A black long haired Domestic Yak (Bos grunniens), standing in the grassland of Tagong, Kangding, Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan, China

The True Costs of Lithium Extraction: A Grim Reality for EV Owners

by kirkcoburn

Political turbulence in Afghanistan means the cost of lithium-ion batteries will skyrocket. The Taliban now controls one of the world’s largest lithium deposits. With the global demand for lithium (and lithium extraction) expected to grow 40 fold by 2040, the grim reality is dawning for owners of electric vehicles (EVs). Future lithium battery replacements will come at an exorbitant cost.

Many EV fans aren’t concerned. They believe lithium batteries last 300,000 to 500,000 miles — and most consumer cars are used up before then — so it won’t make a difference. After all, no one expects their private vehicle to last that long. Some EV owners equate battery replacement to installing a new engine or replacing a transmission in a vintage auto. 

We argue that a transmission or engine replacement probably won’t cost $25,000 in 2025.

What Tesla Says About Lithium Battery Packs

Tesla says the battery pack should outlast the car. They estimate the life of most cars to be about 200,000 miles. We won’t argue that here, but we’ve seen a Toyota Supra go 600,000 miles, and it’s still running. But Tesla’s warranty includes a clause for retaining 70% battery capacity over the warranty period of eight or ten years or roughly 100,000-150,000 miles.

It’s not a terrific guarantee.

Imagine if you were shopping for a traditional car. The dealer says, “Well, it gets 30 miles to the gallon, but we’ll only guarantee 21, and only for the first 100,000 miles. After that, it’s a mystery.” 

Or worse, “This car’s gas tank will hold enough fuel to go 400 miles today. But the fuel tank will continue to get smaller until it’s useless. And maybe that will be eight or ten years from now. We don’t know.”

Tesla gets away with it because they don’t have decades of data to prove or disprove their statements. 

Still, if you own an early generation Tesla, you should be very concerned. There’s a big battery replacement bill in your near future because the cost of lithium is about to go crazy.

A Quick History of Tesla 

Tesla, Inc. was formed in 2003. The company works in solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, and in 2008, they released their first car to the public. That first-generation Roadster was sleek and sexy, with a mock-Porsche appeal. That look was fitting because, despite the $7,500 tax rebate available at the time, the $109,000 price ($125,000 out the door) made Tesla a luxury item too expensive for the average American. 

Fast-forward now to 2021. With four models available (the S, X, Y, and 3) and more achievable prices in the $50k-60k range, we’re seeing a lot more of them on the road. 

We can see why they’re so popular. They’re light and sleek, and they boast a ton of modern technology. Plus, they’re really quick! Also, we imagine that the key reason most people buy an electric vehicle is that they are “clean.” If you’re particularly green-minded, concerned about climate-changing emissions, or reducing your carbon footprint, they seem like a great answer.

Why People Buy Teslas (The Reasons Might Surprise You)

In general, electric vehicles (EVs) have some attractive capabilities, and there’s a lot to like about a Tesla.

A survey performed by Escalent studied the top points EVs consumers considered the highest priority when shopping.

EV buyers described their priorities as:

  • Range (distance one can travel on one charge)
  • Performance and acceleration
  • Style and aesthetics
  • Brand quality and reputation
  • Vehicles that look new and unique

Notably missing from the list are two points: Elon Musk fandom doesn’t seem to play a role, nor do overall environmental concerns. That’s good; as it turns out, EVs aren’t environmentally friendly, after all. 

The Real Environmental Costs of Lithium Mining

Most of the world’s lithium extraction projects are in Afghanistan, South America, Africa, and Tibet.

In another recent piece, we lightly explored the tolls of mineral extraction on the environment. We cannot find any source that sums up surface acreage devoted to lithium mining. But an educated guess would be hundreds of millions of acres. 

According to the Institute for Energy Research (IER): “Mining and processing of lithium, however, turns out to be far more environmentally harmful than… fracking.” 

Earth scarring — the permanent disfiguring of the earth’s surface as we dig ever deeper for mineral resources — is only part of the problem. Water pollution is a HUGE concern. Remember, hazardous chemicals found in groundwater will eventually find their way to the oceans, too.

So lithium extraction isn’t a distant “Not In My Backyard” issue that we can continue to overlook. The entire population of the planet — people and animals alike — relies on our oceans for oxygen, food, and the future of medicine.  

But the most immediate negative impacts of lithium mining are felt most acutely by the poverty-stricken populations living near processing areas. Consider the disastrous results of lithium mining in Tibet.

