The Lithium Mine Versus the Wildflower

The environmental ethicist Katie McShane compares our reverence for species to the word freedom. Everyone believes in it, but nobody knows what it means. “Even if you agree that it has value, it doesn’t tell you what to do when that value conflicts with my needs,” she says.

Comparing the value of things, weighing the costs and benefits of one against the other, is increasingly the preoccupation of environmentalists. Sometimes those competing things both have a claim in the natural world; sometimes one has a claim to bettering human life. Or the planet as a whole. If the mine at Rhyolite Ridge were digging for gold or copper, perhaps it would be easier to dismiss its value. Everyone benefits from raw materials, but it can be easy to say that you don’t “need” gold or that dollar value isn’t paramount. With lithium, denial is harder. Donnelly and Fraga both agree that the country—the world—needs to wean itself from fossil fuels. Lithium and sunshine are abundant in the desert Southwest, and so the transition to green energy will likely bring a new level of industrialization to its landscape. Mines and solar power plants will compete with rare buckwheat and desert tortoises. But in the absence of those mines and power plants, the desert will still suffer. For all their harsh conditions and seeming barrenness, deserts are fragile places, the life there is easily imperiled by higher temperatures and more frequent droughts. The conditions demand we formulate a moral equation: What is the value of a mine versus the value of a plant?

All mines have a dirty side, whether or not their products are “green.” They can destroy landscapes or pollute water supplies or expel greenhouse gases. Historically, mining companies have cared little about those impacts, doing the bare minimum to adhere to regulations. But lithium miners face extra pressure to act responsibly, explains Alex Grant, a technical adviser who works with those mines. Electric vehicle buyers are likely to care, for example, that 25 percent of their car’s lifetime carbon impact comes from the battery supply chain. So automakers, seeking to enhance their climate-friendly reputations, have increasingly leaned on lithium suppliers to burn less coal and seek certifications attesting that their mines do not ruin waters and habitats.

It is impossible to make every cost go away. As Grant sees it, there is no alternative to digging up lithium. The status quo of fossil-burning cars is not an option. What did opponents of lithium mining expect? A return to the horse and buggy? “We don’t need every project,” he says. “Some of them might have impacts that we should not accept. But we’re going to need a large fraction of them, that’s for sure.”

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Each project seems to have its own set of costs that someone will find unacceptable, which makes deciding which ones should be allowed to move forward yet more difficult. In Nevada’s far north, Thacker Pass, another major lithium project close to digging, is held up by disputes with indigenous groups and ranchers over water rights and pollution. The same is true in places like Chile and Bolivia. Alternatives that appear more ecologically appealing, like brines near California’s Salton Sea, have been talked about for decades, but the technology and financing behind those projects is uncertain. We could look to the oceans, maybe; deep-sea mining could offer lithium on a scale that would make any terrestrial mine seem puny. But the environmental costs of that approach are arguably even less well understood, and potentially enormous.

In that context, the fate of a humble flower seems like a very small thing when the lithium can be had so soon, and with few extra complications. Mining interests, ranchers, and developers have long argued that the process of listing endangered species should factor in economic costs, like the lost value of a mine or the expense of keeping a species on life support when it seems natural forces could select it out of existence.

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