How Drilling for Lithium in the Salton Sea Is Making For a More Sustainable Future

Lizzy Rosenberg - Author

Nov. 16 2021, Published 12:20 p.m. ET

Salton Sea Drilling
Source: Getty Images

Generally, large-scale drilling projects come with obvious negative connotations. Fuel companies use heavy machinery to ravage untouched natural lands, not only damaging ecosystems irreparably and releasing toxins, but also supplying us with even more pollutive non-renewable fuel. Environmentalists nationwide, however, are currently celebrating the start of a brand new project, that involves drilling in the Salton Sea for something called "white gold" — so why is this a good thing?

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"The geothermal brine at the Salton Sea is unique in the world," Berkshire Hathaway Energy's VP for Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Jonathan Weisgall told KESQ wistfully, in hopes that Berkshire will be one of the early companies to open a state-funded lithium demonstration facility. "If this is a baseball game, we're still in the first inning, but we're pretty confident we're gonna win this game."

Salton Sea
Source: Getty Images
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What you need to know about drilling for white gold in the Salton Sea:

Over the last year, one of California's largest lakes, the Salton Sea, has made headlines for a disheartening reason: due to climate change it's almost entirely dried up, and it's now releasing toxic dust and decayed matter into the air. But now, the famous body of water is making headlines for something positive: energy companies are currently pursuing a long-winded project that involves drilling for something called white gold, according to The Los Angeles Times. But white gold isn't what you think it is.

White gold is — in fact — a nickname for lithium. And not only is lithium the title of a popular Nirvana song, but it's also what powers electric car batteries.

An energy company called Controlled Thermal Resources has finally started a $500-million project that has been in the works for years. Snagging the title as the second commercial lithium producer in the U.S., it drills 900 feet below ground for lithium and geothermal power production, hoping to generate clean energy all day, everyday.

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“We know we can do it. Now it’s a matter of how well can we do it,” Controlled Thermal Resources' chief operating officer, Jim Turner, told The LA Times. “If we’re lucky, we’ll finish [drilling] before 40 days. But you don’t know until you actually get down there."

California has recently garnered attention for increasing its reliance on solar and wind power. Now, officials hope this will be the state's newest energy resource.

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Why is this an environmental win?

Drilling for lithium and geothermal energy in the Salton Sea is a big environmental win. Although lithium mining notoriously uses quite a bit of water, and there have been many humanitarian issues involving mining for cobalt (which is needed for lithium batteries) it's far less damaging than fracking. It also promotes the use of electric vehicles, which will hopefully be the only type of car sold in the state by 2035.

Likewise, the plant hopes to create a geothermal energy plant next door to the lithium plant. Geothermal basically uses water vapor as an energy source. It involves drilling down, bringing hot water to the earth's surface, and it "flashes" into a gas, creating steam that can power turbines and ultimately create electricity. With that in mind, it could seriously up the ante for California's renewable energy resources.

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