CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The state of Wyoming has already received four lithium lease applications after news of a major lithium find in Sweetwater County.
All four applications are from one company but are on hold, according to Ryan Lance, director of the Office of State Lands and Investments.
He said the State Board of Land Commissioners will develop a strategy on how to handle the leases because of the enormous potential value of the lithium find — estimated at $500 billion based on current market values.
The state board includes Gov. Matt Mead and the other four elected state officials.
The board's options include issuing leases on a first-come, first-served basis or via an auction.
Researchers at the University of Wyoming Carbon Management Institute found a vast new lithium resource near Rock Springs during work on a carbon dioxide storage site project, the university announced last week.
Lithium, a key component of batteries and electronic devices, has become highly sought after as nations -- including the United States -- transition to greener technologies. Wind, solar and smart grid technologies all employ lithium-ion batteries to store excess energy for later use, according to the university's media release issued last week.
Preliminary analyses of fluid samples collected from a well drilled on the Rock Springs Uplift suggested that reservoir brines from a 25 square-mile area of the uplift could contain 228,000 tons of lithium.
The samples were collected east of Rock Springs and slightly north of Point of Rocks in Sweetwater County.
Lance said there is a moratorium through 2014 on leasing any mineral from the state section where the well was drilled. It was imposed because state officials didn't know how the carbon dioxide project would affect adjacent operations.
The issue is the state rules on metallic and nonmetallic leases and forms say the first one who applies gets the lease. But the rules also say the State Board of Land Commissioners can decide to hold an auction or require bids for a lease or leases instead.
Right now, Lance said, his staff is "time stamping" applications so the priority list will be available if the board decides to lease first-come, first-served.
Lance said his office is proceeding cautiously on a find that is "potentially massive and lucrative."
He mentioned the board's constitutional obligation to obtain the maximum return to the beneficiaries of the state trust land, primarily Wyoming's public schools.
"We're talking about a $500 billion market price on that lithium and we of course have to be very cautious," he said. "We don't want to give it to anyone for a dollar."
Mead said the find was "tremendously good news" for Sweetwater County, the state and the nation.
Ron Surdam, director of the UW Carbon Management Institute, said this week that in addition to creating a new industry for Wyoming, the lithium discovery could produce enough money to offset the cost of creating the carbon storage space deep in the ground.
He said it would be far more difficult financially to develop the lithium without it being tied to the carbon storage project.
The briny water in the Rock Springs Uplift would have to be removed to allow CO2 storage. In the uplift's case, the water contains lithium.
A big cost in desalinating anything is pressurizing the brine solution. But in this case, Surdam said in a previous Star-Tribune story, the lithium-bearing solution is deep underground and already pressurized, so it can be more inexpensively treated.
Surdam said the southwest Wyoming location is fortunate because production of lithium from brines requires soda ash, which is abundant in Sweetwater County.
The storage site is located within 20 to 30 miles of the world's largest industrial soda ash supplies, so cost of delivery would be minimal.
"The way we look at it was looking at the whole suite of natural resources as a system and that basically what one would need to do is to integrate all these things so the sequestration would give you an opportunity to produce the lithium and fresh water," he said this week.
Surdam said staff working on the carbon storage were interested in designing a water treatment facility at the surface of the well as a source of revenue.
"We knew from the beginning of the project we would have to produce brines in order to make room for the CO2," he said.
Staff were concerned that producing the brines would be such a financial penalty, it would slow or stop the development of the carbon sequestration project.
"And that's why we were so excited about coming up with lithium as a potential project of the water treatment," Surdam said.