Atop a long-dormant volcano in northern Nevada, workers are preparing to start blasting and digging out a giant pit that will serve as the first new large-scale lithium mine in the United States in more than a decade — a new domestic supply of an essential ingredient in electric car batteries and renewable energy.
The mine, constructed on leased federal lands, could help address the nearly total reliance by the United States on foreign sources of lithium.
But the project, known as Lithium Americas, has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers and environmental groups because it is expected to use billions of gallons of precious groundwater, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.
The fight over the Nevada mine is emblematic of a fundamental tension surfacing around the world: Electric cars and renewable energy may not be as green as they appear. Production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel that are essential to these technologies are often ruinous to land, water, wildlife and people.
That environmental toll has often been overlooked in part because there is a race underway among the United States, China, Europe and other major powers for supremacy over minerals that could help countries achieve economic and technological dominance for decades to come.
But traditional mining is one of the dirtiest businesses out there.
This friction helps explain why a contest of sorts has emerged in recent months across the United States about how best to extract and produce the large amounts of lithium in ways that are much less destructive than how mining has been done for decades.
Some investors are backing alternatives including a plan to extract lithium from briny water beneath California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, about 600 miles south of the Lithium Americas site.
At the Salton Sea, investors plan to use specially coated beads to extract lithium salt from the hot liquid pumped up from an aquifer more than 4,000 feet below the surface. The self-contained systems will be connected to geothermal power plants generating emission-free electricity. And in the process, they hope to generate the revenue needed to restore the lake, which has been fouled by toxic runoff from area farms for decades.
The United States needs to quickly find new supplies of lithium as automakers ramp up manufacturing of electric vehicles. Even though the United States has some of the world’s largest reserves, most of the raw lithium used domestically comes from Latin America or Australia, and most of it is processed and turned into battery cells in China and other Asian countries.
On a hillside, Edward Bartell or his ranch employees are out early every morning making sure that the nearly 500 cows and calves that roam his 50,000 acres in Nevada’s high desert have enough feed.
A few miles from his ranch, work could soon start on Lithium Americas’ open-pit mine that will represent one of the largest lithium production sites in U.S. history.
Bartell’s biggest fear is that the mine will consume the water that keeps his cattle alive. The company has said the mine will consume 3,224 gallons per minute. That could cause the water table to drop on land Bartell owns by an estimated 12 feet, according to a Lithium Americas consultant.
While producing 66,000 tons a year of battery-grade lithium carbonate, the mine may cause groundwater contamination with metals including antimony and arsenic, according to federal documents.
The lithium will be extracted by mixing clay dug out from the mountainside with as much as 5,800 tons a day of sulfuric acid. This whole process will also create 354 million cubic yards of mining waste.
A December assessment by the Interior Department found that over its 41-year life, the mine would degrade nearly 5,000 acres of winter range used by pronghorn antelope and hurt the habitat of the sage grouse. It would probably also destroy a nesting area for a pair of golden eagles whose feathers are vital to the local tribe’s religious ceremonies.
“It is real frustrating that it is being pitched as an environmentally friendly project when it is really a huge industrial site,” said Bartell, who filed a lawsuit to try to block the mine.
At the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, anger over the project has boiled over, even causing some fights between members as Lithium Americas has offered to hire tribal members in jobs that will pay an average annual wage of $62,675 but that will come with a big trade-off.
“Tell me, what water am I going to drink for 300 years?” Deland Hinkey, a member of the tribe, yelled as a federal official arrived at the reservation in March to brief tribal leaders on the mining plan.
The reservation is nearly 50 miles from the mine site — and far beyond the area where groundwater may be contaminated — but tribe members fear the pollution could spread.
Tim Crowley, a vice president at Lithium Americas, said the company would operate responsibly — planning, for example, to use the steam from burning molten sulfur to generate the electricity it needs.
Lithium Americas, which estimates there is $3.9 billion worth of recoverable lithium at the site, hopes to start mining operations next year. Its largest shareholder is the Chinese company Ganfeng Lithium.
A second act
The desert sands surrounding the Salton Sea have drawn worldwide notice before. They have served as a location for Hollywood productions like the “Star Wars” franchise.
Over the years, drought and poor management turned it into a source of pollutants. But a new wave of investors is promoting the lake as one of the most promising and environmentally friendly lithium prospects in the United States.
Lithium extraction from brine has long been used in Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, where the sun evaporates water from sprawling ponds. It is relatively inexpensive, but it uses lots of water in arid areas.
The approach planned at the Salton Sea is radically different.
The lake sits atop the Salton Buttes, which, as in Nevada, are underground volcanoes. For years, a company owned by Berkshire Hathaway, CalEnergy, and another business, Energy Source, have tapped the Buttes’ geothermal heat to produce electricity. The systems use naturally occurring underground steam. This same water is loaded with lithium.
Now Berkshire Hathaway and two other companies — Controlled Thermal Resources and Materials Research — want to install equipment that will extract lithium after the water passes through the geothermal plants, in a process that will take only about two hours.
But even these projects have raised some questions.
Geothermal plants produce energy without emissions, but they can require tens of billions of gallons of water annually for cooling. And lithium extraction from brine dredges up minerals like iron and salt that need to be removed before the brine is injected back into the ground. Similar extraction efforts at the Salton Sea have previously failed.
But automakers are keen to pursue approaches that have a much smaller impact on the environment.
“Indigenous tribes being pushed out or their water being poisoned or any of those types of issues, we just don’t want to be party to that,” said Sue Slaughter, Ford’s purchasing director for supply chain sustainability. “We really want to force the industries that we’re buying materials from to make sure that they’re doing it in a responsible way. As an industry, we are going to be buying so much of these materials that we do have significant power to leverage that situation very strongly. And we intend to do that.”