Sanders appears with officials from the state and ExxonMobil.

Energy giant ExxonMobil is getting into the lithium business, and they’re about to start drilling from a 10,000-foot deep well in south Arkansas.

The Wall Street Journal reported in July that Exxon planned to build a huge lithium processing facility near Magnolia and had acquired some 100,000 acres for the endeavor in Columbia County. Now those plans are about to become tangible. Patrick Howarth, an Exxon executive, joined Gov. Sarah Sanders and a slew of other state leaders this morning to announce the company will soon drill its first well to extract lithium-rich brine from the underground “Smackover formation” in south Arkansas.

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Even if you’re not entirely sure what lithium is, there’s a good chance you carry some around with you every day. The soft, silvery metal is a key material in batteries powering devices from phones and wristwatches to electric vehicles and pacemakers. As electric vehicles and other battery-powered technologies become more widely used, the demand for lithium is expected to increase.

Howarth said Exxon’s facility will use modern processing techniques with a “significant lower environmental impact” than traditional lithium mining operations. The only active lithium mine in the U.S. is in Nevada, and concerns over the potential environmental toll of mining operations have hindered further development in Western states. The world urgently needs more lithium, Howarth said. 

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Extracting lithium from subterranean brine isn’t a new idea, but it has never been done on the scale Exxon is planning. The New York Times reports some energy experts warn the extraction technology is still untested at scale.

After harvesting the lithium, the rest of the brine would be injected back underground. Exxon shared few other details about how the lithium will be processed. Though drilling is about to begin, the company doesn’t expect to actually produce usable lithium until 2027.

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“By 2030, ExxonMobil aims to be producing enough lithium to supply the manufacturing needs of well over a million EVs per year,” it said in a press release. “Discussions with potential customers, including EV and battery manufacturers, are ongoing.”

Columbia County Judge Doug Fields said the opportunity would be a “pick me up” for the area. He and other residents of south Arkansas were ready to face the positive results or the potential challenges ahead, he said.

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Sanders spoke optimistically about the development. If Exxon’s lithium operation works out, she said, expect to see wells all over Arkansas.

The economic impact could last decades, Sanders said. Clint O’Neal of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission predicted businesses will flock to the state after ExxonMobil gets to work.

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Officials at the press conference claimed Arkansas could produce 15% of the world’s lithium supply, according to projections.

Despite Republican skepticism about climate change and green technology generally, both Sanders and Arkansas’s all-GOP congressional delegation spoke glowingly today about Exxon’s plans. Sanders said she “supports an all-of-the-above energy strategy that guarantees good, high-paying jobs for Arkansans” in a press release today.

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“Southwest Arkansas has the capabilities to be a leader on the global stage for lithium production,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman. “Investments like ExxonMobil’s will position the Natural State to play an active role in easing our dependence on our foreign adversaries for this mineral, which plays a major role in much of our daily lives. This announcement has the opportunity to bolster our state’s lithium sector, ushering in new jobs for Arkansans and a broad economic impact on the 4th District.”