Thacker Pass Lithium mine approval draws around-the-clock protest

Activist questions if batteries will save the planet or cause more harm than good

The encampment at Thacker Pass - photo: Max Wilbert

There is one working lithium mine in the United States, the Silver Peak brine mine located near Goldfield, Nevada. Last Friday, the US Bureau of Land Management approved the nation’s second lithium mine roughly 70 miles north of Winnemucca, Nevada, the Thacker Pass Lithium Project. 

Canadian developer Lithium Nevada has put forward a plan that they say will make for a carbon-neutral, open-pit mine operation in service to the larger green economy hungry for lithium. The company says the Thacker Pass mine will greatly enhance the nation’s domestic ability to meet the fast-growing lithium demand for electric vehicle batteries and energy storage systems, large and small. 

The mine is expected to provide as many as 1,000 jobs during construction and 300 ongoing jobs for the 46-year life of the project. 

But since the mine was approved last Friday, Max Wilbert and Will Falk have been camped out at the mine site and are working to get others to join them in their effort to prevent the development of the Thacker Pass mine.

Wilbert and Falk say they are prepared to remain in place and block all construction, mining, and road-building activities until Lithium Americas abandons their plan to develop the mine. They are demanding: 

  1.   The establishment of a protected area at Thacker Pass preserved for the enjoyment of future generations, for wildlife including the Kings River pyrg, and for water quality;
  2.   An immediate abandonment of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project by Lithium Americas corporation; and
  3.   A sincere apology from Lithium Americas Corporation for claiming that Thacker Pass is a “green” project.

For some insight, we spoke with Max Wilbert by phone.

What compels you to camp out at Thacker Pass?

“I used to live in Salt Lake City, and when I lived there, that was the first time that I traveled to Nevada and really spent time, and I’m sure, as all the readers of your paper know, rural Nevada is incredibly beautiful. It’s one of the most wild places left in the lower 48. 

“It’s open. It’s empty. It’s one of the few places where you can really find real solitude, clean air, quiet, starry nights that are just incredibly bright. And really appreciated that from the first time I came out here.

“I got involved in the fight against the water grab, the Las Vegas water, grab the Southern Nevada Water Authority pipeline back in around 2014. And that took me over to the east side of the state. But it wasn’t long after that, I began doing some research for a book that I’ve written, which is actually just about to be published. That’s called Bright Green Lies, and that book looks at the environmental problems with green technologies. So it’s coming from an environmentalist perspective. 

“But it’s looking at solar power and wind turbines and electric cars and a number of other things from an environmental perspective and finding a lot of problems with them. So in the research for that book, I first became aware of the Thacker Pass project. The first time I came out to this specific site was back in October, and once I got here, and once I started learning more about the specific issues with this mine in this place, I just felt like I had to do something about it.

I asked if Wilbert opposed the project as a vestige of the Trump Administration and a response to Trump’s executive order to mandate no more than a year for a National Environmental Policy Act Record of Decision?

“No matter which side of the political divide you fall on, there are serious issues with this mine. Trump definitely rammed it through the objections of the local community. A lot of the ranchers around here are very opposed to the project. There’s a lot of concerns about the wildlife. There’s a lot of concerns about water, air quality, pollution, endangered species issues. 

“But then on the other side, Biden, we expect that he’s going to come out with a climate plan in the early stages of his administration that will likely result in fast tracking more lithium mine projects just like this. So no matter who you vote for, what we’re really seeing here is politicians who are prioritizing energy extraction and business, private business, and in this case that a foreign company, a Canadian company, coming in and destroying the land and taking what they want with little consideration for the natural world and for the local community.”

Green technology has an environmental impact. Wilbert is the author of the upcoming book, Bright Green Lies, which examines the environmental harms of renewable energy projects. Wilbert says electric cars with lithium batteries will not help solve the climate crisis.

“The problem is really the entire framing of the issue. Because if you look at an issue, like the climate crisis, like the environmental crisis in general, and you say, ‘let’s solve this by changing the technologies that we’re using.’ What you’re really doing is you’re only addressing the surface level symptoms of the issue, you’re not getting down to the root causes. And so at best, just like a doctor has to diagnose the disease and come up with a proper diagnosis before they can come up with a proper cure, otherwise, at best, they’re just going to be giving you something to treat the symptom. They might make your fever go down. But if they don’t actually treat the infection that’s causing it, they may just delay the medical emergency that you’re facing. 

