‘The Poland of northeast Asia’: Mongolia’s lithium frontier


A truck at the vast Oyu Tolgoi mine near the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia. PHOTO/Rio Tinto.

With its heavy dependence on the extractive industry, facilitated by a powerful mining lobby, Mongolia is quickly resembling what Naomi Klein has described as an environmental sacrifice zone.

The country’s generous corporate tax breaks and policies that are increasingly friendly toward foreign enterprises have encouraged North American companies to freely capitalize on Mongolia’s mineral resources.

Most recently, Mongolia’s giant copper and gold mine, Oyu Tolgoi, has been in industry headlines for the massive underground expansion that is now underway, a move that has faced few critiques in the international press or from environmental groups. The project is the largest financial undertaking in Mongolia’s history.

But apart from its more well-known deposits of coal, copper and gold, Mongolia is becoming a frontier for lithium exploration and extraction.

Global demand for lithium is increasing due to its use in lithium-ion batteries and other components for electric vehicles, light-rail trains, and personal electronic devices such as Apple’s iPhone, and has long been on the market as a “mood stabilizer” in the pharmaceutical industry. Industry publications expect lithium stores to triple by 2025 and prices to rise significantly as electric vehicles become more popular.

The rare-earth mineral also has significant military uses in unmanned vehicles and for large energy storage systems, such as earlier versions developed by Lockheed Martin for AECOM, Northrop Grumman’s lithium-ion battery for use on nuclear submarines, or, more recently, the “nearly invincible” battery developed by the US Army Research Laboratory. The lithium isotope Li-7, which is a by-product of refining natural lithium, also has potential use in producing tritium for thermonuclear weapons. In recent years, the US Government Accountability Office notably remarked that it was concerned with domestic Li-7 supply.

The popular argument that lithium is necessary to transition vehicles away from fossil fuels—and coal-reliant countries away from dependency on coal—usually doesn’t go deeper to critique the influence of Canadian and US companies on economic priorities and policies in those countries with substantial lithium deposits.

For at least two decades, mineral prospecting in Mongolia, and across Central Asia, has gone hand-in-hand with neoliberal policy intervention, and the looming lithium boom signals that this will only intensify.

“First-movers in the region”

With confirmed reserves of at least 203,000 tonnes of lithium, Mongolia is among the world’s most significant prospective sources of the rare-earth mineral. Confirmed lithium deposits are largely concentrated in southeastern Mongolia, closer to Chinese projects like Baotou in Inner Mongolia. Surveying is ongoing in western salt lakes, like Hyargas Noor, where Mongolia also harbours deposits of uranium.

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