The 'white gold rush': Inside a lithium mine, where stores of recyclable energy lie

Lithium powers many of our devices as well as electric vehicles. Western states are believed to hold an immense amount of the metal and some say it could help the U.S. reach its climate goals.
7:54 | 04/23/21

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Transcript for The 'white gold rush': Inside a lithium mine, where stores of recyclable energy lie
Reporter: Over the vast valleys of Nevada, tucked away in the mojave desert, is the place that may just be the epicenter of the next gold rush. We're headed to Esmeralda county, about 3 1/2 hours northwest of Las Vegas, a county that doesn't have a gas station or a traffic light, but instead, a horizon that blends into crystal blue waters that eventually result in one of the most sought-out metals in the world, lithium. Here at solar peak, they're not mining rock, they're farming lithium. These brilliant blue pools come from wells that tap underground salt aquifers, each of them nearly 500 football fields long, rich in lithium. This quiet and desolate oasis is home to the element that powers our fast and loud world. It's critical to fight climate change and the source of our energy for electric vehicles, laptops, and cell phones. The lithium that helps to power our phones looks like this. You can see why it's sometimes called white gold. Between 2008 and 2018, annual global production of lithium more than tripled. Now by 2030, it's expected to go up more than 1,000%. Lithium production in the U.S. Is just tiny compared to Australia, South America, and China. More than half the world's lithium is produced in Chile. In Australia, they mine for it mostly in solid form. But at silver peak here in Nevada, it starts as a liquid. It's the lightest metal known to man. It's very energy dense. That reactivity in nature makes it hard to come by. What's happening here in this closed basin over tens of thousands of years is mother nature gradually bringing it into this valley. Like any other mineral that's extracted in a liquid form, you're going down anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand feet. Once the original well is drilled it goes through a series of ponds. They look beautiful. The sun and the arid nature of Nevada here takes care of the processing. 18 months later, lithium carbonate. That's Eric Norris. He and his company used the same process in Chile where they have another facility. And that is where most of the world's lithium is being produced. But this site, silver peak, is the only one in the united States commercially producing lithium right now. Seems like you're in the caribbean on vacation. Yes, in the caribbean in the middle of Nevada. In the middle of the Nevada desert. Reporter: He says these pools have been producing lithium since the 1960s. Can I touch the edge? It's saline. People would pay for this for a facial. How much do you all mine? Around the world, about 85,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate. Here, it's 5,000 of that 85,000. Small amount, which is why we're looking to double it. Does it have an agricultural or impact to the land surrounding? That water, untouched, would remain underground and wouldn't have a benefit. Effectively, we're not using water that would otherwise be used for an agricultural purpose. Reporter: Evaporation is not the only way, though, to get lithium out. When you mine it out of the rock, it can be harder on the Earth. Toxic waste, emissions, and pollution. But the government says we can regulate that. The signs are unmistakable. The science is undeniable. Pthe cost of inaction keeps the United States isn't waiting. We are resolving to take action. Today in a virtual summit, president Biden telling world leaders that he plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by at least half by the year 2030. When people talk about climate, I think jobs. Within our climate response lies an extraordinary engine of job creation and economic opportunity ready to be fired up. Reporter: During president trump's administration, there was a big call to up the ante, produce more minerals like lithium right here in the U.S. We've got it. California, for example, could produce up to 40% of the global lithium demand. So far, we have not been a big player in the lithium market. But that could change. We've just got to get the technology to extract what is estimated to be an immense around of lithium in the western U.S. It's not just Nevada or California, but it's Arizona too. Some of that's going to come from the thousands of acres at two giant lithium projects already planned in Nevada. One of them is just over rylight ridge. They could create $9 billion in revenue, but they're endangering a very rare wildflower. You can see here, this is teams buckwheat. We're getting the smallest new little leaves for spring growth. You said, as we walked in, please be careful are where we're walking. There are only 15,000 of these plants, more or less. Reporter: This varietal is not known to grow anywhere else in the world. The buckwheat adapted to that lithium-rich soil. Lithium is extremely important to tackling the climate crisis. If they could build this mine without destroying this wildflower, we'd walk away and find a gold mine to fight instead. Reporter: He's the director of the center for biological diversity. He says this is not going to be the same mine we saw at silver peak. This is an open-pit mine, more reminiscent of a gold or copper my opinion. Once the mine goes in, how long do they have? The mining company's own estimates are less than 10 years to strip mine this whole area. We're left with a big hole in the ground full of toxic pit lake water. We are going to put enormous effort to support this plant, and we're using the state-of-the-art methods to make sure that there's no leaching of any kind into the soils. Reporter: James Callaway, the chairman of the company overseeing that mine, says we've got to do it if we're going to catch up with our climate goals. We will have enable the production of 400,000 electric cars every year for the next 50 years. Reporter: It's a symbol of the debate between our energy future and our environment in the present. We're facing dual crises. There's the climate crisis, which poses a threat to all life on Earth. But then there's the extinction crisis. This is a species of flower that grows nowhere else on Earth but here. If this mine, which ostensibly is to prevent climate change from destroying the Earth, perpetuates the extinction crisis, are we really saving the environment? This is why I'm here. I got an electric vehicle because I wanted to be a part of a solution. Then I realized, wait a minute, I'm sitting on a giant battery that I don't know where it came from or where it's going to go. I've got to find out where lithium is and what it is. And to know that we only have one commercial mine in the United States right now, we are such a small player. But this will make a difference. It could. It could. Is it better for us to do it right here than to be getting our phones from lithium in Australia or China or south America, where we don't know that it's done right for our planet? We absolutely need to do it right. And right now, those impacts are being offshore to distant countries. Do we need to do it here in America? We need to ask hard questions, what sacrifices are we going to make? Our advocacy to protect this little wildflower does not mean we're trying to avoid those hard lithium is part of our future. We need to have a reckoning about how we're going to do it without destroying biodiversity. Our thanks to ginger.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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