Under a blazing summer sun in Nevada, bulldozers graze on precious sagebrush, kicking up smoke that curls skyward in their wake. Trucks race by, carrying workers on a mission. A line of barbed wire fencing slices through the expansive terrain. Here, a mine is taking shape, one that will extract and refine millions of tons of rock from the largest lithium deposit in the country. The operators of the lithium mine are part of a lumbering national policy program aiming to provide battery materials for the nation’s energy transition. The Biden Administration hopes to deploy millions of electric vehicles (EVs) to slash carbon emissions in the transportation sector. For their mission, they need this mine.
Standing outside the fence, beside a “No Trespassing” sign, I peered into the mine site as part of my work on an internship that examined the push for lithium production. During two weeks of fieldwork, what I saw here and elsewhere worried me. To hasten the fight against the climate crisis, many policymakers are beginning to accept policies that will sacrifice a few to protect the many—including at this lithium mine. Some sacrifices may be necessary, especially given our short time frame to act. This reality, then, presents us with some hard questions: How do we decide what, and who, to sacrifice? Who will we let decide the victims of these sacrifices?
The Vice President of Government Affairs and Community Relations Corporate Communications for Lithium Nevada, a man named Tim Crowley, wants to build a school. Not just any school: 15 to 20 million dollars for sparkling classrooms, a brand new gym, a computer lab kitted out with the latest electronics, and new facilities for teachers. Lithium Nevada plans for the school to replace an old building complex along the main highway that traverses Orovada, a small community in Nevada’s mountainous northern dry landscape.
The school is just one example of the community benefits that Lithium Nevada prides itself on providing while the company assembles what will be one of the nation’s largest lithium mines. The mine is 25 minutes away from Orovada’s center, located in a sloping descent between two hills called Thacker Pass, known as Peehee Mu’huh to the local Paiute Shoshone communities who commemorate two massacres there. Lithium Nevada has continued construction without interruption since March, despite three lawsuits which proceeded through both state and federal courts. (The first lawsuit, put forward by local Indigenous tribes, alleged that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to consult their tribes properly before approving the mine. A coalition of environmental nonprofits filed the second, claiming deep insufficiencies in the mine’s Environmental Impact Statement. A local rancher filed the third lawsuit, alleging that the mine will irreparably deplete the water on his ranch).
For centuries, mining has been a destructive activity. Communities living near mines have faced challenges of pollution from chemically-intensive mining processes, violence from mine workers, and repression when they raise concerns. But Lithium Nevada claims its practices will depart from these long histories of harm. That involves consultation with their surrounding communities.
Crowley seemed proud of his company’s efforts to engage local residents, despite much opposition from Orovada’s community. In an interview, he went to great lengths to highlight the company’s deep and sustained consultation with nearby communities who will be affected by the mine. “We’re working really, really hard to make sure that we actually provide a net benefit to the surrounding areas,” Crowley said. “We started with engagement over a decade ago, and that hasn’t stopped. It’s never gonna stop.”
Part of that dialogue, according to Crowley, involves providing benefits to the communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, living nearby. The school is one of many benefits Lithium Nevada wishes to implement. They’re also repaving and expanding the roads near the mine site to prepare for when the mine’s heavy-duty trucks begin to roll through Orovada. They’re bringing job training, a new community daycare facility, and a plant nursery to the nearby Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe. “At the root of all of this engagement is empathy,” Crowley told me. “If you can’t empathize with the communities and their needs, you are going to struggle to figure out how to accommodate them.”
This narrative, in which mining companies engage with and provide benefits to local communities, represents a broader shift in tone from industry and government leaders as they craft climate policy. These leaders see community-conscious policies as a way to modernize mining activity, as Biden recently alluded to when announcing new funds for lithium mines. He called on mines to benefit local communities and “avoid the historical injustices that too many mining operations left behind in American towns.” Lithium Nevada’s decision to build the new school in Orovada seems to embody Biden’s charge.
But what if the community didn’t want the new school in the first place? What would that say about how companies like Lithium Nevada undergo community engagement?
Susan Frey first heard about Lithium Nevada’s mine when the BLM announced its Record of Decision approving the company’s proposal in the final few days of the Trump administration. A third-generation rancher in Orovada, Frey advocates on behalf of the community in the Thacker Pass Working Group, for which she serves as spokesperson. Lithium Nevada established the working group to facilitate communication, and resolve conflict, between Orovada residents and the company. To mediate the group, the company brought in Collaborative Decision Resources, a “stakeholder engagement and facilitation firm.” Sporting a ponytail that threaded through a camo baseball cap, Frey spoke with us in Orovada’s community hall, a corrugated metal structure that holds a bar and a few tables inside. She described a very different negotiation process around the school than the one Crowley narrated.
