HUMBOLDT COUNTY, Nevada—Deep below the tangled roots of the old-growth sagebrush of Thacker Pass, in an extinct super-volcano, lies one of the world’s largest deposits of lithium—a key element for the transition to clean energy. But above ground, a cluster of tents has risen in the Northern Nevada desert where, for eight months, environmental and tribal activists are protesting plans to mine it for “green” technologies.
“We are not leaving until this project is canceled,” said Max Wilbert, of the Protect Thacker Pass campaign. “If need be, this will come down to direct action. We mean to put ourselves in between the machines and this place.”
Plans to dig for the element known as “white gold” have encountered a surge of resistance from tribes, ranchers, residents and activists who say they believe the repercussions of the mine will outweigh the lithium’s contributions to the nation’s transition to less-polluting energy sources than fossil fuels.
The opponents view lithium extraction as the latest gold rush, and fear that the desperation to abate the climate crisis is driving a race into avoidable environmental degradation. The flawed assumption behind the “clean energy transition,” they argue, is that it can maintain levels of consumption that are inherently unsustainable.
“We want people to understand that ‘clean energy’ is not clean,” Wilbert said. “We’re here because our allegiance is to the land. It’s not to cars. It’s not to high-energy, modern lifestyle. It’s to this place.”
Proponents of the mine maintain its potential to address climate change and develop a rich domestic economy around a resource that is currently produced almost entirely outside the United States justify its environmental consequences and potential burden on local communities. Most mainstream environmental organizations and activists, while recognizing the significant environmental burdens from mining for elements required for the energy transition, see them as necessary to wean the world off of the fossil fuels that are driving global warming.
Lithium is essential for batteries to power electric vehicles (EVs) and to store energy produced by renewable but intermittent sources like wind and solar. But getting it can have environmental impacts that draw similar pushbacks to those associated with the extraction of fossil fuels—a conundrum that is taking center stage as the mining of minerals critical to new energy technologies comes to the U.S. in a major way for the first time.
“The tension between the local environmental and social impacts of mining and the demand for critical minerals is a worldwide problem, not just a challenge in the USA,” said Elizabeth Moses, Environmental Rights and Justice Associate with the Center for Equitable Development at the World Resources Institute.
Troubles around the Thacker Pass mine echo global conflicts over mineral extraction for renewable energy that are almost certain to grow with the world’s transition to clean energy and its rapid electrification of the transportation sector in particular. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a cobalt rush has brought human rights violations, child labor and dangerously tunnel-riddled neighborhoods. In Chile, lithium mining is stressing the water Indigenous peoples and native wildlife depend on in the Atacama desert. And in the once-pristine Arctic surrounding Norilsk, Russia, nickel production has turned rivers red, killed vast forests and darkened skies with the worst sulfur dioxide pollution in the world.
Some energy transition critics see these as harbingers of a new wave of green-energy driven ecocide—wanton, widespread destruction of the environment. Legal scholars and environmental activists are currently campaigning for the International Criminal Court in the Hague to take up ecocide as the fifth crime it would prosecute, alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression.
At the Thacker Pass camp, activists who call themselves “radical environmentalists” hope that addressing these challenges will press nations to choose to drastically reduce car and electricity use to meet their climate goals rather than develop mineral reserves to sustain lifestyles that require more energy.
Controversial Development in a Contested Landscape
In January 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved the Thacker Pass Lithium Project, granting Lithium Americas, a multinational company headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, and its subsidiary, Lithium Nevada, the exclusive rights to mine there. Soon afterward, Will Falk, an environmental lawyer representing local tribes, and Max Wilbert, an organizer, set up an encampment at the site of the proposed mine.
The activists are allied with the local Paiute-Shoshone tribes, ranchers and concerned residents. Hundreds of supporters gather at the protest camp for events such as native-led “prayer runs” through towns and rural landscapes to finish at the pass.
Despite its name, and the fact that it is also developing a lithium mine in Argentina, Lithium Americas’ majority stakeholder is China’s Ganfeng Lithium, the world’s largest producer of the element.
The proposed project spans 17,933 acres that would hold an open-pit mine and a sulfuric acid plant to process lithium from the raw ore. The mine is expected to have a lifespan of at least 46 years. The mine operations at Thacker Pass will emit 152,713 tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to the emissions of a small city, according to its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). It is expected to consume 1.7 billion gallons of water each year—500,000 gallons of water for each ton of lithium—in an arid region that is experiencing worsening droughts.
