A battle is brewing over the future of lithium, an essential component of the world’s transition to renewable energy.
- Last week, the outgoing center-right government of President Sebastián Piñera signed over rights to two private companies to extract 160,000 tons of lithium.
- Supporters of the move point to the vast economic dividends that the boost to Chile’s lithium industry could bring to the country. But opponents argue that lithium is too environmentally harmful, and its benefits not widely enjoyed, particularly among the country’s Indigenous peoples.
- The issue refracts a quandary being litigated around the world: the transition towards renewable energy is creating its own host of social and environmental problems.
By Laura Gersony, Circle of Blue — January 17, 2022
Against the backdrop of Chile’s Atacama Desert, the Salar de Atacama Mine radiates with a futuristic blue light—its cerulean pools glow like tessellated computer screens, a stark contrast to the muted landscape that surrounds them.
Baking in the sun, the brine in these shallow pools will evaporate to yield lithium, a powdery white mineral which is a key component of batteries. Chile is home to over half of existing lithium in the world. Amid a growing global appetite for electrical power as an alternative to planet-warming fossil fuels, the value of this natural endowment is soaring.
Mining companies are eager to take advantage of the burgeoning lithium market, along with politicians who see lithium as holding the promise of national prosperity. They face growing resistance from opponents who argue that lithium extraction is too environmentally harmful, and its benefits not widely enjoyed, particularly among the country’s Indigenous peoples.
The issue represents a quandary being litigated around the world, from the rivers of East Asia to the forests of Central America: the transition towards renewable energy—an imperative of addressing global climate change—is creating its own host of social and environmental problems.
In Chile, the dispute reached a crescendo last week, when the outgoing center-right government of President Sebastián Piñera signed over rights to two private companies to extract 160,000 tons of lithium. Days before, opposing lawmakers filed an objection in court demanding that the bids be halted, and they introduced a bill that would ban new mining-contract bids during the last 90 days of a presidential term.
“We’re not going to allow the government to carry out armed robbery of a resource that belongs to all,” said Catalina Pérez, an opposing lawmaker, after the sales were announced.
The sales constitute about two percent of total lithium reserves in the country.
Two months remain before president-elect Gabriel Boric, a left-of-center former student activist, takes office. Boric campaigned to create a national mining company and increase mining royalties and taxes, and had called for the latest contract auction to be delayed.
Supporters of the contract sales point to the vast economic dividends that the boost to Chile’s lithium industry, which already rakes in an annual $900 million dollars, could bring to the country. Juan Carlos Jobet, Chile’s Mining Minister, said that the government, which has faced criticism about the new projects’ impact on the environment and community relations, would work to ensure that “a portion of the payments they must make be used to support local communities and to invest in research and development.”
Still, as the market booms, concern is mounting over the social and environmental risks of the industry. Lithium mining requires large volumes of groundwater to pump out brines from drilled wells. Mining activities in the Atacama are estimated to consume 65 percent of the area’s water, and they have in some cases contaminated streams and caused significant fall in groundwater. Scientists say the overexploitation of groundwater has already weakened the basin’s fragile and biodiverse ecosystems.
“We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining,” Cristina Dorador, a Chilean biologist who studies microbial life in the Atacama desert, told Bloomberg. “The lithium fever should slow down because it’s directly damaging salt flats, the ecosystem and local communities.”
Mining is a wedge issue among the country’s Indigenous peoples, who are in some regards the hardest hit by these changes. While some celebrate the economic stimulus of the mines, others fear the risks that pollution and water shortages pose to their ancestral lands. Mines have already made freshwater less accessible to the Indigenous Atacameño peoples who live on the margins of the Atacama Desert, and mining companies have not always respected the communities’ right to free, prior, and informed consent.
“They are taking everything away from us,” Carlos Guzman, a member of the Colectivo Apacheta, an Indigenous group that opposes mining in the Atacama region, told the Washington Post in 2016. “These lands are ancestral. We live by this. By the fields. By our cattle. This way of life is in danger.”
The story unfolds as Chile drafts a new constitution aimed at addressing social inequality in the country. This task, which has been entrusted to a body of 155 Chilean citizens, will include considerations about whether nature possesses inherent rights, how mining should be regulated, and other environmental issues.
Laura Gersony covers water policy, infrastructure, and energy for Circle of Blue. She also writes FRESH, Circle of Blue’s biweekly digest of Great Lakes policy news, and HotSpots H2O, a monthly column about the regions and populations most at-risk for water-related hazards and conflict. She is an Environmental Studies and Political Science major at the University of Chicago and an avid Lake Michigan swimmer.