“The very first time that they drove through Orovada on the way to go up to Thacker Pass to view their area up there, they drove by this little school just right along the highway,” Frey recounted, hearing a story from Crowley and another company employee. “They said to themselves immediately: ‘Oh, we’re going to have to move that school.’”
That troubled residents; most did not want a new school. Multiple generations of Orovada residents, including Frey, her husband, and her children, grew up going to the school; they feel strong emotional attachments to it. “There’s an air of nostalgia about that old school and they don’t want to see it go. They don’t want to see it moved,” Frey said.
But the school’s location represented an obstacle for Lithium Nevada, one that threatened their plans to develop the mine. According to Crowley, its gym was located far away from the main school complex, on the other side of the highway that cuts through Orovada’s center. He envisioned that with haul trucks speeding through Orovada to and from the mine, school children crossing the street would be in danger. “That was clearly not a sustainable plan from our perspective,” Crowley said.
A tense exchange between the company and the community followed. Lithium Nevada proposed closing the school and building a new one far away from the original. They didn’t consult the Orovada community, who rejected their plan, according to Frey. “At that point, they just kind of completely dropped it,” she said. “[The company] said, ‘Nevermind, our bad. We won’t bring that up again.’” But soon after, Lithium Nevada raised the question of relocating again, this time allowing the community to choose the location. Eventually, Orovada’s residents capitulated. Lithium Nevada is now moving ahead with their plan.
“It felt like a bit of a consolation prize or a buyout,” Frey said. “Like if we played ball with this school, we wouldn’t have any reason to complain about anything.”
But Orovada residents didn’t really have a choice in the matter.
While Lithium Nevada managed to get the community to accept their proposal, the latter at least got a new school out of it. But because the company is under no legal obligation to gain community approval, they can use their power to impose more difficult decisions with far more severe consequences to residents of Orovada. First and foremost: the construction of a man camp.
Man camps are housing facilities to shelter workers, who are predominantly male, while they work on a construction or development project far from home. Often associated with fossil fuel industry pipeline projects, man camps are a hot button issue for frontline communities. The men in the camps are brought in from outside the local area, and, without the social conventions and obligations common in most communities, they can, in many cases, cause harm. In particular, if a company builds a man camp in the vicinity of an Indigenous reservation, rates of missing or murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), girls, and two-spirit people skyrocket, according to a National Inquiry conducted by the Canadian government.
Lithium Nevada initially told the Orovada community that the company would not build a man camp, according to Frey. Especially with the Fort McDermitt Indian Colony less than 30 minutes away from Orovada’s main street, locals, especially Indigenous leaders, saw that a man camp could be dangerous. Frey tried to hold Lithium Nevada accountable to their statement, crafting a proposal for them to agree to not put any company-sponsored housing in or around their Orovada properties. In response, Frey recounted that Lithium Nevada began to backtrack on their earlier statement, claiming they had the legal right to build some lodging on the land they purchased from the BLM, then saying they might build a small RV park next to the mine. “And we said, whoa, whoa, whoa. That sounds a little bit too close to a man camp to us,” Frey said.
Since then, Lithium Nevada has proposed plans for a “temporary housing lodge” for the hundreds of workers involved in the mine’s construction in Winnemucca, the closest town to the mine, and another shelter next to the mine for senior management, according to Crowley. “We’re quite pleased with and proud of the efforts we’re going to do to make sure our workforce has a safe environment to live in,” he added.
Speaking with Crowley, he seemed shocked at the idea that his project might perpetuate the historical and now well-documented violence associated with man camps. When I brought up the correlation between man camps and missing or murdered Indigenous women, he responded definitively, “Oh, that, that’s just… that’s just unacceptable. To suggest that we would support any of that for a moment is offensive.” When I asked him about whether it might be a risk for workers in man camps to be in the vicinity of Indigenous communities, he appeared to downplay the potential, saying, “It’s a risk at the McDonald’s down the street.”
To Frey and the community she represents, the announcement that Lithium Nevada decided to build man camps came as a blow. “From the beginning, we didn’t feel that they were being truthful with us about it. We don’t want any kind of man camp here,” she said. Frey recounted that after the company’s reversal, her working group cut off relations for a few weeks, not sure if it was worth it to keep working with Lithium Nevada. Crowley denies that this happened.
