Lithium Mining Poses Challenges, Opportunities
Podcast sheds light on mining's impact on indigenous people, climate crisis
By Luis Ortiz-Colon, a Public Citizen Intern
I recently had the opportunity to listen to Molly Wood’s riveting two-part lithium mining episodes on her “How We Survive” podcast series and was surprised, yet again, at the innate complexity of the climate crisis.
The discussion of the varying viewpoints related to lithium mining was especially intriguing. I was assigned the ‘White Gold’ and ‘Necessary Evil’ episodes as part of a sustainability class at the University of Texas. The information the episodes conveyed was shocking and eye-opening to say the least. Both follow the story of a proposed lithium mining facility in Thacker Pass, Nevada. With an estimated 2 metric tons of lithium, this southwestern terrain is rich in the element, and of interest for lithium investors all over the world. The premise of the podcast was reporting on the history, conflict, and varying opinions of those connected to the area and community. Major shareholders include Lithium America, concerned Thacker Pass citizens, indigenous community members, a radical environmental organization known as Deep Green Resistance, local and federal governments, and if you think about it, the rest of the world.
Lithium-ion batteries are considered the key piece of the puzzle for the transition to sustainable energy. This highly sought material for batteries is lightweight and capable of sorting large sums of energy. To add to lithium’s desirability, it is also a fairly rare element. In the United States there are two main Lithium reserves, one in North Carolina and the other in Thacker Pass, Nevada. Outside of the United States there is a large reserve in South America, spanning Bolivia, Argentina, and other countries, known as the lithium triangle. Lithium mines are also plentiful in China and Australia. Due to high demand and limited extraction facilities, the industry is set to gain over $10 billion in investment over the next decade.
The actual process of mining lithium is lengthy, difficult, and can have many drawbacks. For starters, the process of extraction depends on the state at which the alkali metal is found. If the lithium is in solid ore form, a series of explosion and drilling techniques loosen, fragment, and separate the element from the other four minerals it is compounded to.
But if the lithium is contained within a salt brine, it is pumped from underground lakes to outdoor above ground evaporation pools where the exposure to the sun, wind, and other natural forces evaporate water and leave salt ions, including lithium chloride. These contrasting lithium states and extraction methods lead to contrasting processing methods. Once lithium ore is extracted it is further crushed and roasted to form a more usable powder. This powder is then exposed to several chemical processes that remove additional compounds that are not sought after, leaving a lithium carbonate of 99% purity. Moreover, brine-rooted lithium further separates salt ions once the presence of 6000 parts per million of lithium chloride is detected. To add to the complexity of the mining process, industry extraction and processing times vary by up to two years and the exact methods that extraction facilities follow differ among mines.
The podcast episodes revolve around the notion that to solve the climate crisis there would be some communities sacrificed for the greater good, and teeters between proponents and opponents of the mine and their connected viewpoints. In this case, the wilderness and indigenous community of Thacker Pass would theoretically bear that cross, as their land would be used for the domestic cultivation of lithium that would in turn lead to revenue for both the nation and the immediate community. That lithium could then be applied to solar energy batteries or other renewable technology that would allow civilization to wean itself off of fossil fuels. It’s not an idea that sits right with the host, and frankly me neither.
While the collection of lithium can be a key factor in the weaning off of fossil fuels, it cannot be the only option. We understand to prevent catastrophic change to humanity we need to make changes in our consumption and production habits. However, is transitioning to lithium for the sake of renewable energy depending on yet another nonrenewable resource to keep up with ever-growing energy consumption needs? Moreover, if this switch causes catastrophic damage to already vulnerable communities how effective is it? Communities like Thacker Pass would in turn be further subjugated to the demands of a society that has historically marginalized them. It is easy to consider all the good that the mining of lithium would produce but it should not be as easy to ignore all the harm it may cause in the process.
One of the most compelling aspects of the podcast was the diverse opinions of individuals. Throughout the podcast there were many instances where those interviewed gave compelling yet controversial arguments, evidenced by Wood’s statement that “all of these people were so right but so wrong at the same time.” I was reminded that assessing the reality of climate change is not always black and white.
There were individuals interviewed in the podcast that one would assume entirely discredit the idea of a changing climate, but they actually acknowledge those changes. One married couple – die-hard supporters of Donald Trump -understood and believed in a changing climate, evident by changes in growing seasons and temperatures, rising sea levels, and all the other consequences we know of. However, they discredited the idea that humanity had any involvement in creating it. Hearing that I thought ‘oh, so close’ and asked myself how someone could refuse to go further with that understanding and fail to connect the fact that humans are causing the degradation of the Earth’s climate. It’s clear to me that humans are the cause of the changing climate, yet I wonder if it should matter if someone else does? I mean acknowledging climate change a feat enough. The answer – as I see it – is yes. If one cannot accept the damage one has partaken in, the probability of action being taken and a solution developing does not exist. It is dangerous to understand the facts, ignore the resulting consequences, refuse to take agency, and accept defeat.
Furthermore, there were indigenous community members that were in support of the mine rather than in opposition to it. These individuals argued that not allowing the indigenous lands to house the mines would further stifle the development of native populations, and that the predominantly white opposition that was protesting the mines on the lands were doing so as part of their personal agenda rather than for the best interests of the local population.
If we don’t accept that human development in the name of “progress” has caused the destruction of well-established climate systems, it prevents us from taking full blame and accountability. This subsequently leads to a lack of necessary action to mitigate one of the most pressing issues facing humanity – a threat that will determine our continued existence on the planet.
Ultimately, the final decision concerning the implementation of the mine lies in a grey area. There is no clear right or wrong decision, yet there is a correct way to go about making it. Rather than repeat history and continue to ignore the conditions demanded by indigenous populations on native lands, community members should possess priority decision making status and all interested parties should work together to ensure this mine upholds their wishes.
Rennie B Kaunda (2020) Potential environmental impacts of lithium mining, Journal of Energy & Natural Resources Law, 38:3, 237-244, DOI: 10.1080/02646811.2020.1754596