According to BloombergNEF, global demand for lithium chemicals will reach nearly 700,000 tons a year by 2025. Thacker Pass is expected to produce 60,000 tons a year.
Lithium Americas claims they have established Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) standards to meet the world’s increasing demand for sustainability in business, but they do not specify their measures or methodologies for them. A representative for the company commented by email that “Thacker Pass is designed to meet or exceed all state and federal requirements during construction, operation, and reclamation,” and will meet limitations on air and water pollution, which were assessed in the FEIS required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Opponents engaged in ongoing litigation against the project claim the FEIS was rushed and failed to meet obligations specified under NEPA.
“Places like Thacker Pass are what gets sacrificed to create that so-called clean energy,” Wilbert said. “It is easy to say the sacrifice is justifiable if you do not live here.” Wilbert rejects claims that such trade-offs are necessary for the greater good.
“I look at this as the paradox of green growth,” said Chris Berry, an independent energy analyst who is on the Lithium Americas board. “There is no free lunch. To do this, I half-jokingly say that everyone is going to be unhappy. We have to get over the NIMBY mindset.”
Moses, at the World Resources Institute in Washington, sees the roots of such opposition as more complex. “Historically mining communities have lacked access to information or been denied a voice in policy decisions despite having the legal right to engage in most countries,” she said. “Overall we need better transparency and accountability across the entire supply chain to ensure that mining communities aren’t asked to bear the brunt of the transition to the net-zero carbon economy. These communities need our support, including targeted tools and strategies that ensure they can protect their environment, cultural traditions and livelihoods.”
Newfound Enthusiasm for EVs, But Some Question Their Benefits
Whatever processes are required, the demand for lithium is most likely immutable. “Lithium mining is going to happen somewhere [in the U.S.],” said Ian Lange, associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines who served as Senior Economic Advisor to the Trump Administration. “If not Thacker Pass, it’ll be another place.”
In President Biden’s February 2021 Executive Order on America’s Supply Chains, the administration vowed to bring back more manufacturing and mining to the United States as part of its effort to develop lithium-ion batteries. The order said the administration would work to identify domestic sites where “critical” minerals could be mined and Congress to increase funding for the U.S. Geological Survey to map such resources. Currently, the majority of the world’s lithium is mined in Australia and South America, and more than 97 percent of it is refined in China.
President Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes $174 billion to promote electric vehicles and EV charging stations. In March, The U.S. Department of Energy announced policy actions to scale up a domestic manufacturing supply chain for advanced battery materials and technologies including a commitment of 24.5 million toward research and development of new private-public partnerships that “will focus on linking raw materials processing with supply chains and cell manufacturing, aiming to reduce battery costs,” said Michael Berube, deputy assistant secretary for sustainable transportation in DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, in a recent webinar.
In August, President Biden announced plans to sign a non-binding Executive Order calling for electric vehicles to make up 40-50 percent of new auto sales in the United States by 2030, and he has called the government’s investment in EVs a “race for the future.”
In addition to creating jobs, the investment is part of the administration’s efforts to combat climate change. By 2030, the administration is committed to reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent from 2005 levels. Transportation contributes almost 30 percent of those—the largest direct source among all U.S. sectors—with cars and light-duty trucks responsible for 59 percent of vehicle emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.
But despite the reduction in emissions that the widespread adoption of EVs would bring, the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice at the University of San Diego, an organization of concerned scientists who monitor harms to communities from mining, opposes the electrification of transportation. Their analysis shows that in order to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide at 450 ppm by 2050—parts of gas per million parts of air—industrialized countries’ greenhouse gas emissions would have to decrease by 80 percent. Electric cars, the center’s researchers concluded, would achieve just 6 percent of that target, leading them to argue that driving electric vehicles is not a radical enough behavioral change to significantly slow climate change.
Exactly how much CO2 electric cars save compared to combustion cars is calculated based on the amount of CO2 emitted when electricity is produced or fuel is burned, as well as the emissions of the resource extraction for batteries. A Department of Energy-funded a life cycle analysis (LCA) by the Argonne National Laboratory looking at this scope with both types of vehicles found electric vehicles must travel approximately 13,500 miles before they become “cleaner” than a comparable vehicle burning fossil fuels. A similar study was done by the nonprofit European Federation for Transport and Environment and concluded that “electric cars in Europe emit, on average, three times less CO2 than equivalent petrol/diesel cars.” Differences in life cycle assessment for electric cars result from the varying ways electricity is generated for the power grids that the vehicles plug into in different countries, as well as where the vehicles’ batteries are sourced.
