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Assessing the environmental impact of direct lithium extraction in south Arkansas

Adobe Stock
A lithium processing plant.

South Arkansas is no stranger to a boom.

Towns like El Dorado and Magnolia in Union and Columbia counties sit upon an underground geological structure known as the Smackover Formation. Companies have mined natural resources here for over 100 years. Drilling in the early 1920s tapped a petroleum reservoir, which resulted in an oil boom, drawing thousands to the state in search of their fortunes.

And though the oil boom has since run dry, experts say a saltwater, or brine, aquifer under the Smackover Formation may contain enough lithium to produce batteries for 50 million electric vehicles.

"Whenever I found out that they had found lithium in the brine in south Arkansas, I was like, 'Oh my God. This is gonna be great.'"

That’s Brian Umberson- a Fayetteville native. He’s a technological consultant in high-tech manufacturing and biotech diagnostics. Umberson’s been following the lithium industry’s development in south Arkansas for months and said there’s an opportunity for environmentally responsible lithium extraction. But first, some background:

"The smackover formation is unique," Umberson said. "It has a high-quality brine with very strong lithium loads. What is so great about this is that the Arkansas bromine industry has been one of the leaders in the world in creating bromine."

During that original oil boom near El Dorado in the 1920s, miners considered the underground saltwater they were finding, better known as brine, to be useless. That is until a few decades later when chemists from the Arkansas Geological Commission (now the Arkansas Geological Survey) discovered Smackover brine contained high levels of bromine.

Bromine is a toxic chemical commonly used in fire retardants, car tires and pesticide sprays.

Chemical manufacturing companies like the Albemarle Corporation and Lanxess soon set up shop, drilling brine wells into the earth’s crust. Then, in July 2022, an Oklahoma-based, privately held exploration company called Galvanic Energy released a report validating that one of the largest lithium brine wells in North America sat within their 120,000-acre mining prospect on the Smackover Formation.

"And you got all these existing wells," Umberson said. "So what's really interesting about it is that I was intrigued by hearing what Tetra and Standard Lithium and the other companies were wanting to do."

Standard Lithium is a specialty chemical company focusing on lithium production, specifically in south Arkansas’ brine wells. They set up a partnership with bromine producer Lanxess.

"They're pumping the brine out and then extracting the bromine from that brine that they've pumped out of the ground," Umberson said. "When they get through it, they turn around and immediately pump that back into the ground. And it's an extremely good process for south Arkansas because it's not like they're pumping a tremendous amount of material out of the ground, causing pressurization issues or whatever. So what happens is this is a very quick process. They just pump it out, extract it, and pump it right back in. Standard Lithium or Exxon will be basically getting with these companies or drilling their own wells. Standard Lithium is getting access to that brine after the bromine has been extracted by Lanxess. They then extract the lithium from that, and then turn around and give it back to Lanxess so they can re-inject it."

Umberson said this new process, dubbed Direct Lithium Extraction (or DLE), will benefit south Arkansas and the lithium industry as a whole because of its high lithium recovery rates and minimal environmental impact.

Low environmental detriment will be new territory for the industry, as lithium production is known for its disastrous mining practices. Traditionally, the metal is collected in one of two ways: Either through strip mines, which leave expansive scars in landscapes, or neon-colored evaporation ponds, which take up to 18 months and billions of gallons of water to produce small amounts of lithium while leaving behind clouds of toxic dust that wreak havoc on local populations. The bulk of lithium mines operate in Australia, South America, and China.

To learn more about lithium mines in other parts of the world, I reached out to the Center of Biological Diversity’s Great Basin director, Patrick Donnelly. He operates in Nevada, not too far from the Silver Peaks Lithium Mines, an evaporation pond and the U.S.’s only operational lithium mine.

He said that while DLE around the Smackover Formation seems promising, only time will tell how cautious we should be.

"It is not neutral," Donnelly said. "I mean, there is no such thing as a free lunch. And there are impacts from DLE. Some of the impacts we've heard about include freshwater use, like it's not just brine they're going to be using, they're also going to be using freshwater to actually produce the lithium. And we're not talking about an insubstantial amount of freshwater. Now, it's not as much as being evaporated off in the brine evaporation projects, but it is a freshwater consumption source. The other major impact that we've been thinking about is waste streams, in particular, a solid waste stream. It's impossible for them to extract only the lithium. They're gonna pick up other minerals while they're doing that. And then to get rid of those other minerals requires having wastes- salts in particular. And so there's a question of what you're going to do with all the salts, the waste stream that's generated?" 

