Western Australia is the world’s largest producer of lithium. So why is the federal Minister for Resources, Matt Canavan, attacking the industry?

The following tweet was delivered recently by Matt Canavan, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia. It is an old story that he passed on but is very revealing of a deeper anti-climate policy perspective. This response is designed to provide the background material on why there is no need for the “but” in the above sentence about the future of electric vehicles. 

The “but” was directed at the environmental impacts from lithium and is part of a widespread perspective being developed by incumbents in the fossil fuel and vehicle industries. They are using concerns about lithium battery minerals to try and stop the dramatic transition to removing oil-dependence from our cities and regions that is well underway. 

This response is very West Australian as lithium has become a daily discussion in the local WA media. WA is the world’s biggest producer of lithium and is about to become the world’s biggest producer of processed lithium. Huge investments are flowing into new mines and a new industrial plant that is, for the first time, processing lithium into battery grade material. We are in a lithium boom and Lithium Valley is emerging. 

The above photo is picturing a brine-based lithium mine in Chile. These salt lakes in the Andes are highly contentious sites for their ecological and local community impacts. The lithium produced was the main source for lithium as it began to rise as a source of battery minerals mostly in computers and mobile phones. 

The type of lithium in the brine lakes is lithium carbonate, which needs to be processed into lithium hydroxide before being suitable for batteries. This process has been done mostly in China but is now being shifted to places adjacent to where lithium is mined, including in Western Australia.  

Why is Lithium Mining shifting to Western Australia?

The reason for this shift is because it was discovered that lithium in the hard rock form called spodumene is easier to convert into lithium hydroxide than the brine-based lithium carbonate. The world’s battery manufacturers began moving away from brine to spodumene. 

The spodumene is also much more abundant and in far less controversial places than the Upper Andes brine lakes. As Western Australia already had a functioning lithium mine at Greenbushes and older ones in Leonora, the market began looking for more sites in the exposed crustal mining areas of WA. 

The demand for spodumene began to rapidly expand as the electric vehicle market accelerated in the post-Covid new economy based on net zero financing.  See the price of spodumene in the figure below from the AFR on 4 April 2022. 

The result of the growing price of spodumene is that WA now has four mines with the biggest in the world at Greenbushes; eight new mines are gearing up for production in various parts of WA where lithium has been found. WA now exports four megatonnes a year of spodumene and the latest figures show that we produce 49 per cent of the world’s lithium and Chile has dropped to 22 per cent. 

Is the environment better off with spodumene-mining instead of brine-mining of lithium? 

It clearly is because the impacts are much less when mining is conducted away from water that is used by people for many other things. It’s also a very small operation in the spodumene mines. For example, the world’s biggest lithium mine at Green Bushes produces two megatonnes a year, but by any comparison with mines like iron ore or bauxite it is a boutique operation. WA produces 800 megatonnes of iron ore each year. The photo below shows the Greenbushes mine which is adjacent to the south-west forest and the nearby town of Greenbushes. 

The regulatory processes for mining, processing and transporting minerals in WA are well developed and applied through the Environmental Protection Authority. 

They must adhere to international best practices or the projects are not approved. The Chamber of Minerals and Energy supports this process. The recent destruction of the Juukan cave in the Pilbara was a part of the Indigenous heritage process and led to the dismissal of the chief executive involved and to a new Indigenous Heritage Act. Social licence is a high priority in the mining industry in WA. 

Does WA process the spodumene into lithium hydroxide? 

Traditionally WA has not been processing its minerals but recent trends would suggest that this is changing, especially in the lithium arena. WA has three new lithium processing plants that are processing LiOH to 99.99 per cent purity; when all fully operating, they will provide the second highest amount of battery-level lithium in the world. 

These plants have been developed by |US, Chilean and Chinese companies as they can see the market rapidly emerging and depending on sources from WA. The future is moving rapidly towards WA sources of lithium and LiOH becoming the dominant supply source (along with all other battery minerals including rare earths) and thus the geopolitics of supply chain issues are likely to be avoided.

What does the IPCC say about lithium battery minerals?

The recent IPCC Mitigation Report has an important box highlighting the importance of the critical minerals debate but is very reassuring that the resources and environmental issues can be handled as the world transitions to depending on such minerals. The report makes this conclusion:

“Dependence on lithium-ion battery metals will remain, which may be a concern from the perspective of resource availability and costs. 

“However, the demand for such metals is much lower than the reserves available, with many new mines starting up in response to the new market particularly in a diversity of places. Recycling batteries will significantly reduce long-term resource requirements. The standardisation of battery modules and packaging within and across vehicle platforms, as well as increased focus on design for recyclability are important. Many mobility manufacturers and governments are considering battery recycling issues to ensure the process is mainstreamed.”

Final words

Lithium-ion batteries are used in everything electrical now. They are ubiquitous. The LiB is the most significant advance in decarbonising the world, as it not only enables power to be solar and wind-based, it enables many things to be electric-charged instead of petrol or diesel-charged. 

In particular, electric vehicles of all kinds are critical to the future of cities and regions through: e-micromobility, e-cars, e-transit (like trackless trams), e-trucks, e-freight trains and e-farm machinery. 

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All these electric vehicle types are rapidly growing (e-micromobility at 17 per cent per year). They will need Western Australia to contribute heavily to the provision of the minerals necessary to make this transition away from oil happen. 

The myths concerning shortage of lithium and other critical minerals, their environmental impacts and difficulties in supply, are all being created by incumbent businesses and politicians who don’t want to see change. 

The tweet from the Australian Federal Minister for Resources is complete nonsense and highly irresponsible. 

Peter Newman, Curtin University

Professor Peter Newman AO is the professor of sustainability at Curtin University and the coordinating lead author for transport in the recent IPCC Mitigation Report. More by Peter Newman, Curtin University

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  1. Hi Peter, as a long time fan, I agree with almost all of your comments. I have to correct you about the photo though. [the photo has not been supplied by Peter, it is our fault entirely – ed] It is worse than what you noted. That photo is of Rio Tinto’s Diavik diamond mine in Northern Canada, so nothing to do with Lithium mining at all. Here is a link https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-Diavik-Diamond-Mine-is-located-on-East-Island-in-Lac-de-Gras-300-km-northeast-of_fig5_274656638. I also contend that while Lithum from Spodumene has its advantages, Lithium can be mined from brine without huge impacts if done to meet international best practices. For the amount of Lithium that we need for the electrification of everything in order to decarbonise, we will need Lithium from both sources. And of course, Lithium is used as part of the capital /infrastructure rather than being a fuel which is burnt once and then gone forever (like coal), which is another reason that the required quantities are so much lower.

    I’m surprised that you didn’t point out the hypocrisy of Matt Canavan being concerned about (perceived) damage to the environment from mining in the first place! Is this the first time he has ever raised such a concern?

    Keep up the great work

  2. Thank you for advocating for Western Australia, Peter Newman.
    The significance of spodumene should be made apparent to that National Party spalpeen, Canavan.