The Costs of Mining

How a Troubled Lithium Mine in Nevada Illustrates the Challenges of a Clean Energy Transition

The Costs of Mining

Tension is building between the need for rapid decarbonization and the materials required to replace fossil fuel infrastructure. With green technologies bearing sky-high expectations, they were bound to fall short of unrealistic standards that they be impactless. Given the Biden administration’s strong push to decarbonize the energy sector by 2050, the hunt for critical materials crucial to green technologies is growing fiercer as numerous industries like solar and electric cars rapidly expand.

Mining is not a ‘clean’ business and by its very nature, there will always be some alteration to the environment. The real question is this: what are the trade-offs between the damages associated with mining for minerals needed for decarbonization and the damages of not reducing emissions? And to what extent can negative impacts associated with the technologies we need for decarbonization be minimized? The decarbonization effort must incorporate realistic standards for environmental impact as well as new policies that prove more useful for mitigating effects on local communities.

Consider lithium, which has emerged as a mineral of particular interest given the increasing demand from the growing electric car industry. While EVs are an essential step towards transportation decarbonization, there are tradeoffs marked by environmental impact and effects on locals living near the mining sites.

The case of Thacker Pass

Earlier this year, a Los Angeles Times piece outlined the environmental impact of mining lithium in Thacker Pass, Nevada, driven in part by growing demand for electric car manufacturing as well as policies like California’s proposed 2035 internal combustion engine ban and increased federal funding for electric vehicle infrastructure. The mine will be 40 miles from the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes (FMPST) reservation and is the largest lithium resource in the US. Lithium Americas, the company in charge of the project, is leaching lithium from the clay deposits with sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid attacks the ore, separating the lithium which dissolves into the acid. The lithium is then extracted from the resulting solution. This procedure sounds graphic and destructive and indeed does impose real environmental and social harm. But proper context is essential.

The technique being used by Lithium Americas is actually one of the less environmentally harmful methods as it decreases risks to air and water quality by actively backfilling, in which excavated material is used to refill the mine. Sulfuric acid leaching is considered a green mining technique since it can result in higher preservation of elements like thorium which have been identified by a geochemical characterization of Thacker Pass by the Lithium Nevada Corporation. This makes the extraction of these elements for specialized waste processing and economic use more feasible. Much of the water used during the process will be recycled which is important to note given the concerns around lowering the water table.

Additionally, the Thacker Pass lithium project’s Record of Decision (ROD) Report outlines routine groundwater monitoring as a part of pollution control. Buffer zones will be enacted for the protection of migratory birds such as the red-tailed hawk so their nests are not disturbed. A dust control plan and air pollution control devices will mitigate the effects of equipment use. There are several additional measures including various bird conservation strategies and livestock safeguarding being put in place to mitigate the overall impact on the environment and Native American communities. It is important to ensure these measures are properly enforced through more stringent audits and third-party monitoring that creates room for oversight by local communities.

The pollution problem

Aside from the inevitable environmental impact, the truth is mining will always be controversial based on whose backyard is disturbed and who gains from the extraction. When discussing the relationship between mining companies and local communities, much of the problem often lies within the lack of proper safeguarding and compensation for the effects on locals from the mining sites as well as the poor management of industrial waste before the companies pack up and leave. This is where the federal push for the protection of local economies needs to be mandated for the security of a just transition into sustainability without widening the gap for already-disadvantaged minorities facing the brunt of emissions-related consequences they barely contribute to. Many of these mining sites are approved despite opposition from some Native peoples. Other local debates highlight opposing stances on mining within Native American communities, with participants trying to find the balance between environmental protection and increasing economic opportunity to decrease poverty. It’s under such circumstances that efforts to mitigate negative impacts are truly put to the test.

Pollution is at the top of the list of concerns, especially of air and water. However, enforcement of policies such as the Clean Water Act tends to occur after the fact. A common critique is that litigation is used too frequently, resulting in court battles that may last years and fall short of expectations for justice (if the case is even won at all). Bonds paid by the companies, such as those paid for coal mining permits, are used as a safety net to ensure the public can reclaim the site if the company can't in cases of bankruptcy — which is not uncommon. Yet a study by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) shows that bonds can be set too low, with the remainder falling on taxpayer dollars from public funding sources such as the federal Superfund. Determining the bond limit is a challenge itself, primarily considering the question, “how bad could things get?”

The question subsequently becomes how we can be more proactive at preventing pollution. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) tax was promoted as the ideal “polluters pay” approach, but after the tax expired in 1995 the financial burden shifted to taxpayers. It was also inherently flawed since taxation was calculated per unit of production, not actual pollution. Polluters thus paid the same as non-polluters, essentially defeating the tax’s purpose. As the Biden administration begins analyzing possible additions of chemicals as hazardous substances under CERCLA, it must reassess how we pursue pollution mitigation, given that many current techniques still prioritize control rather than prevention. A more effective approach, whether it be by tax or incentive, should be based on pollution prevention, namely the Pollution Prevention (P2) Act.

