A northern Nevada mine that is the largest-known source of lithium in the United States for electric car batteries is facing resistance from a radical environmental group and some of its Native American supporters.
The mine site is called Thacker Pass and located on public land of the Bureau of Land Management in rural Nevada between two mountain ranges about 25 miles south of the border with Oregon.
The fight reflects other political battles between liberals and far-left factions within the Democratic Party, with larger ramifications for the party’s agenda. Lithium is the key ingredient in powering electric vehicles, a centerpiece of the Biden administration’s efforts to promote renewable energy in place of fossil fuels and to develop domestic sources of the critical mineral. China has spent heavily over the years to develop its lithium production industry, far outpacing what the U.S. has achieved to date.
Lithium Nevada, the company developing the 18,000-acre mine site, received a BLM permit in January 2021 for what will be open-pit mining of lithium from clay and processing near the town of Orovada, Nevada, about 200 miles northeast of Reno. The permit was the final step in a decade-long approval process prior to mine construction, and the company plans to begin building the mine later this year once all legal hurdles are overcome.
But soon after the permit was issued, several lawsuits were filed in federal court seeking to slow or halt the project, claiming the land is sacred ground for Native Americans and arguing that the project will damage the local environment.
The lawsuits are part of a strategy by Deep Green Resistance, which described itself as a “radical environmental movement dedicated to stopping the murder of the planet.” DGR members have vowed to do away with American industrial infrastructure in a bid to save the planet from what the radicals believe is coming ecological disaster.
Deep Green Resistance also has organized anti-mine opposition among Native Americans in the area and around Nevada.
An investigation by The Washington Times found two DGR activists, Max Wilbert and Will Falk, were linked to the legal action and to the formation of several protest groups opposing the mine, including one called Protect Thacker Pass, and two Native American protest groups, PeeHee MuhHa’ Warriors and People of Red Mountain. The Red Mountain activists are from the McDermitt reservation north of the mine.
Many of the anti-mine native groups appear to be working with Mr. Wilbert and Mr. Falk, according to a review of Facebook and Twitter posts by the groups and tribe members.
Mr. Falk said on Facebook in January 2021 that stopping environmental destruction “will require direct, physical confrontation with those who destroy.”
“Joe Biden and his administration are not going to allow us to blockade lithium mines, dismantle pipelines, destroy oil refineries, remove dams or do anything that seriously impede economic growth,” he said. “Joe Biden is no friend of the natural world and he’s no friend of ours.”
Mr. Wilbert and Mr. Falk camped out at the mine site beginning in January 2021 for a protest vigil but left weeks later.
According to its website, Deep Green Resistance advocates “a world without industrial civilization” that must be reached by “coordinated dismantling of industrial infrastructure.” The organization describes itself as “proudly Luddite in character” and believes humans do not need electricity.
Both anarchist and Marxist-Leninist ideologically, Deep Green Resistance is anti-American and anti-capitalist. Postings by group members support Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Karl Marx and the Black Panther Party.
DGR also describes itself as “radical feminist” and has drawn fire from proponents of current gender-identity ideology. The website said the group considers men as waging “war against women” and advocates the “abolition of gender” rather than allowing multiple genders that the group regards as bolstering oppression of women by a male “patriarchy.”
The lack of support for transgenderism brought charges that DGR is “transphobic” from LGBTQ advocates who want to normalize gender dysphoria and promote the idea of multiple genders beyond male and female.
“We are in a state of ecological overshoot, and we are in a state of ecological collapse,” Mr. Wilbert said in a video taken at the mine site and posted online May 14.
“The future is going to be dire, but if we accept lies like these — these bright green lies — if we accept them, it only makes things worse. It only becomes more dystopian. There are only more species extinctions, more income inequality, more division and war and destruction of the land. That is not the path to a future that we want,” he said.
Mr. Falk, a lawyer, has joined several lawsuits seeking to block the mine, including one that argued the area is sacred tribal land and the site of a U.S. cavalry massacre of natives in 1865. That argument was rejected by U.S. District Judge Miranda Du in November, who called charges that the massacre took place on the mine site “speculative.” The judge ruled that excavation work at Thacker Pass could proceed.
