California’s “Nightmare on Earth” To Become Major GM Lithium Mine

For the electric future everyone thinks is necessary to save Mother Earth, we’ll need lithium for lithium-ion batteries. A lot of it. General Motors just threw down the gauntlet by putting together one of the most “out there” deals ever floated anywhere. Together with a mining company called Controlled Thermal Resources GM plans to take one of the earth’s most terrible mistakes; the Salton Sea, and turn it into lithium lemonade.

The GM lithium plan could help one of the worst environmental disasters on earth

Bombay Beach at Salton Sea
The rising waters of the Salton Sea flood a house trailer at Bombay Beach | David McNew/Newsmakers/Getty

If you don’t know about the Salton Sea in the California desert you need to. Just don’t go there. It is a nightmare on earth. The sights and smells will haunt you for the rest of your life, and we’re not kidding. You won’t believe such a place exists on earth. And in California, yet.

Created slightly over 100 years ago, this accident is the end result. A Colorado dam was breached with this spot, 200 feet below sea level, being where the water settled. Since then, farm runoff from Imperial Valley combined with the unnatural location outside of Palm Springs combines to make a reeking, hell hole. 

Lithium mining is mostly environmental rape, but that’s not GM’s plan

Bombay Beach at Salton Sea
The rusted remains of a car rotting among salt water-flooded houses and trailers at Bombay Beach on the west shore of the Salton Sea | David McNew/Getty Images

Water in the endorheic or “terminal” lake has no outlet. So it can only evaporate, leaving behind salt. Its water is 50 percent saltier than the Pacific ocean. An unnatural catastrophe considered one of the most polluted places on earth.

Once a recreation destination, it is now the opposite. Huge fish die-offs, flooded sections of Bombay Beach left to rot, arsenic, selenium, and pesticides make it a foul, feted, cataclysm. With what is essentially strip-mining being the ecological equivalent of rape, the location makes it something far more positive in this very unique plan.

GM wants to tap one of the largest lithium brine stores in the world

Bombay Beach Drive In at Salton Sea
Bombay Beach Drive-In is among the sights in Bombay Beach on the shore of Salton Sea in Southern California | Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The Salton Sea has one of the largest lithium brine stores in the world. This scheme would use renewable energy to extract lithium. With 10 geothermal power stations already there, the power plants would pump brine from the lake, process it, then return the remaining water. 

The process is considered many times better than Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina currently do it. Those countries, which currently provide most of the lithium today, use open pits to evaporate the water. And it takes an unholy amount of the resource. It leaves the minerals left for processing. And incredible environmental devastation. 

CTR’s plan uses way less energy and water. “CTR will deploy a direct lithium extraction process to recover lithium from the brine using clean energy and steam and ion exchange technology. All brine is returned to the geothermal reservoir (minus the lithium) within one hour,” a CTR spokesperson told Vice

The Salton Sea is estimated to supply 40 percent of lithium needed

Bombay Beach at Salton Sea
A destroyed trailer is some of what remains in an abandoned area of Bombay Beach, California, on the shores of the Salton Sea | Christopher Morris/Corbis via Getty Images

So there is no dredging and no water depletion. Power plants already circulate the water. This one extra step requires no additional energy to complete, leaves minerals to use, and returns the water with less salinity. There doesn’t seem to be much of a downside to the GM lithium idea. And the Salton Sea is estimated to contain enough minerals to supply 40 percent of lithium needed for vehicle electrification. 

Then there is the prospect of providing jobs to an area that sees 25 percent unemployment. Being as isolated as it is, employment would have to be locally procured. A proposed levy on mineral extraction would also provide needed capital for local economic and environmental needs.

The GM lithium mining idea is a complicated idea for a complicated location on the edge. The plans, proposals, and investigations into what to do about the Salton Sea make your head spin. Every year there seems to be a new plan and more money spent exploring the ideas. Then nothing. For decades it has been the same parade, or charade. 

This huge, complicated plan aligns with GM’s recent carbon footprint reduction goals

Bombay Beach at Salton Sea
An abandoned boat is seen far from the receding waters of the Salton Sea at the community of Bombay Beach, which was devastated by flooding after two hurricanes raised the level of the sea in the 1970s | David McNew/Getty Images for Lumix

But there seem to be few downsides. And the benefits across many realms pose few arguments. Now GM is right in the middle with a plan that aligns with its recent carbon footprint reduction goals. 

But the GM lithium scheme is also intricate and complex. Let’s just say this is probably one of the biggest deals GM has ever been in the middle of. And let’s hope it is even better than it seems on paper. 

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