The Rush For White Gold

A proposed lithium mine in Nevada highlights a dilemma facing green tech — it is still reliant on extractive industries.

SIXTEEN MILLION YEARS AGO, a volcano erupted over the Yellowstone hotspot near the present-day border of Oregon and Nevada. The blast expelled 1,000 cubic kilometers of rhyolite lava as the land collapsed into a 30-mile-long, keyhole-shaped caldera. Magma, ash, and other sediments entered the keyhole, and for the next million years the clay-rich land rose and reformed like bread dough in a proofing drawer. Water mixed with the clay, bringing to Earth’s surface a swirl of chemical elements like uranium, mercury, and another metal that, when isolated and cut, shines silvery white — lithium.

Today, above ground, the McDermitt Caldera is a remote landscape of rocky outcrops, high-desert plateaus, and meadows of wild rye. As in much of the Great Basin, desert plants fill the “currents, tides, eddies, and embayments” of this “sagebrush ocean,” as writer Stephen Trimble once described it. Lithium rests beneath this dynamic sea.

On the southwest edge of the caldera, in Humboldt County, Nevada, nestled between the Double H Mountains to the south and the Montana range to the north, Thacker Pass rides the crest of a sagebrush wave. The pass is a corridor for herds of migrating pronghorn and mule deer. Overhead, golden eagles hunt for kangaroo rats. Below, greater sage grouse perform their mating dance. In the nearby springs and drainages, an endemic snail called the Kings River pyrg and the imperiled Lahontan cutthroat trout persist on precious water.

And on the chainlink fence of a small weather reading station, in the middle of this ancient place, a banner flaps in the wind: PROTECT THACKER PASS.

On January 15, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a lithium mine at Thacker Pass, the site of the largest known lithium deposit in the United States. Through its subsidiary Lithium Nevada, Vancouver-based Lithium Americas plans to dig a 1,000-acre open-pit mine to tap into the estimated $2.6-billion resource over the next 45 years.

The same day the BLM released its decision, Max Wilbert and Will Falk packed camping gear, firewood, tire chains, and a month’s worth of food and stove fuel, and hightailed it the 450 miles from Wilbert’s cabin outside of Eugene, Oregon, to northern Nevada. They hung signs and set up camp in the middle of the proposed pit, and planned to stay until the construction crews came.

“I just don’t believe we can save the planet by blowing it up.”

“It’s clear this place is on the chopping block, and we can’t let it go unopposed,” Wilbert told me as he and Falk walked me around the perimeter of the future mine. It was late February, and our boots crunched through a thin layer of ice that had formed on the mine’s access road. Coyotes howled from across the pass.

Wilbert, a wilderness guide and grassroots organizer, and Falk, an attorney and essayist, have a history of occupying threatened places. From the Unist’ot’en pipeline protest camps in British Columbia to the tar sands of the Tavaputs Plateau in eastern Utah, they’ve blockaded oil wells, gas pipelines, water pumps — any corporate abuse of natural resources. Lithium mining, however, represents a new wave of corporate extraction — one driven by a surge in demand for the “white gold” required to produce lithium-ion batteries. These batteries make possible electric vehicles and green energy storage — two major components of the transition to a green energy economy.

But at Thacker Pass, Wilbert and Falk — and a growing list of ranchers, farmers, tribal members, and environmentalists — have argued that this transition to a clean energy future has, so far, been anything but clean, or just. They assert that the mining industry is simply greenwashing old practices and exploiting the political climate that favors green energy, while using the laws that have enabled dispossession and destroyed environments for over a century. Their struggle also highlights a conundrum green energy proponents are grappling with: From catalytic convertors to photovoltaic solar panels and more, most of the low-carbon technologies deemed necessary for a green energy transition need non-renewable natural resources — metals like lithium, copper, platinum, and rare earth minerals — for their hardware. This means that so far it has been impossible to decouple these technologies from mining, which by its very nature is ecologically destructive.

