The world of environmental ethics Katie McShane compares our reverence for species to the word Freedom. Everyone believes in it, but no one knows what it means. “Even if you agree that it has a value, it doesn’t tell you what to do when that value conflicts with my needs,” she says.
Comparing the value of things, and weighing the costs and benefits of one against the other, is increasingly preoccupying environmentalists. Sometimes these competing things have a right to the natural world; Sometimes one has a claim to improve human life. Or the planet as a whole. If the mine at Rhyolite Ridge was prospecting for gold or copper, it would probably be easier to rule out its value. Everyone benefits from raw materials, but it can be easy to say that you don’t “need” the gold or that the value of the dollar is not of paramount importance. With lithium, denial is more difficult. Donnelly and Fraga agree that the country – the world – needs to wean itself off fossil fuels. Lithium and sunlight are plentiful in the southwestern desert, so the transition to green energy is likely to bring a new level of industrialization to the landscape. Mines and solar power plants will compete with rare buckwheat and desert tortoises. But without those mines and power plants, the desert would still suffer. For all their harsh conditions and apparent sterility, deserts are fragile places, and life there is easily endangered by high temperatures and frequent droughts. The conditions require that we formulate an ethical equation: What is the value of the mine versus the value of the plant?
All mines have dirty sides, whether their products are “green” or not. They can destroy landscapes, pollute water supplies, or expel greenhouse gases. Historically, mining companies have paid little attention to these effects, doing minimally to comply with regulations. But lithium miners face additional pressure to act responsibly, explains Alex Grant, a technical advisor who works with those mines. Electric car buyers, for example, are more likely to be concerned that 25 percent of the carbon impact on the life of their vehicle comes from the battery supply chain. So, automakers, seeking to bolster their climate-friendly reputation, are increasingly relying on lithium suppliers to burn less coal and seeking certification that their mines are not destroying water and habitats.
It is impossible to eliminate all costs. As Grant sees it, there is no substitute for lithium extraction. The status quo of fossil-burning cars is not an option. What did opponents of lithium mining expect? Back to the horse and buggy? “We don’t need every project,” he says. Some of them may have effects that we should not accept. But we’ll need a good chunk of them, that’s for sure.”
Each project seems to have its own set of costs that someone will find unacceptable, which makes deciding which ones should be allowed to move forward even more difficult. In far northern Nevada, Thacker Pass, another large lithium project close to drilling, has been disrupted by disputes with indigenous groups and ranchers over water rights and pollution. The same is true in places like Chile and Bolivia. Alternatives that seem more environmentally attractive, such as brine near the Salton Sea in California, have been talked about for decades, but the technology and financing behind these projects is uncertain. We could look at the oceans, perhaps; Deep-sea mining can provide lithium on a scale that makes any land mine look vulnerable. But it can be argued that the environmental costs of this approach are not well understood, and may be enormous.
In this context, the fate of the humble Venus seems a very small thing when lithium can be obtained soon, and with some additional complications. Mining interests, ranchers, and developers have long argued that the process of listing endangered species must take into account economic costs, such as the lost value of a mine or the expense of maintaining a species in a life-support state when it appears natural forces can pick them out of existence.