It’s being called a new chapter in Nevada mining history, a potential boom based on Nevada’s rich store of lithium. The mineral is critical to rechargeable batteries and promises to help wean the world of its reliance on fossil fuels. But the anticipated increase in lithium production in the state comes with big challenges, dramatic plot twists, and visits from the ghosts of bonanzas past.
Research geologists and economists at UNLV are working to bring disparate groups together in a way all but unheard of less than a generation ago. Given the devastating effects of climate change and carbon-caused global warming, much more than another mining boom hangs in the balance.
At UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER), director Andrew Woods cuts to the bottom line. “The demand for energy storage between electric cars, homes, and commercial is only going to grow exponentially,” Woods says. “The demand for batteries is forecasted to grow five times in the next eight years. Climate change is no longer a question of mitigation, but of human survival.”
This year, the center released a white paper on lithium-rich Nevada and why it is the ideal headquarters for the rapidly growing lithium-ion battery industry. But modern mineral extraction is no longer as simple as digging a hole in the ground. Rhyolite Ridge in Esmeralda County holds vast lithium deposits, but it is also home to the endangered Tiehm’s buckwheat, which grows on just 10 acres there. At Thacker Pass near the Oregon border in Humboldt County, another enormous lithium deposit lies beneath land considered sacred by members of the Paiute and Shoshone tribes.
“We don’t have a choice but to find a way forward in extracting the necessary metals used in a variety of clean energy applications like lithium, cobalt, and nickel,” Woods says. “But we can’t solve one environmental problem by creating another for future generations to clean up.”
There’s the rub.
In Nevada, the story of mining’s boom-and-bust cycles is as familiar as the sage and sand. The Comstock Lode’s rich ore gave the “Silver State” its moniker, but Virginia City’s fortunes rose and fell with mines while the profits built mansions elsewhere.
Lessons in the Silver State
Although its gold mines remain among the most productive in the world, Nevada is the only state currently extracting lithium through primary mining rather than as a byproduct of mining other minerals. That has taken place since 1966 in central Nevada’s Esmeralda County at Silver Peak, a place that once produced silver and gold as early as the 1860s. As the nation and world have awakened to lithium’s use in batteries for electric vehicles, laptops, and myriad other devices, Nevada lithium has gone from a trivia answer to potentially the next great mineral boom in a state whose history is punctuated by them.
The potential is great for increased lithium mining outside Silver Peak’s Clayton Valley, but other proposed sites have sparked controversy in the environmental and Indigenous communities. The only long-term solution is finding a way to balance those interests.
For Andrew Hanson, a geologist and dean of the Honors College, the emergence of a lithium economy is a living history lesson in a state that has struggled to learn from the past. He brings to the subject scientific expertise as well as the life experience of growing up on a ranch in arid eastern Montana next to a Northern Cheyenne Indian reservation.
“I want the lithium economy to grow in Nevada,” Hanson says. “But there’s part of me that looks at history. All you need to do is drive around the state to different mining districts and you just realize, over and over and over again, that we’ve been in these multiple boom-and-bust cycles. When a resource is discovered, the place booms. When the resource is gone, it all ends. I would hate to see that happen again. I wish there was a way to make this a sustained resource, and what the Earth has provided for us.”
With writing a new ending for an old story in mind, and an $80,000 grant from Nevada Gold Mines, Hanson has coordinated an effort to help educate UNLV honors students beyond the classroom and out in the real Nevada. He led them on a field trip through the nation’s seventh-largest state, through its rural ranches and mining operations, its basin-and-range outback and sacred places.
Understanding the complexities of public land and water issues, as well as Indigenous rights and environmental concerns, is essential for soon-to-be decision makers, he reasons. And if the lithium economy is to benefit all stakeholders, these could be the thinkers and leaders ensuring that the coming lithium boom doesn’t end with a devastating bust for Nevada’s lands and peoples.
Simon Jowitt, a professor of economic geology, says increased lithium production could transform Nevada mining and much more.
“Nevada is kind of naturally endowed in lithium, which has been known for a while,” he says. But having a lot of a little-needed thing doesn’t really pencil out for economic development. “Up until fairly recently, if you’d brought a big lithium mine onstream, then what would have happened? You might have saturated the market and depressed the lithium price. Now we’re seeing the demand for the metal shoot up. So, it’s a question of timing rather than anything else.”
And timing is now ripe, he says.
The Downstream Opportunities
Changing the state’s mining story will require Nevada to embrace a bigger picture, one that only begins with lithium extraction. To avoid a bust, Nevada will need to invest in the lithium economy once the mineral is out of the ground.
“We don’t want to just mine lithium. We want to capture more of the value that happens downstream. You process lithium, you put it in batteries, you put the batteries into end-use products like vehicles and so forth. That’s where the real value is.”
For decades, Jowitt notes, that downstream processing and production has been done overseas.
CBER’s Woods compares the potential of the lithium economy to the rise of another new and once-controversial industry: the casino industry in post-World War II.
“There is an economic term called agglomeration, which basically means that, when you group a bunch of businesses in the same industry together in a location, they learn from one another, they grow together, and you gain a specialization over your competitors outside of that region,” he says.
“It’s exciting to think of what Nevada’s lithium economy might look like 10, 20, or 30 years from now if we start investing in it today with human capital (workers), research, infrastructure, and facilities.”
Accomplishing such a transformation will take a new level of cooperation and an understanding of what’s at stake. Succeed and help save the climate; fail and end up just another borrasca in Nevada mining history.
“There’s a balance between mining, mineral processing, and manufacturing and so on, and the challenging effects created by those industries,” Jowitt says. “You have the environmental challenges, and the social challenges like we’re seeing at Thacker Pass and so on. It is reaching the public consciousness.”
Gathering the Energy Ecosystem Players
Pushed by Gen Z and Millennials who cite climate change as their greatest concern, the public is increasingly aware of “greenwashing,” or a surface-level signaling of environmental sensitivity by corporations and politicians with little long-term effect.
“The public, if they want to have Teslas, if they want to do something about climate change, if they want to invest in renewable energy and zero-carbon technologies and electric vehicles, or whatever — all of that comes at a cost. … We’re going to have to mine an awful lot, and even more if we want to actually do stuff meaningfully about climate change.”
One sign the message is beginning to reach its intended audience: For the first time, in August CBER and the Guinn Center for Public Policy Priorities brought together a roundtable on the clean energy ecosystem, Woods reports. The players were formidable and represented industry, the Indigenous and environmental communities, the governor’s office, and academic experts. With topics ranging from workforce supply to environmental impacts, Woods says, the gathering “felt like a really good first step of many.”
Next, he says, “It’s up to academia, researchers, students, industry, and community to come together and forge a path forward that allows us to transition while doing it in the best possible way. We must follow the same principles as medicine under the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm.”
With so much potential, the greatest shame would be for Nevada to miss perhaps its best opportunity to write a new ending to a story as old as statehood.