By Julia Purdy
“Many very educated people who are environmentally conscious don’t want mining anywhere,” said Slack, “and yet they fully support, in many cases enthusiastically, renewable energy. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”
John Slack is a geologist who was interviewed by the Maine Monitor, a public-interest newspaper out of Hallowell, Maine, that specializes in nonpartisan investigative reporting.
The occasion was the 2021 discovery of a rich deposit of lithium-bearing rock in the small town of Newry in western Maine, not far from Sunday River Ski Resort and the New Hampshire border. The discovery has been receiving intense interest as the sales of EVs (all-electric vehicles) are accelerating nationally, as well as other applications of lithium-ion batteries, while lithium ore – like any land-based resource – is in finite supply.
Slack’s remark highlights the irony inherent in the clean-energy movement, i.e., that even with such an ideals-driven, no-holds-barred commitment, the real world – Nature itself – demands trade-offs that must be reconciled and could also require slowing the movement’s momentum long enough to recognize its own limitations.
Prime agricultural land is lost every year to solar arrays. Industrial wind turbines mangle birds that fly into them. Incineration of plastics results in increased greenhouse gas emissions. Every electronic device entails a carbon footprint in its manufacture and distribution.
It’s a tricky balance that fundamentalist zeal threatens to upend.
In Newry, the deposit is estimated to consist of 11 million tons of ore, worth roughly $1.5 billion. Photos of tall men standing in front of an exposed crystal show heights of ore well over 6 feet, and even up to 36 feet in length — among the largest ever found, reported the Monitor.
Lithium is an element occurring principally within pegmatite, an igneous rock similar to granite, or less commonly in subterranean brine. Experts say that the most efficient and least expensive way to mine lithium ore is by open pit; Maine prohibits open pits of more than three acres.
To give a picture of the devastation possible, the Maine Monitor printed a story on April 10 on a standing-room-only meeting of townspeople in Pembroke, near the Canadian border, to support a proposed ordinance to ban “industrial-scale metallic mining” of silver, lead and copper in the town. The developer appealed to the public need for such metals and appeared to promise “ethical and responsible” practices, which did not sway the townspeople, who are only too aware of the negative unintended byproducts such as sulfuric acid entering the water supply.
They know whereof they speak. The Callahan silver mine in Brooksville, on Penobscot Bay, is now a Superfund site. It operated as a permitted open-pit mine from 1968 to 1972 when open-pit mining was outlawed. Yet the site included the 75-acre GoosePond estuary, which was drained to accommodate the operation.
An EPA report describes the now closed Callahan site as “a submerged open pit, the former mine operations area, a series of waste rock piles, and a tailings impoundment. The three waste rock piles contain about 1.7 million cubic yards of waste rock that was removed to access the ore in the open pit. … The tailings impoundment has a 21-acre footprint, … and contains about 700,000 cubic yards of tailings. Portions of the Site that include waste rock, tailings, access roads, ore, or mine operations remnants encompass approximately 75 acres. The areas with waste rock or tailings are for the most part un-vegetated and barren.”
Today, another major lithium project faces intense public opposition, this time in northern Nevada, at a defunct volcano caldera called Thacker’s Pass. Headlining it as “the biggest lithium mine in the U.S.” the Pulitzer Prize-winning, nonpartisan publication Inside Climate News predicted that lithium mining could face the same opposition as do fossil fuels.
This time around, new and vocal stakeholders are joining the action. At the Maine meeting, Dwayne Tomah, an area resident and Passamaquoddy tribe cultural historian, warned: “This is going to affect all of our people here in this territory. … We have a lot of fishermen here, we have to drink the water, we have to gather our plants, we have to gather medicines … [Wolfden is] coming into an economically depressed area and exploiting our mother.”
The opposition is pulling together diverse and, once historically opposing groups, according to Inside Climate News, including ranchers, the Indigenous community and residents. In Nevada, the local Paiute-Shoshone community, whose livelihood and culture depend on the integrity of the land, lead ceremonies at the protest camp at the pass.
Dubbing the urgency to develop lithium resources a latter-day “gold rush,” pushed by a kind of climate-induced panic generated by end-users of lithium, opponents of the Nevada project foresee “avoidable environmental degradation. The flawed assumption behind the ‘clean energy transition,’ they argue, is that it [the transition] can maintain levels of consumption that are inherently unsustainable.”
It seems the activists will be proven correct. Inside Climate News reports that the Thacker’s Pass operation will consume 17,933 acres with an open-pit mine and a sulfuric acid plant to extract lithium from raw ore. According to the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), the mine will emit 152,713 tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to the emissions of a small city, and is expected to consume 1.7 billion gallons of water each year — 500,000 gallons of water for each ton of lithium — in a region that is now trying to figure out how to ration the dwindling waters of the Colorado River among seven states, as even now private wells are running dry. And all of this is projected to continue for at least 46 years.
At the same time according to BloombergNEF, as reported by Inside Climate News, global demand for lithium chemicals will reach nearly 700,000 tons a year by 2025. Thacker’s Pass is expected to produce 60,000 tons a year.
