This metal isn’t for trading or making jewelry from — it’s lithium. Its potential role in reducing carbon emissions around the world is what makes it valuable.
However, it is fraught with controversy in the United States.
Lithium is the key ingredient in the big, rechargeable lithium batteries that power electric cars and store energy from solar panels and wind turbines. This energy is available even when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
This is the latest global rush to produce renewable energy. The Biden administration published a strategic plan that included several federal agencies. It outlined how it would improve the entire supply chain of critical minerals like lithium, from its extraction from the US to its use in batteries to recycling and reusing them.
“America has a clear possibility to rebuild our domestic supply chain, manufacturing sectors, so that we can fully reap the benefits of an emerging $23 trillion global green energy economy,” Jennifer Granholm, US Energy Secretary, stated in June.
The US has two major lithium deposits: one in Nevada, Thacker Pass, and one in North Carolina. The Thacker Pass lithium deposit, which is one of the largest in the world, is located in an old, now-extinct supervolcano.
The US Bureau of Land Management approved in January a proposal to begin mining lithium by Lithium Nevada Corporation, a subsidiary of LithiumAmericas Corp.
Jonathan Evans, president and chief executive officer at Lithium Americas Corp. said that the deposit is the most well-known in North America.
Evans explained to CNN that most of the lithium chemicals used by the US are imported from foreign countries. Chile and Bolivia, which are lithium-rich nations, are major exporters. Evans stated that the US and Canada have lithium deposits that are not lost on the federal and state governments. “Everybody wants to be involved in that and we have all the resources to do so.”
The use of lithium and cobalt for electric cars has been controversial worldwide for many years. This is in part due to its environmental destruction, short lifespan, and sometimes because child labor was used.
Not everyone is happy about the rush to mine white gold as it comes to the US.
Not everyone is aboard
Lithium Americas hopes that it will begin construction on its mining project by early 2022. CNN traveled to Nevada to find that environmental advocates are being pushed against each other by the rush to get critical minerals in America.
Some climate activists believe the rush to mine lithium will be crucial to a greater transition away fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas. Other tribal nations and local environmental groups are also opposed to the project due to concerns about the potential environmental impact and disturbing sacred burial grounds. Three tribal groups tried stopping it through lawsuits, which were dismissed in September by a judge.
“A lot understand that blowing up a mountain to coal mining is wrong; but I think blowing down a mountain to lithium mining is just about as wrong,” stated Max Wilbert who is an environmental organizer and is camping out at Thacker Pass in protest of the mine’s construction.
Wilbert gave several reasons why he opposes the lithium mine. These include environmental impacts on sage grouses and antelope, possible water pollution for nearby communities, and cultural issues for the local Indigenous community, which considers Thacker Pass sacred burial ground.
Wilbert is currently living in Nevada desert winter conditions in a tribal ceremonial camping. He and other advocates say that they are willing and able to stand up to the mining machinery to stop this project from moving forward.
“Our laws are not up to date with the reality of what’s occurring to our planet,” he stated. “Electric cars will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the real sense; they will reduce emissions, but not by a significant amount.”
Glenn Miller is a retired professor of environmental sciences at the University of Nevada Reno. He stated that the Thacker pass project is a “relatively harmless mine for its size.”
Miller stated that he believes the environmental benefits of mining lithium from Nevada outweigh the environmental concerns, especially when it comes down to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are worsening global climate changes.
Miller stated, “Those who claim it isn’t going to make any differences, they’re simply wrong.” “Radical environmentalists will argue that the only solution to climate change is to reduce the amount of cars you drive and to use less gasoline or coal. But that’s not what’s going to happen. Society has set high standards and we will need to have an active transportation sector.
Miller stated to CNN that lithium is the key ingredient for the transition to electric cars.
Miller stated that lithium is the only metal that can perform as well as lithium. We’ll need lots of batteries to power the cars we have on the road. It will be a positive contribution towards reducing climate change.”
Evans said that his company is educating the community and state governments about the plans for the mine.
Evans stated that it was important to make the transition as sustainable as possible. He stressed that his company is committed in minimizing the environmental impact of mining by conserving water and trying to reduce carbon emissions as it extracts the minerals.
“It’s not cheap, but it’s vital as we move towards this.” Phase to ensure that we do things responsibly.”