On Thursday, Judge Du heard arguments from Mr. Falk who said the earlier decision allowing work at Thacker Pass was made without reviewing other documents supporting the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s allegation. On Friday, the judge rejected the argument and found the BLM document production process, while deficient, did not warrant court sanction.
The initial lawsuit in that case was brought against BLM for approving the mine by Edward Bartell, a rancher who owns 50,000 acres of land near Thacker Pass.
“The enormous piles of waste that would be dumped from the use of sulfur makes the fact that they call this a ‘green project’ really bizarre,” Mr. Bartell told Inside Climate News.
Craig Young, an archeologist under contract for BLM and Lithium Nevada, said in an interview his research determined that the reported massacre took place several miles away from the mine site on what is now private property. Mr. Young said he was targeted by radical environmentalists and other anti-mine activists who falsely accused him in online posts of finding and taking away bones of native Americans from the site.
No bones have been found on any area of the mine site surveyed by archeologists, he said.
Demand for lithium soars
Global demand for lithium, a silvery-white metal used in lithium-ion batteries, surged along with the Biden administration’s effort to promote electric vehicles, or EVs, as an alternative to gas-powered cars and trucks.
Mr. Biden acknowledged in remarks last month that skyrocketing gas prices are the result of what he called an “incredible transition” away from the use of fossil fuels.
“Here’s the situation,” the president said in Tokyo on May 23. “When it comes to the gas prices, we’re going through an incredible transition that is taking place that, God willing, when it’s over, we’ll be stronger, and the world will be stronger and less reliant on fossil fuels.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted recently that “the price of lithium has gone to insane levels!” and added that his EV market-leading company may mine and refine the metal for its electric car batteries.
Tesla currently operates a huge factory near Reno that produces electric car batteries jointly with Panasonic. A Tesla spokesman did not respond to email requests for comment on whether the company supports the Thacker Pass mine.
According to industry estimates, the price of a ton of lithium rose sharply from $6,800 in 2020 to $78,032 this year. The sharp increase will likely add to the cost of electric vehicles, currently starting around $57,000.
An Energy Department report from 2021 said the United States will create a secure supply chain for lithium batteries materials and technology by 2030.
“Establishing a domestic supply chain for lithium-based batteries requires a national commitment to both solving breakthrough scientific challenges for new materials and developing a manufacturing base that meets the demands of the growing electric vehicle (EV) and stationary grid storage markets,” Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm stated in the report.
Company working to calm local fears
Lithium Nevada officials said the company is eager to begin construction of the open-pit mining operations for what will be a 46-year project.
For the past several years, the company has worked aggressively within the community and on a nearby Native American reservation to assuage fears of environmentalists, local residents and members of the Paiute-Shoshone tribe, some of whom are fighting the project.
Jon Evans, president and chief executive of Lithium Americas, Lithium Nevada’s parent company, said Deep Green Resistance appears to be the driving force behind much of the opposition to the project.
Despite the protests, the company regards developing lithium as an important step and is seeking to counteract opposition through openness about its plans for the mine, and engagement and exchanges with the local communities.
“We really believe what we’re doing at Thacker Pass, and our work in general, is really critical to securing America’s future in three pillars: climate change, energy security and economic security, and also national security,” Mr. Evans said in an interview. “They’re all kind of interwoven.”
Lithium Nevada has invested time and money into making sure the mine protects the environment, limits water use, restores pits after mining, and respects the cultural heritage of local Nevadans and native tribes, he said.
Open pits where lithium deposits are mined will be filled in and restored with sagebrush. All mine tailings will be placed in dry sacks.
“It’s all state-of-the-art and the most sustainable way we’ve been able to put this mine together,” Mr. Evans said, noting that some environmentalists that support the project agree that the mine will be “the most benign mine they’ve ever seen.”
Government backing for lithium mining
Federal, state and local governments have voiced support for Thacker Pass, Mr. Evans said.
Mr. Biden in March invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act to increase supplies of lithium, nickel and other minerals needed to make EV batteries. The president said the measure is important in ending reliance on China and other countries for green energy resources.
The Biden administration announced last month the Energy Department will spend $3.17 billion to support battery manufacturing.
