Is Lithium Mining Bad for the Environment? 6 Crucial Facts

published on January 21st, 2023

In many ways, lithium mining is bad for the environment.

However, as we will discuss, the question of whether we should stop this mining is more complex.

Lithium is a reactive metal that is highly conductive, making it an excellent medium for electricity. 

This unique trait of lithium is why it is mined, as it can be used for many applications, most notably for ion batteries.

However, as the demand for lithium has risen, so has mining activity. Lithium mining has exponentially increased by 255% in the last ten years alone.

And as a result, such exploitation has produced numerous adverse effects on the environment.

6 Ways Lithium Mining Affects the Environment 

Lithium, as an element, does not appear naturally in its metal form.

Instead, it is found in brine salt and rocks, which have to be processed to make it into a metal.

This means the mining process for lithium metal has to happen in two stages: 

  1. Extracting sources of the lithium element.
  2. Processing the extracts to create the metal form.

In both instances, there are, unfortunately, many undesirable consequences:

1. Water Depletion & Contamination

Lithium mining can deplete and contaminate local water sources.

In research, the extraction process of removing lithium from salt brine requires large quantities of water, and the leftover brine is typically highly saline.

It can contain heavy metals and other pollutants. 

These can leach into surrounding groundwater and surface water sources, making them unsafe for human and animal consumption. 

Furthermore, the evaporation ponds used to extract lithium from brine can cause water shortages and environmental damage if they are not adequately managed.  

In addition, during processing, we see trace amounts of lithium can cause physical damage to the landscape, leading to erosion and loss of biodiversity.

2. Air Pollution

 Dust and emissions from lithium mining operations can have negative impacts on air quality.

For instance, a report by Friends of the Earth suggests that the process of extracting lithium can cause air pollution.

This is not a direct result of the ore itself. Rather, mining lithium from hard rock and brine reservoirs requires a lot of energy.

The source of this energy, according to MIT researchers, is extensively reliant on fossil fuels.

And as a result, we see that for every tonne of lithium mined, 15 tonnes of CO2 get released into the air.

3. Land Degradation

Land degradation is the long-term decline in the quality of land, including the loss of biodiversity, productivity, and ecosystem services. 

This can happen naturally, but it is often caused or accelerated by human activities such as agriculture, mining, urbanization, and deforestation. 

Land degradation can take many forms, including soil erosion, desertification, loss of fertility, and declines in water quality.

In scientific examination, they found lithium mining can cause a decrease in vegetation, a reduction in soil moisture content, and increased drought conditions in natural areas surrounding the extraction site.

4. Noise Pollution

Heavy machinery used in mining can create excessive noise, health issues, and problems within the local communities. 

Not only does this affect humans, but disturbances in soundscapes can cause numerous issues for animals.

Soundscapes are the acoustic environment of a particular location or space. They can include both natural sounds (e.g., bird songs, wind, water) and human-made sounds, in this case, mining.

The term is often used in the field of environmental sound research, where scientists study how soundscapes change over time and how they affect the animals and people who live in those environments.

For instance, scientists have found excessive noise, such as those caused by lithium mining, can cause:

  • Changes to predator-prey interactions – leading to shifts in the food chain
  • Interfere with species communication
  • Declines in mating, survival, and growth

These issues, according to National Geographic, don’t just happen at the surface level.

Seismic surveys, which are used to investigate potential mining sites, can actually harm marine life and behavioral patterns.

5. Impact on Biodiversity

As we touched on, mining can have a negative impact on local plants and animals due to the loss of habitat and increased pollution.

Conservationists note that mining operations are often at odds with conservation goals – in particular, water diversions and shortages can:

  • Alter food chains
  • Cause population decline
  • Compromise the unique ecology of the landscape.

This is because the sites of lithium mining activities typically center around vulnerable coastal and groundwater sources such as aquifers that take thousands of years to replenish.

You can think of it as a butterfly effect: if an aquifer is drained, it can lower lake levels and even deplete water sources entirely, which means plants, animals, and aquatic life are harmed in the process.

6. Waste Disposal 

Mining can produce large amounts of waste, which can be challenging to dispose of safely.

In particular, the end product of lithium mining, which is predominantly batteries, ends up in landfills or illegal disposal sites.

Though lithium batteries are recyclable, research shows collection rates are very low.

Most likely due to the material being highly reactive and flammable, there are frequent incidences of fires. 

These fires cause the release of toxic gases, which seep into the air, water, and soil.

