“There’s Always a Trade Off.” Student Documentary Shines Light on Controversial Lithium Mine

The Thacker Pass project has been criticized by local tribes, ranchers and environmentalists. But, the project has corporate and federal support, says student Gaia Osborne.

Electric vehicle sales are expected to grow significantly over the next decade, with Goldman Sachs estimating EVs will make up more than half of all global car sales by 2035. More electric vehicles on the roads means more batteries needed to power them.

Right now, lithium-ion batteries are the standard for electronic devices from smartphones to vehicles. Extraction of this metal is expected to grow tenfold over the next decade, according to one estimate. Millions of tons of this material lie underneath Nevada’s sea of sagebrush, and new lithium mines have been proposed to get the material.

Gaia Osborne is a graduate student at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, who produced a mini-documentary looking at one of these mines, the Thacker Pass mining project in northern Nevada. The Sierra Nevada Ally’s Noah Glick recently sat down with Osborne to talk about the film, the mine and the people fighting it. 

Noah Glick: Tell me a little bit about the project. Where did the idea come from and what is in the film?

Gaia Osborne: It was my first semester as a journalism graduate student and I’d never really done any video projects before. We had a filmmaking class and my professor said to us at the beginning of the semester to pick a topic that’s two sided. It has to have two obvious sides. And you’re going to use the rest of the semester to make a video around it, a short video. 

I was looking on the news, because I wanted it to be local, to make it easier for the documentary to be produced. And at the time, this was September last year, there wasn’t too much in the news about the Thacker Pass mine. There were a few stories here and there, but they still hadn’t started construction fully. And I was like, ‘Well, this is a very obvious story with two completely opposing sides. What better story to do for my video? It’s local, it affects people from around the region, as well as just our state.’ 

It’s an important topic and I wanted to make sure that more people were aware of it. Definitely more people are aware of it now than they were a year ago, but it’s still probably underreported.

A map showing the size and impact of the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine
Courtesy of Lithium Americas

You mentioned the two competing sides or two arguments, so let’s just lay it out. What are the two sides, or the two arguments? What are you hearing from people who are in favor of the mine? And what are people saying who are against the mine?

Yeah, it’s definitely a very polarizing debate. Most people are either for or against it. There’s a few people in the middle, like one of the people that I interviewed for my documentary. But most people are either on one side or the other, for or against.

The people that are for the mine, they see the lithium that would be produced by the mine as invaluable to green goals as a country, creating more EV batteries. And they believe that the lithium that we would get from the mine would offset any environmental damage that the mining would cause, because mining is disruptive to the land, no matter what kind of mining and what kind of precautions are taken. 

Then the people who are against it kind of separated that a little bit more. There’s the environmentalists who [say] there are a lot of species, like there’s a snail that kind of lives in these springs around Humboldt County around the mine. With the mining project, there’s a concern that the entire species will go extinct. There’s various animals that use it as a migration corridor, so that would disrupt that migration process. So, we have environmentalists who are against it. 

Then also, the indigenous communities are pushing very hard to stop [it]. I mean, they [Lithium Americas] started construction already. The protests have been ignored, but they [the tribes] have very deep cultural connection to the land. They lost a lot of lives there. They have people buried there from their tribes. So in their heads, it’s like, the white people have already taken enough of their land and enough of their resources. And this is kind of like one of their last sites that they have, which means a lot to them. And also, that gets taken away.

I did some reporting on the Thacker Pass project a few years ago, and one of the concerns I heard was how ranchers were concerned about losing grazing allotments, water usage and traffic impacts. Did you hear any of those concerns at all from like the ranching community or any other local folks?

I didn’t have the opportunity to interview any of the locals. It was a very short timeframe for the documentary, but I did get to interview John Hadder. He is the director of Great Basin Resource Watch and that nonprofit focuses a lot on water usage and wastage, so they’ve been kind of a big part of Thacker Pass and the pushback behind it.

When I interviewed John, he was very concerned about the amount of water that they would use. Obviously, when planning for a mine, they have to do all the surveys, and they have to look at how much water they’re planning on using over the mine life.

I’m curious, how much did you know about the project before you started this film? And what did you learn throughout this process? Was there anything that really surprised you or stuck out to you?

I’d known a little bit about the mine just from reading the news. I’m a big consumer of local news, I read it every day. So, you’d have an article come up as the protests were happening and as things progressed with the project. But I didn’t know a lot about how much it would affect the people, the animals, everything like that. 

So for the project, I was doing a lot of research, obviously trying to figure out who would be the best people to interview, what kind of issues I would have to cover in the documentary. I wanted to make sure that I covered all the bases, but there’s a lot of different opinions and a lot of moving parts. The documentary ended up being a bit more geared toward the environmental impact, and I would have liked to have brought in more of the indigenous perspectives. And we talked about that too, but I felt like that issue deserved a video and coverage of its own. In the future, maybe if I was going to expand on my video, then I would definitely try and get more of that in there. 

I learned a lot about how the mine affects the people. I didn’t even know about the war that occurred there and how important it was to them. As they [the mining company] were surveying the land, some bones were being dug up, and that’s just completely inappropriate. I can see why they’re so angry about it and have been trying to stop it. 

And as well with the animals, there are so many species of sagebrush and this snail that could be completely extinct. The mine is located right on the northern part of the state next to Oregon. There’s antelope, sage grouse and all these kinds of animals that use the Thacker Pass. That is their migration corridor from coming across the state lines. And as the seasons change, they have to use that and John Hadder was very concerned about that. 

Glenn Miller, he kind of took the stance of being in the middle. Glenn used to work for Great Basin Resource Watch, and he is more of an advocate for the mine. So, that didn’t really align well, so he left. But it was interesting to interview both [Glenn and John], especially because Glenn had this mindset like, ‘The sagebrush, yes, will be destroyed. But I mean, our state is full of sagebrush. We don’t have a shortage of it, there’ll be other places for the animals to go. They don’t need that specific sagebrush. We have so much of it, we have seeds of it.’

So I guess, we won’t know how the biodiversity will be affected until the mine kind of happens.

Did you chat with any of the folks from the mine, from Lithium Americas? How are they responding to some of these environmental concerns?

I ended up speaking with Tyre Gray, the head person in charge of the Nevada Mining Association. I had the opportunity to interview someone from Lithium Americas. But it kind of arose right at the end of the semester. So I didn’t have time to really organize that.

What Tyree was saying is, here in Nevada, we have the most stringent mining laws in the whole world. Obviously, there’s mining going on elsewhere in the world that doesn’t have those laws, and safety isn’t the top priority for the miners and everything like that, but Nevada has all these laws in place and paperwork that has to be done. Things have to be filed for the mine to go ahead. He was saying that in order for the mine to go ahead, which it has, they have to have things in place to ensure that the environment won’t be damaged. He’s saying that these will be followed, and then the mine won’t do as much damage. 

But I guess it’s like what John was saying as well. After the mines had its 35-40 years of life, will the land ever be able to recover? That’s the question I asked him and he said you don’t really know. It might take years, it might take hundreds of years. The animals might never return to that area again. You just don’t really know.

Editor’s note: Tyre Gray left his position as head of the Nevada Mining Association in February to pursue other professional opportunities, the Elko Daily Free Press reported.

What is something that has stuck with you since making this?

I personally just really enjoyed interviewing each individual person, because their opinions on the mine and on the operations were just so different. The general thing I left with, which is stuck with me now, is just this idea of trade offs. We can mine and we’ll have all this lithium and we can get rid of gas powered vehicles and increase electric vehicles, and that will help climate change. But then, in doing that, we have to kind of destroy some land and destroy the environment that people are living in, and the animals are living in. So there’s always a trade off. 

And also, I think just how underreported it was, was very shocking to me. People would ask, ‘What are you doing for your video project for the class?’ And I would tell them, the Thacker Pass lithium mine. They’ll be like, ‘What’s that?’ And I’m like how do you not know about it? That was pretty shocking to me.

Wow, it just shows the lack of resources that journalists have here in this region to be able to cover these important stories. Was there much of an argument from the folks that you talked to about this sort of ‘local versus federal’ kind of conflict? I don’t want to put any words in your mouth at all.

That wasn’t really the main theme of the discussion that I had the interviews with, but I could definitely see why that would be such a big issue. The President [Joe Biden] is setting all these green goals for electric vehicles and saying, ‘We need this much lithium to do this and this and this.’ And that puts a lot of pressure on the people in this state, because we’re home to the biggest lithium deposit we have [known in the U.S.], so it’s like they think about the bigger picture, not the smaller picture. And I think that’s why this needs to be more reported on, especially locally, because these are people that live nearby. There are neighbors and they have homes. They probably lived there for years before this mine was even discovered.

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for conciseness and clarity.

Gaia Osborne is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Media Innovation at the Reynolds School of Journalism, after graduating in Summer 2022 with a B.A. in English and Cultural Anthropology. Born and raised in a seaside town on the south coast of England, Gaia made the journey across the pond in order to pursue higher education and compete as a D1 track and field athlete. Since moving to the Biggest Little City four years ago, Reno has become her home away from home.


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