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There's A Caveat With Electric Vehicles

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It’s certain that the EV era is coming. A shift from internal-combustion cars and trucks to electric cars and trucks is a necessary step on the path to a more sustainable transportation ecosystem. But there’s a catch — always is — and a recent report from Undark, a digital science magazine, offers great insight into one of the often-overlooked costs of EV production.

EVs need lithium for their batteries, and heavy lithium mining could be very harmful to regions such as the Atacama Salt Flat, where mining companies are ramping up activity to meet demand. Promises to ban purely gas-burning cars are being made by governments worldwide, from California and Massachusetts to the UK and Japan. If these plans are enacted, it will mean a drastic increase in the demand for lithium.


So, what happens when the demand for lithium hits a peak? The report cites local experts who claim that the mining has begun to decrease the groundwater supply. Per the report:

“… [In] Chile, scientists are finding that the rapid rate of removal may be disrupting water availability in the surrounding desert. Beneath the Atacama Salt Flat, a Rhode Island-sized expanse of salts, a major source of lithium is locked in an underground reservoir. As mining projects there expand to meet skyrocketing demand, they have met resistance from Indigenous communities that surround the salt flat, and from regulators who are trying to understand a one-of-a-kind water cycle.”


The process of mining lithium and the supply of water are intertwined. As brine — or saltwater — is extracted, the balance in the hydrogeology is offset, which according to the report, leaves less fresh water for people that live in a place where water is scarce to begin with. The report goes on:

When brine is pumped out, the water table drops, and less water evaporates naturally from below the surface. Initially, the lower evaporation can compensate for the drop in water level from companies’ brine pumping. But when the water table drops below two meters deep, the evaporation rate hits zero — no more water can evaporate. At this point, Marazuela concludes, dropping evaporation rates can no longer counteract the effects of brine pumping. Freshwater pools may soon begin losing water.

What confuses the issue is that the Chilean government classifies brine as a mineral to be mined, not a water resource to be preserved:

“But in the government’s eyes, the brine is a mineral. It’s a point of contention that has fueled a conflict between local groups and companies over the importance of a water resource in one of the world’s driest deserts.
With brine regulated as a mineral, the government retains ownership and allows private companies to manage their own operations.”


It is made yet more confusing in that even if this brine was reclassified as water, it might make the situation worse, as Undark notes:

If lithium brine were to be defined as water, local communities may not be able to buy it. The price of water is determined by a market, and in the Atacama desert, scarcity inflates prices.

Diego Rivera-Salazar spent part of his childhood in an Indigenous community in Chile’s wetter south. There, the idea of buying and selling water clashed with community norms. “The land, the forests, the water, the airs — it belongs to the whole community,” he said. It’s not there for profit.. Now a hydrologist at the University of Desarrollo in the capital, Santiago, he believes those formative years led him to research the role of water in his country.

When the new constitution is written, these kinds of property rights are likely to be at the center of debates, he says.

“Los pescados no votan. So, the fishes doesn’t have the right to vote,” he said. “The fish or the trees or the animals, the nature — we don’t have any representation of the nature in the system.”]


The Atacama Desert has been a focal point for Jalopnik in the past. In 2016, Elon Musk tweeted angrily after Tesla was accused of killing flamingos whose habitat relied on freshwater pools affected by the mining:


And while the flamingos are still a factor when considering the region, advocacy receded as the problem grew larger in scope because it’s not just the wading birds being affected anymore.

So we’ve known that lithium mining could be affecting freshwater sources in the Atacama desert for some time, but the question is still officially unanswered. Our need to answer it will become more pressing if demand for electric cars increases. A Volkswagen-sponsored “fact finding” expedition didn’t seem to produce anything conclusive.


The report from Undark is a single example of excellent coverage that we’ve encountered on this topic, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.