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The Social Costs of Lithium Batteries

Energy security in America may come at the expense of vulnerable communities in California’s Salton Sea.

  • Sergio Sanchez

Critical minerals such as lithium are essential for transitioning to cleaner energy and combating climate change. Lithium is the main component of lithium-ion batteries, which make zero emission vehicles and battery storage possible. The capacity for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries has expanded nearly eightfold over the past decade, driven by the rising need for consumer electronics and electric vehicles. But the world’s lithium market is limited.

Nearly half of the entire global lithium supply is mined in Australia. Just three countries—Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina—are estimated to hold approximately 58 percent of global lithium resources. In South America, lithium reserves are concentrated in the salt flats—or salares—of the high, arid region of the Puna de Atacama, which spans northern Chile, northwestern Argentina, and southwestern Bolivia. Brazil and China round out the list of top producers.

In the near future, California could join this list as one of the world’s leading lithium suppliers. The state could even source the lithium required to achieve its emission reductions goals. The current reserves of the metal–estimated at 21 million tons by the U.S. Geological Survey–are enough to allow Californians to fully transition to EVs by mid-century.

The Salton Sea

The highest concentration in the world of lithium in geothermal brines may lie in southern California in the Salton Sea, a region east of San Diego and south of Joshua Tree National Park. The first company to receive backing from the U.S. Department of Energy to extract lithium there, Controlled Thermal Resources, had a groundbreaking ceremony in February of this year.

Desert landscape at the Salton Sea. Credit:KGrif

To achieve its climate goals, California has passed ambitious emission reduction legislation. When it comes to its energy procurement, California wants to add renewables to its energy mix. Energy sellers are required to procure a minimum quantity of electricity products from renewable resources. The state aims to have five million zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs) on the road by 2030 and 250,000 electric vehicle charging stations by 2025. By 2035, all new cars and passenger trucks sold in California must be ZEVs.

However, specific policies enacted in California that incentivize ZEVs and increase the demand for lithium can have a significant local social footprint. Senate Bill 125 requires anyone who extracts lithium in the state to pay an extraction excise tax on each metric ton. What remains unclear is whether and how that revenue might be shared with local communities.

What decision-makers expect from the energy transition might not align with what communities want or need. When it comes to critical minerals for the energy transition, what is best for California might not be the best for all Californians.

In February 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom referred to the area as “Lithium Valley,” touting its promise as “a game changer in the nation’s transition to clean energy and zero-emission vehicles, representing what could be a critical breakthrough in the fight against climate change.” The governor went on to highlight its “potential for new economic opportunity, community benefits, and good jobs right here in California.” In June 2022, Newsom signed a law (Senate Bill 125) assigning 80% of the lithium tax revenue to local communities and 20% to a Salton Sea restoration fund.

The bill aimed at addressing in advance both the social and environmental concerns of lithium extraction, but numerous questions persist. Most important, the impact of lithium extraction remains unclear for the approximately 150,000 people living and working in the region, which includes all of Imperial County and Eastern Coachella Valley in Riverside County, extending from Coachella and unincorporated communities near the Salton Sea, and then farther east to the California-Arizona border. Today, the regional economy mainly depends upon agriculture and tourism. The unemployment rate is 15.7%, which is approximately 3 times higher than the average in California. 86.1% of the population identifies as Hispanic and has a median household income of $53,847, well below the $91,551 median household income in California.

The impact of Lithium Valley on these communities once extraction begins is still uncertain. In meetings with state officials, local residents expressed concerns about environmental justice. Margaret Slattery of the University of California at Davis has analyzed the transcripts of these meetings and found that the community’s highest priorities were access to clean water, worry about the effects of mining on public health, and high unemployment. Local residents have a legitimate fear that lithium extraction may exacerbate these ongoing problems in the Salton Sea area.

Photo by author at the Salton Sea.

However, the technology that is projected to extract lithium from the Salton Sea is still unproven at scale. All of this lends credence to the concerns of Salton Sea communities about implications for air and water quality.

When it comes to social costs, communities are concerned that high-paying jobs and opportunities related to lithium extraction will not be for them, but for new arrivals, which will, in turn, have an impact on housing. This is why determining how the benefits from lithium extraction will go back to the communities is relevant now, so that their concerns are heard before extraction begins.

Energy Security and the Energy Transition

Considering the current global political situation, energy security is a top priority for several countries. Identifying new markets that can diversify the existing lithium supply is crucial to the transition to clean energy. However, this investment must take into account the needs of people living in communities where the critical minerals will be extracted.

Photo by author at the Salton Sea.

Given the proven reserves of lithium in the Salton Sea, California’s climate change goals, and America’s energy security concerns, it would be fair to say that lithium extraction will eventually happen in the region. However, additional research, more community engagement, and further political conversations are needed to ensure that the interests of local residents will be taken into account. Energy security in the U.S. should not come at the expense of vulnerable communities in California’s Salton Sea.


Sergio Sanchez is a PhD candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, where he studies how to achieve equitable transition to renewable energy through public policy and community engagement. Sergio worked as an Energy Advocate for the National Resources Defense Council’s San Francisco office and did his LLM in Environmental Law & Policy at Stanford Law School.


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