It is quite the paradox … the quest for clean energy and sustainable fuel could lead to the destruction of nature and unsustainable practices. It boggles the mind that these two realities could exist at the same time, but this is just the conundrum happening now at the McDermitt Caldera, which straddles the border between Oregon and Nevada.

The McDermitt Caldera, as we will see, was created roughly 16.5 million years ago. Until recently, it flew under the radar of the scientific and industrial communities, however it has been a spiritually important place for the Native American people who have lived in the region for centuries.

The Discovery of “White Gold”

As the world works toward finding clean, renewable energy sources, green tech has relied more and more on lithium, used to make the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that charge your cellphone and electric car. Lithium, a naturally occurring element, has been nicknamed “white gold” because it is so valuable.

Source: Wikimedia/Reinhard Jahn, Mannheim

Until recently, the majority of lithium has been extracted from mines in Australia, Chile, and Bolivia. But geologists from Oregon State University, together with researchers from GNS Science and a mining company called Lithium Americas Corp, have released a report claiming that the world’s largest deposit of lithium is actually in the United States, at McDermitt Caldera.

A Mother Lode of Lithium

According to their report, which was published in Science Advances journal, the McDermitt Caldera is estimated to contain between 20 and 40 million metric tons of lithium. It is potentially a larger reserve of the element than the Salar de Uyuni region of Bolivia, which was thought to be the largest deposit of lithium on the planet.

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Geologists had previously estimated the total amount of lithium on Earth to be approximately 88 million metric tons. However, only about 25-percent of it is minable. That’s what makes the discovery of such a large deposit of lithium at the McDermitt Caldera so exciting.

What Is Lithium Anyway?

To truly appreciate the importance of this discovery, we must first understand what lithium is and how it factors into the production of green energy products. Let’s start with the basics. Lithium is a chemical element. On the Periodic Table of Elements, it has the symbol Li and the atomic number 3.

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Lithium is known for its low density, high reactivity, and excellent electrical conductivity. Remember these points. They will be important later. Lithium has a number of applications. It is found in medicines used to treat bipolar disorders, in the production of glass and ceramics, and as a fuel in nuclear fusion reactors.

Lithium … A Key Component in Batteries

You probably associate lithium with batteries. After all, we are bombarded with the term “lithium-ion battery” in our modern world. These are the rechargeable batteries that power our laptops, smartphones, and tablets. In recent years, lithium-ion batteries have been used to power electric vehicles.

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The lithium in lithium-ion batteries conducts electricity, giving these batteries a high energy density, long cycle life, and a fairly low self-discharge rate. As the world transitions toward cleaner energy, lithium has become more and more important, especially for the electronics and transportation industries.

Is Mining Lithium Safe for the Environment?

Mining is often viewed as the opposite of green environmental practices. Is it environmentally safe to mine lithium from the earth? That depends. The environmental impact of lithium mining can vary depending on the specific mining method used and the location of the mining operation.

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One of the biggest concerns with lithium mining is water usage. Extracting lithium from brine reservoirs involves using large amounts of water pumped through the mine to bring the lithium to the surface. The element is accessible through evaporation. There are often concerns about the mining operation depleting local water reserves and/or polluting the water. But the water method is only used to mine lithium in brine reserves … Does that apply to the McDermitt Caldera?

Two Types of Lithium Deposits

Lithium is most often obtained from lithium-rich mineral deposits and brine reservoirs. The two main sources are spodumene – rock that contains high levels of lithium – or from brine reservoirs – salt beds or salt flats found where ocean water has evaporated.

Source: Wikimedia Commons/Rob Lavinsky/iRocks.com

Although the McDermitt Caldera is located more than 500 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the lithium deposits found there are of the brine reservoir variety. The presence of brine is evidence of the tremendous geological changes that have occurred in this area over millions of years. A brief look at how the McDermitt Caldera was formed can help clear this up.