“To help make electric vehicles work, we need also to increase the production of lithium ion batteries, and we need responsible and sustainable domestic sourcing of the critical materials used to make lithium ion batteries such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite,” senior Biden adviser Mitch Landrieu told reporters May 2.
Thacker Pass also is expected to be an issue in the Nevada Senate race.
Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, Nevada Democrat, is facing a tough reelection battle and has said she supports green alternative energy in the state. But the senator stopped short of endorsing Thacker Pass. The Cortez-Masto campaign did not return emails seeking comment.
Former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Republican challenger running against Ms. Cortez-Masto, said he supports Nevada’s mining industry and the benefits they provide the state.
“Lithium mining represents an incredible opportunity to secure new energy resources and ensure American energy independence,” Mr. Laxalt said.
Locally, Tom Mendiola, manager for Nevada’s Humboldt County where the mine is located, said other than one county commissioner opposed to the mine, “I have not heard one other negative word about the lithium project.”
Mr. Mendiola said he does not believe anti-mine protests reflect widespread public sentiment in the area. Anti-mine protesters “are just really against everything,” he said.
“They don’t like fossils, they don’t like renewables. They just want to go back to horse and buggy,” Mr. Mendiola said. “If they want to do that, we have lots of land for them to do that.”
For the McDermitt tribe, the project will produce “great benefits,” he said.
Tom Hoss, the Humboldt County commissioner who opposed the project, said he believes the lithium project will drain valuable water resources and ultimately benefit China. Two water wells will be drilled at the mine site that will be used in processing the lithium.
“If they turn those pumps on, they’ll dry up that area in about two years,” Mr. Hoss said.
Lithium Nevada disagrees. The company has purchased water rights for use at the mine. A company fact sheet contends the mine will consume less than 1% of the approximately 350,000 acre-feet of water pumped annually from wells in Humboldt County.
Native Americans divided
The mine project has produced mixed opinions from local Native American residents.
One local tribal official said the land around the future mine is barren and does not play a major role in the cultural heritage of the Shoshone and Paiute tribes in the area.
“In my opinion, the project is good for the community and will create jobs,” Alice Crutcher, an elder in the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, stated in an affidavit submitted in one of the court cases. “In my opinion, there is nothing about the Thacker Pass project that is disrespectful to the Paiute-Shahone heritage and tradition.”
But another member of the McDermitt tribe has opposed the mine, including Mr. Biden’s decision to promote lithium production.
“I believe this is going to be the second coming of environmental destruction,’’ said Day Hinkey, who helped organize People of Red Mountain, an anti-Thacker Pass group. Ms. Hinkey told The Associated Press she believes fossil fuels caused the first environmental crisis and that lithium mining will bring on the next crisis.
“This mine will harm the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, our traditional land, significant cultural sites, water, air, and wildlife including greater sage grouse, Lahontan cutthroat trout, pronghorn antelope and sacred golden eagles,” the group said in a statement.
Maxine Redstar, chairwoman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe, is concerned the issue has divided her community.
“We’re just somebody little that’s trying to preserve what we have,” she told the Nevada Independent. “I respect the voice of our older members of the tribe, but I also have young people that are looking for guidance, that are looking toward being here for a very long time.”
Ms. Redstar recently sent out a survey asking whether the tribe should reengage Lithium Nevada on the benefits that will be provided to the tribe.
Domestic source of lithium
Lithium Nevada officials say that the mine is needed to reduce American reliance on lithium produced in China, South America and Australia by boosting domestic U.S. production. The mine also will provide more than 1,000 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs in a region hit hard economically by the pandemic.
The company also has offered the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe a “benefits agreement.” The agreement calls for building a community center and preschool on the reservation along with providing jobs. training and involvement in cultural work.
A corporation-community “work group” also meets regularly near the mine to address local concerns about the mine.
Judy Pichoff, a fourth-generation rancher who lives near the mine site and was forced to sell most of her cattle during the pandemic, said she had concerns about water issues related to the mine but is now confident the mine will not harm drinking sources for ranchers and farmers. Ms. Pichoff has since joined Lithium Nevada as a community consultant.
