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A Bigger Bang (Lance Turner Editor’s Note)

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It’s one of the most famous scenes in film history. An older man pulls college graduate Benjamin Braddock aside and says, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: Plastics … There’s a great future in plastics.”

I goofed on that scene from Mike Nichols’ 1967 classic “The Graduate” in a March 2018 email to Arkansas Business energy reporter Kyle Massey. But instead of “plastics” I wrote “lithium” and included a link tipping him to a Magnolia Reporter story about a then-unknown company, Standard Lithium Ltd. of Vancouver, British Columbia, that was planning to build a lithium extraction pilot plant in south Arkansas.

Later that year (almost exactly five years ago, in fact), Massey published his first print story on the prospect of large-scale lithium mining in Arkansas, and he’s covered it like the dew ever since.

But even after that story, which marked the first of many chats with Standard CEO Robert Mintak, I wondered whether the idea — pulling ultra-pure lithium carbonate from Arkansas brine for use in key technologies like electric vehicle batteries — was A) doable and B) doable at a scale that would have a meaningful economic effect on the region, as some local boosters believed.

Was lithium really the next big thing?

According to Massey’s cover story this week, the signs increasingly point to yes. Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann, who worked in the region’s oil industry, thinks lithium could be even bigger. Fourth District Congressman Bruce Westerman, appearing this month on “Arkansas Week” on Arkansas PBS, said the value of Arkansas’ lithium resources “may be more than the value of all the oil and gas produced in south Arkansas over time.”

That’s a bold statement, to quote another movie.

But as I’ve written here before, Standard’s plans have earned validation at multiple points over the past five years. One vote of confidence came from one of the world’s biggest investors, Charles Koch’s Koch Industries of Wichita, Kansas, whose subsidiaries have invested millions of dollars in Standard’s plans and are working with the company on a feasibility study for a billion-dollar lithium extraction complex.

Another vote: activity by other companies contemplating their own lithium extraction enterprises. That includes Albemarle Corp., a longtime presence in south Arkansas, Tetra Technologies of The Woodlands, Texas, and a little multinational energy outfit called Exxon Mobil Corp. of Houston, which according to The Wall Street Journal has taken control of $100 million in area brine leases.

All this has area mayors and economic developers planning how to accommodate a boom that’s looking more likely every day. Housing, health care, highways, hospitality and education will need a fresh look if this nascent industry takes off.

And if all goes well, maybe it’ll be someone in south Arkansas pulling a local graduate aside: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word …”

Lance Turner is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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