The High Cost of Electric Vehicles: Mining for Minerals Puts US Water Supplies In Danger
The High Cost of Electric Vehicles: Mining for Minerals Puts US Water Supplies In Danger

By Autumn Spredemann

Beneath the dusty soil of rural Nevada, colossal underground aquifers make life possible. Despite receiving barely 10 inches of rain per year, the driest U.S. state has extensive groundwater resources that support ranchers, farmers, and vital prairie ecosystems.

However, this precious resource faces a new threat from the soaring demand for minerals needed to produce so-called green energy technologies.

The United States isn’t alone in this problem. Communities in South America’s lithium triangle are also suffering the effects of increased water usage from mining operations rushing to meet renewable energy demands.

Between 2017 and 2022, clean energy technologies tripled the demand for lithium and created a 70 percent spike in cobalt demand. The demand for copper as an energy transition mineral is expected to double by 2035.

But that’s only the beginning. The United Nations claims the production of minerals for the so-called green energy sector will need to increase 500 percent by 2050 to meet growing demand.

The elements are primarily extracted from heavily drought-impacted or arid regions. It’s true in the United States, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Canada, and China.

And the world’s water supply is already in trouble. One analysis estimates half of the global population could be living in water-scarce areas by 2025. An additional 700 million may be victims of population displacement due to insufficient water by 2030. That’s without factoring in scaled-up mining operations to meet the growing demand for renewable energy.

Concern over water scarcity is something U.S. officials claim is a priority. Last year, the White House announced a plan for global water security, which identified the “direct links between water and U.S. national security.”

Yet, many officials and organizations expressing concern over water scarcity are staunch supporters of energy-related mining.

To make products such as solar panels, electric vehicle (EV) batteries, and wind turbines, extensive mining and water are required. Critical minerals used in “green” technology—copper, lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite—require a staggering amount of water to produce. This is especially true for lithium, which uses 500,000 gallons of water per metric ton during the extraction process.

Environmentalists often criticize the brine extraction method for sourcing lithium due to its considerable water use, but other elements used to build new energy technology, particularly copper, are also heavy on water.

More than 100,000 gallons of water per ton of copper is used in domestic production, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Brine operations are high water use. Mining, in general, just uses a lot of water,” John Hadder, director of Great Basin Resource Watch, told The Epoch Times.

High And Dry

In the United States, Mr. Hadder says he’s seen the push to increase domestic lithium production at the expense of objective environmental analysis. The contested Thacker Pass mine in Nevada is one of these projects, which local ranchers and Native American communities have opposed to protect groundwater, cultural heritage, and the environment.

Mr. Hadder noted that, while an impact survey for Thacker Pass was conducted, details surrounding damage mitigation and the protection of water resources are conspicuously lacking. He expects this to become the trend in future mining operations for green energy minerals.

“Damage is being done already,” he said.

Employees work on an electric car on Feb. 25, 2020. (RONNY HARTMANN/AFP via Getty Images)

Many excavation projects in America’s Silver State require the draining of critical groundwater to extract the minerals out of the ground.

Mr. Hadder called the process “de-watering,” and it has been known to affect everything from nearby springs to residential wells, plants, watersheds, and wildlife. He compared it to digging a hole in the sand at the beach: When the water fills in at the bottom, it has to be removed in order to continue digging.  This is a common problem in pit mining, a standard method for extraction in Nevada.

This artificial draining of underground aquifers or “de-watering” can have a long-range impact on existing resources that could last for decades, even centuries.

Sometimes, mining lowers the water table by a significant amount. Mr. Hadder cited the Cortez Hills project in Nevada, where the groundwater was lowered by almost 1,200 feet.

“We’re talking about almost a quarter of a mile,” he said.

“That de-watering will affect all groundwater attached to it. Springs, surface water … That water table will take a hundred years or more to recover. It’s not a short-term effect. Some of those effects could be permanent,” he said.

Thacker Pass is owned by Lithium Nevada LLC, a subsidiary of the Lithium Americas Corporation. The project took a major step forward in February this year after a federal court dismissed arguments over environmental groundwater degradation. Phase one is set to begin in the second half of 2026.

Losing Water

In Argentina and Chile, people have been protesting over the devastating effects of mineral excavation, including copper and lithium, on their water for years.

Chile is the world’s largest copper producer and a key member of South America’s lithium triangle, alongside Argentina and Bolivia.

A 2021 scientific analysis of Chile’s mining sector, most of which lies in the arid Atacama Desert region, concluded excavation could have “significant impacts” on regional and community freshwater resources.

It’s something Chileans have been actively protesting since 2013. That year, 6,000 protesters kicked off a series of water scarcity demonstrations that included a march on the capital, Santiago. Local media reported the protesters delivered a letter to then-President Sebastián Piñera, stating mining projects were “drying up our basins, it is devastating the water cycles that have sustained our valleys for centuries, it is sowing death in our territories.”

Evaporation pools for the extraction of lithium at the Salar de Uyuni, a vast white salt flat at the centre of a global resource race for the battery metal lithium, outside of Uyuni, Bolivia on March 26, 2022. (Claudia Morales/Reuters)

In the remote Jujuy province of northern Argentina, hundreds of indigenous people have been blocking roads to lithium mines and putting pressure on the provincial government since June to stop excavation in the area due to the stress it’s putting on the community’s water and surrounding pasture land for livestock.

Crowds of people have mobilized to stop further production while waving the Andean indigenous wiphala flag and brandishing signs with slogans such as: “We don’t eat batteries. They take the water, life is gone.”