Globally, fewer than 1 percent of passenger cars on the road today are electric, but analysts at IHS Markit project that by 2035, they may make up a quarter of all new sales and 13 percent of vehicles on the road as gasoline cars are phased out.
Unusual Hazards Lead to Legal Actions
There is a litany of concerns about the plans to build a lithium mine at Thacker Pass, with the various groups opposing it highlighting different issues. For many locals, the biggest concern is Lithium Americas’ plans to build a plant at the mine site that will convert molten sulfur into sulfuric acid, which is used to leech the lithium from the raw ore.
Every day the operation would burn hundreds of tons of sulfur trucked in from as far away as the Alberta oil sands. Residents are concerned about the possibility of accidents and spills along the narrow highway between Winnemucca and Thacker Pass, which would be traveled by an estimated 75 tractor-trailers a day. Spills of molten sulfur in places like Florida and Washington state have seeped into the ground and permeated the air, while sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide worsen asthma and contribute to particulate matter linked to heart and lung disease.
Locals voiced their fears about emissions from the sulfuric acid plant in public meetings held by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, but Jeff Kinder, chief engineer in the Bureau of Air Pollution Control at NDEP, said he believes state standards will provide adequate protection to nearby residents.
“The company will be required to do continuous emission monitoring,” he said.
Many locals like Jennifer Cantley, an organizer with Mom’s Clean Air Force, a Nevada group that works with politicians to safeguard against pollution, said she believes any contaminated air from the plant is too much. “It scares me how quickly they did this,” she said. “This is my home. This will affect my family. I can’t let up.”
“The enormous piles of waste that would be dumped from the use of sulfur makes the fact that they call this a ‘green project’ really bizarre,” rancher Edward Bartell said. The most hazardous waste from the sulfur plant would be transported to Clean Harbors, a disposal facility located in Reno, according to the FEIS. The tailings from the mining waste—about 353 million tons—would be placed in a permanent lined storage facility on-site, according to the FEIS.
But the sulfur is just one of Bartell’s problems with the mine.
In early February 2021, Bartell, who owns 50,000 acres of property adjacent to Thacker Pass, sued the BLM alleging the mine violates the Endangered Species Act and NEPA. His complaint, filed in Nevada’s U.S. District Court, alleges that the mine could reduce streamflow enough to endanger Lahontan cutthroat trout, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists as a threatened species—and the BLM failed to consult the USFWS about that possibility, the complaint says.
“There’s been an enormous concern with protecting cutthroat trout, with the BLM not allowing cattle to graze near the stream,” Bartell said of rules he had to follow to safeguard the fish. He said when the mine was proposed, the BLM reclassified the stream as “ephemeral,” meaning it doesn’t flow all the time, which allowed it and its fish to receive different protections than they had previously. The baseline data recorded in the FEIS did not accurately portray how the stream flows, he said, complaining that there are no long-term gauges to monitor it.
His lawsuit claims that approval of the Thacker Pass Mine was “based on a Final Environmental Impact Statement that was inaccurate, incomplete and contained misrepresented data.” It cites an Environmental Protection Agency letter to the BLM from January 2021 that criticized the BLM’s failure to analyze impacts on water quality and ensure that mine operations didn’t violate water quality standards. According to the BLM’s FEIS, Lithium Americas plans to pump 1.7 million gallons of water from the aquifer each year, which could leave less water to support the grasslands Bartell’s cattle graze.
The lawsuit also cites EPA predictions that toxic water with high levels of uranium, mercury, arsenic and more than a dozen other contaminants could seep into groundwater from the tailings and other mine waste.
According to the EPA letter, “…the plans are not developed with an adequate level of detail to assess whether or how groundwater quality downgradient from the pit would be effectively mitigated.”
The sulfur compounds could degrade water quality both underground and in the air, said Dr. Alexander More, a professor of environmental health at Long Island University. “As the EPA pointed out, the list of expected toxic water pollutants is clearly no one’s favorite recipe,” More said. “These are all major components of acid rain. In a drought region, the groundwater risks being polluted by toxic metals, while whatever little rain the area may receive will be polluted by acid emissions, which will impact farming and drinking water, not to mention the wildlife and plants. And the projected greenhouse gas emissions are no joke either.”