Prevention is better than the cure

Although established in 1990, the P2 Act has not achieved its expected impact due to the manner of its enforcement. According to a self-evaluation report, the non-uniform mandate of the P2 Act leaves gaps in proper enforcement through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies. A better approach might be to make pollution prevention strategies a requirement of the impact statement to support the initial project proposal. Monitoring assessments would then be used to determine if the company is adhering to these standards and tax them accordingly if otherwise. Revenue could then be allocated to the state or to Tribal governments for clean up.

Considering the health disparities caused by close proximity to mining activities, especially those of abandoned mines, it’s past time for a more real-time approach. Tax incentives would be the best motivation for the use of pollution prevention strategies for proposed mines and the reclamation of abandoned mines. While the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) encourages transparency with chemicals released into the environment and includes any source reduction techniques used by companies, incentivizing these techniques could prove more effective for pushing pollution prevention from simply “optional” to “essential.” Source reduction strategists must become a consistent point of contact with proposals, whether they are provided by the government or employed by the mining companies. There are numerous tools available, all of which will require a stronger federal push for pollution prevention to become a cornerstone of the mining industry.

As mining for clean energy technologies increases in the next few decades, so too does the importance of ensuring that Native communities benefit economically from any industrial activities on their lands. Tribal Employment Rights Ordinances (TEROs) are limited to tribal projects and unpermitted on federally funded contracts. Given that 56 million acres are held in trust by the government, the application of TEROs absolutely matters, especially considering the juxtaposition of an $86 billion industry often operating in Native communities stricken by poverty. While TERO offices were created to enforce tribal preference laws, it’s harder to make headway on such a long-standing issue without federal backing. Federally enforcing such a mandate is easier in theory than application given the different preferences and rules of each Nation as a sovereign government, however, a base number as a starting point would be reasonable considering most Nations have tribal employment preferences whether through TEROs or other forms of local regulation. This type of framework is nothing new, considering that federal contractors are already subjected to affirmative action programs to ensure the recruitment of qualified minorities.

The bigger problem encapsulating friction between Native peoples and resource extraction is that of a just transition — decarbonizing the economy without regressive policies that harm disadvantaged communities. Unfortunately, the federal government’s track record with Native Tribes has historically been poor, considering the consistent violations of treaties once a new resource was discovered, such as gold leading to the abrogation of the Fort Laramie Treaty among countless historical examples. The strange, but not accidental, legal in-between status of the Tribes as sovereign nations but not independent of the United States only further complicates the issue. Seeing as how this dynamic is technically between two governments, it boils down to which has more power— the answer to which we all know.

Of course, there are limits to compromising when sacred land is involved. One of the key objections expressed by The People of Red Mountain, the collective group of Natives protesting the proposed mine, concerns the risks posed to areas of Thacker Pass believed to contain traditional burial grounds. The lawsuit, with The People of Red Mountain as one of the plaintiffs filing against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Lithium Americas, has stalled after a judge denied granting an injunction that would prevent Lithium Americas from excavating Thacker Pass. Lithium Americas responded by emphasizing their partnership with the Far Western Anthropological Research Group whose work has concluded that Thacker Pass cannot be classified as a tribal burial ground. They have also committed to ensuring the proper treatment of any artifacts discovered during excavation. This collaboration is backed by the Fort McDermitt Tribe, which seeks to leverage job opportunities while being wary of damaging Thacker Pass’ cultural significance. The legal battle will continue, with the plaintiffs now appealing the judge’s decision.

Considering the greater problem

We must also keep the bigger picture in mind here. There is a real risk that canceling domestic lithium projects would simply offset production to worse-off disadvantaged groups in other parts of the world. In the US, robust mining regulations within federal, state, and Tribal jurisdictions address both human and environmental concerns with a relatively high degree of rigor and accountability. In contrast, indigenous groups in Bolivia represent more than 35% of the total population and face constant exploitation from foreign investors who short-hand royalties for local communities residing by lithium mines, a situation worsened by the country’s corruption and political instability. At the same time, we cannot use this as a justification to look past local concerns; the need to minimize impacts both at home and abroad increases the need for more inclusive and equitable solutions that can allay local fears.

When discussing climate change, what’s often missing from the conversation is relativity. The point is to decarbonize industries with less emissions-intensive techniques and newer technologies. That being said, “green” technology does not necessarily equate to zero impact or emissions – and it rarely ever does today. There are always trade-offs. This point will only become clearer as we move towards a clean energy economy and should be discussed as such. Stronger mediations must take place to proactively safeguard local communities, especially those that have continuously faced the brunt of unjust decisions that have left them more vulnerable for years to come.