Is Lithium Mining Sustainable?

As it stands, lithium mining cannot be considered sustainable.

The primary purpose of lithium mining is battery production. In fact, statistics show a whopping 74% of global use goes to this application.

Scientists do support that there are many long-term environmental benefits to their use – for instance, lithium batteries play a role in facilitating electric vehicles, rechargeable devices, and energy storage. 

The problem is the current systems we have in place complicate this aim.

That said, lithium mining can be sustainable if proper regulations and practices are in place to minimize environmental impact and ensure responsible use of resources. 

This includes minimizing water usage and reducing the disturbance of natural habitats.

Additionally, recycling lithium from used batteries can help to reduce the need for new mining.

However, it is important to note that the sustainability of lithium mining can vary depending on the specific mining operations and location.

Can Lithium Mining Be Done Eco-friendly?

Yes, lithium mining could be done in an eco-friendly manner, providing for a few caveats.

At present, research suggests there are several barriers to eco-friendly lithium mining:

  • The low rate of recycling
  • The high rate of product imports, creating a high carbon footprint
  • A lack of technology for better remediation at extraction and processing sites

If we were to overcome these issues by having better systems in place and better recycling chains, lithium mining could be far more eco-friendly.

Is Lithium Mining Worse than Oil Drilling?

This is a difficult question to answer because both processes affect the environment in different ways, but it could be argued that oil drilling is worse for a few reasons.

The main difference is in their end-use. While lithium is not a renewable resource, it does make renewable energy possible.

Conversely, oil drilling, which is used to extract petroleum – also known as gasoline – and other oil-based products, doesn’t lend itself to sustainable energy production.

Every liter of gasoline produces 2.3kg (5lb) of CO2 – this works out to 3450 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of gasoline – compare this to lithium which generates a substantially lower 15 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of Lithium.

Now factor in the end product, such as fuel and energy. As the EPA explains, every kilowatt of electricity consumed generates approximately 0.43 kg CO2/kWh.

Comparatively, 1 gallon (4.5 L) of gasoline creates roughly 8.87 kg CO2/kWh. 

That’s a ratio of approximately 1:20, meaning gasoline emits 20 times the amount of CO2 when compared to electric energy.

However, we can’t ignore the fact that energy is expended differently by these energy sources.

For instance, 1L (0.4 gallons) of gasoline takes you approximately 12.5km (7.7 miles) in a traditional car, whereas 1 KWh takes you 6.4 km (4 miles) in an EV. 

But even if we factor this in, it still puts gasoline emissions nearly 10 times higher than that of electric, just based on fuel consumption.

Is Lithium Mining Worse Than Fracking?

Given what we know about oil drilling, we can safely assume that fracking is worse than lithium mining.

Oil drilling and fracking are both methods used to extract oil and natural gas from the ground, but they are different techniques.

Oil drilling is the process of drilling a well into the ground to extract liquid oil.

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is the process of injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into rock formations at high pressure to release natural gas or oil.

While each method can have negative environmental impacts, fracking is generally more controversial due to the chemicals used and the potential for groundwater contamination. 

Additionally, fracking can cause small earthquakes and can use large amounts of water.

It is worth noting that there are regulations in place to mitigate these risks and that the environmental impact of drilling or fracking can vary depending on the specific location and the company’s operational practices.

However, overall, fracking is likely worse for the environment than lithium mining.

Is Lithium Mining Worse Than Coal Mining?

No, coal mining is worse than lithium mining for two reasons: Water use and emissions.

Although lithium mining can potentially have a negative impact on local wildlife and ecosystems, and the process of extracting lithium from brine can use a lot of water, it generally requires less land and has less of an impact on water resources than coal mining. 

Researchers have estimated that large coal-powered energy plants can use more than 3000 billion liters of water per year.

In contrast, a similarly high-performing lithium mine can only produce around 1203 tonnes of lithium metal per year. 

Given that roughly 2.3 million liters (0.5m gallons) of water is needed to produce 1 tonne of lithium, that means that a single mine will use 2.7 billion liters (0.59 billion gallons) of water in a year. 

It’s not a commendable figure, but it is significantly less than water expenditure than coal mining.

And as the EPA explains, we also have to consider that emissions from coal mining make up 7% of total U.S. methane and 20% of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions.

Not to mention, coal mining has various contributions to sulfur dioxide levels, particulate matter, and even heavy metals.

In short, lithium mining is far from perfect, but it isn’t worse than coal mining.

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