While the U.S. currently produces about 2% of the world’s lithium, Australia, Argentina, Chile and China are large producers of lithium. And while the U.S. can regulate against the worst abuses, other countries may not. Inside Climate News notes: “In Chile, lithium mining is stressing the water Indigenous peoples and native wildlife depend on in the Atacama desert.” BloombergNEF itself seems oblivious to the implications of all this as it posts the 2021 EV consumption numbers. The site credits “policy support,” better batteries, more widespread charging stations, expansion of EV technology to trucks, and of course, “new compelling models from automakers.”
And BloombergNEF seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid: to achieve emissions goals set for 2050, when 100% of vehicles all over the world will presumably be EVs, at least 60% must be all-electrics by 2030. “The last internal combustion vehicles need to roll off the line around 2035, and even that will require some early retirements of older vehicles in the 2040s.”
Interestingly, both projects are being proposed by Canada-based companies: China-owned multinational Lithium Americas in Nevada, and Wolfden Resources Corp. in Maine.
Yet research into usage and wasteage shows that Lithium primary batteries account for 28% of all primary battery sales in Japan but only 1% of all battery sales in Switzerland. In the EU only 0.5% of all battery sales including secondary types are lithium primaries, according to Wikipedia.
The U.S. is arguably the largest capitalist consumer economy in the world. Indoctrinated to want “stuff” since we can sit up on our own and stare uncomprehendingly at a screen, we are insatiable consumers. There was no need for President Bush to urge people to “go shopping” in the aftermath of the shocking and dispiriting attack on the World Trade Center — we are hard-wired to shop. As we say, “When the going gets tough the tough go shopping.” Our upcoming generations suffer from FOMO, “fear of missing out” on the latest technological gadget.
As with drugs, where there is a market, there will be a supplier. Americans seem all too willing to look away from the obvious repercussions of our “needs,” whether cocaine, heroin, scrolling compulsively on our smartphones, shutting down agriculture to protect the property values of the vacation homes we seldom visit, or creating a vast homeless underclass on our way to our first million dollars.
Because of their high-performance characteristics, lithium batteries are useful in medical devices, and for industrial scale energy storage, such as solar. But they have flooded the personal electronics market, to the extent that special measures must be taken when shipping them, boarding aircraft, storing and recycling them and charging without exploding them.
Smartphones, smartwatches, digital cameras, calculators, remote car locks, electronics, toys, wireless headphones, handheld power tools, small and large appliances, have taken the consumer market by storm. Analog is out, digital is in. “Planned obsolescence,” once upon a time considered wasteful, goes unquestioned. Case in point: any cellphone carrying less than 4G, usable yesterday, is now unusable and trash, with the advent of 5G.
And when it comes to environmental stewardship, the burgeoning demand not only for lithium but titanium and other special metals to manufacture our toys is akin to the demand of Californians, for example, to be able to lavish water on their lawns and golf courses, fill their swimming pools and take three showers a day. Now, the water districts that manage the distribution of the Colorado River water are imposing rationing, which they can control because they meter water use for every property. Less noticeably, hundreds of private wells are drying up.
In 1955 the U.S. Geological Survey published a pamphlet that identified known lithium deposits scattered across the U.S., from western Maine, central Massachusetts, and the North Carolina-South Carolina border to South Dakota, Colorado, the Southwest and southern California – mountainous areas for the most part.
But will federal environmental safeguards and OSHA regulations continue to hold the line against the demand, not to mention the lure of fortunes to be made from lithium?
Will the same be needed to restrict the uses of lithium to essential products, given the push for the nation to convert over to EVs, for example? The batteries that power those vehicles depend on lithium. The website insideevs.com reports that Tesla uses more lithium than the next four vehicle manufacturers combined—Audi, Renault, VW and BYD, maker of industrial vehicles. (Data provided by Adamas Intelligence’s “EV Battery Capacity and Battery Metals Tracker.”) Tesla Model 3 consumes 67% of automotive battery lithium, and by region, America consumes 47%. In 2020, Tesla put 18,700 metric tonnes — that’s 20,613 U.S. tons – of lithium-based batteries on the highways, according to Adamas Intelligence.
But the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice (CEIJ) at the University of San Diego, which takes the position that some aspects of the green movement are a form of colonialism, has published an “Anti-Greenwashing Toolkit” to combat false assumptions about the zero-emissions claims. The Toolkit points out that in order to meet the ambitious CO2 reduction goal by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions throughout the developed world would have to decrease by 80%. On the other hand, domestic electric vehicles would achieve just 5% of that target even in states with robust renewable policies, according to the Toolkit.
All of which points to large-scale environmental degradation — geocide — even as we adopt piecemeal finger-in-the-dike strategies to save the planet.
“We are not leaving until this project is canceled,” said activist-author Max Wilbert, of the Protect Thacker’s Pass campaign. “If need be, this will come down to direct action. We mean to put ourselves in between the machines and this place. … We want people to understand that ‘clean energy’ is not clean,” he said. “Places like Thacker’s Pass are what gets sacrificed to create that so-called clean energy. It is easy to say the sacrifice is justifiable if you do not live here.”