“I used to believe that [renewable energy] technology was like fairy dust that would save the world,” said Wilbert. We walked up to the edge of a pit the size of a swimming pool, where Lithium Americas had already started testing its extraction methods. “I just don’t believe we can save the planet by blowing it up.”

SOON AFTER THE RISING SUN hit the Double H, I unzipped my frosted sleeping bag and made my way to the campfire. Wilbert was already up, making himself coffee at a wood pallet table loaded with kitchenware. The up-tempo reggae of Everton Blender played from a small speaker. “It must be warm where they recorded this,” another camper muttered from his unkempt beard as he held his hands to the fire, attempting to shake off the cold after the 15-degree Fahrenheit night.

At that time, five weeks into the protest, eight campers were sleeping in tents and vehicles atop Thacker Pass — all part of a rolling roster of activists who had come to the pass from all around the West, for various reasons. “I just wanted to see this place before it was destroyed,” one camper from Montana told me by the fire.

It was apparent from talking with Wilbert, however, that his fight is bigger than Thacker Pass alone. Wilbert was “politically schooled” as a teenager in Seattle in 1999, when tens of thousands of labor union activists, socialists, and anarchists clashed with police outside a conference of the World Trade Organization, and “revolutionary politics were spreading through the city.” Since then, he’s remained staunchly critical of a system heavily influenced by Wall Street. “We’re living in a time of environmental genocide,” he said. “Governments and corporations are not only failing but actively accelerating us further into a crisis.”

Falk, too, shares Wilbert’s ardent distrust for the status quo. In 2017, he and other attorneys filed the first federal rights-of-nature lawsuit in the United States, seeking personhood for the Colorado River. Falk’s team withdrew the lawsuit under threat of sanctions by the Colorado Attorney General, who described it as “frivolous.” Since then, he’s decided that a nonviolent direct-action approach — physically blocking development — is his best strategy.

The same day the BLM approved Lithium Nevada’s mine, Max Wilbert and Will Falk set off for Thacker Pass to establish a protest camp in the middle of the proposed 1,000-acre pit.

The campers’ presence at the mine site might raise questions for some about a handful of radicalized environmentalists pushing their politics in a remote corner of the Great Basin. But when Wilbert and Falk arrived in Thacker Pass, they discovered that concerns about the pending mine had already been stirring among local communities.

Hay farms and cattle ranches spot the Kings and the Quinn River valleys, to the west and east of Thacker Pass respectively. The town of Orovada sits 20 miles down the road, near the dry riverbed of the Quinn. Another 30 miles north brings you to the town of McDermitt on the Oregon border, surrounded by the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone reservation. In the last few months, people throughout this region have complained vehemently against the mine’s future impacts.

Lithium Americas will turn nearly 6,000 acres of Thacker Pass into an industrial zone.

“It’s scary to think that this big corporation is coming after my ancestral lands,” said Daranda Hinkey, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe. For generations, members of the tribe have hunted deer and pronghorn in the Montanas, gathered willow and fish from the creeks, and picked sage and toza, a flowering herb, as traditional medicines. Cultural sites dot the landscape, like an obsidian deposit near the mine that once provided the Northern Paiute with material for tools. And the golden eagles that nest near Thacker Pass — not to mention sage grouse and other species — hold ceremonial significance. “They are going to destroy this land,” said Hinkey. “It’s going to be irreversible.”

Non-Indigenous ranchers in the area have also expressed their concerns. “It’s going to double the depth of the water table beneath our private land,” Edward Bartell, a Quinn River Valley rancher, told me as he walked me through a meadow of native Great Basin wild rye miles from Thacker Pass. According to the BLM’s environmental impact statement (EIS), Lithium Americas plans to pump 1.7 million gallons of water from the aquifer each year, which Bartell expects will turn his land into a desert unsuitable for grazing. “This will be a huge injury to us.”

