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'Lithium Valley' may provide California with its next gold rush

Lithium Valley could power EV battery boom
California’s Lithium Valley could power electric vehicle industry | 60 Minutes 13:14

The auto industry is introducing fleets of electric vehicles that will be powered by lithium-ion batteries and while the U.S. has massive quantities of lithium locked underground, companies have been slow to invest in mining and extraction. 

That's about to change. Lithium operations powered by clean energy are being developed in California, near the Salton Sea. Just like California's 1849 Gold Rush, companies are racing to strike it rich in a region some are now calling Lithium Valley. 

Eric Spomer is president and CEO of EnergySource Minerals, a company focused on recovering lithium from the region's geothermal brine.

"When you hear estimates of how big this resource could be, it's usually measured on annual tons produced. And we're confident that this is in excess of 300,000 tons a year," said Spomer. "Right now, that's way more than half of the world supply of lithium."

EnergySource Minerals is steaming ahead with plans to build a lithium facility, which Spomer said could be ready for commercial use by 2025.

Typically, lithium is either extracted from rock mining operations, or recovered from evaporation ponds. The facility from EnergySource Minerals would be the cleanest, most efficient lithium process in the world, Spomer said.

Companies are working to extract lithium in California 60 Minutes

The process being developed by the Salton Sea makes use of the brine already being brought to the surface by geothermal electric plants. Six hundred degree brine rises to the surface from more than a mile beneath the earth. It produces steam, which drives turbines to generate electricity. 

In the past, the mineral-rich brine was simply returned to the earth. Now EnergySource plans to break ground on a clean, billion-dollar facility in the next few months to extract lithium from the brine before reinjecting it underground.

Estimates of the amount of lithium in the region are staggering. Spomer told 60 Minutes that the region could recover enough of the metal to support 7.5 million electric vehicles a year, which is half of the total car and truck sales in the U.S.

EnergySource is leading the lithium charge by the Salton Sea, but the company is not alone. Warren Buffett's BHE Renewables runs 10 geothermal energy plants in the region. There's another on the drawing board by an Australian company, Controlled Thermal Resources. Both ventures are part of the lithium rush.

Down the road from EnergySource's site, Controlled Thermal Resources has been fine tuning its process at a test facility. CEO Rod Colwell said based on what they learn, the company plans to build a new plant for recovering lithium. They've been successful at extracting lithium at their test facility.

"We know it works," Colwell said.

The lithium extraction process costs about $4,000 per ton, and currently sells for six times more.

Rod Colwell and Bill Whitaker talk about the lithium extraction process 60 Minutes

But as companies seek to benefit from what California Gov. Gavin Newsom believes could make the area "the Saudi Arabia of lithium," others are asking: Will it work for everyone? The rich lithium resource lies beneath one of the poorest sections of California. The Salton Sea was created when the Colorado River flooded the basin in 1905, but for the past 50 years, the main source of water has been chemical-laden agricultural runoff. For decades, the sea has been evaporating and shrinking. A once-thriving tourist industry has been replaced by environmental decay, toxic dust and economic hardship. Unemployment in the region hovers around 16%.

The lithium industry could provide better jobs and be a force for good in the area, acknowledged environmentalist Frank Ruiz, the local program director for the Audubon Society and a commissioner on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction in California. Industrialization in the area, he said, has to be reconciled with its wildlife and communities.

"We need to learn how to balance the tables," Ruiz said.

That balance will be important in the coming years as demand for electric vehicles continues.

"Over 50% of our lineup and retails sales will be from battery electric vehicles by the end of the decade," Mark Stewart, head of North American operations for carmaker Stellantis, told Bill Whitaker. Stellantis owns some of America's best-known brands, including Chrysler, Jeep and Ram trucks, and is investing $35 billion in an ambitious transformation to manufacture electric cars and trucks.

"We're reimagining our factories -- on our assembly plants," said Stewart. "They're already rolling our plug-in hybrids — as well as looking to two new battery joint ventures that are in full construction right now."

To that end, Stellantis has committed to purchase lithium from Controlled Thermals Resources for 10 years, even though the lithium will not be commercially available for years. General Motors has also committed to purchasing lithium from the Salton Sea region.

Prices for electric cars are coming down and are projected to be on par with gas vehicles within a few years, driven in part by the tax incentives in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. The tax benefits have also been a catalyst for developing domestic lithium, said EnergySource's Spomer. There have been big investments along the lithium-ion battery supply chain, so that soon lithium won't need to sourced, processed, and refined overseas.

"It's a competitive advantage," said Spomer. "It's an opportunity that we can be a leader globally. And why not lead?"

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