The demonstrators have been fired on by police, with local reports claiming that more than 70 people were injured after a June 20 clash with law enforcement.

The Lithium Americas Corporation—the same company involved in Nevada’s Thacker Pass—has operated Cauchari-Olaroz mine since 2015, which is one of the contested projects in Argentina.

As with many companies cashing in on the windfall offered by the so-called renewable energy movement, Lithium Americas touts a commitment to addressing “climate change” and says it’s the most “environmentally responsible” company in the lithium extraction game.

Lithium Americas Corporation didn’t receive a response to The Epoch Times’ request for comment.

In August, Argentina’s Minister of Mining, Fernanda Avila, predicted the country’s lithium sector would grow by at least 50 percent by the end of 2023. Meanwhile, residents in Jujuy are watching their water disappear and their animals struggle to survive.

Many have asked how this approach is green or renewable.

Aerial view of the Sigma Lithium plant in the Grota do Cirilo lithium project, located near Aracuai, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, on May 25, 2023. (DOUGLAS MAGNO/AFP via Getty Images)

“Lithium mining will be a problem for water here too, eventually,” a resident of Uyuni, Bolivia, who asked to be referred to as Benji, told The Epoch Times.

Within the lithium triangle, Bolivia has the most underdeveloped, but promising, share of lithium reserves. Beneath the vast and famous Salar de Uyuni salt flat lies one of the world’s largest lithium deposits.

Up to now, companies have struggled to extract the mineral at a meaningful scale due to government red tape. Yet locals are concerned after watching their neighbors in Argentina and Chile suffer water loss. Some fear more than just their precious water will become collateral when lithium mining expands.

“People here in Uyuni talk in whispers because if you don’t work in tourism, you work in lithium,” Benji explained.

At nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, the Uyuni salt flat is part of the world’s driest desert, where water is scarce to begin with.

Benji works with a tour agency that takes visitors out to the UNESCO World Heritage Site. He said if tourism dries up, then half the town will be forced to leave, with the remaining families reliant on the lithium industry.

“People won’t be able to complain about anything. Their survival will be in the hands of a single company,” he predicted.

The United States is witnessing a parallel scenario unfold in Nevada, where communities already struggle to hold onto their invaluable groundwater without additional mining.

Lander County, Nevada

Erika Tenney is a resident of Lander County in Nevada, where her family’s homestead sits within the 10-foot groundwater drawdown planned for the Robertson expansion project, part of the Cortez Mine Complex.

The reality of living near these sprawling mines is something residents like Mrs. Tenney can’t ignore.

“I have five small children … I’m concerned about the quality of the air, the noise pollution that we have already experienced from the Cortez mine. I can’t even imagine how much worse it will get,” Mrs. Tenney told The Epoch Times.

She said the sound of vehicles rumbling down the road at the nearby Cortez mine sounds like someone coming directly up her driveway. But the water impact is of particular concern.

“The fact that we bought our property because it has two creeks that run on the property, and last year, without the [de-]watering that’s going to happen, our creeks got really low,” she said.

“I can’t imagine how long it will be before it dries up completely. We have a well … if the water level goes down, our well will most likely be lower producing.”

Groundwater drawdowns are alarming for residents, but mining for the elements needed to power renewable energy uses excess water in many other ways, including the creation of sulphuric acid required for lithium extraction to watering dirt to reduce dust pollution.

“I don’t know for sure how it’s gonna pan out, but [the aquifer] it’s not going to recover for a couple hundred years. So if you’re in that path, maybe your great, great, great grandkids will have water again,” another Lander County resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Epoch Times.

Exploration drilling continues for Permitting Lithium Nevada Corp.’s Thacker Pass Project on the site between Orovada and Kings Valley, in Humboldt County, Nev., shown beyond a driller’s shovels in the distance, Sept. 13, 2018. (Suzanne Featherston/The Daily Free Press via AP)

Like Benji in Bolivia, the anonymous Nevada resident didn’t want to be identified out of concern their job might be affected. Much like Bolivia, if you live in a Nevada mining town, everyone is connected to the project in one way or another.

“If you’re in that cone of depression, your groundwater is getting sucked down,” the resident noted, saying the lion’s share of the water removed during mining goes into rapid infiltration basins.

The resident called the intentional drying up of surface water and wells to assist mining “criminal” and said the U.S. government should ban it.

Yet, Mr. Hadder said, an even bigger problem exists on the mitigation end—aside from a lack of independent environmental analysis for these projects, mitigation measures aren’t subject to much scrutiny.

The resident in Lander County, who has seen this happen on more than one occasion, said extraction companies “Get by with a crooked smile and say: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.'”

Mrs. Tenney says the results of de-watering will likely impact the whole Indian Creek recreational area, not just her home.

“They [mining companies] say, ‘We’ll put the water back,'” she said.

“But they put it back in a different place. So maybe they put it back in the valley, but it doesn’t make its way back to Indian Creek, which is where we’re located. And we have a lot of trout and other fish in our creeks.”

Mr. Hadder noted that there are “pretty big holes” in U.S. water regulation for protection and pollution.

“Mining can create water pollution that has no end in sight. And that’s allowed under U.S. law,” he said.

An Epoch Times request for comment from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of the Interior did not receive a response.

In Nevada, concerned citizens have held community meetings, signed petitions, and held public demonstrations, but the digging continues.

“People come here from all over with their side-by-sides to fish and hunt. It’s just a shame Indian Creek is a pretty unique year-round creek. And for them [mining companies] to just come in and de-water and dry it up would be a real shame,” Mrs. Tenney said.

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