EnergySource’s Hudson Ranch 1 geothermal project near the Salton Sea is shown, where a lithium-recovery facility is also being developed. | ENERGYSOURCE PHOTO

Lithium Extraction: County Officials Look at Problems Facing Burgeoning Industry

What is preventing lithium projects from moving forward in Imperial County?

“The county of Imperial is not the problem,” said Tim Kelley, Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp. chief executive officer and president. “What’s not in alignment is the Fish and Game, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management.

“Every project that we’ve worked on here in Imperial County, when we dealt with the (California Environmental Quality Act) process, I don’t think it was way out of line in the amount of time that it took. But when we start dealing with these other agencies, is when there’s a real hindrance and it starts to slow down the process,” Kelley told the Imperial County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Jan. 12, during an update on local lithium-extraction projects in the pipeline.

The Salton Sea area is sitting atop millions of metric tons of lithium in the form of its geothermal brine, and for several years, companies, government officials, and agencies have been working to tap into that resource. There’s even a state commission, called the Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction, that is set to study the issues surrounding drawing the hard-to-mine mineral from areas near the Salton Sea.

District 4 county Supervisor Ryan Kelley is a member of the state commission.

“What’s in control of the county, we’re trying to see what we can do to address those, but I think that Blue Ribbon Commission is going to say that Imperial County is doing their part to get the planning process under control, so we can invite companies here to stay in California and come to the Imperial County. What is the state doing, and what is the federal government doing? I think that is the next step,” Tim Kelley explained. 

The economic development specialist has surveyed numerous companies to get feedback as to what is holding back some of their projects, and there was not a lot to criticize about the county, Tim Kelley said. The only feedback that critiqued staff was that the planning department is understaffed.

“They feel the staff are experienced, and effort is made to make the CEQA process as short as possible,” he said.

However, Tim Kelley continued, he wants more time to get more surveys back to provide a fuller picture of what issues the county could fix to promote development in the area.

“What we’re really looking for are solutions, and I think the developers are very positive about Imperial County,” he said. “They would like to see some improvements and they are willing to work with us to come up with some solutions so that we can work with the planning department.”

District 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar asked why only a few people were spearheading the initiative to bring lithium to the Imperial Valley, adding that he wants to bring in developers who will use lithium to build batteries and process the lithium.

“What the demand will be and where that demand is coming from should be an area we are fully engaged and attacking in order to bring that industry to our Valley and compliment the actual supply portion, which is geothermal,” Escobar said. “I don’t care who spearheads it. I think it should be more inclusive, not exclusive.”

IVEDC’s Kelley said the county first needs an idea as to what challenges there are to bringing the industry into the area, like a lack of trained workforce and permitting issues before it can start to market it to those types of companies. And that work is happening, he added. 

He added he hopes to have a finished report within the next few weeks with more inclusive data.

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