The list of impacts goes on. According to the EIS, Lithium Americas will turn nearly 6,000 acres of Thacker Pass into an industrial zone — 1,000 acres for the pit, another 1,000 for a tailings facility for hazardous material, and the rest for backfill, roads, worker facilities, septic systems, fencing, and an onsite sulfuric acid plant, where the company plans to convert 5,800 tons of acid each day to leach the lithium from the clay. The project will trade out hay trucks common to the region for semi-trucks full of molten sulfur and clay tailings. Air pollution is a widespread concern among the mine’s neighbors, along with metal poisoning in the groundwater.

“We want to see a just [energy] transition,” said John Hadder, executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch, an environmental justice and mining watchdog coalition. However, the mine’s permitting — under archaic mining laws, without informed community consent, and despite these irreversible damages — doesn’t seem like the green energy future many environmentalists have been fighting for. “The way this mine was permitted sets a bad precedent for our energy transition,” Hadder said.

LITHIUM AMERICAS INITIALLY floated the mine proposal in 2017. By the time Bartell and some tribal members started voicing their skepticism with the project in early 2020, the permit for the mine seemed imminent. At that time, even though the mine is located entirely on public land, Lithium Americas was operating with a project engagement agreement with the Fort McDermitt Tribe’s then-chairman Tildon Smart, who was hopeful about economic benefits. The company promised to quadruple the average income in the region by bringing in 600 jobs during the mine’s construction and 300 jobs during operation. “It sounds like the tribal members will have a hiring preference,” Smart told the Sierra Nevada Ally in November 2019.

However, this agreement preceded the project’s final EIS. Once the BLM released those documents last December, at a time when tribal leadership was in transition, many tribal members, including Hinkey, and a few council members were learning about the mine for the first time. And by that time, the public comment period had already ended.

Bartell managed to get his comments included in the EIS, but he agrees that the review was rushed through without thorough community engagement. “The government processes were just railroaded through,” he said. A decade ago, an environmental review for a project of this scale took an average of 3.4 years to complete. At Thacker Pass, the process was streamlined in under a year, due in part to a Trump-era revision to the National Environmental Policy Act that put a 12-month cap on such reviews. The review also took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, when in-person communication with the community was limited.

In the weeks after the mine’s approval, as protesters started joining Wilbert and Falk at the site, opposition to the mine started to flare up in court as well. In early February, Bartell filed a lawsuit against the BLM for approving the project without consulting independent science on its water impacts. Later that month, a group of environmental organizations, including Great Basin Resource Watch, filed another lawsuit against the BLM for rushing the EIS.

“I am one to see all the pros and cons, but for me, the cons are just too detrimental to accept them.”

Then, in mid-March, a Western Shoshone activist named Carl Bad Bear Sampson led a 273-mile prayer walk from the Yomba Shoshone Reservation in central Nevada to Thacker Pass. In Winnemucca — a two-day walk and 65 miles from Thacker Pass — Hinkey and a handful of members from the Fort McDermitt Tribe joined Sampson. On March 19, as a strong wind blew, the small group of walkers locked arms for the last half mile. Myron Smart, a Fort McDermitt elder, held up a ceremonial staff as the group turned up the mine’s access road. At the protest camp, he lit a fire and prayed “for the land, for the water, for the people,” explained Hinkey.

Ten days later, Hinkey and others, with some legal guidance from Falk, delivered a petition to the tribal council in McDermitt with 15 signatures (the minimum required by the tribe’s constitution to call an emergency meeting). “I am one to see all the pros and cons, but for me, the cons are just too detrimental to accept them,” Hinkey told me later. After some deliberation, the council, under chairperson Maxine Redstar, decided to withdraw from the company’s project engagement agreement.

FORT MCDERMITT ELDERS have a different name for Thacker Pass: peehee-mu’huh, which translates to “rotten moon.” The grim name comes with a grimmer history. It refers to a morning, two centuries ago, when a group of hunters left their families at a camp near the pass to pursue pronghorn in the nearby meadows. When they returned that evening, they stumbled upon the bodies of their family members strewn about the sage and rabbitbrush atop the exposed pass, which hung between two ranges like a crescent moon.

