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Lithium rush in Nevada could usher new era of mining in the West

A slate of new mine proposals in lithium rich Nevada complicates the environmental response, with some saying large, destructive mines have no place in sensitive environments with others contending America must provide for its energy transition to combat climate change.

(CN) — The Lithium Rush is on in Nevada. 

Well, kind of. 

At present, there is one lithium carbonate mine operating in the state. It’s actually the only lithium-producing mine in the entire United States. 

It’s located just outside of Silver Peak, a town of about 142 people located in the heavy mineralized Clayton Valley near the state’s border with California about 20 miles southeast of Tonopah, and three hours drive south of Reno. 

Mike Catlett was born in Silver Peak in the 1960s, when the lithium mine started and greater mining activity in and around Esmerelda County meant there was more bustle about town. On a Monday in May, he stands in the dirt lot he owns replete with deconstructed pickup trucks, abandoned trailers given over to rust surrounded by a couple of eviscerated refrigerators. 

The brown craggy mountains, characteristic of Nevada’s particular basin and range landscape, rise up all around the town as Catlett talks about how the proposed lithium mines on Rhyolite Ridge, located about 20 minutes drive up a dirt road into the Silver Peak Range. 

“It would be great for the town,” he said, after asking me rather pointedly why I was wandering around his property. “It would create jobs.”

Catlett owns the Old School Saloon on the main thoroughfare through town and business has been far from brisk as evidenced by its slightly dilapidated sheen. 

“I am almost out of business,” he said. 

The current lithium mine — it’s more like a series of evaporation pools than a traditional hard rock mine — is run by Albemarle Corporation and employs about 100 people.  

Yet, if two of the proposed mines in the area come on line, Cartlett could see the return of the type of hubbub that once reigned in the region. 

When silver was first discovered in Esmeralda County in the 1860s, the region was the center of the American West. Wyatt Earp and Virgil Earp once patrolled the streets of Goldfield, Nevada — about 30 miles away from Silver Peak. Max Baer, one of the great heavyweight boxers of the early 20th century, fought a high-profile bout in Silver Peak in 1939. But the glory of those days has faded. 

The entire population of Esmerelda County is little more than 1,000, according to the 2020 census

But lithium mining could change all of that. 

“Rhyolite Ridge is the most important lithium project in Nevada,” said James Calaway, the CEO of Ioneer, an Australia-based lithium-boron producer. “It’s not just for the state, the project is necessary for America’s supply chain and its effort to electrify its transportation system.”

Ioneer’s project on Rhyolite Ridge is one of more than 40 major lithium mining projects in the approval pipeline in Nevada alone, with more than 15,000 outstanding lithium placer claims filed with the Nevada Division of Minerals.

Lithium, the third element on the periodic table, has an assortment of industrial uses, ranging from pharmaceuticals to glass to use in aluminum alloys. But the demand for lithium has exploded due to its use in lithium-ion batteries commonly used for grid storage, smartphones and, most importantly, electric vehicles. 

The success of Tesla and the transition to electric vehicles underway in nearly every major automobile producer has spiked the demand for lithium in the United States and throughout the globe. This increase in demand has captured the attention of the mining industry in the United States, which has been weakened by its poor record of ecological destruction. 

But new generation miners are arguing they can mine for minerals important for reducing fossil fuel reliance in the United States and they further contend that the coronavirus and other geopolitical concerns mean it is incumbent upon the United States to discover and extract rare earth materials. 

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Their arguments and the embrace of these contentions in some environmental circles portend the possibility of a lithium rush in Nevada, called the Silver State because of its rich history of mining. 

But some residents and wildlife advocates want to calm the rush while asking if the profusion of sensitive habitats in Nevada’s open space can withstand the onslaught. 

Demand boom for lithium

The world produced about 85,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent in 2018, a standard unit of measure for the element, representing a more than threefold increase from 2008 when about 25,000 tons of the element were produced worldwide. 

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, which specializes in information related to lithium-ion batteries and the electric vehicle industry, estimates the world will produce 600,000 tons of lithium in 2022 and will need to produce 2.4 million tons of the element in 2030 to meet the demand. Consumers are already demanding electric vehicles for a variety of reasons, but by 2030, several jurisdictions will be hurtling toward aggressive deadlines to phase out the internal combustion engine to achieve complete electrification of the transportation system.

Global leaders say this is necessary to dramatically reduce the greenhouse gases created by burning fossil fuels and which the majority of world scientists insist are responsible for a rapidly warming atmosphere and the attendant natural phenomena like the increase in the frequency and intensity of drought, storms and heat waves. 

California Governor Gavin Newsom, as one example, signed an executive order that requires all new vehicles sold in 2035 to be emissions-free. 

The Glasgow Declaration on Zero Emissions Cars and Vans was unveiled last November at the international climate summit in Scotland, and it was signed by several countries from five continents. 

“These governments want to see more Lithium production and it would be good to get some production going in North America,” said Tom Lewis, president of Lithium Corporation. 

Lewis is exploring the possibility of building a lithium mine in Fish Lake Valley, which is one valley over from Clayton Valley and is just down the road from Rhylotie Ridge on its eastern edge. 

The bucolic basin is flanked to the west by the snow-capped White Mountains, which constitute the highest mountain range in the Great Basin as they tower pyramidally over the Nevada/California border.

Fish Lake Valley is also home to Dyer, a small town that serves as the modest commercial center of a smattering of alfalfa farms that fan out through the picturesque vale. 

“I’m concerned about water,” said Greg Rentschler, a Dyer resident. “We’re pretty maxed out around here.”

In fact, most of the valley’s farmers are reliant on underground aquifers that are seasonally replenished by runoff from the White Mountains to the west and a small amount from the Silver Peak Range. 

A recent Esmeralda County Water Resources Plan stated that stopping overdraft and the concomitant aquifer collapse should be a priority for the regional government. 

These natural resource complexities and the ambiguity of residents who know them well are part and parcel of Nevada’s prospective lithium rush. While most environmentally minded people understand the need to produce lithium in order to marginalize fossil fuels in the American energy portfolio, the act of lithium mining carries its own set of complex environmental concerns. 

Enter Patrick Donnelly. 

Tiehm's buckwheat and biodiversity

Donnelly is the Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity and a self-described desert rat that prefers to haunt the commodious spaces afforded by the desert ecosystems of Nevada and eastern California. 

I met him in Silver Peak on a Monday morning in May at the town’s only major intersection. He likes to keep a low profile in the area because he believes he is persona non grata with miners who populate the area and in talking to miners, he is not exactly a popular guy. 

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He is vehemently opposed to the Rhyolite Ridge mine mostly because of an extremely rare flower called Tiehm's buckwheat, which happened to be in full bloom when we met up in mid-May. 

Donnelly and I drove the 20 minutes out of Silver Peak. On the winding way through the Silver Peak Range Donnelly spotted Peri Lee, a graduate student studying botany with the California Botanical Garden, off the side of the road taking pictures of small desert flowers in bloom. 

Lee said she had spent the morning in Ice House canyon, a seldom-visited part of the range that featured a silvery rainbow tide-eye canyon carved by a presently dried-up waterfall where a rare type of monkeyflower was awakening in profusion. 

“The desert is so diverse and features all these resilient plants,” Lee said. “There is just so much here.”

It was clear from overhearing their conversation that Donnelley and Lee are part of a flourishing botany community that loves to hunt for rare desert flowers in less-visited parts of mountain ranges off the beaten path. 

“This isn’t exactly popular with the REI crowd,” Donnelly said of the area of Nevada we toured. 

It is also clear that this vision of the desert as a profusion of adaptable and perseverant natural plants conflicts with the view of the desert as an ideal landscape from which to withdraw minerals critical to America’s energy transition and efforts to combat climate change. 

There is no plant that embodies this conflict of vision more than Tiehm’s buckwheat.

It is an extremely rare plant discovered in the mid-1980s by botanists hiking through the Great Basin in search of new plants. It was named by James Reveal in honor of Jerry Tiehm, who first collected the species in 1983. 

Donnelly first heard about Tiehm's buckwheat from Don Patterson, an employee at the Bureau of Land Management, who accused the agency’s Battle Mountain District Office of fast-tracking mining permits while ignoring environmental problems. Patterson told Donnelly that Rhyolite Ridge, a planned lithium mine, was proposed for an area home to a sensitive and extremely rare plant.  

“This species of buckwheat is endemic to about 10 acres of this area and that’s it,” Donnelly said pointing to the ridge in proximity to where we parked. The plant’s habitat is so contained partly because it has managed to carve out an evolutionary niche that allows it to compete with other flora in the harsh environment of Nevada’s high desert.

“Over the course of millennia, these plants had adaptations that allowed them to adapt to the highly mineralized content,” Donnelly said. In this, case Tiehm's buckwheat thrives in clay rich in lithium and boron. This specific mix is displayed in an area of the Rhyolite Ridge called the White Hill, a distinctive alabaster geologic feature that contrasts with the rust and brown rock of the surrounding environment and that hosts buckwheat that was fortuitously in full bloom on the morning of our arrival. 

“We got lucky,” Donnelly said as he took pictures of the small round yellow bloom.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has accepted the arguments of Donnelley and the Center for Biological Diversity regarding the endangered status of the Tiehm’s buckwheat and proposed protection on the endangered species list in June of last year. 

