Thacker Pass, lithium, and mining

U.S. Route 50 across the State of Nevada is called “The Loneliest Road in America” and it’s a reasonable description. There’s a whole lotta nuthin’ out there. But I would like to nominate State Route 140 for consideration. In Nevada SR 140 emerges from US-95 just north of Winnemucca. It travels west to the Oregon state line (but retains the 140 designation) and continues to the isolated burg of Lakeview, on to Klamath Falls, and ultimately terminates near Medford in the Rogue Valley. The highway in effect connects I-80 to I-5.

The stretch of 140 from Denio Junction in Nevada to Adel in Oregon (just east of Lakeview) could be the far side of the moon. It’s as bleak and desolate as any stretch of road here in the rural West. Do not attempt the drive in an unreliable vehicle—the only creatures that will find you if you break down are the vultures.

This lonely place could soon be a lot busier. A Canada-based multinational corporation called Lithium Americas wants to build a mine near Thacker Pass. Here’s a map:

Nevada is a mining state. Gold, silver, and copper are produced in large quantities and the industry is crucial to the economy. In fact The Silver State is considered by many as the top mining area in the world. This is not just due to the abundant resources. It is a reflection of the social and political stability as well as the excellent infrastructure. The rule of law still works in the US of A, a fact miners are well aware of. Investments in unstable and volatile regions of the world are much riskier. Even a modern, civilized country like Chile, the world’s largest copper producer, presents formidable political barriers to economic development. Codelco is a state-owned company, for example, that was formed in the 1970s by nationalizing the foreign holdings in the country. Our southern neighbor, Mexico, just announced the formation of a state-run company to exploit that country’s lithium resources.

Enter Lithium Americas and their Thacker Pass project. This is the kind of thing international mining outfits are interested in. It’s a private venture (but a public company, it trades on the NYSE) and obviously subject to local, state, and federal oversight, but it’s in a (mostly) free-market economy. This means the company and its investors can make money.

Lithium is a key battery material and thus critical to electric vehicles. Demand for lithium is surging and expected to keep growing. Most of the world’s lithium comes from less desirable jurisdictions so there is a lot of excitement about a large-scale domestic lithium mine.

Naturally there is opposition. Mines are messy. The industry has a poor track record. It’s legacy of boom-and-bust, toxic waste, and colossal traffic impacts is well known. Air and water quality both suffer in mined regions and mines can make some places uninhabitable when they are finally closed.

Modern mining companies like Lithium Americas say they can do things better. There is a much bigger industry effort toward so-called ESG concerns—environmental, social, and governance. Corporations don’t have a lot of credibility in these matters, I think that is safe to say, but I’m not sure we have a choice. Wouldn’t we rather have a domestic mine where we have at least a chance of public oversight than import our commodities from some half-assed third-world despotic regime? I think the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Humans make a big impact on the earth. Citizens in comfortable and wealthy first-world societies like to push their environmental problems overseas. Don’t want to see the local forests cut? No problem, just import logs, or worse, finished lumber, from some other place. Don’t want to see oil wells or offshore drilling platforms? Then buy oil from the Saudis. Don’t like mines in the wild, wide-open spaces? Just buy what you need on the international market and don’t worry if kids are digging the stuff out of the ground and poisoning themselves and their communities in the process.

I say “bullshit.” We are big boys and girls. If we need lithium we should dig it up ourselves and clean up our goddamn messes. And we should employ local people and see that profits find their way to local communities impacted by the mining. This is what economic development is supposed to do! So I say let’s make it work. And if we fail it will be our failure, and we will have to work to make it right. Do we really think we will be better served by pushing such problems away?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I’ll leave you with a photo of the Thacker Pass area where they hope to be mining lithium soon:

Please comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s