Sacred Space and Critical Habitat
Bartell’s lawsuit is not the only one attempting to stop the mine. In late February 2021, four regional environmental nonprofits—the Western Watersheds Project, Great Basin Resource Watch, Basin and Range Watch and Wildlands Defense—filed suit against the Department of the Interior, BLM and Ester McCullough, district manager for the BLM’s Winnemucca office. The lawsuit claims that the project does not comply with the Resource Management Plan in Thacker Pass for greater sage grouse—a ground-dwelling bird on the verge of being listed as threatened whose populations have fallen into decline in areas with other types of energy development.
The greater sage grouse is just one of the species that will be impacted by the mine, said Terry Crawforth, former director for the Nevada Wildlife Department. From his porch in the Kings River Valley, he gestures toward inactive “sleeper” mines in the Montana Mountains that are still considered toxic after their operators failed to clean them up.
“When ducks fly over and touch down, they are dead the next morning,” he said. He fears more of the same from Lithium Americas. “The way the mine is designed right now, it will destroy the local culture, especially if they suck up all the water and pollute it.”
Crawforth helped organize residents from Orovada and Kings River Valley into the Thacker Pass Concerned Citizens. He has arranged several meetings between them and Lithium Americas, largely over safety measures for traffic and the local school, in a process facilitated by Collaborative Decision Resources Associates, a mediation firm for “contentious” land projects.
“Of course, if we thought there was a chance to halt the mine, we would try,” Crawforth said. But “it is inevitable,” he said, and negotiating to reduce the harms of the project is their only available recourse now.
This area is “the last large sagebrush piece left for animals in Thacker Pass,” he explained. According to the Great Basin Resource Watch, it is an important linkup of wildlife habitats in the Double H Mountains and the Montana Mountains. The mine would degrade nearly 5,000 acres of pronghorn antelope winter range and 427 acres of their summer range, as well as sever two critical pronghorn migration corridors, according to the FEIS. It contains essential Greater sage-grouse habitat, golden eagle nests and it is the last known place where the Kings River pyrg, a rare spring snail, endures. “They will remove the habitat and with it many critters,” Crawforth said.
Lithium Americas has responded to concerns about the mine’s impacts on wildlife with plans that include “advanced revegetation technologies” developed with the Greater Sagebrush Restoration Fund at the University of Nevada Reno and possible mitigations such as retrofitting utility poles to make them less likely to kill birds, and to reduce the productivity of a pair of golden eagles that nest in the area.
Rulings in both lawsuits are expected in January 2022 by U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du in Nevada. On Sept. 3, the judge denied a preliminary injunction requested by area tribes to halt archeological digging by a Lithium Nevada contractor to remove cultural artifacts that would be disturbed by the mine, following a BLM-approved plan. The tribes’ lawsuit alleged that the agency violated the National Historic Preservation Act in permitting the mine near a site where there is evidence of the massacre of at least three Paiutes by federal troops in 1865. Will Falk, the lead attorney in the case and a founder of Protect Thacker Pass, said the BLM did not attempt “good faith” consultations with those who hold the site sacred, and “handpicked” a few tribes that were suffering from the coronavirus pandemic knowing they’d struggle to respond.
“For Native Americans, this is a government-sanctioned way to loot our artifacts,” said Michon Eben, Cultural Resource Specialist for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. “The treatment plan is based on discriminatory language and is in direct disrespect to our history.” Tribal members are usually brought to the actual sites and digs to counsel on the whereabouts of artifacts and burial grounds and to help ease the overall disturbance, she said.
“We did not hear about this mine until it was too late and none of our tribal members have been asked to advise at the time of digging,” Eben said. “What they are calling adequate consultation is the fact that the BLM sent three letters to three different tribes.” Eben noted there are at least 15 tribes that attach spiritual significance to Thacker Pass.
The Protect Thacker Pass campaign and People of the Red Mountain are calling on Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary, to intervene.
Alexi Zawadzki, president of North American operations for Lithium Americas, responded to the ruling in a statement: “Respecting the interests of Native American tribes is extremely important to us, which is why we have engaged with the Fort McDermitt Tribe since 2017…And, we’re just getting started. We are committed to working alongside anyone in the community.”
A Rushed Process or a Race to Riches
With Lithium Americas promising cooperation, Kinder, at NDEP’s Bureau of Air Pollution Control, said that officials are used to working with mining executives. “We always have new industry coming,” he said, “And there are many regulations we have to get up to speed on, but this permitting process doesn’t feel that different from our normal course of business.”
