Groups: Lithium find underscores need for less ‘sloppy’ permitting
(Nevada Current) An ancient supervolcano formed millions of years ago in present-day Nevada may be hiding the largest deposit of lithium found anywhere in the world. And one U.S. mining company owns the rights to a small portion of it.
A new study published in Science Advances hypothesizes that the McDermitt Caldera — which sits on the border between Nevada and Oregon — contains more than double the concentration of lithium than any other bed of clay globally, around 20 to 40 million metric tons in total.
If the hypothesis is accurate, the caldera contains nearly double the lithium deposits found in Bolivia’s salt flats, which holds the record for the world’s largest deposit.
Lithium Americas, which owns mining rights in the southern end of the McDermitt Caldera, saw its stock price surge about 10% over two days after the study was published earlier this month.
The company operates the Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada, one of the largest mines to receive approval in the U.S. The company has even secured $650 million in funding from General Motors.
The study was funded by Lithium Americas, and includes research from Lithium Americas employee and shareholder, Thomas Benson.
Tim Crowley, the vice president of government and community relations for Lithium Americas said the research validates the company’s bet that Thacker Pass holds the highest grades of lithium in the region.
“We’re proud to have supported the academic study by Lithium Americas’ geologist Dr. Thomas Benson and coauthors at Oregon State and GNS Science to analyze lithium mineralization in the McDermitt Caldera,” Crowley said. “Lithium Americas remains focused on Thacker Pass where we’re building a responsibly designed project to help fulfill domestic demand for battery materials.”
The study, based on publicly available drill hole data from Lithium Americas, warns that even if the McDermitt Caldera does contain the world’s largest deposit of lithium, it’s still unclear if it would be economically feasible to extract the lithium.
Still, Lithium Americas said mining could begin as early as 2026.
Lithium has been listed by the U.S. Department of Interior as a critical mineral needed to support technologies that would combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions, particularly emissions from transportation. Lithium is a key component for batteries in electric vehicles. The U.S consumes about 100,000 tons of lithium a year. That number is projected to increase to about a million tons a year for the electrification of transportation.
But mining the metal also comes at a significant cost.
The mine has been a lightning rod for the growing conflict between conservationists, Native American tribes, ranchers and mining companies looking to profit from the booming demand for electric car batteries.
Several Native American tribes consider Thacker Pass sacred and have taken legal action to block development of the mine, arguing that the government failed to provide reasonable outreach to all tribes in the region that attach spiritual and cultural value to the site.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony previously likened mineral extraction on ancestral land they hold sacred to “disturbing Pearl Harbor or Arlington National Cemetery.”
Conservation groups have also rallied against the mine, citing environmental reviews highlighting the habitat degradation the mine could cause. An environmental review by the Bureau of Land Management noted that valuable wildlife habitat would be damaged were the mine to move forward, including pronghorn antelope, and winter range and brood-rearing range for the greater sage-grouse, an imperiled ground-nesting bird.
John Hadder, the director of the Great Basin Resource Watch, which has been involved in lawsuits over the mine in the past, said while the study may be helpful in pitching mining in the area, his organization has heard claims of “largest lithium deposit” from places around the world.
“I am concerned that this report will be used to advance more lithium mining in the region, and pressure the frontline peoples to accept mine plans,” said Hadder. “Regardless of how much lithium may be extractable, the sloppy permitting process that led to the Thacker Pass mine must not be duplicated. Indigenous ancestral lands that have cultural values must be protected, and Indigenous communities should have the right to say no.”
According to the study, unusual volcanic conditions likely created the uniquely rich lithium deposit. Around 16.4 million years ago, a volcanic explosion filled the caldera with magma rich in sodium, potassium, and lithium. The explosion also formed a lake—similar to nearby Crater Lake—depositing lithium into clay-rich sediment at its bottom.
The research paper suggests another volcanic eruption dried out the lakebed and exposed it to a brine of lithium and potassium with even higher concentrations of lithium.
Based on that hypothesis, the study makes way for a new source of lithium. The soft metal used mainly for battery storage is usually found either in the brine and sediments of salt lakes or lithium-bearing silicate “hard-rock” deposits.