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Lithium is part of Nevada’s future. Can it be mined sustainably?

Updated June 6, 2024 - 9:11 am

The key to the United States’ transition away from fossil fuels might lie in the ground of the Silver State.

Lithium, used in electric vehicle batteries, abounds in Nevada’s abundant federal lands. There’s only one functional lithium mine in the country, located in rural Esmeralda County, but international companies have flocked to the Great Basin to stake their claim for future commercial mines that can take nearly a decade to obtain federal permits.

But as the state posits itself as the epicenter of a domestic lithium supply chain, some worry that regulatory statutes are lacking, potentially threatening endangered species and already-limited water resources.

At a joint standing natural resources committee meeting Tuesday, lawmakers heard from environmentalists, government agencies and industry groups about how the Legislature can support the burgeoning industry while prioritizing projects that will cause the least harm to the environment.

“Nevada is at the center of the hunt,” said Jaina Moan, of the Nevada chapter of nongovernmental organization The Nature Conservancy.

Lithium now in the fabric of Nevada

At the meeting, everyone involved in the lithium debate was in consensus about at least one idea: Lithium mining is here to stay, and it’s part of the future of the state economy.

Moan, whose organization has worked with the Desert Research Institute on establishing guidelines for protecting water in lithium production in Nevada, said a February assessment revealed there were nearly 22,000 lithium mining claims in the state.

Proposals, of which there are many in varying stages of the federal permitting process, span 310,000 acres, Moan said.

What’s unclear is how direct lithium extraction, a method distinct from traditional open-pit mine operations, may affect the environment. Still, Moan remains concerned about groundwater and endemic species.

“Groundwater impacts are site-specific, they’re complex, and where groundwater is ancient, they’re irreparable,” she said.

Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director of the Center for Biological Diversity, spoke to direct lithium extraction (DLE), calling on lawmakers to fund a study investigating how regulatory statutes could be updated to better accommodate the practice.

The technology is new, Donnelly said, and hasn’t been successfully executed on a large scale. But it presents an opportunity for Nevada to lead the charge on a technique that could be more environmentally responsible, he said.

“Nevada is certainly ground zero for the emergence of the DLE economy in the United States,” Donnelly said. “This would be Nevada getting ahead of the curve.”

Permitting still a hurdle to getting mines live

Also at the meeting were representatives from such pro-industry advocates as the Nevada Mining Association and the newly formed Nevada Battery Coalition, who echoed the emerging prominence of the lithium industry.

They emphasized that environmental concerns should be eased by the long, robust permitting process in place for new mines that can take upward of 10 years with multiple chances for public input.

Bob Potts, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said Nevada expects the lithium industry to grow by five times by 2030, representing tens of thousands of jobs at different points of the lithium supply chain, from mining to processing.

Making Nevada more inviting to companies through tax incentives and shorter federal permitting windows is important, he said.

“Streamlining the processes for companies to get up and be operational would be huge,” Potts said.

Contact Alan Halaly at ahalaly@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlanHalaly on X.

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