Rhyolite Ridge

The mining outfit looking to extract lithium from the Silver Peak Range knows that in order to do so, they will have to do it in a manner that protects the plant and honors public concerns about the surrounding environment. 

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“With modern mining, if you are going to do anything of consequence, you must have a social license to operate,” said Calaway the head of Ioneer. 

It’s a way of saying that regardless of government approval, there must be a level of public buy-in to projects or they will never get done. 

Calaway says his company supports the listing of Tiehm’s buckwheat as endangered and is committed to doing the mine in a way that not only protects the buckwheat but looks to expand its habitat. 

“People want to portray us as oblivious to the importance of protecting the plant, but we have done extensive work on the subject of how to help protect it and make it thrive,” Calaway said. 

He said the company has been working closely with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the agency dedicated to wildlife management, as well as the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency in charge of the land where the mine is proposed, to ensure the plants will not be touched during the mining process. 

“We have worked hard to make sure those plants are not touched,” Calaway said. “We will establish preservation corridors and fencing to protect against any harm.”

Donnelly remains skeptical. 

He says the proposed mine will feature a large open pit, with industrial trucks conveying large amounts of material away from the area on a daily basis. He is not sure the buckwheat population could withstand the amount of proposed industrial activity in proximity to its small habitat. 

Ioneer wants to extract 22,000 tons of lithium annually, which would quadruple Nevada’s lithium production. 

“We’re open minded to how we can produce lithium without making the extinction crisis worse,” Donnelly said. “The problem is the same old dirty mining industry.” 

Calaway is at pains to insist his lithium mine is not an extension of an industry that knew nothing about the disastrous environmental effects of mining or didn’t care. 

But Donnelly said an incident in 2020 indicates the dirty tricks of the past are still present. 

Environmental terrorism or drought?

Both sides are in agreement on the basic facts. 

In the summer of 2020, 40% of the entire population of Tiehm’s buckwheat was destroyed in the span of a few days by a single catastrophic event. 

This is where the agreement ends. 

Donnelly said it was an act of human vandalism. He isn’t sure if it was miners, local residents hungry for work and upset perceived opponents or even a misunderstanding based on signs posted by Ioneer in Dyer, Sliver Peak and other towns that offered rewards for spotting the buckwheat outside of its current ten-acre range (Ioneer is eager to prove the plant can flourish elsewhere). 

But the mine, along with BLM managers and researchers from the University of Reno, Nevada, said the damage was likely caused by rodents. Kangaroo rats and antelope squirrels are native to the area and evidence of their burrows have been spotted in the area. 

Donnelly is not the only one who blames humans. 

Naomi Fraga, a botanist with the Claremont Graduate University said the damage seemed to systematically target the buckwheat on White Hill, as other plants specific to the area were strangely left untouched. The timeline of the incident appears unnatural too, with the vast majority of the plants destroyed abruptly rather than piecemeal. 

The incident remains contested, but Jim Boone, a desert ecologist, performed his own investigation and concluded that rodents, desperate for water in unprecedented drought conditions, attacked the water storage components of the buckwheat and other plants in the area. 

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“As much as we had expected the mining company to be at fault, this was an environmental disaster, not environmental terrorism,” Boone wrote.

But the ecologist also said the incident crystallized the need for the BLM to hold Ioneer accountable for the preservation of the rare flower. 

Donnelly and others continue to suspect foul play and say it demonstrates the mining industry cannot be trusted with fragile resources. 

Climate change

Calaway continues to insist the mine will do so, but also argues that the mine is necessary to combat climate change, which is actually a greater enemy to rare plants like the buckwheat than industry.  

“All those plants are going to die if we have ever-increasing temperatures and drought,” Calaway said. “You can’t just look at one side of this thing, you have to look at it holistically.”

Calaway notes that many environmental groups typically arrayed against mining projects are silent, representing tacit approval. 

The environmental community isn’t exactly coming apart over lithium mining, but there are some signs of internal dissent. Great Basin Resource Watch, based in Reno, Nevada, is opposing another lithium mining project in the northern reach of Nevada called Thacker Pass.

Glenn Miller, a former board member of the environmental organization, resigned his position over its opposition to the lithium mine, calling the group “dead wrong.”

“The Thacker Pass mine will produce the lithium critical to battery production for automobiles that use electricity for transportation rather than carbon-based fuels and provide a major contribution to reducing the impacts of climate change,” Miller wrote in the Reno Gazette-Journal

The situation has its own complexities but is a sign that within the environmental community, opposition to lithium mining does not enjoy the complete accord that opposition to other kinds of mining continues to engender.

But Donnelley says Rhyolite Ridge is different from Thacker Pass and other proposed mines in Nevada. 