“It became clear to me we cannot stop progress,” she said in an interview. “Also having the opportunity to shape the direction the lithium mine affects this community with the power of positive changes and the knowledge of what’s to come in the future.”
The huge demand for lithium also means that U.S.-sourced lithium is more important.
“Let’s keep that power here in the USA and not buy China’s imports, but learn from the lessons the oil industry has taught us,” she said. “We can do better.”
Mr. Falk, the DGR activist, said in an email that American law favors mining claims over Native American cultural and spiritual uses. As a result, until “massive and organized” change within American industry is achieved, “no one will be very successful in stopping projects like the Thacker Pass project.”
“We are fighting as hard as we can to keep mining corporations from turning Nevada and Oregon into sacrifice zones for electric car batteries,” he said.
Mr. Wilbert also acknowledges he does not know if the anti-mine campaign will be successful.
“At Thacker Pass, grassroots environmentalists and traditional indigenous people are facing the overwhelming power of big business and government,” he said in a Facebook note. “This reflects a broader pattern: The entire environmental movement has been a running retreat for decades.”
Mr. Wilbert said Deep Green Resistance is “the main organization that launched the protest movement” against the mine but several others also are involved.
Two tribes also are involved in the protest, including the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Burns Paiute Tribe, and eight other tribes and tribal coalitions have spoken out as well. The Reno-Sparks colony, on its Facebook page, has shared a post from Mr. Wilbert on Thacker Pass protests.
Four other environmental groups have sued to halt the project as well, along with a local rancher, he said, adding that thousands of people in local and regional communities are supporting the anti-mine effort.
Deep Green Resistance warns supporters on its website not to talk to federal agents and to make clear that the group is a legal, above-ground environmental group. But in a section of security procedures, DGR also mentions covert underground activities taking place in support of DGR goals.
The group advocates “decisive ecological warfare” through unpredictable attacks on infrastructure that would cause cascading systems failures.
The website says there is a firewall between DGR and “underground action.”
Primary DGR activities are legal, noting “this is in contrast with ‘underground’ organizations that conduct clandestine, highly illegal activities.”
“We advocate for this, as we think coordinated underground action is the best chance for saving the planet,” the website said.
DGR does not plan or carry out underground action yet the website links to a page titled “Underground Action Calendar” listing various direct actions. Those actions include the cutting of fiber-optic cables in France in April that disrupted Internet service.
The organization seeks a four-pronged strategy described as advertise, educate, infiltrate, and expand.
“For the sustainability of all life on earth we must fight united against the ruling elite on a number of fronts concurrently to enable an anti-imperialist movement to take root and an egalitarian global society to develop,” the post said. “The brutal industrial economy has failed miserably. Its inherent contradictions have merely served to: concentrate great wealth into the hands of the ruling elite; poison our atmosphere; create wars; famine; exploit our labor; torture and imprison us; and divide us by race, gender and religion.”
DGR activists on their website and in blogs praise the Marxist-Leninist Black Panther Party and communist guerrilla Che Guevarra as models.
The group also plans to infiltrate “white radicals” using the Black Panther Party methods of social and community outreach.
“Using this as a model, white radicals must awaken ‘redneck’ and ‘hillbilly’ Americans despite an aversion to their racial and gender politics,” the post said. “While it’s essential we combat the alt-right and Nazi party anytime they attempt to rally, it is also critically important that we infiltrate their communities and positively influence their children to disrupt their indoctrination into a world of fear and hatred.”
How lithium will be mined
Lithium Nevada is set to begin construction at what will be an open-pit mine later this year.
The mine is located at the southern end of an extinct supervolcano called the McDermitt Caldera that was formed 16.3 million years ago and is part of the Yellowstone volcanic hotspot. Lithium deposits were produced there several hundred thousand years after a volcanic eruption, when water percolated through nearby rocks, leaching lithium into the caldera basin.
When fully operational in 2024, the mine is expected to produce 60,000 tons per year of battery-quality lithium carbonate over a 46-year life span.
Maria Anderson, a Native American community relations manager for Lithium Nevada, said the company spent 10 years of analysis and design for the mine that meet and in some cases exceed environmental laws and regulations.
“We’re securing a sustainable future by developing a project based on listening and respecting our neighbors’ input,” she said.