There’s no written record of this event, so it’s difficult to say when exactly it took place, but it could have occurred sometime between 1865 and 1889, when the US Army held a garrison of cavalry and infantry at Fort McDermitt to protect a stagecoach line between the area’s silver mines. The fort was named after a Lieutenant Colonel Charles McDermit, who had been killed in 1865 near the Quinn River by, as his hometown newspaper phrased it, “the hands of skulking Indian assassins.”

A few years earlier, in 1859, prospectors had struck silver at the Comstock Lode near present-day Reno. The discovery brought a rush of miners and settlers to the Great Basin “like a colonial juggernaut,” writes Michael Lopez, an attorney for the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, “legitimizing the forces of dispossession already well underway that would deprive [the tribes] of their land and resources, family members, and culture for generations to come.”

In March, members of the Fort McDermitt Tribe joined a prayer walk to Thacker Pass led by Western Shoshone activist Carl Bad Bear Sampson. When they reached the protest camp, Fort McDermitt elders lit a fire and prayed for the land and the people. Photo by Gabriella Angotti-Jones.

Treaties were broken or rewritten to accommodate the mining rush. Then, in 1872, President Ulysses Grant signed the General Mining Act, with the goal of settling the West’s public lands and encouraging exploitation of its resources. The law set the price for land at a maximum of $5 per acre for anyone who could stake a claim on a mineable resource. That law — and that price — persists to this day.

Today, the 1872 Mining Law governs 350 million acres of public land in the American West, more than 15 percent of all land in the country. According to the law, any US citizen or US-based corporation can stake a mining claim on federal lands — excluding national parks and designated wilderness areas — which gives that person the right to explore for minerals. Multinational companies, like Lithium Americas, become eligible by setting up a subsidiary, like Lithium Nevada. Once a marketable mineral is discovered, the person or corporation can then submit a project plan to extract the mineral, often triggering the need for an environmental review.

According to the law’s critics, however, the environmental review holds little-to-no weight, no matter how long the BLM takes to complete it. Thacker Pass “is a terrible location for this mine,” said Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director for the Western Watersheds Project, one of the environmental groups suing the BLM over the project. “But under the 1872 law, the federal government is never going to flat out say, No.”

For other types of extraction, like oil, gas, and coal (which are not covered by the 1872 law), the BLM can weigh projects against other potential land uses and then determine whether to approve or deny the lease. Under the 1872 Mining Law, however, a mining claim operates more like a patent than a lease, ensuring the miner’s right to the resource, which the BLM rarely refuses. Plus, unlike oil and gas lessees, mine claimants pay no federal royalties. That means that in the last 149 years, mining companies have claimed $300 billion worth of minerals on federal land without paying a federal royalty, while costing taxpayers potentially billions in cleanup costs.

Under the 1872 law, there are environmental standards in place that the BLM has the authority to enforce. These regulations have been updated occasionally in the last 149 years. But according to Fuller and other critics of the mining law, these rules do not go far enough to ensure adequate protection.

In 2000, for instance, the BLM published an updated mining rule referred to as the “3809 regulations” (based on its location in the Code of Federal Regulations). According to 3809, the BLM can deny a mine proposal if it causes “unnecessary or undue degradation” that results in “substantial irreparable harm” to the land. But the definition of these terms falls to the interpretation of the federal managers, and, historically, that ambiguity favors the right to mine. “Nobody in 1872 was worried about the extinction crisis or climate change,” said Fuller. “They wrote a law that doesn’t fit for now, and we need to fix it.”

Thacker Pass is a corridor for herds of migrating pronghorn. Photo by Doug Dance/USFWS.

Under the 1872 mining law, there are environmental standards in place that the BLM has the authority to enforce. But according to critics, these rules do not go far enough to ensure adequate protection. Photo of beeplant by Sarah Kulpa.

The area provides habitat for culturally significant species like sage grouse. Photo by Doug Greenberg.

