With the anticipated need for a lot more lithium to put into batteries to help power a greener future, you might think environmentalists would give a pass to some of the negative effects of the proposed lithium mines that are being planned at sites around Nevada. Thats not the case. The opposition to some of the proposed mines has been strong and may even be ramping up.
Thacker PassLithium Americas Thacker Pass lithium mine may be the biggest project on the horizon, and it is facing lots of opposition.
Lithium Americas has been working for years on plans for Thacker Pass, which is about 60 miles northwest of Winnemucca.
The companys website says Thacker Pass is the largest known lithium resource in the United States. Lithium Americas estimates there is $3.9 billion worth of recoverable lithium at the site. The company has said it hopes to start mining operations next year.
Lithium Nevada's Thacker Pass site in Humboldt County will become a mining and production location, if all goes as planned for the company.
The mine is expected to produce up to 60,000 tons a year of battery-quality lithium carbonate, which would be a huge boost to the world supply of lithium. The mine is expected to employ about 300 people and have a 46-year mine life.
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On Jan. 15, 2021, the last Friday of the Trump Administration, the Bureau of Land Management approved the Record of Decision for Thacker Pass, giving federal approval to the project.
That evening, Will Falk and Max Wilbert set out on an eight-hour drive to the Thacker Pass site to set up a camp nearby to protest the mine. People have been camped out there ever since.
Falk and Wilbert are radical environmentalists, with Falk writing on the protectthackerpass.org website that I hate fossil fuels and actively advocate for the dismantling of all industrial infrastructure
Elisabeth Robson wrote on the website, Many people believe they cant live without cars. But all humans lived without cars until a mere 113 years ago, and we can do so again. A world without cars is a quieter, slower, and more wonderful world, not just for humans but for everyone.
I hope one day a militant and offensive environmental movement forms, Falk wrote.
The people opposed to the Thacker Pass mine and other lithium mine projects dont all hold these views, of course, but have a variety of reasons for their opposition.
A March 10 letter in the Elko Daily Free Press from Alex Eisenberg said the plan to transition to electric vehicles in the years ahead is incredibly short-sighted and irresponsible and will do virtually nothing to curb carbon emissions, as electric car production is completely reliant on the fossil fuel industry.
The Thacker Pass mine alone would burn 11,000 gallons of diesel every day for onsite operations, the letter said. Double that for off-site operations. Carbon emissions are expected to be 150,000+ tons per year, equating to 2.3 tons of carbon for every ton of lithium produced. Hundreds of tons of sulfur (ironically a waste product from oil refineries) would be used daily in mine operations.
This sign was placed by protesters at the site of the proposed Thacker Pass lithium project in Northern Nevada.
On Feb. 11, 2021, Edward Bartell, a rancher who owns property above and below the mine, filed a lawsuit with a long list of objections to the mine. One of his big concerns is the water the mine will use. The projects Environmental Impact Statement says the projected water demand for years 5 through 41 is equivalent to an average pumping rate of 3,224 gallons per minute.
On Feb. 26, 2021, the Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Defense, Great Basin Resource Watch, and Basin and Range Watch filed a lawsuit saying the Thacker Pass Record of Decision did not adequately gauge the mines impacts on greater sage grouse and other wildlife.
Local Indigenous communities say Thacker Pass is important to them historically and in their daily lives. Local tribal members have been camping near the mine site to protest the mine.
The tribal council of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, which is about 26 miles from the mine site, made an engagement agreement with Lithium Nevada in 2020, but withdrew from the agreement in March 2021.
On July 28, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh Wyh Nuwu/People of Red Mountain were allowed to intervene as plaintiffs in the lawsuits against the mine. On Aug. 6, the Burns Paiute Tribe was also allowed to intervene.
Additional court filings have been made since then.
On Sept. 5, U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du denied a request from the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the People of Red Mountain for a preliminary injunction to temporarily halt work.
Falk is a lawyer for the People of the Red Mountain, but he told The Guardian he is skeptical they will be able to win by arguing the right things.
Eventually were going to have to be ready to physically block construction equipment. I think that one of the ways to wake up people in the United States (is seeing) people getting dragged away by the police for trying to protect their land. And I think thats where this is going, Falk said.
Humboldt County Manager Dave Mendiola told Inside Climate News, I guess you can chain yourself to the fence like some of the protesters might do and I dont blame them for that. But in the end, as a company, if theyve followed all the rules, youre 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.
Rhyolite RidgeAt ioneers proposed Rhyolite Ridge lithium mine about 65 miles southwest of Tonopah, debates continue over the Tiehms buckwheat that is found only on the site.
James Calaway, executive chairman of ioneer Ltd., said the company is working to protect the plant and increase the size of its habitat. He said about half of the plants were destroyed by drought and rodents last year.
John Scire, PhD, an adjunct professor at UNR, said in a December editorial that the bottom line is that the Fish and Wildlife Service should veto the false claims by the Las Vegans that the ioneer mine will wipe out the buckwheat plants and should consider instead the macro environmental impacts of not letting the mine get cranked up ASAP. The best available science supports that the mine and the plant can co-exist.
However, Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said he disagrees with ioneers expectation that the wildflower can be established near the current growing site.
