Spearsville Mayor Karen Black seldom gets three phone calls a month from people looking to invest in her quiet corner of Northeast Louisiana, so when she recently received three such calls in a single afternoon she said she knew something was up.
“Someone called about economic development in the area, then someone who wanted to purchase some land called, and a few minutes later a person who lives somewhere else called about developing property they had inherited,” Mayor Black said. “I didn’t know what was really on their minds, but whatever it was, it didn’t feel like a coincidence.”
That was two weeks ago, and since then Black has learned a lot about lithium.
That’s because one of the largest concentrations of lithium in North America, the key component of long-lasting batteries critical to the future of electric vehicle production, passes directly beneath the town of Spearsville, and just weeks before she began receiving calls, the lithium landscape in the U.S. changed dramatically.
The Smackover Formation, a limestone aquifer that fueled the North Louisiana and South Arkansas oil booms during the first half of the 1900s, spans from Texas to Florida and the saltwater brine it contains is rich in lithium. While it still supports some productive wells, the Smackover’s oil and gas heyday ended long ago, and today is better known for being the only source of commercial bromine in the U.S.
While lithium has been a highly sought after element for more than three decades, extracting it from saltwater involves a time-consuming evaporation process that made the Smackover less attractive than formations in Chile, China and Australia where the lithium concentrations are the highest in the world.
Motivated by the growth of the electric vehicle market and the recognition that the U.S. is far too dependent on foreign sources of rare minerals, mining companies have been developing more efficient lithium extraction technologies and are optimistic that a breakthrough is close enough to justify massive investments in domestic lithium production.
The Wall Street Journal reported in May that Exxon spent more than $100 million on 120,000 acres near Magnolia, AR. Two other companies – Standard Lithium and Tetra Technologies – have also announced their intentions to build capacity in the area.
All of which is great for southern Arkansas, but how does Northeast Louisiana fit into the picture?
While the Smackover formation is hundreds of miles wide, with its northern edge near Pine Bluff and its southern edge just north of Baton Rouge, companies are focusing on a sixty-mile-wide swath where the lithium concentration is highest. That ribbon begins in Northeast Texas, travels east entirely within the border of Arkansas to about El Edorado where it turns southeast, and the entire sixty-mile target area passes right through Union, Morehouse and East and West Carroll parishes, four of the most rural parishes in the state where undeveloped land is cheap and plentiful.
That fact has Mayor Black both excited and concerned.
“There’s a lot of land up here that has been in families for a long time,” Black said. “and those families are not necessarily wealthy. That land is all some of them have. The possibility that it could become very valuable to some company looking to pay good money for mineral rights is very exciting. On other hand, if people aren’t aware of what might be coming, they could be taken advantage of and sell the property or the mineral rights too cheap.”
Elle Baker, economic development director for the Greater Magnolia Parkway Chamber of Commerce, has been deeply involved with preparing her community for the coming windfall, which could mean as many as 6,000 new jobs and dramatic increases in property values around Magnolia.
“Nothing is certain,” she said. “The whole thing could begin and end right here in our area. But, I’ll tell you the same thing I told my own mother,” Baker said. “If you have property within that critical area and you aren’t desperate for the money right now, do not sell it. Down the road it could be worth more than you ever imagined.”