ENVIRONMENT

Compass Minerals to halt Great Salt Lake lithium project, at least for now

Nov 9, 2023, 12:09 PM | Updated: Jan 17, 2024, 1:28 pm

great salt lake shoreline...

New rules are in place to protect Great Salt Lake. (Adam Small/KSL NewsRadio)

(Adam Small/KSL NewsRadio)

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 history and the plight of the Great Salt Lake.

WEBER COUNTY, Utah — Compass Minerals will halt a planned lithium operation at its western Weber County facility that has drawn intense scrutiny and criticism from state officials stemming from its potential impact on the Great Salt Lake.

The firm announced ambitious plans last year to tap the Great Salt Lake for lithium, a key ingredient needed in the growing market for lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles. It had reached a deal with Ford Motor Co. to supply the automotive giant with Utah lithium and was in talks with South Korea’s LG Energy Solution, a global supplier of lithium-ion batteries.

The plans have come under intense scrutiny from Utah regulators and officials, however, as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune. Compass, in response, said in a press release that it will put the plans on ice, at least for now. Instead, it will keep its focus on its other operations here that tap the mineral salts in the Great Salt Lake, including fertilizer production.

“As we continue to engage in productive discussions with the state of Utah, I’m hopeful that we will be able to chart a path forward that will allow (lithium) to be responsibly developed for the great benefit of all stakeholders, including the state,” Compass Chief Executive Officer Kevin Crutchfield said in a statement. “Until we have that regulatory certainty, however, we will be suspending this project indefinitely and focusing our efforts on continuing to maximize the performance of our high-quality salt, plant nutrition and emerging fire retardant businesses.”

Among other things, Utah officials worry about the amount of water Compass would need for its lithium plans as the Great Salt Lake level hovers well below normal.

The Compass press release, issued last Thursday, singled out passage of House Bill 513 earlier this year during the Utah legislative session for its shift in plans. The measure, as described by Alliance for a Better Utah, forces mineral extraction companies to minimize use of Great Salt Lake water and to resupply the lake to compensate for water used. Such companies also must pay royalties and a severance tax to a fund meant to benefit the lake, according to the Alliance, a progressive nonprofit policy group.

Compass, meanwhile, said H.B. 513 creates new obstacles in its development plans. The new law and subsequent moves to craft rules in response to the legislation have “introduced a significant amount of uncertainty” to the regulatory environment governing lithium production, Compass said.

Compass also cited proposed rules that came out of H.B. 513 that were put forward last month by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, or FFSL. The proposed changes introduce “new obstacles to lithium salt production on the Great Salt Lake that have slowed progress and will require resolution prior to Compass Minerals proceeding further,” Compass said.

Compass’ reservations notwithstanding, FFSL Deputy Director of Lands and Minerals Ben Stireman last month singled out the potential impact of lithium extraction in seeking feedback on the proposed rules that came out of H.B. 513.

“Extracting lithium from Great Salt Lake is a unique economic opportunity for the state of Utah,” Stireman said. “However, we must engage in this process responsibly and not to the detriment of Great Salt Lake.”

The proposed rules, the Oct. 13 announcement went on, are meant to make sure the lake “is not degraded in the process” of mineral extraction.

According to a Salt Lake Tribune story in August, Stireman said Compass hadn’t reached any sort of agreement with Utah officials to extract lithium. Scott Paxman, a member of the Legislative Water Development Commission, said Compass’ lithium plans would require a “significant” amount of lake brine and treated water, the publication said.

Compass had predicted the lithium project along the Great Salt Lake would produce 11,000 metric tons of the substance by 2025 and up to 35,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate a year when at capacity. It estimates the lake contains 2.4 million metric tons of the resource.

Compass’ plans will only go forward when the “evolving regulatory climate” in Utah shifts to allow the firm to pursue the project as it envisions. The firm also said it won’t tap common equity for the operation, instead seeking outside investors.

Compass Minerals’ Weber County facility, located off 10500 West in the extreme western reaches of the county, has more traditionally been know for its production of fertilizers tapping the minerals of the Great Salt Lake. The firm is headquartered at Overland Park, Kansas.

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Compass Minerals to halt Great Salt Lake lithium project, at least for now