Nov 14, 2023 - News

ExxonMobil taps Arkansas for lithium play

Illustration of an oil barrel with a positive and negative sign on either end, like a battery.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

ExxonMobil on Monday confirmed it will drill for lithium in south Arkansas, making use of rights in Lafayette and Columbia counties it bought in May for a reported $100 million.

Why it matters: Most lithium comes from abroad. Development of an extraction industry from the Smackover Formation could be an economic boon for south Arkansas and help the U.S. become more energy independent.

The big picture: It comes at a time when EVs are becoming a major focus for automakers, even in the face of operational and political headwinds, Axios' Ben Geman writes.

Details: ExxonMobil's plan calls for separating lithium from groundwater and processing to battery-grade material on-site. The salty water will then be returned to the formation — a more environmentally friendly way to cultivate the mineral than strip or evaporative mining.

  • Production is planned for 2027, and by 2030 the company said it will provide enough lithium for one million EVs annually.
  • For a sense of scale, this year U.S. EV sales topped 1 million annually for the first time.
  • The announcement calls ongoing work in Arkansas the "first phase" of North American production.
  • The product will be branded "Mobil Lithium," which Exxon calls a shoutout to Mobil's history with the auto sector.

Exxon didn't provide the estimated investment size.

State of play: At least four projects in various stages are underway in southwest Arkansas headed by Canadian company Standard Lithium (SLI), which also does exploration drilling in east Texas.

  • A preliminary feasibility study this summer said it would cost SLI $1.27 billion to build a new plant near Magnolia (the town nearest to Exxon's site).
  • Yes, but: SLI's high estimate for that plant was 35,000 tons of lithium annually. The Wall Street Journal reported the planned Exxon plant will produce 75,000-100,000 tons per year.

What they're saying: Patrick Howarth, ExxonMobil's lithium global business manager, wouldn't speculate on the plant's eventual capacity. The company is focusing on drilling for its supply, he told Axios.

  • Building those wells and an infrastructure will help determine its size, the number of jobs to be created and production capacity.
  • Arkansas didn't provide the company any tax incentives, he said.
  • The promise of a rich lithium concentration in the Smackover and a workforce with a background in drilling attracted ExxonMobil to the area, Howarth said.

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