Lithium in Paradox: Drought Could Halt New Utah Mining Activity

Via The Land Desk, a look at how water scarcity could stop a new Utah mining rush:

Myriad proposals to tap lithium deposits in southeastern Utah are progressing from the conceptual to the exploratory phases. But they are running up against a familiar obstacle in these arid parts: concern about how the projects might affect diminishing water supplies in the Colorado River Basin. 

Lithium is the primary ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, which power everything from cell phones to electric vehicles to grid-scale energy storage. Demand for the stuff has shot up tremendously over the last decade, which has also elevated prices. That, in turn, has sparked interest in developing a domestic lithium industry, with projects sprouting in Nevada, at the Salton Sea and Great Salt Lake, in southern New Mexico, and in the Paradox Formation in the Four Corners Country.

The Paradox Basin and Anson/A1/Blackstone’s main target areas: A. Green River Project; B. Paradox Project; C. Wayne County water rights (and possible future processing plant?).

The Paradox Formation (or Basin), stretching from the northwestern edge of the San Juan Basin up to the town of Green River, Utah, contains oodles of lithium (along with potash and bromide and so on). That’s because some 300 million years ago a sea covered the area, then evaporated, then flooded the area, then evaporated, repeating this cycle about 29 times over the course of 15 million years. The process left behind thick deposits of salts and other materials. Over the ensuing millennia, rock piled up atop the salt, squeezing it into fault lines, where the salt was pushed up into domes that shaped the overlying landscape. Those salt deposits contain lithium.

Geologic cross-section of a portion of the Paradox Basin showing a salt dome.

Companies have poked around in the Paradox Formation in search of potash for years. Now they’re going after lithium in a big way, with several firms staking claims in the Lisbon Valley and beyond. 

Anson Resources’ Paradox and Green River Projects are probably the furthest along (if investor presentations are to be believed).  The Australian company and its subsidiaries — A1 Lithium, Blackstone Minerals, and Blackstone Resources — have been staking claims fervently among the sandstone formations northwest of Moab between the Green and Colorado Rivers over the last several years, amassing more than 1,000 federal mining claims. They also acquired private land surrounding the Department of Energy’s uranium tailings disposal site on the southern edge of the town of Green River as well as securing leases on Utah state land.

Conventional lithium operations pump mineral-filled water to the surface, put it in shallow ponds, and allow the water to evaporate, concentrating the lithium and associated materials. Potash is extracted like this, as well — a complex of potash evaporation ponds near Moab have gone viral as instagram targets due to their vivid colors. This method not only requires a lot of land for the ponds, but also is water-intensive, with as much as 200,000 gallons of water evaporating for each ton of material produced. Plus, the process can produce a lot of waste and takes a long time. 

Anson plans a different approach. They say they will partner with China-based Sunresin and use that firm’s patented direct lithium extraction, or DLE, method. Anson would drill a well (or redrill an old oil and gas well), pump the brine to the surface, and use resin beads to extract the lithium from the water, without evaporation ponds. After the lithium is extracted, the water is injected back underground. That, in theory, makes it a non-consumptive use of the water, meaning it shouldn’t have as much of an effect on water supplies. 

But direct lithium extraction is a largely unproven technology, and it’s not clear that it will work in the Paradox Basin. The technique may require fresh water to be injected into the lithium deposits before pumping it to the surface, since the minerals may not be adequately saturated. In the 1950s and 1960s, a couple of facilities in Moab pumped up brine for use in the Atlas uranium mill; they had to pump fresh water into the subterranean salt beds, first, in order to dissolve the salts. Plus, any time you drill deep into the earth and remove or inject water, you’re potentially screwing with the hydrology — and even the geology. 

This has been shown in the oil and gas fields, where “produced water,” or wastewater left over from the drilling and extraction process, is often reinjected deep underground. The process has induced seismic activity, or triggered earthquakes, in the Permian Basin and elsewhere. During the coalbed methane drilling boom in the San Juan Basin in the 1990s, all sorts of weirdness occurred, from methane flowing from water taps to a freshwater spring suddenly becoming hotter — all likely the result of pumping billions of gallons of water from the coal beds to “liberate” the methane, and then shooting it back into the ground. And in the Paradox Basin, a project that captures salt before it can enter the Dolores River and then injects it 16,000 feet underground (to keep Colorado River salinity levels in check) also triggered tremors in western Colorado. 

In other words, while direct lithium extraction could be a “game changer” for the industry, making it feasible to commercially extract lithium from geothermal brines under the Salton Sea, for example, many unknowns remain about the technology in general and this proposal specifically.  

What we do know is that Anson is looking to secure a bunch of water for its operations. Their water right applications seek:

  • 19 cfs (13,755 acre-feet or 4.5 billion gallons per year) from wells located on Utah state land north of Dead Horse Point state park. The brine presumably would then be piped to a processing plant near the Colorado River, the lithium would be extracted, and the wastewater injected back underground. Intrepid Potash, the National Park Service, and a coalition of environmental groups protested the application, in part for its lack of detail and because, well, there really isn’t any extra water available.
  • Another 19 cfs from several 8,000- to 9,000-foot deep wells on the south end of Green River adjacent to the uranium tailings depository. After extracting the lithium from a plant on this property, they would inject the wastewater into 5,000- to 7,000-foot deep wells. The Bureau of Reclamation protested this application because of its close proximity to the Green River and the potential to affect surface water supplies and quality. They also worry about direct lithium extraction, writing: “Data shows the success of DLE is hard to predict, consumes both freshwater and brine water, contaminates aquifers, reduces the groundwater table, hurts wildlife, worsens soil conditions …” Ooof.
  • And they leased 2,500 acre-feet (814 million gallons) per year from the Wayne County Water Conservancy District. This water may be used for processing, but it’s not clear where, yet. Anson has indicated it could have processing facilities in Green River and on the Colorado River below Moab, neither of which is near Wayne County (home of Hanksville). Perhaps they also plan on having a processing plant there.

The water rights applications are still pending.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 28th, 2023 at 8:26 pm and is filed under Colorado River, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

© 2024 Water Politics LLC .  'Water Politics', 'Water. Politics. Life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.