Where Is Thacker Pass and Why Is It Important to the U.S. Electric Vehicle Industry?

To describe the state of Nevada as a destination of 'must-see' attractions would be a gross overstatement. Outside of Las Vegas and Reno, the state is pretty much a vast wasteland covering 110,560 square miles of U.S. soil. While it is the 7th largest state in the union, it has a population density of just 26 people per square mile. The State is so vast and desolate, it is one place aliens are thought to have chosen to visit the planet without being detected.
Thacker Pass 6 photos
Photo: Google Maps
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Had Nevada not passed a law allowing gambling just after the start of the Great Depression in 1931, the cities of Reno and Las Vegas, which are home to 87% of the state's population, likely would not even exist.

The state however does offer up something other than neon lights and one-armed bandits. It has an abundance of natural resources including silver which is where the state derived its nickname The Silver State (it is also known as the Sagebrush given the vast barren landscape). In fact, the state leads the nation in non-fuel mineral reserves such as gold, copper, barite, gypsum, and diatomite.

Yet there is one resource the state offers that has become of particular importance over the last decade and especially in the last couple of years, and that is the soft white-ish soft metal lithium (Li). Lithium is the central material in the making of the batteries that power electric vehicles and the need for domestically sourced lithium is on the rise.

With the electric vehicle movement in high gear, a portion of the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August of 2022 included mandates for automakers to use North American-sourced minerals to the tune of 40% content beginning in 2024 and escalating to as much as 80% in the long term.

Thacker Pass
Photo: NS Energy Business
While industry ilk has had its eyes on Nevada's lithium resources for quite some time, they are now laser-focused on extracting as much of the metal as feasibly possible. The term 'feasibly' is certainly the operative word in that statement given the challenges that lie ahead in terms of encroaching on native land and skirting U.S. environmental laws and regulations.

The focus is on an area known as Thacker Pass in the very northern portion of the state close to the Idaho border and closer still to the Oregon state line. Development is currently planned and minor operations are taking place by Lithium Nevada, a fully-owned subsidiary of Lithium Americas (LAC), to operate a world-class lithium mining operation on the site known to be the largest deposit of lithium in the U.S.

The site sitting within the extinct McDermitt Caldera supervolcano is estimated to have over 179 metric tons of proven and probable reserves of high-grade lithium reserves. A feasibility study completed in 2018 divided the project into two phases. The initial phase was expected to extract 30,000 tons annually for the first 3.5 years followed by the second phase which would double output.

The process involves taking lithium-rich clays and ores from below an alluvium layer of rock roughly 5 meters (16.5 feet) below the surface and delivering it to a processing facility on site. There the ore will be crushed, screened, and sent through a leaching process fed by sulfuric acid to separate out the lithium. A neutralization process will then remove magnesium sulfate and water from the lithium brine.

Thacker Pass
Photo: NS Energy Business
That is great news for the U.S. industry as a whole, but there are issues with getting the project rolling. Construction was slated to begin last year after then-President Trump approved Lithium Americas Corporation's Thacker Pass project in his last few days in office in 2021.

The future of the project lies in the hands of Chief Judge Miranda Du of the federal court in Reno, Nevada. She has said she will rule on whether President Trump overstepped his authority when approving the project in the next couple of months.

The project has been met with stern opposition from environmental groups, Native American tribes, and local ranchers. They argue the open-pit mining operation and secondary processing of lithium would desecrate sacred land and negatively impact wildlife and groundwater supplies. They claim that nearly 6,000 acres of the Thacker Pass site do not contain any lithium. Therefore, U.S. mining laws come into play, prohibiting Lithium Americas from using that acreage without further regulatory studies.

In addition, several tribes have stated in court they were never properly consulted on the details of the planned operation and have asked for a new round of consultations on the environmental impact of the project.

Lithium Refining
Photo: New World Now YouTube
"The whole system works against us," Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said. "It's a continuation of taking tribal lands from tribes and desecrating them before they can have valid consolation," the chairman told Reuters.

It is now a waiting game for Lithium Americas as they continue to conduct minor development of the site with all the necessary permits in hand.

The judge can uphold Trump's decision effectively green-lighting the project, overturn his granting of the approval, or order federal regulators to review the project. Anything other than upholding the decision would add significant delays to the project or kill it entirely.

At one point, Lithium Americas encouraged the court to give favoritism to the mine's potential to combat climate change. That stance was quickly quashed by Du. Nonetheless, they do seem confident the judgment will go their way and they will be permitted to begin major operations on the site before mid-year.
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