(CNN) — In an ancient and now extinct supervolcano found in northern Nevada is a treasure that its prospectors call “white gold.” This metal is not for trade or jewelry making, it is lithium, and its value lies in its role in potentially reducing the world’s carbon emissions.
President Joe Biden’s plan to transform America into a clean energy, low-carbon economy country hinges on switching to electric vehicles, and that means replacing gas with batteries, which are made from critical minerals like lithium.
But in the United States, doing so is not without controversy.
Lithium is a key ingredient for the large rechargeable batteries that power electric vehicles and store the energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines, keeping that energy in use even when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.
Obtaining these minerals, which some call the new “white gold,” is part of the world’s latest race to produce clean energy. Earlier this year, the Biden administration released a multi-federal agency strategic plan detailing how it planned to improve the entire supply chain for critical minerals like lithium, from extracting it from U.S. mines to putting it into batteries to recycling. and reuse these batteries. .
“The United States has a clear opportunity to rebuild our national supply chain and manufacturing sectors so that we can reap the full benefits of an emerging global clean energy economy of $ 23 trillion,” said the Secretary of Energy of the United States. , Jennifer Granholm, in June.
In the US, the main lithium prospect is a large deposit in Thacker Pass, Nevada, and another lithium deposit is in North Carolina. The Thacker Pass lithium deposit is one of the largest in the world, located in an ancient and now extinct supervolcano.
A proposal to begin mining lithium from Lithium Nevada Corporation, a subsidiary of Lithium Americas Corp., was approved by the US Bureau of Land Management in January.
“It is the largest known lithium deposit in North America, so given where we are heading globally and as a country, it is a unique opportunity,” Jonathan Evans, president and CEO of Lithium Americas Corp, told CNN. ..
Evans told CNN that today most of the lithium chemicals used in the US are imported from other countries. Lithium-rich countries, including Chile and Bolivia, are big exporters. Evans said that with the lithium deposits in the US and Canada, “the state and federal governments don’t lose sight that everyone wants to play at it and we have the resources to do so.”
The mining of lithium and cobalt for electric cars has been controversial globally for years, in part due to their environmental destruction, short battery life and, in some countries, because child labor has been used in the process.
And as the “white gold” rush hits the US, not everyone is excited about the rush to mine it.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about “white gold”
Lithium Americas expects to start its mining project in early 2022. CNN traveled to Nevada and found that the rush to acquire critical minerals in the United States has pitted environmental advocates against each other.
Some climate advocates say the rush to extract lithium is critical to a broader transition away from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. Other local environmental groups and tribal nations oppose the project, concerned about disturbing sacred tribal cemeteries, as well as potential environmental impacts. Three tribal groups tried to arrest him through lawsuits, which were dismissed by a judge in September.
“Many of us understand that blowing up a mountain for coal mining is wrong; I think blowing up a mountain for lithium mining is just as wrong,” said Max Wilbert, an environmental organizer who is camping in Thacker Pass to protest the development of the mine.
Wilbert cited several reasons why he is against the lithium mine: environmental impacts to the grouse and antelope, possible water contamination for the surrounding communities, and cultural issues for the local indigenous community, who consider the land in and around the cemeteries. Thacker Pass.
Wilbert is currently camping in the freezing winter conditions of the Nevada desert at a tribal ceremonial camp, and he and other advocates say they are willing to stand in front of mining machinery to try to stop the project from moving forward.
“Our laws have not been adapted to the reality of what is happening on our planet, so people may have to break the law to change what is happening,” he said. “Electric cars will not actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions that much; they will reduce emissions, but not by a significant amount.”
Driving gasoline-powered vehicles in the US comes at a cost to the weather. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation account for nearly 30% of total US emissions; more than any other sector, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Glenn Miller, a retired professor of environmental science at the University of Nevada Reno, disagreed, telling CNN that the Thacker Pass project is a “relatively benign mine for its size.”
Miller said he believes the clean energy benefits of lithium mining in Nevada outweigh environmental concerns, especially when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that worsen global climate change.
“Those who say it’s not going to make any difference are just wrong,” Miller said. “Radical environmentalists are going to argue that the only way to solve the problem of climate change is to drive much less and not burn gasoline or coal. Well, that is not going to happen, the demands of society are established that we should have a active transportation industry “.
Miller told CNN that lithium is the key ingredient that will drive the transition to electric vehicles.
“There is no other metal that can work as well as lithium,” Miller said. “We are going to need a lot of batteries to run the cars that we are going to have on the road. It will be a very positive contribution to mitigating climate change.”
Evans told CNN that his company is engaging community stakeholders and state and local governments about the mine plans.
“It is very important that this transition is made as sustainable as possible,” Evans said, emphasizing that his company is committed to mitigating the environmental impacts of mining as much as possible, conserving water use and trying to reduce emissions of carbon as you mine the mineral.
“It is not the cheapest, but it is essential as we move through this phase to make sure we do things as responsibly as possible.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism