MCDERMITT CALDERA, Ore. — In Oregon’s remote McDermitt Caldera, an Australian company drills for lithium. And so far, they like what their core samples show.
“It’s encouraging. Definitely encouraging,” said Lindsay Dudfield, executive director for Australia’s Jindalee Resources.
Dudfield says the test drilling is just a start. Actual lithium mining, if it happens, could be a decade away.
“There is a lot more data collection to be done. There’s the permitting process to go through. Permitting any mine will take a period of time even with strong government support,” said Dudfield.
And they are not the only ones on the hunt for lithium here.
The highest-profile one and the most advanced project is the Thacker Pass Project, owned by Lithium Americas. It’s located at the southern end of the caldera. At the northern end of the caldera is where Jindalee’s got its lithium prospect.
What’s happening to the south in Nevada’s Thacker Pass is an example of what Jindalee could face. A small but fiercely dedicated group of anti-mining, anti-electrification protestors.
“And then you get these charlatans, these liars, these magicians like Elon Musk who come along and try to convince us all that this is green? That this is green to continue destroying the planet in this way?” said Max Wilbert, part of the group Protect Thacker Pass.
It’s just part of a continuing multi-front battle over lithium extraction.
Open opposition. Roadside protests. Legal challenges.
“There’s been some issues that have arisen at Thacker Pass and we’re trying to make sure we don’t repeat maybe some of the — I don’t want to say mistakes — but we’re more open right from the start,” said Jindalee’s Dudfield
Lithium Nevada — a subsidiary of Lithium Americas — touts the high-paying jobs and energy independence the mine offers.
Protestors say they’ll fight to the bitter end.
“Taking a mountain top off for coal is bad. Well, taking a mountain apart for lithium is bad as well,” protester Will Falk said in 2021.
“They’re protesting the expansion of electric vehicles and lithium batteries for home energy storage. Those are two things that will profoundly bring down the country’s carbon footprint,” said Tim Cowley of Lithium Nevada in response.
Wilbert is unconvinced by the magnanimous words.
“These people are not environmentalists,” said Wilbert. “They’re not in favor of life. They’re not protectors of the land. They’re not concerned about global warming. These people are in it for money.”
Anti-mine activists and some local ranchers say federal agencies under the Trump administration rushed the process without appropriate input from local communities or proper environmental review.
Just a few yards from Orovada, Nevada’s only gas station sits a new electric charging station. It’s a place to power-up lithium-ion batteries in electric cars.
It’s also just a few miles from the proposed lithium mine.
We met a group of mine protesters there — an irony not lost on them.
“I understand that. But at what cost? Are we willing to sacrifice communities that grow food for the nation? To put power into our phones and our cars?” asked Gina Amato, a spokesperson for the local group Thacker Pass Concerned Citizens.
The state agency which issued permits for the mine this winter claims they did so only after extensive review and months of public engagement.
Rancher Edward Bartell says it’s not enough. He’s leading the legal battles against the mine and is worried about plans to use sulphuric acid in lithium processing.
“They’re going to haul it out to our community to create sulphuric acid to the tune of, in phase two, roughly 5,800 tons of sulphuric acid they’re going to create every single day,” said Bartell. “And then they’re going to dump that residue on public lands on priority sage grouse habitat.”
“We feel that it’s bizarre that this type of thing would even be thought about approval and they’re spinning it as eco-friendly,” Bartell added “I don’t think we can pollute our way to a better planet.”
Members of the Paiute Shoshone tribe consider the pass sacred. It’s the site of a massacre in 1865.
“My old people. they call it ‘Puheemuhuh.’ You translate that into english, it’s ‘Rotten Moon'” said Myron Smart, a Paiute Shoshone
Smart works at the 96 Ranch in the next valley over. He would rather the land, the sage grouse and the spirits remain undisturbed.
“I would hate to see for all of that to be taken away, in that perspective. Because I know whatever that it is that’s out there that they’re after, it’s not very good. It’s not good for the air quality. It’s not good for the water,” said Smart.
Ranch owner Kris Stewart has heard the job creation promises. Full-time, high-dollar work for hundreds of people at the mine and processing plant for decades to come.
But she wants to hear more about long-term impacts on local infrastructure and agriculture.
“I get what the positive economic impacts are,” said Stewart. “I just think we gotta ask questions and get them answered, with no BS.”
Northwest environmental groups are paying close attention to what happens in the McDermitt Caldera.
“It’s wild, stunning, magical, beautiful country,” said Ryan Houston with the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Assoociation.
The expanding lithium rush in this landscape raises a host of issues.
“If you’re talking about large-scale industrial development in the high desert, whether it’s in Nevada or Oregon or any other place, and you’re talking about significant road systems and significant change to vegetation and land cover, you can’t help but have a significant impact on the species who rely on that habitat,” said Houston.
Dudfield and Jindalee say they get the message.
“It’s critical that we explain what we’re doing, for a start, to stakeholders,” he said.
Public relations should be a priority if they ever want to get lithium out of here. A major mine in this remote corner of Oregon likely won’t be an easy sell.
“I don’t know if we’re ready for it, but it is what it is. All we can do is be open and honest with everyone and hope that common sense prevails,” said Dudfield.