Which “Water is Life” Team Are You On?

The proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada is stirring up controversy.  While this mine would become the largest lithium mine in the US and provide feedstocks for tens of thousands of electric cars, citizens groups and NGOs have risen up in strong opposition to the mine.  There are three main reasons: (1) Proximity to sacred tribal lands, (2) Excessive water needs associated with the mining operation, and (3) Potential harm to wildlife in the region.  This sounds eerily familiar to those of us who followed the opposition to projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).  Except this time the opposition isn’t rallying against Big Oil – it is rallying against Big Green.

One outcome of the opposition to DAPL was the phrase “Water is Life.”  This wonderfully vague and seemingly impossible-to-disagree-with phrase has started being splashed on yard signs like those in my neighborhood (which is solidly on the low end of upper-middle class).  Display of this sign makes the following proclamations:  I stand for indigenous communities, protection of the environment, and opposition to Big Oil.

But the Thacker Pass situation makes things a little tricky for the WIL crowd.  Yes, there are corporate interests involved, but these are the corporations who are supposed to save the climate, so they are the good kind of corporate-y corporations, right?  And dang that is a lot of water (3,250 gallons per minute).  And dang I thought my Nissan Leaf respected indigenous peoples.  How is a good self-respecting hydrocarbon-hating modernite supposed to think?  This is kind of like when an Ohio State football fan watches their team play a spring scrimmage.  An interception is a good thing except that it isn’t.

Here is how the WIL crowd gets broken down into three teams:

Team A:  This team’s members generally oppose drilling and mining as blemishes on our planet.  These individuals drive and fly only sparingly, try to grow as much of their own food as possible, eschew synthetic products and read works by Jean-Jacques Rouseau.  It is neither morally nor intellectually inconsistent to oppose both oil and lithium – we should all just consume less energy and live lives more in line with what nature intended.  To their credit, members of this team live lives that generally align with their worldview.

Team B:  Those on this team recognize that to move the energy transition in a more omelette-like direction, some egg ore is going to need to be mined and processed.  Carbon emissions are a problem but in the modern world, the billions of people who don’t yet have cars are probably not going to voluntarily not try to acquire them.  They read works by Thomas Hobbes.  Those of who live in Denver will most likely be asked to reduce how much their lawns are being watered while 3,250 gallons every minute will go towards the mine.  And mining companies and government agencies need to find a way to include indigenous communities in these efforts and minimize adverse impacts.  Members of this team are not saints but are at least consistent.

I personally fit on Team B.  I support Thacker Pass for the same reasons I support DAPL.  Those of us who care about BOTH the environment and national security (yes, we do exist) actually like electric cars because they trade something we have a shortage of (oil) for something we have a surplus of (natural gas).

But there is another team I haven’t mentioned.  Let’s call them Team C.   Members of this team want more electric cars.  They will support mining when the conditions are perfect and there no adverse impacts or sacrifices.  They support the continued manufacture of green machines but don’t want their eyes to hurt at the sight of mean things like bulldozers.

I have news for Team C.  There are no perfect scenarios for creating the machines that make the modern world.  Mining the materials that enable your lifestyle in places like Chile and Congo does not align with the worldview that you profess and try to impose on your fellow citizens.  It takes little effort to learn of the wastage of water and the rights of native communities trampled on in the pursuit of your lithium elsewhere.  Having the meat you eat slaughtered in another country doesn’t make you vegan.  The net effect of Team C’s actions is degradation of human rights, more harm to the environment, and increased reliance on places we probably don’t want to be reliant on.

Maybe I have been too harsh – for those of you who support electric cars but oppose Thacker Pass, I will respect your opinion if you tell me where in the continental US you are in favor of mining that will lead to an equal amount of lithium production.  In the meantime, will someone please make a yard sign that says: “Water is Life and Let’s Mine Our Lithium in the USA instead of Chile”?  I’ll take two.  One for me and one for you.

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