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Arkansas ‘Lithium Summit’ draws officials, business leaders to discuss nascent industry

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Arkansas ‘Lithium Summit’ draws officials, business leaders to discuss nascent industry

Feb 15, 2024 | 6:52 pm ET
By Paige Eickhorn
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Arkansas ‘Lithium Summit’ draws officials, business leaders to discuss nascent industry
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Standard Lithium signage at offices on East Elm Street in downtown El Dorado. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate 02/28/2023)

State officials predicted Arkansas will be the nation’s next leader in lithium production at the inaugural Lithium Innovation Summit on Thursday at the Robinson Center in Little Rock.

State Commerce Secretary Hugh McDonald said Arkansas could provide as much as 15% of the world’s finished lithium once production ramps up. Companies like Standard Lithium, ExxonMobil, Albemarle and TETRA Technologies have made significant investments in the state and were sponsors of the summit.

“The sold out attendance at this summit is further evidence of the strong interest in lithium in the natural state,” McDonald concluded. “This is really our moment, as a step — change, improvement for the state of Arkansas and all Arkansans.”

About 700 energy sector executives, policymakers and key stakeholders attended Thursday’s sessions, according to a press release.

Arkansas’ role in lithium production is an outgrowth of its history as an oil-producing state. Standard Lithium and ExxonMobil have invested in processes to extract lithium from brine, a byproduct of oil drilling, in southern Arkansas.

Andrew Miller, chief executive of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, gave a presentation on how lithium-ion batteries are in high demand to meet the growing energy storage needs. Sourcing raw materials for these batteries is a current challenge. 

Miller explained that the United States has an opportunity to play a significant role in serving the battery industry, particularly in Arkansas. Raw materials are crucial for the electric vehicle industry, and access to materials like lithium will determine the competitiveness of automakers worldwide.

The lithium industry must scale by a factor of 10 by 2040 to meet 2050 net-zero economy goals, Miller added. 

Thankfully, the U.S. has seen significant growth in battery cell production since the introduction of the Inflation Reduction Act, with a 77% increase in capacity, he said.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders recognized the current manufacturing industry leaders of the “golden triangle,” in southern Arkansas, encompassing El Dorado, Magnolia and Camden.

“We all knew that towns like El Dorado and Smackover were built by oil and gas,” Sanders said. “But who knew that our quiet brine and bromine industry had the potential to change the world.”

She noted that the state has the right to be “bullish” on its lithium. 

“Frankly, we can do it cleaner here than it’s produced anywhere else in the world,” she explained. “No strip mining or huge evaporation ponds, just wells that extract brine straight out of the ground.”

Energy independence is “critical” Sanders added, as most lithium is currently traded overseas from America’s number-one adversary, communist China. 

Steady jobs are on the rise for Arkansans thanks to this developing industry, but Sanders recognized that “many hurdles” lie ahead.

“Arkansas is ahead of the curve, thanks to our existing state regulatory framework from the bromine industry,” she said.

The governor encouraged the invited energy companies at the summit to not only build wells in the state, but to make it their home.

“The future of this industry will cascade forward from the decisions that we make over the next few months and years right here,” she said. “I’m committed to making this an open and collaborative process, one that benefits businesses, workers and communities alike.”

U.S. Sen. John Boozman added that it will require a team effort between private and public sectors to “push innovation” and “oppose burdensome regulations.”

“I’m committed to supporting policies to enhance growth and development so we can reduce our dependence on foreign countries and strengthen our domestic supply chain,” he said. 

Boozman applauded Arkansas Tech University for announcing that it will offer a Bachelor of Science degree in geosciences to work on the discovery and extraction of vital elements like lithium.

“I’m so pleased to see the enthusiasm across the state to meet the demands of the industry,” he concluded. “I believe that our country has continued to invest in the future and I believe Arkansas is certainly the best place to do it.”

The summit will continue on Friday featuring speakers Shane Khoury, Arkansas secretary of energy and environment, Patrick Howarth of ExxonMobil, Robert Mintak of Standard Lithium, Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives Matthew Shepherd, Ward Wimbish of the Port of West Memphis and several leaders from state universities.