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Lithium Mining in the US: Thacker Pass and its controversies

Written by Tue 10 Oct 2023

The vast lithium reserves nestled in the Nevada desert near the Oregon border are catching significant attention. Lithium Americas recently secured permission to mine lithium at Thacker Pass, a location soaring 4,000 feet above sea level and renowned for its natural beauty.

As the global shift towards electric vehicles and the rapid expansion of the data centre industry gather pace, the demand for lithium, a crucial component in batteries, has surged.

US President Joe Biden is avidly pursuing the extraction of this resource, with the primary objective of making the US a world leader in electric vehicles by mining lithium in the country. Last year, America sourced nearly all its lithium from nations such as Australia, Chile, and China.

But as industries vie for this ‘white gold’, the debate rages on: can the environmental advantages of green technologies offset the ecological costs of extracting them?

The Cultural Significance of Thacker Pass

Thacker Pass, known as Peehee Mu’huh in Paiute language, is a site of profound importance to a group named the People of the Red Mountain. They make pilgrimages there, honouring ancestors who are said to be victims of a historical massacre at the location. Their hope is to transform Thacker Pass into a recognised historical site.

“This place is essential to the survival of our traditions because our traditions are directly tied to the land. Each season is a time to hunt animals and gather plants, food, and medicines,” said the People of the Red Mountain in a statement.

Countering these sentiments, Lithium Americas posited that there’s no concrete evidence of such a massacre taking place at Thacker Pass, and this stance found favour in court.

Tim Crowley, Vice President of Government Affairs at Lithium Americas, told the BBC that some local native Americans are already working on the mine and support the project. This is accepted by Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a member of The People of the Red Mountain.

Crowley said he considers himself an environmentalist and has been a mining advocate for the last twenty years in Nevada. He told the BBC he had been in ‘many a scrap’ with environmentalists who oppose mining projects.

Others perceive the undertakings at Thacker Pass like these as manifestations of ‘green colonialism’, a term implying the sidelining of native voices in the pursuit of environmental objectives.

Environmental Concerns and Lithium

Environmental enthusiasts and indigenous groups appear divided over lithium mining. John Hadder, Director of Great Basin Resource Watch, voiced concerns to the BBC about the environmental toll of mining operations and emphasised the need for responsibly approving permits.

“We can reduce demand for minerals by just changing habits. One thing I’m really concerned about is that we are losing an opportunity to do other things to address climate change,” said Hadder.

The mine at Thacker Pass, however, has caused divides within the Great Basin Resource Watch group. Glen Miller, a former University of Nevada academic, resigned from its board after showing support for the mine.

“[Some] environmentalists will say we should drive less, we should not use anything that requires us to pull these metals up. Nobody’s going to do that,” said Miller.

Concerns were raised regarding Miller’s research being partly funded by Lithium America’s. However, he told the BBC that this had no effect over his stance.

“I just think that climate change is so important, and lithium is so important for electrifying the transportation industry,” added Miller.

Concerns were raised regarding Miller’s research being partly funded by Lithium America’s. However, he told the BBC that this had no effect over his stance.

The Future of Lithium Mining

While the Lithium Americas’ mine is still nascent, with full-scale lithium production projected for 2026, there’s a growing buzz about its potential. It is anticipated that these resources will supply major companies like General Motors.

Crowley said further development in lithium mining will be needed to ensure the US is successful in being self-sufficient in lithium production.

However, there is an undercurrent of unease among the People of the Red Mountain. They fear that the Thacker Pass venture might be a precursor to further mining projects in the area due to the abundance of lithium.

The overarching dilemma presents itself – will the pursuit of a greener future via lithium mining overshadow the preservation of the region’s cultural significance and natural beauty?

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Written by Tue 10 Oct 2023

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