The Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada has pitted the national demand for lithium against the interests of local indigenous groups. The precedent may have implications for future conflicts between indigenous communities and mining interests.
In March of 2023, the mining company Lithium Americas began construction on the controversial Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada. The mine’s lithium would significantly bolster the production of electric vehicles (EVs) in the coming years, which would contribute significantly to the fight against climate change. However, many indigenous people in the area oppose the mine because of the mine’s location on a massacre site, among other concerns. Environmentalists and local ranchers also oppose the mine. The conflict between these groups and Lithium Americas may set a precedent for future conflicts between indigenous communities and mining interests. This article explores the history of the controversial project, examines the economic and political background behind Thacker Pass, and concludes with a discussion of future implications for mineral conflicts.
History of Thacker Pass:
Thacker Pass is located in what is now called the Montana mountain range in northern Nevada. For millennia, the area has provided habitat for species such as Bighorn Sheep, Pronghorn, Sage Grouse, Trout, and many more. Sage Grouse and Lahontan trout are now endangered species. The area has also provided hunting and gathering grounds as well as spiritual significance to many different indigenous peoples over the millennia. Americans colonized northern Nevada in the 19th century, and in 1865 the US cavalry killed 31 Paiute men, women, and children. The massacre site is now called “Peehee Mu’huh”, or Rotten Moon, in the local Paiute language, because the bodies were left to rot rather than being buried. The descendants of those who survived the massacre now live in nearby indigenous communities, particularly the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone tribe. The land is now managed by the US government’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The American oil company Chevron prospected Thacker Pass for minerals in the late 1970s and found significant deposits of lithium. In 2007, the company Western Lithium (which is now Lithium Americas) renewed exploration in the area, and by 2018 the company had confirmed that Thacker Pass was the largest known reserve of lithium in the United States. Lithium Americas submitted its Environmental Impact Statement to the BLM in the summer of 2020, and the BLM approved it on January 15th of 2021 during the final days of the Trump Administration. By approving the Environmental Impact Statement, the BLM allowed the mine to proceed under federal law.
A slew of litigation by opposition groups followed the BLM’s decision to approve the Environmental Impact Statement. On February 26th, 2021, Basin and Range Watch, Great Basin Resource Watch, Wildlands Defense, and Western Watersheds Projects, all filed a joint lawsuit alleging that the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Land Permitting Act by approving Lithium Americas’ Environmental Impact Statement. Local rancher Edward Bartell brought another lawsuit, which alleged the BLM violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to consider the mine’s impact on the area’s endangered Lahontan Trout. Lastly, a lawsuit was filed by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and a group of Paiute and Shoshone people called Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu, or People of Red Mountain. The suit alleged that the BLM violated the National Historic Preservation Act by failing to give due consultation to all tribes with spiritual ties to the land, and the suit sought an injunction to halt the construction of the mine. After two years of complicated legal battles, all three of these lawsuits failed. On February 6th of 2023, Chief Judge Miranda Du of the U.S. District Court of Nevada ruled that BLM complied with the relevant laws when approving the Environmental Impact Statement for Thacker Pass.
However, in response to this decision, a new lawsuit was filed on February 26th of 2023 by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe, and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe. This new suit alleged that BLM failed proper consultation with the tribes before approving the project, and also withheld information from the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office. Only a month later, on March 23rd of 2023, Chief Judge Du ruled that these claims were invalid, and dismissed this case as well.
In conjunction with these court cases, there has been widespread protest opposing the Thacker Pass mine. The citizen's group of Paiute and Shoshone peoples called Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu, or People of Red Mountain, organized many protests around Nevada to express their opposition and raise public awareness. Additionally, a small group of environmentalists organized a group called Protect Thacker Pass which held a long-term protest camp on Thacker Pass and convened activists from across the nation. These efforts have raised awareness of the issue, but do not appear to have favorably influenced any court or agency decisions to date.
In sum, the Thacker Pass mine would desecrate a site that is historically and spiritually significant to many indigenous people, and degrade the habitat of local species. The litigation brought around these issues has been costly to all parties and has severely hurt the public image of both the BLM and Lithium Americas. To understand why these groups have endured such a taxing situation, it is necessary to step back and examine the economic and political background in which the Thacker Pass controversy rests.
Economic and Political Background:
To begin, it is essential to understand why lithium demand has been growing in the United States. A plentiful and reliable supply of low-priced lithium will be key to reducing transportation emissions in the coming decades. In 2021, transportation accounted for 28% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other economic sector. The Biden Administration has made reducing transportation sector emissions a priority in the fight against climate change. Biden’s Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm has stated that “the domestic transportation sector presents an enormous opportunity to drastically reduce emissions that accelerate climate change and reduce harmful pollution.”
