Green Mining: Sustainable Ecocide

How destroying the land became "green"

Elisabeth Robson

Old-growth sagebrush in Thacker Pass by Elisabeth Robson

Turn off the highway in Northern Nevada at the place called Peehee Mu’huh, marked on modern maps as Thacker Pass, and take a walk through the waist-high sagebrush. You might come upon a small, hidden creek where spring snails and trout make their home.

Smell the sweet perfume of the sage as silvery green leaves brush against your thighs. Spend a night under the stars while coyotes and owls serenade the Milky Way. Just before dawn you might hear the booming of the sage-grouse on their mating grounds as they compete for sagehens’ attentions.

You could have experienced all of this before June 2023. Now, you can experience it only in your imagination.

Everything changed after Vancouver-based Lithium Americas Corporation and its subsidiary Lithium Nevada Corporation launched the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project.

The mine project, which was approved in 2021, will completely destroy Thacker Pass. The first phases are already obliterating about 6,000 acres of land, with a massive open pit, several waste and tailings piles, refineries, a processing plant, and other infrastructure.

Future expansion plans could triple the mine size to over 17,000 acres, encompassing most of the valley. One hundred or more diesel trucks per day will bring materials and supplies to the mine, including molten sulfur from oil refineries. This sulfur will be refined into sulfuric acid and used to leach lithium from the clay dug from the mine pit.

There will be no respite from industrial noise, industrial destruction, and industrial pollution. The sage grouse, who need large areas of absolute quiet to mate and raise their families, will flee, along with many other birds and animals. The delicate soil crusts will be destroyed, along with the sagebrush and wildflowers and grasses and all who depend on these plants for life. 1.85 billion gallons of water will be pulled from the ground every year to supply the mine in this arid land.

What use is sage grouse habitat elsewhere to the sage grouse who call Thacker Pass home?

Lithium Nevada has the audacity to call this mine “green.” How? The lithium they extract from the clay beneath the soil will be used to build electric car batteries.

There are several ways mining companies claim their projects are “green”: they use methods that save energy and/or water in mining processes; they provide materials for “clean tech” (electronic vehicles, batteries, solar, wind technologies, etc.); they use improved work and organizational practices; there0 are plans to “remediate” the land after mine closure; and companies purchase “offsets” for some impacts caused by the mine, such as habitat loss.

Lithium Nevada checks several of these boxes: recycling water for use in the sulfuric acid refineries, supplying lithium for EV and grid storage batteries, ensuring a “social license to operate” by bribing the local community with promises of jobs and a new community centre, setting aside funds to “guarantee revitalization of the site” after the mine closes, and purchasing sage-grouse habitat offsets to protect sage-grouse habitat elsewhere.

However, none of these checkboxes mean much once the land has been destroyed and the ground has been sucked dry of water. What use is a job if you can’t find water to drink or safely breathe the air where you live? What use is a community centre once the mine closes, the jobs go away, and the land has been polluted so ranching and farming are no longer viable alternatives for employment?

What use is “revitalizing” Thacker Pass when all the plants and animals are dead and gone? What use is sage grouse habitat elsewhere to the sage grouse who call Thacker Pass home?

Materials-intensive energy system

As the cries of “climate emergency!” grow ever more strident and political elites grow ever more desperate to keep this ecocidal way of life going – that is, business as usual – more people are realizing that replacing a fossil fuel-intensive energy system with a materials-intensive energy system will require a lot of “critical minerals,” as we now must call them.

Our modern lives have always depended on materials, and getting those materials has always required mining and extraction. What’s new is the energy piece: not only do we need materials to build our houses, cars, appliances, factories and machines, now we need materials to build the machines to generate the energy we use to extract the materials, refine the materials, manufacture more machines and other things out of those materials, and ship them all around the world. “Machines making machines making machines,” as John Weber described manufacturing solar panels.

Researcher Simon Michaux recently calculated that to make one generation of machines that can generate enough electricity to replace fossil fuels will require more of certain materials than we know to exist on Earth. As just one example, global reserves of lithium (2022) are 22,000,000 tons. Producing one generation of technology units to phase out fossil fuels will require 944,150,293 tons of lithium. That’s 43 times the amount of lithium in known reserves. And that’s just for the first generation of machines.

 


Elisabeth Robson is an organizer with Protect Thacker Pass. A longer version of this article originally appeared on www.protectthackerpass.org.

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