“I think this is a really similar situation, in that, if you don’t think critically about the environmental crisis that we’re facing around the world, then you might think that electric cars and batteries are a solution. But the reality is, the carbon that comes out of the tailpipe of a gasoline powered car is probably one of the more minor issues with cars overall. Because when you think about it, the production of cars, the extraction of the raw materials required to produce them, the distribution of them around the planet. Not to mention, probably the single biggest destructive factor with cars, is the construction of roads all over the planet and parking lots. There’s more paved area in the United States than the entire state of Nevada. Right. 

“So if we’re not addressing these problems at a more fundamental level, transitioning to a more localized way of life, reducing our energy consumption significantly, moving towards local food production, moving away from a high energy, high consumption way of life and doing something about the fact that there are too many people consuming too much in this culture. We have a culture of excess. If you’re not going to do something about that. And you think that electric cars are going to solve the problem. I think you’re really fooling yourself.”

In an effort to combat a warming climate, Nevada state lawmakers passed a bill during the 2019 Legislative Session that requires the state to generate 50% of its electrical energy from renewable resources by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The law is intended to encourage the development of new renewable energy projects. Wilbert says the effort is well-intended but misses the mark.

“Renewable energy technologies, including lithium, are going to be incredibly profitable. And so we see on the right wing, we see the Republican Party really prioritizing fossil fuel energy development and sort of pandering to those businesses and those campaign donors coming from that industry. 

“And on the Democratic side, we see the exact same thing with businesses, with pandering to businesses involved in electric vehicle production, in solar panels, and wind turbines, etc. People actually believe that this is going to save the planet. But the fact that it’s very profitable creates a very strong motivation to focus on that, rather than really tackling the harder issues around consumption, around the profligacy with which we use energy, with the amount of waste in our culture, with the endless obsession with growth that our economy seems to have. These are much more challenging issues to face and to tackle.

“And so it’s tempting for politicians to just go for the low hanging fruit, something like a lithium mine that might create a lot of tax revenue for the state, that might create a lot of jobs that might get them more votes, right? These are real political considerations that politicians are dealing with. And you can understand why the easy answer for them is to only tackle the surface issue. 

“But the reality is, we’re in a crisis situation. Nineteen of the 20 hottest years on record have been in the past 20 years. We’re in a situation where 200 species are going extinct every single day. And that’s from the UN Environment Program. That’s not a statistic I’m just making up. And it’s because of projects just like this all over the world. 

“In the natural world, the foundation of all life on this planet, the foundation of future generations, is being threatened by the activities of this culture. And if we don’t shift our mindset from this very surface level thinking that says technological change will save the day, then we’re in for a really rough future. 

“What we’re really seeing is the selling out of our children’s future for short term profits. And we’re not just seeing that from the Republicans. We’re not just seeing that from the Democrats, we’re seeing that from across the board. And we really need people, I think it’s going to be everyday people. It’s going to be average people in the community. 

“The mainstream press isn’t really prepared to grapple with these issues. It’s going to be everyday people who need to think about these things, decide which side they’re on and start to take action. So we’re really hoping that more people will join us up here at this camp, will spend time here with us. We’ll talk through the issues. And it’ll be part of protecting this place because we want to protect Thacker Pass, but we think this is an important issue, symbolically for reasons that go far beyond what’s happening here.”

The proposed lithium mine site at Thacker Pass in Humboldt County, Nevada – photo: Max Wilbert

Economic development in rural Nevada is difficult. Many members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe of Nevada, for instance, live in severe poverty. Tribal chairman Tildon Smart told the Ally he and the tribe are excited about the potential for the Thacker Pass mine to provide jobs. In working to prevent the Thacker Pass mine, is Wilbert concerned about denying much needed jobs to those living in poverty?

“Absolutely. I would never condemn any individual who’s trying to feed their kids, right, who’s trying to keep a roof over their family’s head, who takes a job in a mining industry like this. I think the reality is that what we see time and time again, throughout Nevada history, and throughout the history of this country, frankly, is a situation where extractive industries come in, they extract natural resources, and they leave behind a wasteland. And that’s just, that’s not just in the natural communities and ecosystems, but also in the human community. 

