Ground broken on Elon Musk’s latest venture in Texas: A lithium refinery

Gov. Greg Abbott joined the Tesla CEO at the event in Nueces County. Local leaders are welcoming the project’s jobs but some Coastal Bend residents are wary of the environmental impacts.

By Raul AlonzoMay 11, 2023 10:53 am, ,

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Gov. Greg Abbott joined local officials in Nueces County on Monday to break ground on a $375 million lithium refinery.

Tesla says the facility will be the first of its kind in North America, and will package and ship battery-grade lithium hydroxide – an essential component for the carmaker’s fleet of products.

The facility is among the latest of Musk’s ventures in Texas, many of which have been the subject of both praise for the jobs and investment they bring and criticism for their environmental impacts.

Chase Rogers, who covers local government and industry for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, has been following the story and joined Texas Standard to share what he knows about the new facility. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What can you tell us about the materials this facility will be producing and why it’s such an essential product for Tesla?

Chase Rogers: Yes. So as Elon Musk kind of mentioned during this event, he sees the abundance of what he called “battery grade lithium” as a fundamental choke point that could happen in the future. So this facility here is a way of them getting more control over the supply chain for their electric products. And while it’s not going to completely replace or get rid of their reliance on other sources, he sees it as a way to kind of shore that up.

So I want to make sure I understand how this is going to work. There’s not going to be mining operations, I presume, in the area or where’s this lithium coming from? 

They’re in close proximity to the Port of Corpus Christi. They’re going to be importing concentrates of spodumene, which is a material where lithium kind of comes from. So it’s going to arrive through the Port of Corpus Christi, by rail go to this facility to be processed, and then it will be taken up to the kind of Austin area to be further processed. And then, you know, eventually going to batteries for their products.

I would imagine there will be some waste byproduct here. Has it been clear what they plan to do with that?

Yes. So this event was kind of our first insight into that. At the Caller-Times, we had made some inquiries to the company and we never heard anything back here. But Elon Musk briefly talked about the environmental aspect of this, and he said that there’s going to be very little environmental impact. In terms of environmental permitting, though, they have a permit with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to do the construction. But at this point, it doesn’t appear, at least at last check, that they are seeking any further permits for air emissions or the like.

You know, I’m thinking about reassurances on the environment. I remember round one not too far from you – you’re in Corpus Christi – but down closer to Brownsville, when Elon Musk was setting up SpaceX, there were reassurances about limits on the impact on the environment. And we’ve now seen a lawsuit in the wake of the most recent big launch there. And of course, there are concerns about what the Boring Company is doing closer to Bastrop. What are locals saying about this project?

So it’s a mixture. So there are some folks that are very excited about the new jobs and kind of, you know, big name companies coming to this area. This particular facility, I mean, it’s in a very rural stretch of the county in between two cities, you know – Driscoll and Robstown. Those folks are super excited. But there’s also some concern about the environmental impacts. Some folks from Corpus Christi and kind of the greater Coastal Bend area have cited, you know, what you cited there as concerns and said, “hey, you know, we’re getting assurances that there is going to be a negligible environmental impact. But is there actually?” And there’s been some complaints, too, that the company, as they see it, hasn’t been as forthright with what exactly those impacts could be.

Any projections about how this facility might transform the community?

Yes. So according to tax abatement paperwork that Tesla submitted to the the Robstown Independent School District, they’re estimating that there’s going to be 250 temporary jobs generated by the construction, which is slated to go through the end of this year into next year and then by 2024 be up and running. And then in terms of permanent jobs, that paperwork says that there’s going to be 162 permanent jobs for this role. There’s going to be ten folks that are paid $81,000 and up and then the average rate is going to be $52,000 a year. So that’s a big reason why the local officials are pretty excited about this.

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