The high Nevadan desert, near the Oregon border, has become the epicentre of an enormous lithium deposit. The discovery of the lithium mine, essential for electric vehicle batteries, has sparked a national debate, highlighting divisions within political, environmental, and Indigenous communities.

President Joe Biden’s administration has thrown its weight behind the exploration and extraction of this deposit. With his goal of making the United States a leader in electric car production, securing a domestic lithium supply has become a priority.

This push for lithium exploration, however, has deeply divided communities that have traditionally found themselves on opposite sides of political arguments. The scenic beauty of Thacker Pass, characterised by sagebrush valleys and mountain tops, has become the battleground for this contentious issue.

Environmentalists argue that the mining activities could lead to habitat destruction, water contamination, and disruption of the delicate ecosystem of the region. Native American groups, on the other hand, are split on the issue. Some view mining as an opportunity for economic development and job creation in their communities, while others are concerned about the potential environmental impact and the desecration of sacred land.

Even within the environmental community, there is no consensus. Some environmental organisations oppose the mining activities at Thacker Pass. Others believe supporting domestic lithium production is essential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to a cleaner energy future.

Mining operations in Thacker Pass began in March, with Lithium Americas winning the bid to mine the area after years of legal battles. The company has promised to employ the latest environment-friendly technologies and to minimise the impact on the landscape.

President Biden’s ambition to mine lithium domestically is motivated by the need to secure a stable supply chain for the electric car industry. The United States imports lithium from countries like Australia, Chile, and China. This reliance on foreign sources makes the nation vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.

Great Basin Resource Watch Director John Hadder points to habitat disruption, the risk of water contamination, and the alteration of the pristine landscape as significant concerns. Hadder contends that instead of increasing mining activities, a more sustainable alternative is reducing mineral demand by altering consumption habits.

Hadder also fears that the intense focus on mining may divert attention and resources from other critical climate change mitigation efforts. He suggests that an overemphasis on mining may overshadow equally important actions needed to combat climate change, such as renewable energy expansion, energy efficiency improvements, and emission reduction.

Within Hadder’s organisation, Great Basin Resource Watch, internal disagreements have become evident. Glen Miller, a former academic at the University of Nevada and a board member of the organisation, resigned after expressing support for the mine.

Glen Miller emphasises the vital role lithium plays in addressing climate change and advancing the electrification of the transportation sector. He argues that a stable domestic lithium supply is essential to achieve President Biden’s clean energy goals. Miller acknowledges receiving partial research funding from Lithium Americas but denies it influenced his stance on the mine.

The area’s significance is not just environmental. It also holds historical and cultural importance. Sentinel Rock, locally known as Nipple Rock due to its unusual formation, is the site where the People of the Red Mountain gather annually to commemorate their ancestors.

According to the Shoshone-Bannock and Paiute tribes, the area is believed to be the location of an atrocity in 1865 when the US Cavalry pursued people into the area currently being mined at Thacker Pass and perpetrated a massacre. Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a member of The People of the Red Mountain, views this site as a tragedy and advocates for its recognition as a historical site.

However, corporate interests in the mining project have not acknowledged this perspective.

The objections raised by the tribes go beyond environmental concerns. They assert that despite the land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, it was stolen from local people. They further argue that local community members should have a say in its use.

Lithium Americas vehemently contests the objection based on the historical massacre. They assert that there is no evidence of such an event occurring on the mining site.

Tim Crowley, vice president of government affairs at Lithium Americas, notes that some local Native Americans are employed at the Thacker Pass mine and actively support the project. This perspective is acknowledged by Ka’ila Farrell-Smith as well. In an area where well-paying jobs are scarce, the prospect of employment at the mine is appealing to some community members.

Ka’ila suggests that those advocating for projects like the mine are often not the individuals frequently travelling by air or disproportionately contributing to emissions. She notes that the marginalised communities and indigenous peoples bear the brunt of environmental degradation while reaping few benefits.

The Thacker Pass mine is in its early stages. Lithium production is not expected until at least 2026. The mined lithium is intended for use by General Motors.

The People of the Red Mountain and their allies are concerned that this mine may be the beginning. There is a significant lithium resource in the area, and multiple companies have expressed interest in mining it.