RENO, Nev. (AP) — A federal appeals court has cleared the way for construction in Nevada of the largest lithium mine in the U.S. while it considers claims by conservationists and tribes that the government illegally approved it in a rush to produce raw materials for electric vehicle batteries.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday denied a request for an emergency injunction that would have prevented a subsidiary of Lithium Americas from breaking ground near the Oregon line this week at the third largest known lithium deposit in the world.
Lawyers for the mining company and the Biden administration said in court filings on Tuesday further delay was undermining efforts to combat climate change as the 2-year-old legal battle lingers and demand continues to grow for the key component in batteries for electric vehicles.
Reserves at the Thacker Pass mine, expected to begin production by the end of 2026 about 200 miles (322 kilometer) northeast of Reno, would support lithium for more than 1.5 million electric vehicles per year for 40 years, the company said.
“There are no other U.S. alternatives to Thacker Pass to provide lithium at the scale, grade or timeline necessary to begin closing the gap between the lithium available and the lithium needed to achieve the U.S.’s clean energy and transportation goals," its lawyers wrote.
On Wednesday, the San Francisco-based court scheduled expedited filing deadlines through April on the merits of the appeal but its four-page ruling didn’t explain its rejection of the injunction.
Environmentalists and tribes trying to block the project support efforts to bolster lithium supplies to build electric vehicle batteries and replace fossil fuels with renewables but they say this particular mine would destroy essential wildlife habitat and sacred cultural values.
“This massive open pit mine has been fast-tracked from start to finish in defiance of environmental laws, all in the name of ‘green energy,’ but its environmental impacts will be permanent and severe,” said Talasi Brooks, a lawyer for the Western Watersheds Project.
Opponents of Lithium Nevada Corp.’s project had filed Monday an emergency motion with the 9th Circuit after U.S. District Judge Miranda Du in Reno rejected their latest request to put the case on hold until the San Francisco-based appellate court can hear their appeal.
“The immediate harm to plaintiffs from the permanent destruction of the Thacker Pass ecosystem outweighs any harm to (Lithium Nevada) from temporary delay of the project activities while this court resolves this appeal,” they said in briefs filed late Tuesday.
Du ruled on Feb. 6 the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management complied with federal law — with one exception — when it approved plans for the mine in January 2021. On Friday, she r efused the request for an injunction pending appeal.
Judge Du “reasonably weighed the public interest and balance of harms, noting that the lithium from this mine is a critical component of electric vehicle batteries, and thus an important domestic resource for reducing greenhouse gas emissions," Biden administration officials representing BLM said in court filings at the 9th Circuit on Tuesday.
Billions of dollars in investments are at stake in the legal battle at the forefront of so-called green energy development in the largest gold-producing state in the nation.
Neighboring California -- the nation’s largest car market -- plans to end the sale of new gas cars and trucks in a little over a decade, which will further drive up demand for electric vehicle batteries.
Lithium Nevada said it already has invested over $150 million in the mine, and projects capital costs of $2.3 billion for its first phase.
A Nevada rancher filed the first lawsuit in early 2021 seeking to block the 5,000-acre project with an open-pit mine as deep as a football field.
Multiple Native American tribes have tried unsuccessfully to persuade Judge Du that the development will destroy sacred cultural values tied to the nearby site of a massacre of dozens of their ancestors in 1865.
A half-dozen conservation groups say habitat critical to dwindling sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, threatened cutthroat trout and others could be lost forever as a result of the project. The groups say the BLM rushed without adequate environmental review in the final days of former President Donald Trump's administration.
“Together, these voices paint a powerful picture of the values at stake from the project that (Lithium Nevada) is now trying to greenwash," the opponents' lawyers wrote in court briefs late Tuesday.
Environmentalists argue a 9th Circuit ruling against an Arizona project in 2022 means the Nevada project can’t dispose of millions of tons of waste as planned under an 1872 law. Du didn’t nix BLM’s approval of the mine, but told the agency to decide whether the company has rights to dispose of waste on 1,300 acres of neighboring land.
The opponents said any lithium mined at the site wouldn’t be available to make electric vehicle batteries for at least three years.
“Although (Lithium Nevada) asserts that the need for lithium outweighs all other factors, that there may be some future benefit from using lithium does not override the rule that the public’s interest in preserving precious, unreplenishable resources must be taken into account in balancing the hardships.”