McDermitt Caldera’s Violent History

For millions of years, the area that is now the border between Oregon and Nevada was a geothermal hot spot. The McDermitt Caldera started its life as a volcano. Geologists theorize that sometime during the Middle Miocene epoch, a series of violent, highly explosive eruptions rocked the volcano, sending massive amounts of rock, dirt, ash, and lava into the air.

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What was left behind after these eruptions was a caldera, a collapsed volcano that creates a large depression on the surface of the earth. Like typical calderas, the McDermitt Caldera is bowl shaped. It covers an area of about 600 square miles.

Another Crater Lake

The collapse of the volcano that created the McDermitt Caldera also created a large lake in the depression. Had this lake survived to the present day, it may have looked a lot like Crater Lake in Oregon, which is about 370 miles away.

Source: Image by Art Bromage from Pixabay

According to scientists, this other crater lake lasted for hundreds of thousands of years. During that time, lithium and other elements that were thrust upward from deep within the earth by the force of the volcanic eruptions, leached into the briny water. When yet another volcanic eruption once again shifted the earth’s crust, the lake at the McDermitt Caldera drained away and the water evaporated, leaving behind deposits of lithium.

The Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Controversy

Thacker Pass in Nevada is located within the McDermitt Caldera. Studies have shown that the highest concentration of lithium is found in this area. A mining development project called the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine was established to extract the lithium from the deposits found there.

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According to records from the Bureau of Land Management, the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine would cover mining sites totalling approximately 6,000 acres with an additional 12,000 acres falling under the mine’s control. It is estimated that the mining operation could produce 66,000 tons of lithium each year.

Lithium Mining Is “Green Colonialism”

Residents living near Thacker Pass, especially members of the Native American community, are protesting the lithium mining operations there. The area is sacred to the indigenous people and the site of an historic massacre. An organization was formed called People of the Red Mountain to oppose the mine.

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The Native American people living near Thacker Pass and members of the People of the Red Mountain maintain that the Bureau of Land Management failed to thoroughly consult with the indigenous people before giving the mining operation the thumbs up. They are likening the lithium mine to “Green Colonialism” because their resources are being stripped away from them. They argue that lithium mining is not sustainable because the element is not being replaced or replenished.

Opponents of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine

In addition to violating land that is sacred to Native Americans, opponents of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine at the McDermitt Caldera have raised concerns about the potential threat to wildlife in the region. They challenge the idea of calling the lithium mine a “green” operation, stating that the extraction of lithium carries with it a high environmental toll.

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The People of the Red Mountain maintain that the mine will release more than 150,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the environment each year. Plants that are used by the native people, including members of the Shoshone, Bannock, and Paiute tribes, for both spiritual and medicinal purposes will be negatively affected. There are also concerns about water usage and water pollution, the impact on wildlife, and the increase in missing and murdered indigenous women that often occur when large operations like this move into an area.

Pushing the Green Agenda

People in favor of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mining operation claim that the impact to the environment of the McDermitt Caldera region will be minimal and that there will be no effect on the Native American culture. Instead, they state that mining lithium is a necessary step in lowering carbon emissions and slowing climate change.

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Proponents of the lithium operation also note that the mine will bring 300 long-term jobs to this rural part of Nevada and, in turn, create an influx of money into the local economy. This has led to debates about the price tag people are willing to affix to the environment.

No Win-Win Solution

Both sides of this argument make valid, legitimate points. On one hand, lithium is a key ingredient to help wean us off fossil fuels and transition to cleaner, more sustainable energy. But on the other hand, protecting the environment and preserving Native American culture and heritage should also be priorities. There is no easy win-win solution.

Source: Inside Climate Change/Spenser Heaps

As all sides of the issue work toward a solution, more research is being done to learn more about locating additional lithium deposits and adopting mining practices to minimize the impact on the environment. In the meantime, the story of McDermitt Caldera and Thacker Pass serves as a good reminder that forward progress always comes at a cost.