President Biden has made the expansion of electric vehicles (EVs) a critical part of his plan to reduce transportation emissions. The Administration’s goal is to have 50% of new car sales be electric vehicles by 2030 (see above). The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, The CHIPS and Science ACT, and the Inflation Reduction Act combined will invest $135 billion in the electric vehicle industry. The private sector has responded to these actions by investing 120 billion dollars in the electric vehicle industry since Biden took office.
A major part of these investments will be the production of critical minerals for EVs. The most important of these minerals is lithium. Lithium batteries store the large amount of electricity that is necessary for EVs to function. Some experts estimate that the US will require 500,000 metric tons of unrefined lithium per year by 2034 just to power electric vehicles. Current world production lags at approximately 130,000 tons of unrefined lithium, and 98% of this lithium is produced in Australia, Latin America, and China. The International Energy Agency estimates that the world could experience lithium shortages as soon as 2025. In response to this, Biden’s EV investments aim to increase the production of battery-quality lithium. Of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s $25 billion investment, around $7 billion will be directed toward the production of EV battery components, critical minerals, and materials.
It is important to note that the federal government also sees the domestic production of critical minerals as a matter of national security. Collectively, Australia, Latin America, and China accounted for 98% of global lithium production in 2020. Comparatively, the US has hardly any production of lithium. There is currently only one active lithium mine in the US, the Silver Peak mine in southern Nevada, and it only produces a token of 5,000 tons per year of lithium. Because of this deficit, the US imports most of its lithium from Argentina and Chile. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have agreed that the US needs to develop its domestic production of lithium to reduce reliance on these foreign sources. The Trump administration issued executive orders in 2017 and 2020 intended to reduce dependence on imports of critical minerals (including lithium), and Biden followed suit with his executive order in 2022. Additionally, the Inflation Reduction Act’s subsidies require that battery manufacturers use lithium mined in the United States.
In this context, both the Biden and Trump administrations have seen Thacker Pass as an immense opportunity. Thacker Pass holds the largest deposit of lithium in the United States. The mine would produce 40,000 tons of battery-quality lithium per year for the first 3.5 years of its production life, and then 80,000 tons of battery-quality lithium per year for approximately the next 40 years. The CEO of Lithium Americas, Alexi Zawadski, says that this single mine may be able to meet most, if not all, of the lithium demand in the United States.
In sum, the federal government is applying immense pressure to develop a domestic supply of lithium to enable the transition to EVs, and Thacker Pass is an essential part of this effort. Construction on the mine began in March of 2023, and the mine could begin producing lithium as soon as 2026. For now, the fate of the Thacker Pass conflict seems certain. However, larger questions remain surrounding “green” technology and critical minerals.
While the mining interests may have won in the case of Thacker Pass, many more conflicts are springing up around the world between critical minerals and the rights of indigenous peoples. In the Salmon River mountains of Idaho, the company Perpetua Resources is pushing for an open pit mine that would produce 115 million tons of antimony for batteries. The Nez Perce tribe opposes the mine for its devastating impacts on the ailing salmon population. In Arizona, a Canadian mining company seeks to mine copper in the Santa Rita Mountains over the objections of the Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui, and Hopi people. Another proposed lithium mine in Arizona’s Big Sandy River valley would destroy a hot spring held sacred by the Hualapai Tribe. Leaders of the San Carlos Apache tribe are also seeking to halt a copper mine in Arizona that would destroy sacred land they call Oak Flat.
Researchers have observed a strong pattern here. In the United States, almost all of the known nickel, copper, lithium, and cobalt reserves are located within 35 miles of Native American reservations. We should expect similar conflicts to arise more frequently as the demand grows for green tech minerals.
Biden came into office with commitments to “honoring federal trust and treaty responsibilities, protecting Tribal homelands, and conducting regular, meaningful, and robust consultation.” He also appointed Secretary Deb Haaland to be his administration's Secretary of the Interior, making her the first indigenous person to be part of a presidential cabinet. Tribal leadership around the US hailed her appointment as a chance for better relations between the federal government and indigenous communities. This recent decision to approve the Thacker Pass mine under Haaland’s Department of Interior (which includes the Bureau of Land Management) seems to conflict with the Biden Administration’s promises. From this precedent, how the Administration proceeds with existing and future conflicts between indigenous communities and mining interests remains in question.
In conclusion, more work needs to be done to ensure that decarbonization is just and equitable. Climate change is an existential threat that must be dealt with, but as Gary McKinney of the Duck Valley Shoshone Paiute Tribe says: “we must do so [fight climate change] without replacing dirty oil with dirty mining that desecrates the cultural resources and sacred sites of Indigenous peoples.” I urge the Biden Administration to reconsider the approval of the Thacker Pass mine and to prioritize the interests of indigenous communities in the coming mineral conflicts.