OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: The run on lithium demands Arkansas protect itself, its residents

undisclosed lithium drilling site in Columbia County (Photo Contributed by Exxon Mobil)
undisclosed lithium drilling site in Columbia County (Photo Contributed by Exxon Mobil)

"History is a vast early warning system."

-- Norman Cousins

I'm so old I can remember the gas flares lighting up the night along the road between Magnolia and El Dorado. Burning off gas seemed a horrid waste of energy, and it was. It was stinky, too, and we'd tease the dog, or each other, of being the odoriferous source. Saltwater brine often belched out of the drilling pipes, and it and other chemicals were just drained off the well sites into the woods, killing the trees and soil it touched.

Those were oil and gas boom days for those lucky to own a piece of the action in south Arkansas. But as the decades have passed so has the gas -- and oil -- in comparison to the production of those early years. Flaring and saltwater dumping are now against most environmental regulations.

Irony being what it is, however, old trash is now the new treasure. There's lithium in that brine. Who knew? It took humans a while to realize dead trees and poisoned creeks were warnings that toxic earth juice, potent enough to yield bromine and lithium, should be handled with care. Now brine is getting overdue respect because it contains the key ingredient needed for lithium batteries, which furnish the go power of electric vehicles.

Early in life, traveling to see one grandmother in Magnolia and another in Lewisville, in neighboring Columbia and Lafayette counties, I became familiar with the consequences extractive industries can have on land and people. Those counties are now in the crosshairs of the latest economic boom to come around again to south Arkansas.

Ablemarle, Exxon and Standard Lithium (which is connected to Koch Industries' lithium extraction technology) seem to be the major players so far. However, reports about their investments are confusing. While they have purchased land for facilities, frequently some accounts have stated that thousands of acres have been bought by these companies. Actually Exxon, as one example, has leased approximately 120,000 mineral acres. They have not bought thousands of acres of surface land. Instead, they are paying to lease mineral rights from owners in order to extract the owners' mineral shares underground on particular pieces of property.

Land surface ownership and underground mineral rights are severed and are separately deeded properties. Surface owners may own all, some or none of the minerals under their land. In Arkansas, the Oil and Gas Commission states: "... The mineral rights are dominant over the surface rights, and state law requires the surface owner allow a reasonable portion of their land to be utilized for drilling and production."

Since these south Arkansas piney woods and bayous are my ancestral stomping grounds, I feel especially protective and cautious about what happens there. Koch Industries' activities have a long controversial history, including an Arkansas example in Crossett. See: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/a-whistle-blower-accuses-the-kochs-of-poisoning-an-arkansas-town, and Exxon chose to conceal its own scientists' research showing fossil fuel emissions would lead to global warming. See https://www.wsj.com/business/energy-oil/exxon-climate-change-documents-e2e9e6af

The history of their industrial behavior of environmental injustice does not instill much comfort. Neither does knowing that hundreds of pipes yet again will be piercing the earth, maybe safely passing fresh water aquifers, but maybe not, and maybe never corroding or breaking, but maybe they will. Well pumps will be sucking up and stuffing back down toxic liquids that could ruin everything on and under the land. Or, of course, the lithium could enrich the area with jobs and economic opportunity and run a few million EVs. Either is a huge gamble for Arkansas.

At the Oil & Gas Commission meeting on Dec. 5, commissioners should not compromise on existing regulations, as the governor has implied might happen, and instead develop stronger protective regs. Hopefully they'll let competition rule what royalty interests are paid so minerals owners can negotiate instead of accept what an industry grants them. Also, wide spacing between wells and strict limitations for drilling pads to protect surface owners should all be improved. And Arkies need to ditch our inferiority complex, be vigilant, and demand only the best for our state from these giant extraction companies.

This dense brine is in Arkansas. We should be able to name our price and our terms and accept no trade-offs or injustice to our environment or to our citizens.

"If we do not learn from history, we shall be compelled to relive it. True. But if we do not change the future, we shall be compelled to endure it. And that could be worse." -- Alvin Toffler, American writer, futurist and businessman