WILBERT HAS STRONGER WORDS for the 1872 Mining Law, which he describes as a “settler-colonial, wartime law” — a legislative manifestation of manifest destiny and a clear line between the violence of 1872 and the “environmental genocide” of today. The only difference is the context of today’s mining rush.

In 1985, Japanese chemist Akira Yoshino developed the first prototype for a commercial-grade lithium-ion battery that could be used in portable electronics. Sony mass produced it — and ushered in a new era of mineral mining. Commercial lithium extraction first escalated in the salt flats of the Lithium Triangle, a vast area comprising Chile’s Atacama Desert and outlying arid regions in Bolivia and Argentina, estimated to hold more than half the world’s lithium resources. Then, with the advent of lithium-ion battery electric cars, Australia joined the rush and quickly became the world’s top producer. Portugal and China became major suppliers as well. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, lithium production increased 74 percent worldwide.

Today, the United States contains only one lithium mine, near Silver Peak, Nevada, operated by North Carolina based Albemarle, one of the largest lithium providers in the world. But by the late 2000s, multinational companies had begun setting their sights on the Great Basin. Chevron had originally discovered lithium at Thacker Pass in 1977 while drilling for uranium. Thirty years later, Lithium Americas staked its claim.

Lithium exploration hasn’t stopped at Thacker Pass. In 2018, the Trump administration published a list of “critical minerals” — including lithium and rare-earth metals necessary for renewable energy — to encourage their exploration and extraction, with the aim of decreasing dependency on foreign sources.

Shortly after Biden assumed the presidency, he made it clear that climate action would be a major component of his administration’s agenda. Transportation remains the largest greenhouse gas emitting sector in the US, and lithium is seen as the key to decarbonizing that sector. In a series of executive orders, Biden vowed to replace the federal fleet — 650,000 cars — with electric vehicles and create a resilient supply chain for the critical minerals listed by his predecessor, as part of his broader goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. By the end of Biden’s term, lithium demand is expected to double. Much of this demand will be driven by the surge in electric vehicle production. (Tesla sales figures have exploded since 2018. Now, General Motors plans to be all electric by 2035, Jaguar by 2025.) But large battery storage packs for solar and wind energy farms also need lithium. Apple Inc., for instance, is building a massive battery storage project in Northern California using Tesla’s megapack lithium-ion battery system.

“The twenty-first century renewable energy transition can’t be built on a nineteenth-century law.”

For some members of Biden’s cabinet, this means more mining. “We don’t want to be under the thumb of China or other countries that may have in it their geopolitical strategic interest to corner the market for minerals,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said during her confirmation hearing in January. “I think these minerals can be mined in a responsible way, in a way that respects the environment.”

Dozens of other lithium claims, at different stages of research and development, are now scattered throughout the Great Basin. Just a few miles north from Thacker Pass, still in the McDermitt Caldera, an Australian company called Jindalee has been exploring a lithium deposit that rivals Thacker Pass in size. Farther south, near the California border, another Australian company, called Ioneer, plans to start mining lithium at Rhyolite Ridge by the end of the year, despite efforts by the Center for Biological Diversity to protect a rare, endemic wildflower there called Tiehm’s buckwheat.

“We’re setting ourselves up in Nevada to be a global sacrifice zone for the mitigation of climate change,” said Ian Bigley, mining justice organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. In any context, whether mining for gold or for renewable energy minerals, Bigley said, “intergenerational pollution is unacceptable.”

For its part, the metal-mining industry has tried to cast its operations in an environment-friendly light. Early headlines and television reports about the Thacker Pass project ate up the company’s claims that the mine would be “carbon neutral,” based on the company’s long-term goals to reach carbon neutrality by powering the project from the sulfuric acid plant. But the BLM’s EIS tells a different story: For every ton of lithium produced, the mine would emit 2.3 tons of carbon through site operations and transportation.“They are trying to pass this off as a green project,” said Bartell. “But it’s anything but green.”