Attempts to propagate the plants failed, Donnelly told Mining the West magazine. They all died, so ioneer doesnt have a plan. Their plan is bunk and doesnt reflect the consensus of the scientific community.
There is no compromise. They cannot hurt the buckwheat, Donnelly said.
He said the Center for Biological Diversity does not oppose lithium mining, and lithium is all over the place in Nevada.
Other companies are working on developing other possible lithium mine sites around Nevada.
Mike Kobler, general manager of U.S. operations for Tonopah Lithium Corp., told the Nye County commissioners at their Nov. 2 meeting that his companys mine site about six miles northwest of Tonopah could become one of the biggest lithium resources in the world.
We are in the perfect location in Nevada, Kobler said. We dont have the sage grouse issues that they have up north, we dont have the desert tortoise issues that they have down south, we have not found any Tiehms buckwheat; weve cleared all of our environmental hurdles and cultural hurdles, so were just moving ahead.
In addition to Nevada, companies are also working on proposed lithium production sites in California, Oregon, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina.
The United States is not the only country with pushback against new lithium mines.
In Serbia, Rio Tinto has been planning a $2.4 billion lithium mine. For three consecutive weekends in late 2021, thousands of protesters blocked roads in Serbia to protest lithium mining, with environmentalists saying that extracting lithium causes huge damage to mined areas.
On Dec. 16, authorities in western Serbia suspended a plan that would allow Rio Tinto to operate the lithium mine.
We will continue to provide information on all aspects of the project for which we are responsible and in which we participate, Rio Tinto said in a statement.
Chile, which has about 44% of the worlds lithium reserves, elected leftist Gabriel Boric as president on Dec. 19, but it is not clear what impact Borics election will have on lithium mining. Boric has supported mining tax hikes and royalties and promised to create a state-run lithium company.
If efforts to stop proposed lithium mines in Nevada and elsewhere in the United States are successful, then as the need for lithium ramps up, lithium mining could escalate in countries that have fewer environmental regulations than the U.S., and more fuel will be burned shipping lithium and batteries around the world and to the U.S.
In the National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries 2021-2030 published in June 2021, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm wrote, The Biden Administration has laid out a bold agenda to address the climate crisis and build a clean and equitable energy economy that achieves carbon-pollution-free electricity by 2035, and puts the United States on a path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050 to the benefit of all Americans.
The report says the Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries will secure U.S. access to raw materials for lithium batteries by incentivizing growth in safe, equitable, and sustainable domestic mining ventures while leveraging partnerships with allies and partners to establish a diversified supply.
The worldwide lithium battery market is expected to grow by a factor of 5 to 10 in the next decade, the report says. The U.S. industrial base must be positioned to respond to this vast increase in market demand that otherwise will likely benefit well-resourced and supported competitors in Asia and Europe.
However, on May 25, 2021, Reuters ran a story saying, U.S. President Joe Biden will rely on ally countries to supply the bulk of the metals needed to build electric vehicles and focus on processing them domestically into battery parts, part of a strategy designed to placate environmentalists, two administration officials with direct knowledge told Reuters.
The plans will be a blow to U.S. miners who had hoped Biden would rely primarily on domestically sourced metals, as his campaign had signaled last autumn.
Currently about 46% of the worlds mine production of lithium is in Australia, and about 21% is Chile and another 16% is in China, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. In the United States, all the lithium mining is at one mine in Nevada, and accounts for less than 2% of the worlds mine production.
Albemarle Corp. produces lithium carbonate from brine at its Silver Peak operation in Esmeralda County. Photo courtesy of Albemarle Corp.
Albemarle Corporations Silver Peak lithium mine is about 40 miles southwest of Tonopah and has been in operation since the 1960s. A May 6, 2021 New York Times story said Silver Peak produces about 5,000 tons of lithium a year.
On Jan. 7, 2021, Albemarle announced that it planned to invest $30 million to $50 million to double the lithium production at Silver Peak by 2025.
The company also said it planned to begin exploration in 2021 and evaluate technology that could accelerate the viability of lithium production from clay resources in the region.
The lithium produced at Silver Peak is shipped to Asia to be made into cathodes for batteries.
China has for years been focused on building capacity at every stage of the battery supply chain, according to a Sept. 1, 2020 VOA News story.
China has been buying stakes in mining operations in Australia and South America where most of the worlds lithium reserves are found, the VOA story said.
Chinas Ganfeng Lithium, which has been snapping up lithium mines and salt lakes abroad as it plots out an ambitious road map for growth, according to a Dec. 8, 2021 Nikkei Asia story, is the largest shareholder in Lithium Americas, the company planning the Thacker Pass mine, according to the New York Times story.
To add to all the lithium news and heat up the global competition for lithium resources even more, lithium prices shot way up in 2021, increasing about 240%.
In the years ahead, refining capacity might be built in the U.S. as more battery factories and electric vehicle factories are built here. The U.S. Department of Energy announced on Dec. 20, 2021 that 13 new electric vehicle battery factories are planned in the U.S. within the next five years. Most of these factories will be in the Southeast or Midwest.
So, although U.S. will lag behind China, parts of the EV battery supply chain will be growing in the U.S. in the years ahead. But the question remains, how much of the lithium and other elements needed for the supply chain will come from mines in Nevada? Well being finding that out as the approval and funding processes and the legal battles and protests roll on.
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