Controversial Lithium Mine Moves Forward in Nevada


A geologist points to an area for future development in Thacker Pass in this photo from 2018.Photo: Suzanne Featherston/The Daily Free Press (AP)

Construction began this week on a controversial lithium mine in Nevada after a federal appeals court denied an 11th-hour attempt to halt the project.

In a decision issued Wednesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court denied an appeal filed Monday by Western Watersheds Project, longtime opponents of the mine, that would have temporarily halted construction on the Thacker Pass mine in Nevada. In a press release, the project’s owner, Canada-based Lithium Americas Corp, announced that it officially broke ground on Wednesday.


Why is lithium important?

The mine site covers one of the largest deposits of lithium in the U.S., and General Motors this year invested $650 million in the project, which will become North America’s biggest lithium mine. Lithium is a crucial component of electric vehicles and batteries; experts expect demand for the material to skyrocket in the coming decades as the world transitions to clean energy. The Biden administration has made expanding the domestic supply of clean energy minerals a priority.


But lithium and other clean energy materials come with a host of problems, including concerns around the environmental degradation that comes with mining as well as overseas supply chains rife with child and forced labor. An analysis released earlier this year calls some of these demand models into question, finding that centering public transit and smaller vehicles in the clean energy revolution could significantly reduce global reliance on these minerals.

What’s going on with Thacker Pass?

The Thacker Pass project has been mired in controversy for the past two years, since the federal government granted a permit for it to move forward. Some Native tribes in the area say the mine is situated on the site of a massacre of more than 30 members of the Paiute Tribe in 1865, making the land a sacred site.


In January 2021, in the twilight of the Trump administration, the Bureau of Land Management fast-tracked final approval for the mine with a surprisingly short environmental impact statement, a move that critics say calls the environmental soundness of the permit into question. But in mid-February, a federal judge issued a ruling saying that the project’s opponents had not yet proved that there were significant environmental issues with the permit, and it allowed construction to proceed while mandating portions of the permit be reviewed. The appeal denied this week was a last-ditch attempt to temporarily pause that decision.

“This massive open pit mine has been fast-tracked from start to finish in defiance of environmental laws, all in the name of ‘green energy,’ but its environmental impacts will be permanent and severe,” Talasi Brooks, a lawyer for the Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement following Wednesday’s decision.


Some of the opposition to the Thacker Pass project has itself been problematic. Last year, E&E issued a blockbuster report finding that one of the green groups helping organize opposition on the ground was extremely transphobic.

Lithium Americas Corp said this week that it expects the Thacker Pass mine to begin producing lithium in the second half of 2026.