But the community eventually returned to the bargaining table, because the working group saw communication with Lithium Nevada as the only way to protect their community as best they could. “If we left the table entirely, we would lose that opportunity,” Frey said. Without regulatory agency or formal processes in place to help residents protect their home, communities like Orovada don’t have much choice but to negotiate with mining corporations.
For all its consultation, Lithium Nevada never actually had to earn a more fundamental seal of community approval: their consent. This produces an imbalanced relationship. “Any consultation process that doesn’t have the duty to obtain consent as part of it, is almost inherently coercive,” said Wyatt Gjullin, Staff Attorney at the environmental justice nonprofit EarthRights International. If a community has no right to say no to a mine, Gjullin explained, all the community can do is: 1) engage with the mining project and legitimize it by their participation, or 2) refuse to engage and lose out on any benefits they might otherwise have won. Frey’s story evoked this relationship in Orovada, and it holds true across the country in virtually every mining project nation-wide.
That’s because the laws that undergird mineral extraction in the United States, some centuries old, allow private companies to violate the consent of communities they impact.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), lauded as a hallmark of environmental regulation when it was passed in the 70s, is a chief example. The policy sets standards for pollution and requires that any project with an environmental impact, like a mine, must consult with surrounding communities. But that’s all they have to do: consult. So long as an environmental regulatory agency approves the company’s consultation process, the mine can move forward—even if the community doesn’t accept their proposal.
Ian Bigley, a mining justice activist who works at the environmental nonprofit Earthworks, argues that NEPA falls short because it takes the perspective that a mining company’s proposal represents the best use of the land. “They’re not having to defend that there should be a mine there,” Bigley said. Instead, “they’re trying to defend this is the correct plan for a mine in satisfying the other environmental laws.” In other words, companies don’t have to prove the importance or necessity of their mines—EPA already assumes that. All a company needs to show to regulators is that their mine meets certain safety criteria, and that they have undergone some form of consultation.
The 1872 Mining Law is the most powerful legal framework that elevates mining companies’ power over communities. Still used today, it’s the main force facilitating the current explosion of lithium mine proposals in the United States. Congress passed the law to support westward expansion and settlement at a time when Manifest Destiny was at its peak, according to Bigley. It first designated mining as the “best and highest use” of public land. To claim land for a mine, all someone has to do is walk onto public land, hammer four posts into ground under which they have found mineral deposits, and then file a mining claim with the federal government (at a shockingly low price). Once approved, the prospector then owns that parcel of land.
The mining law’s potency cannot be overstated. Mining companies, by default, have priority over every other possible activity on public land – including the functioning of an otherwise flourishing community nearby.
Worse still, to hasten the energy transition, Democratic lawmakers are attempting to expand the powers of the law to allow mining companies more leeway as they claim land. In response to a recent legal decision that limited where mining companies can dump waste rock, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) proposed a law declaring that mining companies would no longer need to prove valuable minerals exist on land they claim. If passed, a company could stake a huge swath of public ground, file a mining claim, and take exclusive control once approved – even without knowing if the land contained minerals. The Senator justified the bill explicitly on climate action grounds, saying that she promoted the bill to “drive our clean energy industry.”
Senator Cortez Masto’s bill fits into an emerging consensus among environmentalists, described by prominent legal scholar Michael Gerrard as a “triage” mentality when it comes to combating the climate crisis. In his essay on the subject, Gerrard writes that with such limited time left to act on climate change, and at the slow pace the United States is moving toward decarbonization, we must enter “an era of triage, where we save what we can but recognize that there are things we’ll have to give up.” Gerrard is entirely correct: lawmakers and corporations don’t have the time, or the appropriate legal apparatuses, to protect everyone and act comprehensively enough to stop the worst effects of climate change. So what comes next?
Near the end of my fieldwork, I sat at a coffee table in Pasadena, CA, with John Hadder, director of environmental watchdog Great Basin Resource Watch (GBRW). The next day, we would attend a hearing of the lawsuits against Lithium Nevada at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, including one suit brought by GBRW. Hadder, a veteran environmental advocate with sharp blue eyes and a silver ponytail, mulled over the consequences of the Cortez Masto bill as the sun sank toward the horizon.
“There is going to be a demand for materials—and we’re not gonna completely obviate that need,” Hadder told me. “But what are we losing along the way?”