EL CENTRO — Imperial County Supervisor Ryan Kelley moderated the latest Lithium Workshop Tuesday, July 20, at the County Administration Board Chambers with a handful of industry leaders, activists, elected officials, county staff, and media present.
A lithium reality is still in the far distance, according to many who participated in the partially Zoom and partially present meeting. Permitting is still being sought along with California Environmental Quality Assurance (CEQA), which discloses to the public the significant environmental effects of a proposed project. The developers need to seek federal environmental clearances also.
The developers, Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR), EnergySource, and Berkshire Hathaway, plan to build geothermal plants or use existing structures to extract lithium.
According to each of the companies, help with government permits — that is, shortening excessive time frames, creating enterprise zones that free up paperwork and costly delays, and public and private infrastructure projects — would make the projects more feasible and profitable.
Berkshire Hathaway spent $7 million over 17 months on permitting costs, Jonathan Weisgall of Berkshire Hathaway Energy said in explaining why help with permits is vital for the industry.
“Getting an enterprise zone would be good for attracting battery manufactures next to the lithium plants,” Rod Colwell, CEO of CTR, told the room. “We’ve already lost two or three battery plants that have pulled out.”
Much talk centered around infrastructure.
Planning and Development Services Director Jim Minnick, spoke about getting broadband and fiber out to the plant locations and the logistics of bringing potable water and a wastewater system to the remote area.
John Gay, Imperial County Public Works director, said his department wants to be forward thinking and focus on important corridors. Roads must be paved and maintained.
“We have 2,200 miles of roads in the County, with half being unpaved. We have 130 bridges; half are wooden and mostly built during President Roosevelt’s Works Progress during the Great Depression. Fixing the roads and bridges would be a pretty heavy lift at this point,” he said.
Gay said that Imperial County is fifth out of 58 counties in the State for most road miles but is 36th out of 58 for receiving road funding.
The public and private funding would include the developers paying for part of the expenses, but the County would seek state and federal funds for its share. The trouble with federal funds, Gay said, were the delays. He said it took five years to get 1.5 miles fixed on Dogwood because of federal guidelines.
The other major discussion centered on educating the work force for technical jobs. Workforce Development Director Priscilla Lopez and Dr. Mark Wheeler of San Diego State University, Imperial Valley campus, said they were in discussion with industry leaders on skills needed.
“We have the money to create the training the industry needs. Tell us your needs, we will create the curriculum, and fund it. Solar didn’t produce jobs, but for mineral extraction workers, a higher education is needed.”
Dr. Wheeler, SDSU-IV dean, spoke about the Brawley campus and the plans to develop a full campus with a concentration on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to accommodate a needed high-skilled work force.