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The state lawmaker all in on lithium- POLITICO

Eduardo Garcia is all in on lithium. As a state lawmaker representing some of California’s poorest and most polluted areas, he’s become a leading advocate for lithium recovery from the Salton Sea, a highly saline inland body of water in his Imperial Valley district.

The region is a hotbed for geothermal energy production, and the process of extracting lithium from naturally occurring geothermal brine could be the cleanest method yet of capturing the critical mineral. The process uses less water and needs less land than other forms of lithium extraction. The state projects the Salton Sea could hold enough lithium to supply current global demand—and demand is only projected to rise during the green transition.

Ace industry and the state government take notice of the potential, Garcia, a Democrat, sees economic opportunity. At the same time, he knows there’s a lot on the line to get this right for the region.

Residents living near the Salton Sea have been suffering from environmental and health hazards and poor economic conditions for decades. So he’s focused on a more holistic approach that includes revitalizing the region with workforce training, educational opportunities and jobs.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How far along are lithium recovery proposals? When do you think we can actually see lithium being taken out of the Salton Sea at commercial scale?

I think we’re about a year away, perhaps even sooner. What we are focused on is establishing the regulatory framework at the state level. For us, what’s important is that we ultimately ensure that there is a direct benefit to the communities in and around the Salton Sea regardless of how the lithium recovery process is undertaken, whether it be a year from now or a year and a half from now .

On a personal level, why have you taken such interest in the issue of lithium recovery in the Salton Sea?

I was born and raised in the community of Coachella, grew up going out to the Salton Sea as a kid to recreate. Salton Sea has always been an issue in my time as an elected official. We started talking about the need to integrate renewable energy, including geothermal baseload, and in the process, identified the abundance of minerals recovered in geothermal energy production. And the conversation of lithium as it relates to California’s renewable energy goals and electric vehicle goals, it made a lot of sense for us to home in that area.

For me, it’s personal in terms of seeing this come to fruition. My family and my parents are from Imperial Valley, and for us this isn’t just a legislative project or a priority, this is something that could be very transformational for the region, the state and quite frankly for the nation. The Biden administration is looking at this through the lens of national security, independence from foreign interference when it comes to domestic products and minerals being produced like lithium.

You said you want to move fast here. Is there any risk in moving too fast? What do you want to make sure you get right, and is there anything that keeps you up at night worrying you could get wrong?

I’ll start with this. We have a very urgent crisis in front of us, and that’s to ensure the lights in California stay on. So integrating reliable energy sources is critical. When I say we need to move faster, it’s the issue of energy reliability in California. We have a great opportunity to bring about energy reliability and move the agenda forward as it relates to electrification of our transportation.

What do we need to be cautious about? We don’t want to create adversarial situations as it relates to the environmental circumstances that already exist.

Everything that we’ve analyzed points to that not being the case, that we are in a position to see some of the cleanest, greenest lithium recovery processes to take place in our region when you compare to what happens in China, Chile, Australia, other parts of the world and that’s because it’s a secondary byproduct of something already happening.

California has the strongest environmental labor standards, water standards, air quality standards, so we will abide by all of those benchmarks that are in statute as we speak.

We also have a moral responsibility to contribute to the transformation of the long-standing economic conditions of this region, and it’s plagued this area for decades. Highest unemployment rates in the state of California. Unemployment in Imperial County is the lowest I’ve seen in my time in the Legislature. It’s at 11.7 percent. But we’ve seen 28 percent unemployment in Imperial County in the past. So we’re making some strides out there in terms of the types of investments that have been coming to Imperial County the last few years.

Can you elaborate more on the workforce opportunities you envision?

We want to make sure that the jobs that are generated in that area are Imperial Valley residents first. We want to make sure we have all the essential partners at the table to be able to train these individuals who will be working in these industries.

Are there any states or regions that you are viewing as competitors here you would like to get ahead of?

No one in the country has the abundance of resources that we have to meet the objectives of this nation and this state. What we want to get ahead of is the ability to convey that we are ready to go and that the state of California is truly committed to this effort. That’s the race that’s in front of us. why? We want to be a leader when it comes to this effort, as is the case for other climate change renewable energy policies that we’ve adopted in the past.

How are you balancing the concerns of tribes, environmentalists with the potential economic benefits of this lithium recovery effort?

Tribes, environmentalists, community-based organizations have been at the table since day one raising questions, expressing concerns and often coming up with solutions. Along the way there have been a series of community outreach efforts for additional input. There is certainly more that can potentially be done. I feel good about how from the very onset there’s been participation from all these groups that are essential to what ultimately happens in this area.

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