“The mining industry is certainly trying to position itself as a climate savior by extracting these metals,” said Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello, a London-based coordinator for the mining industry watchdog Earthworks. According to Auciello, who recognizes that demand for renewable energy minerals won’t end overnight, climate mitigation via lithium-ion batteries doesn’t mean that renewable energy mining should continue unabated. Part of Auciello’s job is pressuring battery manufacturers to responsibly source lithium and other materials like nickel and copper. That means working with policymakers to incentivize battery recycling and mineral reuse in a more circular green energy economy, while also alleviating the social and environmental impacts at existing mines.

Falk (left) and Wilbert have maintained a continuous presence at the protest camp since January.

They plan to be there whenever construction crews arrive, which could be any day now. Photos by Austin Price.

For instance, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, or IRMA, certifies mines based on a standard governed by community consent as well as input from labor unions, environmentalists, and human rights advocates. Mechanisms like IRMA are far from perfect, but, short of banning mining altogether, they could pressure the clean energy sector to become a bit cleaner. “If an EV company cannot source recycled metals and has to buy primary metals, then we would recommend that it buys from an IRMA certified mine,” Auciello said.

This coincides with other efforts at Earthworks and other environmental groups to reform the 1872 Mining Law itself and better site future mines. In March, Earthworks prepared a white paper calling on the Biden administration to consider a list of reforms, including a stricter interpretation of “unnecessary and undue degradations” under 3809, more robust consultation with frontline and Indigenous communities, and updates to the public land waste dump standards to “accommodate the massive scale of twenty-first century mining.”

“We need to reform the mining rules,” said Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel for Earthworks and one of the paper’s authors. “The twenty-first century renewable energy transition can’t be built on a nineteenth-century law or its twentieth-century rules.”

IF LITHIUM IS INDEED key to greening the transportation sector, groups like Earthworks and tribes around the Great Basin have their work cut out for them to make sure that companies source it and other minerals in a way that’s socially and environmentally just. Wilbert, however, is hesitant to endorse electric vehicles at all, no matter how the minerals are sourced.

“So many environmental organizations have been actively advocating for this transition to electric vehicles, but we don’t need electric cars,” he said. “The average price of an electric car is $35,000. These green groups have become lobbyists for the production of luxury goods.”

While I often wouldn’t mind swapping out my aging, gas-powered Ford SUV for its EV equivalent, I can see Wilbert’s point. Electric cars have a fatal flaw: They’re still cars. Instead of asking whether we should swap out our gas-powered vehicles for electric ones, perhaps we should be confronting our addiction to automobiles and the colonial, extractive processes required to build them — and working to get more public transit and fewer cars on the road in the first place. We should also be prioritizing battery storage for renewable energy infrastructure over Elon Musk’s car sales figures. “Even if every car on the road were a Tesla, we’d still be trashing the planet to maintain a lifestyle dictated, in many ways, by individual vehicle ownership,” wrote journalist Jake Bullinger in Bitterroot. “The problem, after all, isn’t the internal-combustion car. It’s the car itself.”

On my last night at the protest camp, I followed Wilbert up the ridge above the mine site. Lithium Americas’ construction crews might show up to Thacker Pass any day, and Wilbert, Falk and other protestors plan to be here when they arrive. As we stomped through the snow up the slope, following a zigzagging deer trail, the sagebrush ocean opened up before us, rolling and golden between mountains gleaming with snow. We stopped on an outcrop to take it in, listening to the trill of a pair of dark-eyed juncos below us. A golden eagle flew overhead.

From there, I could read a geometry overlaying the landscape’s complexity, like a short chapter in the caldera’s ancient history. Alfalfa grew in perfect circles near the Kings River. Roads cut straight through the hills. A farm truck sputtered up one of them. Boundaries in the vegetation, invisible up close, showed evidence of past clearcuts. And next to the posts of a rusty cattle gate, an old-growth sagebrush grew taller than me, tangled in barbed wire.

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