Donnelly said that DLE is still in the early stages of utilization, so any environmental impact is theoretical. In fact, Standard Lithium only validated the process last November. The company is currently operating one DLE plant near El Dorado for demonstration purposes.

However, Standard Lithium is not the only energy company aiming to capitalize on Smackover brine. In November 2023, ExxonMobil acquired the rights to Galvanic Energy’s Smackover prospect for $100 million and will begin drilling wells, with plans to begin production by 2027.

Donnelly said there are still questions hydrologists should investigate as Standard Lithium uses old wells and ExxonMobil drills new ones for their DLE plants.

"Like what is the interaction between the brine aquifer and the surface water? That's a key question," he said. "What is the interaction between the brine aquifer and these freshwater aquifers? Certainly, there are other aquifers than just the Smackover Formation because I would assume people in Arkansas some of them have domestic wells and get their water from aquifers. And so they are tapping into freshwater aquifers. And so a big question that you and everyone else are going to have to ask is, what is the communication between the freshwater aquifer and the Smackover Formation aquifer? And then, in turn, what is the connection between that groundwater and surface water and your rivers and creeks and lakes and wetlands? Again, it's all so different there because there's so much water in question that those connections may not be obvious the way they are in the desert."

Umberson and Donnelly say further independent research must be done on DLE and its long-term impacts. As I researched this story, most of the few comprehensive reports I could find on Direct Lithium Extraction in the United States were from organizations that stand to profit from increased lithium production like investment banking company Goldman Sachs.

Donnelly said that to truly protect natural landscapes and the communities of people who live near extraction plants, the federal government must step in to provide guidance through legislation.

"We are in favor of electric vehicles and battery storage as a part of the transition off of fossil fuels," Donnelly said. "And so we implicitly support lithium production, and we support EVs. We have to support lithium to some degree. And so we are sort of actively searching for where is lithium production in the United States that is not going to harm communities and the environment. Because right now we have people in South America, we have indigenous communities; they're saying, 'Your cell phone, the one I'm talking to you on right now, is screwing over my community. It's destroying our water supply, it's destroying habitat for flamingos and wading birds.' It's having an impact right now as we speak. We just don't see it because it's in South America."

Donnelly said that while he fights unethical mining operations, he still hopes to find an equilibrium between harm and production. Out of the 83 proposed mines in Nevada, he’s only battling against four.

"So there's 79 we're not fighting, right? And that's because we really want to find a place where we can find less harmful lithium production. And so ultimately, we don't have an energy policy in this country."

Dick Cheney wrote the last federal energy policy almost 20 years ago, in 2005.

"And so, you know, the climate crisis, like, we have the Department of Energy doling out billions and billions and billions of dollars into lithium and batteries right now. But there's no real plan. It's just throwing a bunch of money into the market and hoping electric vehicles materialize. So what we need is leadership from the administration to look at the whole country and say, Where does it make sense to produce this lithium? And where is too harmful? And what are these impacts going to be? You know, I think there's a responsibility of the federal government to take action on that, and not just leave it to folks in Arkansas and regulators in Arkansas to determine whether or not this is a good thing. Right. Because ultimately, you know, I imagine I don't know much about Arkansas, but I imagine folks in rural areas in Arkansas don't have a ton of political power. And it's just as likely that their interests could be rolled over by the mining industry. If there's not a broader look at how we're going to produce this lithium."

We are still a ways from seeing Arkansas lithium. Umberson said the companies setting up in south Arkansas aim to start production in 2-3 years. Last week, ExxonMobil published an animated video on its website detailing the Direct Lithium Extraction process, doubling down on a promise of eventually producing enough lithium for 1 million EVs every year.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

Corrected: March 27, 2024 at 1:36 PM CDT
ExxonMobil has plans to produce enough lithium every year for 1 million electric vehicles by 2030, not 100 million electric vehicles, as a previous version of this story stated.
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Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
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