But the environmental review process took less than a year to complete due, in part, to a Trump-era revision to the National Environmental Policy Act that put a 12-month cap on permitting reviews. According to research done by Cambridge University, the average Environmental Impact Statement is put together over the course of 3.4 years. The final leasing permit was issued in the last days of the Trump Administration.
The EIS process was also conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which limited community meetings. Many locals said they didn’t learn about the proposed mine until the public commenting period had ended.
Most supporters of the project reside in Winnemucca, a city of about 7,500 people about an hour’s drive from Thacker Pass. Mining has long been a dominant employer there, and locals know the new project means jobs. The company predicts it will bring approximately 1,000 construction jobs to the region for two years and employ an operational staff of about 300.
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RV parks and temporary housing units line the edges of the small city. These “man camps” fill up and empty out with the booms and busts of local mines.
People of the Red Mountain, a group at the Fort McDermitt Reservation opposing the mine, said in a press release: “This will lead to an increase in hard drugs, violence, rape, sexual assault, and human trafficking. The connection between man camps and missing and murdered indigenous women is well-established.”
County Commissioner Dave Mendiola sees lithium mining and clean-energy technology as a means to diversify the economy but sympathizes with opponents’ concerns.
“I guess you can chain yourself to the fence like some of the protesters might do and I don’t blame them for that,” Mendiola said, “but in the end, as a company, if they’ve followed all the rules, you’re probably not going to stop it. What we can do as a county is monitor it and come up with ways to address problems now.”
Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Allen, a sixth-generation Nevadan, said he’s seen bar fights and drug crimes rise with the opening of mines and plans to increase patrols to deal with the potential influx of hundreds of lithium miners. But, he added, “there is no doubt in my mind we can call a meeting, and the company will hear what the community is saying.”
At one of the community meetings held by the company in Orovada in April, Tim Crowley, the vice president of government and community relations for Lithium Americas’ Nevada division and the former head of the Nevada Mining Association, addressed the attendees. “Our goal is to be a good neighbor,” Crowley said. “We’re confident that there will be more development beyond the 46 years, so we will be here for a very long time. The only way to be a good neighbor is to listen to you and accommodate wherever we can.”
Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation is the nearest tribal community to the proposed mine, about 26 miles away. Representatives from Lithium Nevada approached the tribal council there in 2020—while the community was struggling with Covid—to initiate the “engagement agreement,” a process typically undertaken by mining companies operating on or near tribal lands. Maxine Redstar, then the tribal chairperson, said she hoped the mine would provide well-paid work for some of the roughly 340 people on the reservation.
“More than 40 members of the Fort McDermitt tribe have expressed interest in high-wage jobs that Thacker Pass will bring,” wrote Lithium Americas’ Zawadzki at the time.
But last March, the tribal council withdrew from the community engagement agreement with Lithium Nevada after being presented with a petition opposing the mine signed by the majority of the reservation members, according to Myron Smart, a reservation member and spiritual leader for the community.
“The agreement with the company was signed by the council behind closed doors,” said a Fort McDermitt reservation member who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation. “Everything related to the mine was hushed up. The decisions of the council do not reflect the beliefs of the community.” The council did not return requests for comment.
“We’ve always welcomed input from our neighbors, and in return, we strive to communicate regularly and openly about our progress at Thacker Pass,” Zawadzki wrote in response to the judge’s ruling allowing excavation of cultural sites to proceed. “It’s this neighborly approach to doing things right that will lead to cultural preservation, good jobs and exciting economic opportunity.”
For some tribal leaders, those promises ring hollow.
“Offering well-paying jobs at a lithium mine is like the coal miners in Virginia who had to breathe coal dust,” said Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan D. Melendez. “If that’s the only job to feed your family, you’re going to take it even if it means sickness or a shorter lifespan. The greater situation of failing reservation economies has never been addressed other than with undesirable jobs that harm our health.”
With the failure of the tribes’ lawsuit, and uncertainty about those that will be decided in January, the coalition of tribal members, ranchers and environmentalists gathering at the Thacker Pass encampment expect protests against the lithium mine to escalate, and the backlash against the energy transition it would feed to grow.
“Electric cars simply cause a different sort of harm: instead of the Gulf Oil Spill, we have the bulldozing of an increasingly rare desert habitat,” wrote Wilbert, the Protect Thacker Pass organizer and author. “To save the planet, we have to stop destroying. A wound is a wound is a wound.”