Published in the Reno-Gazette Journal, February 15, 2022
Lithium Americas Corporation employee Dr. Thomas Benson’s February 8th opinion piece in the Reno Gazette-Journal (“Mining lithium at Thacker Pass essential for combating climate change”) makes numerous false claims. Let’s set the record straight.
Dr. Benson and I agree on one critical point. Global warming is a massive problem, it’s getting worse quickly, and we need to address it. Where we differ is on what should be done.
Benson’s argument is that “mining critical metals is a necessity for a greener future.” But I would ask—a necessity for whom? For example, do child slaves laboring in Congolese cobalt mines call this necessary? Cobalt is an essential ingredient in mobile phones and electric vehicle batteries, but those kids aren’t driving Tesla’s and listening to podcasts all day. They need liberation, not consumer toys.
The Washington Post has exposed how Benson’s own employer is implicated in human-rights abuses of indigenous communities in the Atacama desert of Argentina, where Lithium Americas is co-owner of a lithium mine. Local people have complained of declining water tables (the mines use 500,000 gallons to produce a ton of lithium), air pollution, and worse. Lithium mining is “really mining mountains of water,” said Daniel Galli, an Argentine physics professor. “The thing is that the companies are lying to us,” said the mayor of one community to the Post.
And what about global warming? Dr. Benson contends that producing lithium for a mass shift to electric vehicles would contribute to greenhouse gas emissions reductions. But many analyses actually find that the emissions reductions from switching to electric vehicles are quite minor.
Paul Hawken, for example, doesn’t put electric cars in his top 10 climate solutions. In fact, it’s number 24 on his list, with almost ten times less impact than reducing food waste, nearly six times less impact than eliminating the use of refrigerants which are powerful greenhouse gases, and behind solutions like tropical rainforest restoration (about 5 times as effective at reducing emissions as is switching to EVs) and peatland protection (more than twice as effective).
Producing a single electric car releases a lot of greenhouse gas emissions—about 9 tons on average. This is rising, as the size of electric cars is going up substantially. That means that even if operating electric cars reduces emissions overall, it’s not going to reduce them much. One calculation estimates reductions of 6 percent in the United States. That’s not enough to make much of a dent in warming.
Global warming also isn’t the only problem we face. Dr. Benson writes that “species are dying because of human-driven greenhouse gas emissions,” but the truth is that the vast majority of species extinctions have nothing to do with global warming. Most species extinctions are actually driven by habitat destruction. Resource extraction sectors, like mining, are implicated. They are responsible for about 90 percent of biodiversity loss—and more than half of carbon emissions.
The proposed Thacker Pass mine would destroy or degrade dozens of square miles of habitat and emit the carbon emissions equivalent to a small city. And at least three sensitive, struggling species would be impacted by the mine: the Greater sage-grouse, Lahontan cutthroat trout, and a snail species who lives only in 14 springs at Thacker Pass.
Dr. Benson is presenting us with a false choice. He argues that places like Thacker Pass must be sacrificed to save the planet. Unfortunately, the science simply doesn’t back him up.
Morality also calls for us to protect Thacker Pass. Even beyond the impacts on the climate and non-humans, this mine would harm local communities. Farmers and ranchers have lined up against the project because of water use and air pollution. Regional native tribes share the same concerns, and also see the site as sacred because of an 1865 massacre of Paiute people that took place there. Tribes, ranchers, and environmentalists have all sued to stop the mine.
Dr. Benson writes that “mining critical metals is a necessity for a greener future.” I disagree. A greener future means learning to live with less. It means recognizing that the rights of Congolese children, native people of Nevada, and sage-grouse are more important than our entitlement to gadgets and fancy cars.
Max Wilbert is co-author of the book Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It and is co-founder of Protect Thacker Pass.