022.
  40. This source explores how climate change and the mining of lithium influence surface water availability and the abundance of three threatened and economically important flamingo species in the ‘Lithium Triangle’ of the Chilean Andes. They found “that, regionally, flamingo abundance fluctuated dramatically from year-to-year in response to variation in surface water levels and primary productivity but did not exhibit any temporal trends. Locally, in the Salar de Atacama—where lithium mining is focused—we found that mining was negatively correlated with the abundance of two of the three flamingo species. These results suggest continued increases in lithium mining and declines in surface water could soon have dramatic effects on flamingo abundance across their range.”
  41. Lithium and Rare Earth Elements: The Dirty Business of Clean Energy, Chicago-Kent Journal of Environmental and Energy Law, 2014-2015.
  42. This is a 2014 paper discussing the damaging practices of lithium mining. It discusses lithium mining in Bolivia and Chinese mineral mines. The source also calls for a tracking system for rare earth minerals.

Opportunities of Lithium

  1. Energy Storage Grand Challenge: Energy Storage Market Report, Department of Energy, Dec. 2020.
  2. This summarizes published literature on the current and projected markets for the global deployment of seven energy storage technologies in the transportation and stationary markets through 2030. This work focuses on collecting the best available estimates of how energy storage is projected to grow, both in the United States and internationally.
  3. S&P Global Lithium Report
  4. This study analyzes the likely impact of the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) on US demand to 2035 for three US-listed critical minerals: cobalt, lithium, and nickel. It also considers copper.
  5. Assessing the feasibility of the Inflation Reduction Act’s EV critical mineral targets, Nature Sustainability, 2023.
  6. This source discusses whether the goals set in the IRA are achievable. It also includes some information on the environmental impacts of lithium mining.
  7. Argentina could be epicenter of new stage of lithium supply, S&P Global, Aug. 14, 2023.
  8. This source discusses the lithium resources, reserves, and production across the dominant lithium countries. It describes why Argentina may be a primary actor in the lithium industry going forward.
  9. Argentina’s lithium incentives push industry prospects above neighbors, S&P Global, Jan. 26, 2023.
  10. This source describes why stakeholders in the lithium industry are more inclined to invest in Argentine lithium than Chilean or Bolivian lithium.

By: Ben Brokesh