Evaporation pools
Evaporation pools in Salar de Uyuni Image: CÉDRIC GERBEHAYE

Green Doesn’t Always Mean Good: Electric Vehicles and Lithium Extraction

Alexandria Williams February 2, 2020

On January 27th the Biden Administration signed an Executive Order tackling the climate crisis in which clean, zero emission vehicles were commissioned for the 645,000 federal fleet. With talks of weaning off fossil fuels and goals of becoming carbon neutral, electric vehicles have become the bedrock for a greener future. However, sustainability is more than curbing pollution. To enter a new environmentally just epoch, industry and government need to change how they view development. Lithium extraction poses a threat to local communities and surrounding ecosystems as the water intensive resource dries up the already scarce water supply. Assessing extraction through a moral and ethical lens forces the recognition of people and places and how their social and cultural dynamics are affected. With only ninety days to put together a plan, the Biden Administration’s environmental impact assessment must weigh the consequences of paving a path for a greener future based on unsustainable processes. Without doing so, the United States runs the risk of continuing to make the “sacrifices” of a fossil fuel dependent nation.

Prominently used in treating bipolar disorder as a mood stabilizer, lithium’s demand has grown with production ramping up in South American countries. Three-fourths of lithium reserves are located in the salt flats of Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Known as the Lithium Triangle, the Altiplano-Puna Plateau, a 1,100 mile-long stretch of land in the Andes, has entered the global stage as developers look to cash in on the reserves . To produce lithium, companies begin by pumping brine from the salt flats into large pools to evaporate in the desert sun which is then treated to obtain lithium sulfate.

Unfortunately, a water dependent resource is located in one of the driest places in the world. In Chile, the world’s second largest producer of lithium, for every ton of lithium produced, 500,000 gallons of water is used, equivalent to 37 standard sized swimming pools. With the potential of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the largest single deposit in the world, to fuel a growing need for electric cars, the lack of water calls into question sustainability and the viability of long term production. Chile’s reserves are a quarter the size of Bolivia’s and have already consumed 65% of the region’s water supply.

However, the declining water supply and potential of over extraction is debated amongst companies and local communities. Despite an abundance of local testimony, such as the locals of the Salar de Hombre Muerto in Argentina who complain of contaminated streams, companies refute their claims. Regardless, a study conducted in Chile by the Institution of Engineering and Technology in collaboration with SpaceKnow, found a strong inverse relationship with reservoir levels and lagoons. These hydraulic imbalances provoke an image similar to today, of depleted reservoirs, as over extraction surpasses natural tipping points and resources fail to regenerate. In Bolivia, extraction threatens both rivers flowing through the salt flats which sustain quinoa production by local growers. As industrialized countries come to build anew on top of lithium, they have a responsibility to preserve local communities’ rights to land and water.

Regrettably, development skews to the benefit of industrialized countries as out of touch consumers benefit from pillaged lands. In reference to lithium, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development stated, “Developing countries pay the environmental cost of electric car batteries”. With Salar de Uyuni located in Bolivia, the poorest country in the region with a poverty rate of 40%, the region is vulnerable to exploitation. While the Vice President claims lithium to be, “the engine of [the] economy”, Potosi, a nearby city to the flats, offers a complex history into the nature of extraction and a warning about the future of Bolivia.

Once the world’s richest city due to silver ore mining, Potosi was “Americas fountain of silver”. Despite this glory and grandeur, working in the mines was a sure death sentence within a lethal labor regime as foreign mining companies sought quick profits at the expense of locals. As was the case in the 1700s, the dangers of extraction persist today. While Bolivia’s rejection of privatization protects locals from this labor exploitation, countries not afforded these protections remain vulnerable to the growing lithium economy. Not all reserves are made equal as Argentina is free to develop and Chile’s limits of privatization are less stringent.

Both Bolivia and Chile enforce state ownership of lithium production, but Bolivia’s population puts more pressure on the government to conform to these standards. Vice President Álvaro García Linera in an interview with National Geographic said, “…most industries would love to exploit the salar…We’re saying no, the Salar must be fully controlled by Bolivian technicians.” Far from a usual interaction between state and private enterprise under capitalism, this relationship allows the benefits of extraction to remain in the country rather than being outsourced to industrialized countries. Moving away from privatization is a critical component of environmental justice as it empowers countries and furthers economic development. In order to fully establish a greener, sustainable economy, the United States needs to implement this dynamic as the Lithium Triangle is not for the benefit of the U.S. economy.

Despite the Vice President of Bolivia claiming to raise people out of poverty through the provision of training for skilled jobs, those who are unskilled, indigenous peoples, are skipped over, even though they have a direct stake in extraction. According to the Aymara people: “We’ve received no information from the government. We don’t even know what lithium is, what its benefits are, what its effects are.”

Bolivia’s attempt to steer industry to benefit the community neither considers nor respects indigenous communities. Battles wage against lithium extraction across all three countries as indigenous peoples fight back. Injustice towards and exploitation of local peoples is an essential component of fossil fuel extraction so this alone should be a red flag for industrial nations seeking a sustainable future.

In Chile, the people of the Atacama Desert engaged in a legal dispute with SQM, a lithium extractor. The Council of Atacama Peoples found a monitoring platform introduced to be insignificant as safety of flora and fauna were not guaranteed . While delayed by COVID, the community is preparing to present a case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In Argentina, the Jujuy peoples opposed extraction as they were not engaged in their right to consultation. Participation was limited and conditional and the data provided was difficult to understand. Additionally, Minera Exar claims payouts of less than $200,000 for the six communities near the Salinas Grandes. However, with an annual extraction profit of $250 million, this payout is 1/100 of 1%, calculated by Aerocene. Yet, beyond even this, according to a statement made by Luisa Jorge, resident of Susques, it is obvious no payout has been made: “lithium companies are taking millions of dollars from our lands… they ought to give something back. But they’re not.”

A protest sign by the Jujuy stated, “By territorial right and cultural heritage we demand the respect and care of our Pachamama. No to lithium mining.” Pachamama refers to the earth goddess or Mother Earth. A culture of reciprocity exists amongst the agrarian societies of the Andes: “…the idea that to receive, one should give something in return”. Sustainable resource extraction requires compensation for indigenous communities, whether in the form of being listened to, provided jobs, or financial capital. Nations cannot extract without remorse or consideration regardless of the resource or the purpose of its use. To do so would be a continuation of business as usual, a warning uttered by climate scientists for too long.

How industrial countries approach extraction of “sustainable” resources determines capitalism’s new relationship with the environment. For this reason, making sure to avoid greenwashing is pivotal, which electric vehicles have fallen prey to. Green washing is an advertising technique by companies to make their products appear more sustainable than they actually are. Two of the seven deadly sins of greenwashing theorized by EcoWatch are attributable to electric cars, lesser of two evils and the hidden trade off. First, electric cars promote a reduction in carbon emissions while failing to address the environmental degradation of extraction. Second, by classifying electric vehicles as a green alternative they are falsely advertised as an all around sustainable alternative. Oliver Blach for the Guardian wrote “The curse of ‘white oil’: electric vehicles’ dirty secret” illuminating how lithium extraction degrades the environment”.

In the words of Chilean biologist Cristina Dorador, “We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining.” In a 2009 interview, a lithium battery expert, Guillermo Gonzalez warned, “Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells”. Recognizing local knowledge as expert knowledge, which the environmental justice movement prioritizes, illuminates the reality of lithium extraction. The warnings of water scarcity and environmental destruction are well known across indigenous communities and echoing them within the United States’ call for a greener future is critical to achieving legitimate and equitable climate goals.

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