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'Lithium loop' push in Nevada would centralize production, but not without critics

FILE - An "Access Restricted" sign is displayed at the Lithium Nevada Corp. mine site at Thacker Pass on April 24, 2023, near Orovada, Nev.
Rick Bowmer
FILE - An "Access Restricted" sign is displayed at the Lithium Nevada Corp. mine site at Thacker Pass on April 24, 2023, near Orovada, Nev.

For more than a century, miners of all shapes and sizes have plumbed Nevada’s rich ore deposits for gold, copper and now lithium.

Nevada is the only state in the country currently producing lithium and it has the largest known lithium clay deposit in the world, according to the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.

White gold, as it’s been called, is an element that many say is the key to an explosion in renewable energy, which is held as a major way to combat atmospheric carbon and global warming.

Now there’s a push to create a so-called “lithium loop,” where all the stages in the process to turn ore into batteries for vehicles or, potentially, communities, happen here in the state.

“We're continuing to make it so that every stage of the lithium supply chain is present here in Nevada,” said Caleb Cage, executive director of the Nevada Batter Coalition – a lithium industry trade group.

As spokesman for the Nevada’s burgeoning lithium community, Cage says the industry would lead to more diversification in the state’s economy, a long-term goal after the devastation of the casino industry during the Great Recession and COVID-19 Pandemic.

“We can shrink the amount of distance between the sectors of the supply chain so that we can increase the economic advantage,” he said. “We can increase the climate advantage, and we can increase Nevada's position in this industry.”

Bolstering that effort, the White House recently named Reno and its surrounding communities as one of 31 federally recognized Tech Hubs. The designation is designed to drive investment beyond larger metro areas.

But there are also important environmental concerns that have to be weighed as the industry grows.

“Clearly climate change is here. Nevadans are feeling that, and this presents a huge opportunity,” said Mason Voehl, executive director of the environmental group, Amargosa Conservancy.

The group made headlines earlier this year when they, along with attorneys for the Center for Biological Diversity, sued the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management over a proposed lithium extraction project near Ash Meadows Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The complaint argued federal land managers erred when they approved the exploratory mineral drilling near Ash Meadows without consulting other relevant agencies. The project was halted.

For Voehl, the growth of the lithium industry can’t come at the expense of the state’s already delicate social and environmental ecosystem.

“It's imperative that we put both the climate change crisis in conversation with the crisis of biodiversity loss, the crisis of environmental injustice, the crisis of cultural heritage values being lost. All of those things need to be considered as we try to make this transition.”

One of the most critical factors to consider is water usage. Mining has historically been incredibly water reliant, using large sums of already dwindling ground water supplies. According to Voehl, adding additional mining operations in areas where water stores are already strained will only exacerbate the situation.

He added that there are also concerns over potential contamination.

“There should be concerns raised about water quality, just in both the extraction of lithium and especially where a heap leach process is used – where chemicals are used to actually extract that lithium, like sulfuric acid. So, water quality is certainly an issue.”

Many of those concerns, however, will likely take a back seat to development. The federal government’s Tech Hub designation comes with as much as $10 billion in federal money for those looking to try their luck in Nevada’s lithium industry.

Already companies are diving headlong into the cache of funding. Redwood Materials, a battery recycler in Sparks, received a $2 billion loan from the Department of Energy in February. Reno-based American Battery Technology Company has gotten a $115 million grant from the Department of Defense.

There are also other rare minerals that could further fortify Nevada’s position as the country’s battery-manufacturing powerhouse.

“Vanadium has a high ceiling for the long-duration grid-scale battery storage market,” said Sierra Nevada Ally's Scott King told KNPR’s State of Nevada. “It's traditionally used for aerospace and infrastructure because it's known for its capacity to strengthen steel, but grid-scale storage is particularly relevant in terms of developing renewable solutions so that you can harness that energy when the wind blows and when the sun shines, which isn't always during high consumption, energy hours. A grid scale market is certainly an opportunity for vanadium to be a solution.”

Grid-scale markets, or the theory behind using batteries to power communities and facilities on a large-scale, is still years ahead of the current technology. However, industry supporters like Caleb Cage say the power to tap into the full potential of either lithium or vanadium will reshape

“Mining is a critical part of this, a critical component of this, [but] we're talking about the entire lithium supply chain,” he said. “Mining is just one step in that process. There's manufacturing; there's recycling, there are all kinds of things that are a part of that supply chain that I think are going to broaden it beyond mining a great deal.”

Yet for Amargosa Conservancy’s Mason Voehl more work needs to go into making sure these mines and advanced manufacturing facilities understand their impact on the environment and the communities they work in.

“What's really needed is some overarching planning process,” Voehl said. “Wherein we can identify where projects for lithium extraction and production are really going to make sense and going to alleviate conflict. Places like on the doorstep of Ash Meadows are simply just not appropriate. I think if we can do that, this is going to actually reduce friction around these projects and ideally lead to streamlining the ones that really make sense.”

Guests: Mason Voehl, executive director, Amargosa Conservancy; Caleb Cage, executive director, Nevada Battery Coalition; Scott King, reporter, Sierra Nevada Ally

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Paul serves as KNPR's producer and reporter in Northern Nevada. Based in Reno, Paul specializes in covering state government and the legislature.
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