“I draw the line at extinction,” Donnelly said. 

A new paradigm

Calaway insists that Rhyolite Ridge is so important because it will provide an exemplar of how to do mining in a way that helps broad overarching climate goals while attending to fine-grained concerns about biodiversity. 

He also frets that if the project can’t get done, it does not auger well for the United States' ability to be competitive in the burgeoning industry of rare earth minerals and alternative energy manufacturing. 

“If Rhyolite Ridge can’t get done, then we are going to have to just be honest and say America is not going to produce the materials necessary for the electrification of transportation,” Calaway said. 

Ian Lange, an economist with the Colorado School of Mines, said Calaway’s contention that Rhyolite Ridge is the test case is probably an exaggeration by someone trying to get a project approved, but also admitted this take contains an element of truth. 

“The truth is that some folks don’t like mining and they will use whatever stick they can to get in the way,” Lange said. “If the Ioneer mine doesn’t happen that doesn’t mean it won’t happen anywhere, but everywhere you look, there are arguments that the environment near proposed mines are pristine and unique.”

Thacker Pass and the mine in Fish Lake Valley are two mines with environmental opposition in Nevada. But mining for rare earth materials like lithium encounter opposition throughout the United States, Lange said.

There are proposed lithium mines in North Carolina, one in Maine, proposed copper mines in Northern Minnesota, and a gold mine in Idaho, all hung up on similar contentions of extraction wreaking havoc on the environment. 

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“These places can’t all be unique,” Lange said. 

The mining industry is flocking to Nevada in part because it is lithium rich, but also in part because it is seen as one of the only places where mines can get approval, Lange said. 

The silver boom in the late 19th century in places like Virginia City, about 20 miles away from Lake Tahoe, is the stuff of Silver State legend. There is a silver miner on the state seal.

There’s a baby gold rush on in and around Elko, Nevada in the eastern portion of the state, bringing jobs and economic vitality to the once-neglected region. 

Steve Sisolak, the Democratic governor of Nevada, has thrown his weight behind the prospects of unleashing lithium production in the state. 

"Given the geopolitical conflicts around the world, we are all acutely aware of the importance of investing in and maintaining domestic supply chains so that the American economy relies only on the ingenuity, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, not foreign despots,” Sisolak said in May. “Nevada is prepared and ready to play a key role as our nation fortifies and enhances its domestic production." 

The Biden administration has also sporadically thrown support behind mining for critical materials in general, and lithium specifically. 

In February, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to emphasize the need for America to supply its own materials for advanced technologies like electric vehicles and other elements of the energy transition. 

“We need to end our long-term reliance on China and other countries for inputs that will power the future,” Biden said at the White House. 

But Biden is also beholden to environmental interests in his political coalition. The difficulty of threading this needle was on display in late February. 

His administration touted mining for critical materials on Feb. 22, the same day that it announced it would suspend the right of way for a road in Alaska that would have paved the way for mining of cobalt and copper. 

“Flowery statements don’t move the needle,” Lange said. 

But the economist also noted that the Biden administration recently fast-tracked the reopening of the Mountain Pass Mine in the desert of California near Las Vegas while the department of defense inked a deal with a rare earth processing facility in Texas.

Whether this momentum extends to lithium mining in Nevada will be closely watched by all vested stakeholders. 

What’s next

Rhyolite Ridge has submitted its plan of operations and the BLM, the regulatory agency in charge of the approval process, will next publish a Notice of Intent that begins the process of compiling an environmental analysis of the project. 

In the meantime, Donnelly and others will continue to exert pressure to ensure their concerns over Tiehm’s buckwheat and other elements of biodiversity are heavily weighed in the process. Ioneer is eager to get going. 

“Time matters,” Calaway said. “If we don’t get going in producing lithium by 2025, it’s going to make this chip shortage for the automobile industry look like peanuts.”

The approval process is likely to be fraught and will probably prompt litigation.  

“The extinction crisis is right in Nevada’s backyard,” Donnelly said. “This little buckwheat is part of what gives us clean air to breath, clean water to drink and if we ignore the importance of biodiversity, this Earth is done for.”

Lewis, who continues to explore lithium deposits just down the road from Rhyolite Ridge in Fish Lake Valley, said engaged environmentalists are paradoxically good for an industry that is trying to prove its modernized practices can be done in a way that provides needed materials while honoring the surrounding environment. 

“Sometimes they can be overzealous, but overall it’s good,” he said. “It holds the industry accountable.”

That industry, to the extent it gets off the ground in the United States figures to be centered in Nevada. 

“There’s a lithium rush in general and Nevada, the friendliest state to mining in the Union, has some deposits,” Lange said. 

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