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Exxon preps for a future without fossil fuels by prospecting for EV minerals in the U.S.

Updated: May 24

Cars are stopped beside gas pumps at an Exxon gas station at night. Lights from the convenience store illuminate the dark and overhead lights shine below an illuminated Exxon sign.
Image Credit: Unsplash/Raymond Kotiwicz

ExxonMobil, the largest American oil and gas company (and the poster child for the industry's resistance to renewables, electric vehicles, and climate change) is beginning to prepare for a future without fossil fuels.

Either late last year or early this year, the global oil company bought up a little over 100,000 acres of drilling rights in a region of Southwestern Arkansas called the Smackover to begin producing lithium -- a critical mineral for that batteries powering the world's energy future.

Exxon bought the land from an Oklahoma City-based exploration company called Galvanic Energy, according to people with knowledge of the transaction.

The news was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

While the size of the deal is small (the Journal said Exxon bought the stake for $100 million, which is a rounding error for the oil behemoth), it does show that Exxon is reading the writing on the wall.

The company's chief executive, Darren Woods, has said that Exxon expects every new passenger car sold by 2040 to be an electric vehicle -- and the company that defined the oil and gas business for over a century is now looking to play a role in that future.

Fossil fuel extraction (and climate denialism) turned Exxon into arguably the world's leading energy company, and with its bet on a new geology and mineral to mine, the company is laying the groundwork for its role in the next era of energy.

Few may know it, but Exxon actually helped to pioneer the lithium ion battery business. An Exxon chemist named Stanley Whittingham actually won a Nobel Prize in 2019 for his work to help develop the lithium ion battery.

Exxon developed the technology at a lab in Linden, N.J. and started making batteries as early as 1976, but shut down operations a few years later, when a market failed to emerge. Last year, batteries were nearly a $80 billion business -- and will be a $400 billion business by 2030.

Much of that new demand for batteries will come from car manufacturers who require lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles.

And the new land that Exxon required should help meet that growing demand. Last year, Galvanic Energy said that the land it owned could produce up to 4 million tons of lithium carbonate -- enough to power 50 million electric vehicles.

For Exxon, and other oil majors, identifying, drilling, extracting, and treating liquid resources to extract precious minerals is already the nature of their business, so these fossil fuel giants are potentially well suited to thrive in an electrified economy.

Whether that's an ideal scenario, given that the burning of fossil fuels encouraged by these same oil majors are responsible for the increasing severity of floods, droughts, hurricanes, derechos, tornados, wildfires, and other weather-related disasters the world now faces, is beside the point.

The energy transition will require an abundant supply of lithium and other minerals for energy storage and that demands the development of an industry with the knowledge to extract it.

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