Science

Giant lithium mine project threatens entire Nevada region

By Corine Lesnes

Posted today at 5:47 am, updated at 7:51 am

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ReportageIn a two-part survey, “Le Monde” recounts the rush for lithium, essential for the manufacture of electric cars. Part One: Thacker Pass, the largest reservoir in North America, where an entire area is at risk of being sacrificed in the name of the energy transition.

Max Wilbert pitched his tent at Thacker Pass on January 15, the same day the Trump administration gave the green light to the lithium mine. The first three days were great. “I said to myself: it might not be too difficult,” he says. On the fourth day, the blizzard hit the camp. The temperature dropped to -18 ° C, snow was flying all over the place. The chill baptism did not discourage him, and neither did his partner Will Falk, the lawyer who rebelled with him. “It is nothing compared to the political storm that we are facing,” he assures cheekily.

Max Wilbert is an activist who opposes the lithium mine project.  He is camping on the grounds of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Thacker Pass caldera, Nevada on October 4, 2021. Max Wilbert is an activist who opposes the lithium mine project. He is camping on the grounds of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Thacker Pass caldera, Nevada, October 4, 2021. OLIVIER TOURON / DIVERGENCE POUR “LE MONDE”

Ten months have passed, Max Wilbert is still there. The yellow flowers known as rabbit brush (Chrysothamnus) took over from the snow. By dint of contemplating them at ground level, the sage bushes give it the effect of whole trees, like bonsai. “Some feet are a hundred years old,” he admires. The ecologist was joined by some friends, including Daranda Hinckey and her family, the neighboring Paiute-Shoshone tribe, who take turns occupying the facilities (on federal land, camping is prohibited for more than fourteen days). The tents are gathered around the compound where the Lithium Americas mining company has installed a meteorological station, at the forefront of the army it intends to deploy.

Banners from activists opposing the Thacker Pass lithium mine project, Nevada, October 5, 2021. Posters of activists opposed to the lithium mine project, Thacker Pass, Nevada, October 5, 2021. OLIVIER TOURON / DIVERGENCE POUR “LE MONDE”

At 1,500 meters above sea level, between Nevada and Oregon, Thacker Pass is one of those places where man feels very small. “From here, you can walk north for more than 50 kilometers without seeing a paved road,” describes the environmentalist. On the other side, 100 kilometers before finding a town. The basin was formed by a prehistoric volcano, inactive for a long time. The mountains have been separated “like a loaf of bread cut in half,” adds rancher Edward Bartell, whose cows nibble – and “digest”, which seems to amaze him, desert plants until December, after which they are serve some alfalfa. to get through the winter.

Power a million electric cars

Max Wilbert leans over and picks up a lump of clay mixed with silvery-white powder: lithium. The Thacker Pass caldera is believed to contain the largest reservoir in North America. “Li”, according to the nomenclature of the first group of the periodic table of elements, is a light metal, capable of retaining a large amount of energy in a small volume. Until recently, it was best known for its uncanny power to stabilize manic depression – global demand was modest. Climate change has made it the essential accessory of the great post-carbon energy transition: the “white gold” of a world that can no longer do without electronics. Alkali metals are now requisitioned everywhere: wind turbines, solar panels, laptop batteries and, above all, electric vehicles. According to the International Energy Agency, global demand could multiply by 40 in the next twenty years.

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