On Monday, November 13, Governor Sanders announced that Exxon would begin lithium extraction in South Arkansas. She touted this as an unequivocal good for the region: it would bring much-needed jobs to the area and was another example of just how good her policies are for the state’s economy.
We’re not so sure about all this. We don’t have a lot of information yet, but here’s some concerns and questions we have about the announcement. You can find a short twitter thread with these questions and concerns here.
- It would bring jobs to the area and jobs are sorely needed in South Arkansas. However, it’s not clear what kind of jobs would come. Are these jobs South Arkansans want and are qualified for, or would Exxon need to bring in external workers to accomplish the work? Are these the kind of steady, long term jobs needed to help the region, or are these short-term contracting jobs that will dry up once the needed infrastructure is in place? Not all jobs are created equal when it comes to long-term economic growth. South Arkansans need guarantees that their hard work will be rewarded.
- What are the broader benefits to the state? Sanders just slashed corporate tax rates, which Exxon probably likes. But this is the rare opportunity to make a deal that only Arkansas can make and that could put money back into the whole state. This isn’t an Amazon fulfillment center or Apple tech park that can go pretty much anywhere in the country. The lithium is here, and the lithium can’t move. Exxon has to come to us, so why can’t we make a better deal for Arkansas, charge them a little more in taxes, and use that money to benefit the entire state? This strikes us as a missed opportunity and another way Sanders can put money into the pockets of her wealthy friends while leaving hard-working Arkansans further behind.
- What are the environmental impacts here? This question is difficult to answer at this point. Normal lithium extraction is quite environmentally damaging; it often involves treating brine containing lithium with sulfuric acid and letting the liquid evaporate in open pools, leaving lithium behind. Exxon stated that they’d use something called “direct lithium extraction.” There are several versions of this process, but we don’t yet know what Exxon will use. All of them have different environmental impacts, some more severe than others. The key here will be regulation and monitoring, but we have serious concerns here. The Division of Environmental Quality may not have capacity for this kind of continuous monitoring and the state’s friendliness to oil and gas makes us worried that up-front regulations to protect the environment and people of South Arkansas will be lacking at best. For more on other lithium environmental impacts, see this two-part series from the Arkansas Advocate here and here.
- Why is Sarah Sanders taking credit for Asa Hutchinson’s hard work? This is frankly egregious. Hutchinson has been courting the lithium industry since at least 2020. It’s just another example of her stomping-stone strategy: use up everything Arkansas has to offer in her quest for national office. Arkansans shouldn’t stand for this. We deserve someone who invests in Arkansas, not uses us.
This could be great for Arkansas, and we want to acknowledge that. We’re willing to give credit where it’s due. But statements like “I’m cutting taxes and regulatory red tape to make extraction easier” don’t fill us with confidence. We’re watching this closely.