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Oil Companies Work To Harvest Lithium From Fracking Wastewater

The oil and gas industry's potential revenue stream opens a catch-22 where electric vehicle production is reliant on fossil fuel extraction

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Oil rigs stand in the Permian Basin area of Odessa, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019.
Photo: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg (Getty Images)

The transition to electric vehicles has increased demand for various minerals, including nickel, cobalt and lithium. This has created geopolitical issues for the United States, with the People’s Republic of China refining a majority of the world’s lithium production. Now, the oil and gas industry is trying to capitalize on the Biden administration’s efforts to bolster the country’s domestic lithium supply.

Several major energy companies are developing methods of extracting lithium from hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. Lithium is typically mined from rock or collected through man-made pond evaporation. The energy industry is looking for a method to pull the valuable mineral out of wastewater brine after it has been used to blast through earth in search of natural gas. According to Politico, ExxonMobil is already considering building a massive lithium processing plant in the middle of South Arkansas’ fracking hotbed, where there’s an ample supply of saltwater.


A recent research study claims that a week’s worth of wastewater from fracking in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale could produce enough lithium for 300 EV batteries. The example illustrates the possible benefits of a reliant production method being found and implemented across the country. However, fracking wastewater lithium would undermine one of the driving factors behind the electric vehicle transition. Fossil fuel extraction would become a necessary component of American EV battery production.

The White House has been working to secure a domestic EV battery supply chain. The Biden administration distributed $2.8 billion in grants to boost production. While conventional mining projects are in the works, lithium refining could prove lucrative for the oil industry while raising further questions about how sustainable EV production could be.