How Australia became the largest lithium supplier in the world

There are three proposals for new lithium refining plants under development across Australia. These plants will bring their own environmental challenges. Roasting spodumene to create a concentrate requires significant amounts of energy and large amounts of sulfuric acid. Eventually, even the waste will have to be disposed of, a process that will have to be monitored to avoid polluting.

It’s still in its infancy for Australia’s lithium mining industry, but Maggie Wood, executive director of the Conversation Council of Western Australia, a nonprofit that represents more than 100 environmental groups across Western Australia, says the industry is kept under close observation.

“On the one hand, we know we need to decarbonise as soon as possible and critical minerals like lithium and a bunch of others are part of that path,” says Wood. “But we also know that the extraction of those minerals is bad for the environment.”

For example, conservationists have raised concerns that sediments from the Finniss Lithium Project mine may have contaminated a nearby stream. BBC Future Planet contacted Core Lithium, the owners of the Finniss Lithium Project, to respond to these claims, but received no response.

Kirsty Howey, co-director of the Northern Territory Environment Center, an environmental agency within the Territory, says she is concerned about the cumulative environmental impact of opening more mines to extract lithium deposits between Darwin and the famous Litchfield National. Park, an hour’s drive south of the city.

“There are lithium blocks all along the route,” Howey says. “You have these vast areas of the Territory that are quite pristine by global standards and are now subject to [permits for future lithium mining].

“It’s a tropical ecosystem, so you have a higher risk of cyclones, you have huge rains – rain is the enemy of mining. That’s when the metals drain into the waterways and cause chaos.

“We need to stop the development of fossil fuels, but we also need control over mining.”

BBC Future Planet contacted the Minerals Council of Australia, a representative body of the country’s mining industry, to comment on concerns raised about the impact of lithium mining, but did not respond with the publication.

Some of Australia’s political leaders have said acquiring metals for decarbonisation is the priority. In early October, when the Finniss Lithium Project was inaugurated 80 km (50 miles) from Darwin, Northern Territory Minister of Mining and Industry, Nicole Manison, was on site. Speaking to the media, she said: “We have to be realistic about this transition: there are materials that you absolutely have to extract to achieve decarbonization and face climate change, and many of these materials are available in the Northern Territory.”

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