The Ganzizhou Rongda Incident(s) and China’s Growing Lithium Demand 

Across Tibet’s vast, rugged and unwelcoming terrain are salt lakes that contain some of the largest lithium reserves on the planet. It’s an area rich in mineral resources and precious metals we all crave. 

Still, Tibet remains economically underdeveloped. Most residents spend their days squeaking out a very meager living by subsistence farming. They can generate enough food to support their family, but little more.

A prized creature in Tibet’s economy is the yak.

  • Similar to hairy cattle, these sturdy beasts have been selectively bred for countless generations to be gentle, tractable critters that will produce plenty of milk for cheese. 
  • On the low end, one yak might cost $2,000, while the finest examples are closer to $10,000.

The point is that yaks are a significant investment for a low-income family farm. But over its lifetime, a yak will earn its keep by producing milk, pulling plows, and creating manure that can be burned as heating fuel until it’s eventually slaughtered for meat and hide. 

Back to the Problem at Hand

In May 2016, people found dead fish floating in Tibet’s Liqi River. In a nutshell, toxic chemicals were leaking into groundwater from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine and poisoning the fish.

Downstream, precious yaks started dying from drinking the contaminated water. The 2016 incident was the third one in seven years due to a sharp increase in lithium demand. Three years prior, in 2013, the mine was closed for this very problem. But as soon as the mine reopens, the problem resumes.

And it’s a huge problem for this agricultural community. Imagine spending your life savings on a few yaks, believing your family will be warm and fed for the next decade, only to have your livestock drop dead.

The Chinese Government Didn’t Lift a Finger

The Chinese government is absolutely racist towards Tibetans. It’s no secret that nomadic families have been relocated. The local religion, Tibetan Buddhism, is forcibly repressed. Native Tibetans have zero voice in China’s lithium extraction and ongoing pollution, and they see no financial benefits from it. All they receive is water pollution that kills their livestock and makes an already meager existence nearly impossible. 

Lithium Extraction Demand Grows Thanks to Chinese Legislation

After that incident, lithium prices doubled between 2016 and 2018, thanks to an exponentially increasing demand. Electric cars, laptops, and cell phones all rely on lithium extraction, and China’s appetite for them isn’t diminishing. (Nor is ours.)

  • IER attributes that unprecedented spike in demand to the Chinese government pushing EVs in its 2015 Five Year Plan.

Here in the US, consider the Biden Administration’s focus on green energy and California’s ban on fossil fuel vehicles. The Golden State has gone so far as to ban small gas-powered engines — lawnmowers and dirt bikes — and that’s a topic we’ll be covering soon. It all leads to more demand for lithium and more risk to the nearby agricultural communities.

(By the way, a Tesla Model S battery includes roughly 12 kilograms (almost 26 pounds) of lithium. But more lithium is needed to store energy before it gets to the end-user. So demand will continue to grow.)

Lithium Ore Processing

The Rockwood Lithium extraction and processing mine in Silver Peak Nevada

As mentioned above, the lithium extraction process uses a lot of freshwater — as much as 500,000 gallons per metric ton. To extract lithium, miners drill a hole in salt flats and pump brine up to the surface. Months go by, the water evaporates and leaves a mixture of minerals and lithium salts. 

Those salts are filtered and placed into another evaporation pool. It takes a year, sometimes 18 months, before the mixture is filtered sufficiently and lithium carbonate is extracted.

OK, Let’s Leave Tibet Alone! Where Else Can We Find Lithium Ore?

The Lithium Triangle of South America

South America’s Lithium Triangle, found in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, might hold more than half the world’s lithium supply. It’s also one of the driest spots on the planet. The water there is more precious to people, livestock, and wildlife. According to IER, in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consume more than two-thirds of the region’s local water supply. Local farmers must now find water elsewhere or starve.

And, like Tibet, the risk for toxic chemicals to leak from evaporation pools into the water supply is dangerously high.

In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto — another dry salt plain — residents complain that lithium extraction contaminates drinking water and the streams used for crop irrigation.

Turn your gaze over to Chile, and see a landscape marred with mountains of discarded salts and canals filled with bizarre, unnatural contaminated blue water. Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert at the University of Chile, said, “This isn’t a green solution. It’s not a solution at all.”

Not in My Backyard

If South America still feels like someone else’s “hood,” know that researchers found environmental impacts on fish 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation in Nevada.

But honestly, the demand for lithium is in your backyard! If it’s not a Tesla in your garage, it’s in your neighbor’s driveway. It’s also in the laptop or cell phone you’re using right now. As the winter holidays loom, it’s in a host of tablets and tech gifts. For early-generation EV owners, it’s also about to be a big expense.

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