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Utah proposes new rules on lithium extraction to protect the Great Salt Lake

Posted at 2:15 PM, Oct 17, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — State regulators have proposed new rules on lithium extraction with an eye toward protecting the shrinking Great Salt Lake.

The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands has proposed a series of administrative rules — which have the effect of law — reworking how mineral extraction industries have previously operated on the lake. It follows a bill passed by the Utah State Legislature earlier this year that authorized the agency to make changes to protect the lake and re-examined how much royalties the state gets from mineral extraction.

"The companies that are currently extracting minerals were doing so under agreements that were written in the '60s and '70s," said Ben Stireman, the deputy director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands. "Those are some pretty antiquated leases and they haven’t really modernized."

Lithium is increasingly in demand in a world pivoting to cleaner sources of electricity to help address impacts of a changing climate. It's used in everything from phones to electric vehicles and batteries. But extracting it from the Great Salt Lake could harm the lake itself, which needs water and is on the verge of an ecological crisis that would impact all of northern Utah. The lake, which dropped to a record low last year as a result of water diversion, drought and climate change, presents a significant threat to the state with toxic dust, reduced snowpack and harms to public health, wildlife and the economy.

Utah political leaders have made saving the Great Salt Lake a priority, passing bills and spending roughly a billion dollars on water conservation measures. They have also started to scrutinize mineral extraction companies that operate on the lake.

The state's proposed administrative rules require companies to conduct feasibility studies to examine how much water they take from the Great Salt Lake to get lithium. Existing leaseholders must keep to a 10-year average flow of water. If they go above that, the would have to bring in new water into the lake.

"It can be a water-intensive process. That's what we're making sure we're figuring out. There are folks out there that say they can extract lithium without depleting water. If that’s the case, wonderful," Stireman told FOX 13 News. "But we got to make sure that as water goes out and lithium is taken in, it doesn’t harm the lake somehow."

The proposed rule also dangles a sort-of "lithium carrot" in front of companies by essentially allowing them to pay less royalties to the state for less water use, Stireman said.

Mineral extraction companies that work on the Great Salt Lake said they are evaluating the rule and plan to offer feedback to the state before the rule is formally adopted.

"As a long-standing operator on the Great Salt Lake with well-established plans to extract lithium salts as a co-product of our existing mineral streams, we are carefully evaluating the draft rule proposal," Compass Minerals told FOX 13 News in a statement. "We look forward to continued engagement with the State of Utah in an effort to ensure a final rule is fair and reasonable for both the state and for invested stakeholders like Compass Minerals."

U.S. Magnesium said at first glance, its existing mineral leases with the state will not be significantly impacted. But the company's technical services director, Tom Tripp, cautioned it was still early and the company was reviewing the 37-page proposal.

"We've been there for 50 years. We think we’ve been good stewards both economically, ecologically and environmentally on the lake. It’s really complex," Tripp told FOX 13 News. "From our view, it could be from nearly no effect at all to sea change. It could be significant changes."

Environmental groups are also evaluating the proposed rule change and are expected to offer comment.

"I'm encouraged by the state’s emphasis on emergent technologies that minimize or avoid water consumption, but we can’t take extractors claims that their practices will be truly 'nonconsumptive' at face value. They need to share their proprietary info and it needs to be publicly vetted," said Chandler Rosenberg, the deputy director of the Great Basin Water Network.

Rosenberg said enforcement will be critical, also impacts to the lake's biota and how the state will determine if and when there's water "available" in a dying water body.

If there are no substantial changes to the administrative rules by the end of a public comment period, it would go into effect early next year.

"The Great Salt Lake is absolutely one of the most important things we work on right now," Stireman said. "So we want to make sure we’re not degrading the lake by extracting lithium."

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake—and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.