September 22, 2023

The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit heard arguments from conservationists and Native Americans who oppose the construction of a Nevada lithium mine on Tuesday.

Thacker Pass, a lithium mine planned on federal land in Humbolt County, Nevada, is operated by Lithium Americas. If completed, the mine would go down 400 feet into the ground and would be the largest lithium mine in the United States. Conservationists oppose the project saying it will pollute the area’s groundwater and destroy the habitat of local wildlife. Leaders from the Western Shoshone and Paiute Indian tribes have argued the dig site is on sacred land where dozens of tribal members were massacred by U.S. Calvary in 1865.

Lithium Americas (LAC) broke ground on the mine in March after the court denied objectors’ request for an emergency injunction. Last week the Canadian mining company filed a lawsuit against individuals involved in a prayer circle at the dig site, according to Native News Online. The lawsuit, which names 7 defendants including watchdog organization Protect Thacker Pass, grants Lithium Americas a temporary restraining order against the defendants barring them from visiting the site.

LAC insists that the project will minimize environmental impact and maintain limited water consumption for the project. Independent organizations aren’t so sure. Protect Thacker Pass says LAC plans to extract more than 1.7 billion gallons of water from a local aquifer annually. “I’ve read about lithium extraction’s prodigious water use in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Tibet – and at the U.S.’s first lithium mine, in Silver Peak Nevada” said Max Wilbert, author of “Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way And What We Can Do About It.”

Despite LAC assurances that they’ve “developed comprehensive plans to mitigate impacts to wildlife, water and air,” the Nevada Department of Wildlife says the project could have “adverse affects” on local wildlife including mule deer, pronghorn antelope and the sacred golden eagle, according to Project Thacker Pass.

Two mule deer bucks in the morning sun on Ring Mountain. Photo courtesy of _Veit_
Two mule deer bucks in the morning sun on Ring Mountain. Photo courtesy of Veit
Golden Eagle courtesy of Ignacio Ferre Pérez
Golden Eagle courtesy of Ignacio Ferre Pérez

The mine, which was signed off on during the Trump administration, is now happily pushed along by President Joe Biden, whose plan to see 50% of U.S. cars go electric by 2030 has sent lithium demand through the roof.

His push for EVs has significantly increased the demand for lithium worldwide. This year is expected to see over a million tonnes LCE of lithium mined globally, a number expected to increase to 2.8 million by 2030, according to an estimate from Benchmark Minerals. “To put the scale of the lithium challenge into context, more lithium will be needed in 2030 than was mined between 2015 and 2022,” said Benchmark’s Lithium Forecast.

“If we don’t permit and get this mine going, what happens to the next one? Do we wait ad infinitum?” Corby Anderson, a metallurgist at the Colorado School of Mines said to NPR. “Meanwhile there’s these stakes in the ground to create electric vehicles and require their use… yeah we’re gonna have to go somewhere to get the lithium.”

Global Lithium Distribution According to Data From the United States Geological Survey

Though Biden’s push for electric cars is on its face a move designed to move the nation away from its reliance on fossil fuels, Wilbert explains how electric vehicles actually depend heavily on fossil fuels. “Corporations and environmentalists promote EVs because they don’t emit greenhouse gases while driving. But manufacturing and discarding EVs – and expanding the power grid to charge them – ravage ecosystems,” Wilbert said in a conversation with writer Katie Singer.

Joining the Paiute and Shoshone tribes in suing are organizations like Basin and Ranger Watch, The Western Watersheds Project and People of Red Mountain. “Lithium mines and this whole push for renewable energy — the agenda of the Green New Deal — is what I like to call green colonialism,” said Daranda Hickey, a 25 year old resident of the nearby Fort McDermott Indian Reservation and leader of People of Red Mountain. Hickey’s group accused GM – who made a $650 million equity investment to jointly develop Thacker Pass – of “greenwashing,” saying the company is only seeking to raise its ESG score.

While many indigenous peoples are strongly opposed to the measure, some of Hickey’s own Fort McDermott neighbors signed a Community Benefits Agreement with Lithium Americas, establishing “a framework for continued collaboration and to define the long-term benefits for the Tribe.”

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