Could Wastewater from Marcellus Drilling Aid the Clean Energy Transition?

A new study says wastewater from Marcellus gas production in Pennsylvania could be a significant domestic source of lithium—an element vital to the clean energy transition. But it is not a reason to expand or prolong gas production.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory has estimated that there’s enough lithium in the wastewater that’s brought to the surface during gas production in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale to meet up to 40% of current domestic consumption.

Is lithium extraction from Marcellus production the next potential critical element play in Pennsylvania? To answer that question, we need to look at the larger context—and the study itself.

Lithium is critical to battery technology and the clean energy transition. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the world is facing a shortage of the element and other critical materials. Lithium demand could grow to 13 times current levels by 2040, with projected supply meeting less than half of that demand.

Creating a strong domestic battery manufacturing industry and supply chain is strategically important to decarbonizing the U.S. electricity grid and the competitiveness of the nation’s auto industry in the transition to EVs. Currently, the U.S. imports more than 50% of the lithium we consume—mostly from Chile and Argentina. And U.S. lithium-ion battery imports—mostly from China—hit a record high in 2023.

Noting that the global lithium battery market is expected to grow by a factor of 5 to 10 in the next decade, the Biden Administration’s National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries established the goal that by 2030, the United States and its partners will establish a secure supply chain for battery materials and technology. The Biden Administration is investing heavily in domestic battery production and grid storage technologies through the Inflation Reduction Act, and in May announced significant tariffs on a number of Chinese imports, including batteries, battery components, and critical minerals.

Now, to the study. There are at least four caveats to consider.

First, NETL’s calculated lithium yield can only be achieved if all Marcellus wastewater statewide is treated and 100% of the lithium is recovered. The NETL paper didn’t discuss extraction technology, availability, logistics, or possible environmental impacts. However, last year, a Pennsylvania company announced that it had successfully extracted lithium from Marcellus PW with a recovery rate of “up to 90%.”

Second, the cost-competitiveness of PW extraction technology applied at this scale is undefined. Lithium can be extracted from certain groundwater resources (for much the same reason it can from PW). Geothermal brines are another potential source that is likely to see increased development. And while lithium mining has severe environmental impacts and raises justice issues, there are about 100 lithium mine projects planned across the U.S.   

Third, while lithium-ion batteries are currently the state of the art for energy storage (especially for EVs), that could change rapidly—for applications like grid storage and industrial uses, at least. A variety of alternative battery technologies are in some stage of development, including CO2 and thermal batteries.

Fourth—and most importantly—the NETL report ignores climate change. It says:

Sustainable production of (lithium) at volumes reported in this manuscript require continuous addition of new Marcellus wells to supplant older, less productive wells…The USGS estimate of…undiscovered gas in the Marcellus suggests the production lifetime of the formation will exceed several more decades…It seems clear that Marcellus Shale PW has the capacity to provide significant (lithium) yields for the foreseeable future.

Expanded drilling and continued use of gas “for the foreseeable future” flies in the face of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C. And current national policy.

And reality. 

The domestic energy market has moved to renewables and storage and storage. The long term future of gas exports is questionable for both oversupply and regulatory reasons as the EU imposes methane emissions limits on Europe’s gas imports. And expanded drilling ignores the risks of drilling to public health.

The possible extraction of lithium from Marcellus wastewater could provide near term benefits, but it is not a reason to prolong—much less expand—gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

John Quigley

Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center
John Quigley is a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center and previously served on the Center’s Advisory Board. He served as Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection and of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.