ReportageIn a two-part survey, “Le Monde” recounts the rush for lithium, essential for the manufacture of electric cars. First part: Thacker Pass, the largest deposit in North America, where an entire area risks being sacrificed in the name of the energy transition.
Max Wilbert pitched his tent at Thacker Pass on January 15, the same day the Trump administration gave the green light to the lithium mine. The first three days were great. “I said to myself: maybe it won’t be too hard”, he relates. On the fourth day, the blizzard hit the camp. The temperature dropped to -18 ° C, snow was flying all around. The baptism of cold did not discourage him, nor did his comrade Will Falk, the lawyer who went into rebellion with him. “It’s nothing compared to the political storm we are facing”, he boldly assures.
Ten months have passed, Max Wilbert is still there. The yellow flowers say rabbit brush (Chrysothamnus) have succeeded the snow. By dint of contemplating them at ground level, the sage bushes give him the effect of whole trees, like bonsai trees. “Some feet are a hundred years old”, he admires. The ecologist was joined by a few friends, including Daranda Hinckey and her family, the neighboring Paiute-Shoshone Indian tribe, who take turns occupying the premises (on federal lands, camping for more than fourteen days is prohibited). sharp). The tents are gathered around the enclosure where the mining company Lithium Americas has installed a weather station, in the vanguard of the armada it intends to deploy.
At 1,500 meters above sea level, between Nevada and Oregon, Thacker Pass is one of those places where man feels very small. “From here you could walk north over 50 kilometers without seeing a paved road, describes the environmentalist. On the other side, 100 kilometers before finding a town. ” The basin was formed by a prehistoric volcano, long dormant. The mountains have parted “Like a loaf of bread cut in half”adds rancher Edward Bartell, whose cows nibble – and ” Digest “, what seems to surprise him – the desert plants, until December, after which he serves them a little alfalfa to spend the winter.
Power a million electric cars
Bending down, Max Wilbert picks up a piece of clay mixed with silvery white dust: lithium. The Thacker Pass caldera is believed to contain the largest deposit in North America. “Li”, according to the nomenclature of the first group of the periodic table of the elements, is a light metal, capable of retaining a large amount of energy in a small volume. Until recent years, it was best known for its strange power to stabilize manic depression: global demand was modest. Climate change has made it the essential accessory of the great post-carbon energy transition: « l’or blanc » of a world that can no longer do without electronics. The alkali metal is now requisitioned everywhere: wind turbines, solar panels, laptop batteries, and, above all, electric vehicles. According to the International Energy Agency, global demand could increase forty-fold over the next twenty years.
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Giant lithium mine project threatens entire region in Nevada