Green Lithium Mining is a Bright Green Lie. Dispatches from Thacker Pass

Thacker Pass landscape. Image provided by Max Wilbert

Opinion

On January 15th, my friend Will Falk and myself launched a protest occupation of the proposed lithium mine site at Thacker Pass, Nevada. We have set up tents, protest signs, and weathered more than a week of winter weather to oppose lithium mining, which would destroy Thacker Pass.

You might already be wondering, “Why are people protesting lithium? Isn’t it true that lithium is a key ingredient in the transition to electric cars, and moving away from fossil fuels? Shouldn’t people be protesting fossil fuels?”

Let me put any rumors to rest. I am a strong opponent of fossil fuels and have fought against the industry for over a decade. I’ve fought tar sands pipelines, stopped coal trains, and personally climbed on top of heavy equipment to stop fossil fuel mining.

Now I’m here, in northern Nevada, to try and stop lithium mining. That’s because, in terms of the impact on the planet, there’s little difference between a lithium mine and an open-pit coal mine. Both require bulldozing entire ecosystems. Both use huge amounts of water. Both leave behind poisoned aquifers. And both are operated with massive heavy machinery largely powered by diesel.

The encampment at Thacker Pass – photo: Max Wilbert

I want people to understand that lithium mining is not “good” for the planet. Sure, compared to coal mining, a lithium mine may ultimately result in less greenhouse gas emissions. But not by much. The proposed Lithium Americas mine at Thacker Pass would burn more than 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel every day, according to the Environmental Impact Statement. Processing the lithium would also require massive quantities of sulfur—waste products from oil refineries. One local resident told me they expect “a semi-truck full of sulfur every 10 minutes” on these rural, quiet roads.

This is not a “clean transition.” It’s a transition from one dirty industrial energy source to another. We’re making the argument for something completely different, and more foundational: degrowth. We need economic contraction, relocalization, and to stop using and wasting so many resources on unnecessary consumer products.

When people think about wilderness and important habitat, they generally don’t think of Nevada. But they should. Thacker Pass is not some empty desolate landscape. It’s part of the most important Greater sage-grouse habitat left in the state. This region has between 5-8% of all remaining sage-grouse, according to Nevada Department of Wildlife and BLM surveys.

Thacker Pass is home to an endemic snail species, the King’s River pyrg, which biologists have called “a critically imperiled endemic species at high risk of extinction” if the mine goes forward. Burrowing owls, pygmy rabbits, golden eagles, the threatened Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, and hundreds of other species call this place home, watershed, or migration corridor. And Thacker Pass is home to important old stands of Big sagebrush who are increasingly rare in Nevada and threatened by global warming.

One biologist who has worked in Thacker Pass, and who asked to remain unnamed for fear of retaliation, told me the Thacker Pass area “has seen the rapid decline of native shrubland/bunchgrass communities that form the habitat foundation.” He continued, “Those communities (particularly sagebrush) are already under tremendous stress from the dual-threat of invasive annual grasses (especially cheatgrass) and the increased fire returns that those volatile fuels cause.”

Now the BLM is permitting Lithium Americas corporation to come bulldoze what is left, tear away the mountainside for some 50 years, and leave behind a moonscape.

We are engaging in direct action and protest against this mine because the public process is not working. Despite sustained opposition, BLM ignored serious concerns about this mine and “fast-tracked” this project under the direction of the Trump Administration. We mean to stop the mine with people-power. 

If you are interested in joining us, visit our website, https://protectthackerpass.org to learn more about getting involved. And speak out on this issue. We can’t save the planet by destroying it. Transitioning away from fossil fuels and fixing humanity’s broken relationship with the planet will require a more critical approach.


Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, co-authored with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, will be released in March.


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