The McDermitt Caldera, situated on the Nevada-Oregon border, could be harbouring the world's largest lithium deposit, according to a recent study funded by mining company Lithium Americas Corporation (LAC). This discovery raises concerns about the environmental and cultural impacts of mining the valuable resource.
Lithium is in high demand for electric vehicle battery production, with an estimated need for one million metric tons of lithium by 2040 as the world transitions from fossil fuels. The US relies on China for its lithium supply, prompting interest in mining lithium on federal lands.
However, the McDermitt Caldera's potential lithium wealth comes at a significant cost. The Thacker Pass Lithium mine, approved by the US government, is located within this caldera, which holds cultural and ecological importance. Indigenous tribes consider the land sacred, using it for hunting deer, tending to cherry orchards, and collecting traditional medicines.
Furthermore, the caldera is home to valuable wildlife habitats, including pronghorn antelope, sage grouse, and golden eagles. Environmentalists and ranchers are concerned that lithium mining could deplete groundwater levels and disrupt these ecosystems.
The recent study suggests that the caldera's southernmost rim, including Thacker Pass, contains exceptionally high lithium concentrations. This unique lithium-rich clay, called illite, may have formed from a resurgence of magma after the caldera's ancient lake dried out, replacing lithium-smectite with lithium-illite clay near Thacker Pass.
While this discovery could impact the global lithium market regarding price and supply security, the environmental and cultural concerns surrounding lithium mining in the McDermitt Caldera persist. Indigenous tribes argue that fighting climate change should not come at the expense of destroying native lands and ecosystems.
The controversy surrounding the Thacker Pass Lithium mine highlights the complex balance between addressing climate change and respecting the environment and Indigenous rights. The potential significance of the lithium deposit emphasises the need for careful consideration and responsible mining practices as the world seeks to transition to more sustainable energy sources.