Story by DANIEL MOORE • Bloomberg News Illustration by NURI DUCASSI • Star Tribune
The high-desert mountain pass overlooking alfalfa fields and RV parks doesn't look like a battleground that will shape the country's clean-energy future.
But when the rock samples here are pulverized, pulled apart and mixed with chemicals, they yield a metal increasingly seen as white gold: lithium, a critical ingredient for batteries used in electric vehicles, solar energy storage and consumer electronics.
In early 2021, the Trump administration approved plans for a $1 billion open-pit mine at Nevada's Thacker Pass, in a swath of government-owned land that covers 9 square miles above the country's largest lithium deposit. The Biden administration has since defended that decision.
Supporters say the mine built by Lithium Americas, a Canadian multinational, could produce enough lithium each year to match 2020's total global output. They also argue that expediting U.S. battery manufacturing will help the country shift away from fossil fuels .
But the project has run into fierce local opposition.
A judge is weighing a bid to block the mine brought by an unlikely coalition: a rancher who contends the operation will consume precious groundwater that sustains his herd; environmental groups that support electric vehicles but see the vast mining operation as too destructive; and tribal members determined to preserve the legacy, lifestyle and land of their ancestors.
The outcome will ripple beyond this corner of Nevada. As the Energy Department implements a $7 billion battery supply chain program and Congress' climate bill rolls out tax credits for electric-car makers, some see the state as ground zero for the fledgling industry.
"We can become the Lithium Valley here, based on everything else we have," said Dev Chidambaram, an engineering professor at the University of Nevada at Reno who started one of the country's first battery and energy storage academic programs. "It's better we do this, rather than somebody else."
The striking landscape on the Nevada- Oregon border that defines the Great Basin is loaded with treasures — gold, silver, mercury, uranium — that for centuries drew prospectors looking to strike it rich. It also provides a crucial habitat for sage grouse, raptors, golden eagles, elk and bighorn sheep, and features a sea of sagebrush and grasses that sustain grazing cattle herds.
Only one U.S. lithium mine operates today: Albemarle's Silver Peak in southwestern Nevada.
In recent years, Lithium Americas' predecessor company developed a plan to also extract it around Thacker Pass. That coincided with Washington's push to wean off imports from adversarial countries — extracting and processing lithium has been cheaper in South America and China — and rising demand from EV makers.
Global lithium prices soared more than 400% in 2021, and the surge looks likely to continue. For mining companies, the race is on to win approvals and keep pace.
Thacker Pass sits amid a largely rural area with an economy focused on agriculture, mining and roadside businesses that cater to travelers along Route 95 .
Maxine Redstar is chairwoman for the area's Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe. The pandemic had shut down tribal council offices and limited interaction, so she didn't learn the Trump administration had approved the mine until a few weeks after the decision in early 2021, she said. It felt like a slap in the face. "I reached out to [Bureau of Land Management] and said: 'OK, hang on. Let's back up,'" Redstar recalled .
Her goal was to protect the land and water. The reservation's drinking water is still contaminated by a mercury mine that closed in the 1970s . But she also thought about the project's potential to lift the next generation. Through 2021, Redstar had meetings with the Biden-led land bureau and mine officials. She left with assurances the site would be well regulated.
At the same time, tribal members who opposed the mine were building momentum. They formed People of Red Mountain and joined other tribal groups .
Last year, they joined forces with Edward Bartell , a rancher who has lived in the area since 2008, tending to more than 500 cattle that graze on BLM-leased land in the mountains above the Lithium Americas site and on 960 acres he owns below the site.
Trucks would haul sulfur within feet of the elementary school where his wife, Brenda, teaches. Two 350-foot-high dumps with a capacity of 354 million cubic yards of mine waste would tower over the dirt road he uses to check on his grazing cattle in the mountains.
"They put this eco-friendly label on it," Bartell said. "We see it as an environmental nightmare."
In February 2021, Bartell and his ranch sued the bureau over its decision, alleging "irreparable harm" to fish, wildlife, wetlands and stream flows .
By last summer, the People of Red Mountain and two other tribal groups had joined the case .
In Washington, the $369 billion climateand-tax law enacted in August includes tax credits for electric vehicles that, by the end of 2023, source 40% of their battery minerals from North America or U.S. trade partners.
For tribal member Daranda Hinkey, 24, the Thacker Pass project has been a possible blessing in disguise. It brought the college graduate home to the reservation where her father grew up and has mobilized people who had never been active in Indigenous rights. "In our ceremonies, we pray to water, we pray with water," she said . "The environmental concerns are cultural concerns. I don't see the line between them."