“I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. And there’s this ideology, that the fight to protect the spotted owl really killed the logging industry, which isn’t actually true when you research the history of what happened. What really killed the logging industry was automation. And so what you’re seeing again, and again, and again, is these extremely wealthy individuals, mostly hedge fund and Wall Street people who own these logging companies coming in, taking all the resources, taking all the trees, giving people good jobs for 10, 20, 30, 40 years, and then leaving them with nothing. And so there’s no investment in the community, there’s no real desire to help the community long term, because those people, it’s the same with Lithium Americas.

“The Board of Directors, none of them live here, and none of them are local. They’re multimillionaires. They’re very wealthy people, their former Rolls Royce executives, former former mining company, oil and gas executives who are interested in making as much profit as they possibly can. And sure, they may kick down a few bucks here and there to give people jobs in these areas. But they’re not really interested in sustainable economic development. They’re not really interested in the future of this region beyond when their mining operation take place here, beyond when their mind mining operation goes through.

“I was just up here on Saturday, and there were quite a few people chuckar hunting up in the valleys of Thacker Pass around us here. And we chatted with a couple of hunters. And, you know, I’m a hunter myself. And that’s something that I hope to be able to do with my kids in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. 

“And what about grandkids? You know, what about the great grandchildren of the residents of this area? Will they be able to take their children, you know, hunting and fishing and so on in these communities? Will they be able to live here and drink the water? Or will it be poisoned from the uranium that’s in the oil up here that might get into the water supply as a result of this mine? That’s what I’m concerned about is we need to have a long term focus and there needs to be serious action at the state level, at the county level, at the federal level, to address issues of rural poverty, and to help the people who are very much struggling in Nevada, especially indigenous communities that are really dealing with an extremely serious legacy of colonialism. And promises from the mining company to alleviate these problems are really just snake oil.”

Wilbert contends that Nevada is not a wasteland. He says an important reason why he’s camped out near the mine site is to protect irreplaceable natural beauty that once lost, is gone forever.

“I think that it’s really important that people understand why we’re here. I’ve been spending time in Nevada, like I said, for years. And I love this land. You know, anybody who lives in rural Nevada can appreciate those Great Basin sunsets, right. And those star spangled nights. And just the incredible beauty, the stark beauty of these landscapes out here. I don’t want to see that shattered by 170 semi truckloads a day coming through what is now a quiet rural pass where you hear coyotes howling and birds calling and all you hear is the wind. 

“I think anyone who spends time out in these places tends to fall in love with the land out here. And so I really want to encourage people if they haven’t been out here, come up for a visit. Come talk with us. We’re following coronavirus protocol in our camp trying to keep ourselves and everyone else safe. But we’re happy to meet with people. We’re happy to chat with people. Our contact information is on our website, protectthackerpass.org. 

“We’re interested in making contact with other people who are concerned about this mine and other project like it. And we think this issue really crosses the political spectrum. And we’re hopeful that people will support what we’re doing up here, will join us and will participate in some way themselves.”

So will he physically attempt to stop mining activity, or is the encampment only intended to raise awareness?

“We’ll see what happens. We don’t really know what’s going to happen in terms of the amount of support we’re going to get up here. In terms of the final permit that the mining companies still need. They got their Record of Decision from the BLM last Friday, although there were numerous issues with their environmental impact process. 

“But our goal is to stop them from mining this place. Our goal is to stop them from destroying Thacker Pass. And if that means somebody has to stand in front of the bulldozers, if that means somebody has to hold a protest up here, you know, our goal is to get hundreds of people up here in the event that they try to build this mine. We want to get hundreds of people to stand in their way and say no.”


Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media journalist. Support his work.


Music credits in order of appearance as reported through the Public Radio Exchange:

Song: Greenland
Artist: Emanicipator
Album: Safe in the Steep Cliffs
Label: Loci Records
Year: 2010
Duration: 4:02

Song: Aquarius
Artist: Boards of Canada
Album: Music Has the Right to Children
Label: Warp Records
Year: 2013
Duration: 3:35

Song: Open The Light
Artist: Boards of Canada
Album: Music Has the Right to Children
Label: Warp Records
Year: 2013
Duration: 4:20

Song: Lightness of Being
Artist: Paul Avgerinos
Album: Bliss
Label: Round Sky Music
Year: 2011
Duration: 6:35

Song: Lizard Tooth Eye
Artist: Bullitnuts
Album: Nut Roast
Label: Pork Records
Year: 1999
Duration: 2:08

Song: Personality (Jungle mix)
Artist: DJ Rodriguez
Album: Worldwide Funk (Ohm Guru Presents
Label: Reprise/Warner
Year: 2001
Duration: 2:05