Tag Archives: Thacker Pass

Wagon Wheel Saloon Gossipmongers

Nothing Much Happens in Light of Day

Judging mind is what afflicts most of my waking day. As environmental activists go there appear to be various kinds and types. Good weather is a terrible thing when you need awful weather to help fill reservoirs, swell rivers and provoke useful flash floods.

To quell certainty and consult with higher authorities I swing south to the Mexican frontier and pull into Patagonia, Arizona where I will speak with the town’s grizzled survivors of past and present confrontations.

All five hundred citizens live in mesquite and cottonwood splendor up in the higher country. Sonoita Creek runs when it runs at all along Patagonia’s northern boundary. An Australian mining operation in the Patagonia Mountains is good news for jobs and not good news for contaminated waters that runoff into Harshaw Creek. The bone dry headwaters of the Santa Cruz River are to the west, further yonder is Nogales.

Santa Cruz County has been losing citizens for most of a century. Ranchers ran too many head of cattle until the rangeland collapsed. A century later recovery is slow and fat times and big herds are long gone.

Daylight comes pull on your pants best start with coffee at Gathering Grounds. If you want to know what is and isn’t going to happen in Patagonia word will spread from here reverberate off Santa Rita Rd to Roadrunner Lane then crash land by dusk at the Wagon Wheel Saloon.

Gossip and speculation arrive as the simple truth later that day all dressed up with exaggeration and outright falsehoods. All this speculative ruminating heals small town solitude. For some the hands of time crawls, for others clocks stand still, here in Patagonia all this slow aching wait will make a stash of whiskey go missing.

Dogs Ride Shotgun

There is no rush hour, no crowds, no lines, no waiting. If you suffer from an automotive breakdown the only reason it is not fixed this instant is to do with the mechanical philosophy employed by the talented souls that have dedicated their waking hours to fixing the problems you alone have caused. All these worn out used machines didn’t just get like this, something has caused all this wear and tear, all this put off maintenance and mindful neglect. You will need more time to be more ashamed of yourself.

You’ll be directed to get a room at the Stage Stop Inn. Supper is served early, don’t wait too long, because by then the cooks finished and steadying their culinary trials at the Wagon Wheel before walking back to their tin roofed adobe with its brightly painted green front door.

Younger souls arrive by mistake and a handful try to make a go of it and stay. At one time most had come by Volkswagen bus. All the full timers see the many who seek a life here and the few who find one to be part of Darwin’s great insight into survival. Patagonia is not the Galápagos Islands but by closing time at the Wagon Wheel people in the parking lot out front enjoy a few last cuss words while throwing stones to scatter pesky javalena.

The lithium mine up on Thacker Pass in Humboldt County, Nevada is about to break ground. I am in here in Patagonia to put the open pit mining troubles in the Great Basin up for discussion down here in the Sonoran.

Water contamination is always a concern when an open pit mine is involved. Once a mining company can see the first glimmer of the end they’ll belly up go bankrupt, defund the miners pension plan, look to stash their profits into untouchable accounts and leave as much of the mess for governments to cleanup, there is no profit in buckling under to authority.

Socialists, communists and libertarians are epithets, Chevy, Ford and Dodge pickup trucks reflect upon the vulgar purchasing decisions of the drivers. There is no such thing as elective surgery in Patagonia or Thacker Pass, there are no surgeons, no hospitals and no health care system at all. You drive to Nogales or Winnemucca if what you want to do is go on a date with a doctor.

From space looking down on Thacker Pass Lithium Mine

Still, here we are up on Thacker Pass, about to jump off the cliff and commit to a Canadian mining company’s proposal to bring lithium out of the ground, refine the ore and then ship this battery making compound to markets here in the United States.

A band of blockaders have set up camp on Thacker. Here told they say that no good can come from this project, that humankind needs to forget about the automobile and imagine a less mobile life that is more in line with how we’ve been doing it since we first arrived on this planet. Nike stocks are up and Goodyear Tires stocks are down in this groups solutions to our planetary problems.

Like Patagonia up on Thacker once the mine swings into production water will be pumped, refining process requires water, then the waste water will need remediation and a safe journey back into the ground. Lithium mining operators up here must get this right, have the know how to do just that, and all we need to do is hold them to it.

Looking out five decades to the mining operation exhausting the lithium up on this mountain, nobody knows for sure how many batteries will be built with this ore, but plenty guess, my best guess is near about one billion automobiles plus or minus one billion to be about right.

Here you see how far you’ll have to go to get away

I keep trying to wrap my judging mind around our effort to pull our world out of the carbon trap we’ve set. Outside the Wagon Wheel Saloon in Patagonia I propose that the best whiskey drinking solutions often tend to end by being read fairytales by frolicsome partners.

I’m seeking a proper solution here. For both operations, one near Patagonia the other up on Thacker Pass water treatment and filtration, we make damn sure we are running a wholistic system that doesn’t endanger our future since we are doing this because our future is already endangered. Screwing this up even more is as stupid as stupid gets, hope you wildcatters in the Permian are listening.

Second, we put more teeth in bonds mining company’s are legally required to post. Right now they can do some no good dirty double crossing and just as you near the time you start winding down the mining company and its assorted subsidiaries scatter like jackrabbits with the loot and vanishes without a trace. We’ll need to sharpen our contracts, make sure a promise made is a promise kept, put into a contract, put a royalty on the product, stuff that into an untouchable account and when time comes pensions, cleanup funds and other assorted closing costs are fully cared for.

Friends I’m afraid that’s about all the spleen, chewing tobacco and my favorite pet ring-tailed coatimundi stories I have time for. Slow walking across the field to Train Track Trail my rig is parked my bunk waiting where I’m going to rest my judging mind and allow for some night hour dreams to shelter me from life’s storms.

survivals gameboard

Getting it done, doing it right

Environmental risks stack up floor to ceiling when you are in the business of hard rock open pit mining. If you start messing with underground salt domes and something goes wrong, you are in a Fukushima without the hazardous radiation Armageddon mess.

The lithium mine on Thacker Pass in Humboldt County Nevada will remain in operation until 2070. When finished the 18,000 acres will undergo a process of remediation. There is a lot to be concerned about, and we have to get this right.

In Delta, Utah there are a different set of worries. Using salt caverns to store diesel, gasoline, hydrogen, and natural gas all could make trouble. Nearby earthquake faults, relatively active, could damage a dome and trigger all manner of environmental mayhem.

Extracting lithium from ore requires the use of sulfur dioxide. Same stuff found in common car batteries. For safety trains will bring the separate components for making sulfur dioxide to Winnemucca, each separate part is then trucked to the processing facility up at the mine where it is mixed before the start of the manufacturing process. Evaporation ponds are more common to lithium refining, extracting lithium from ore with sulfur dioxide has proven harder to scale commercially. In October 2022, about 18 months from now construction will be complete, processing will begin, and we’ll soon know if this is going to pencil out. The world needs this to work.

The technological leap in Delta, Utah is no sure thing either. Timeline is longer, the experimental Mitsubishi turbines won’t be ready to start spinning until 2025. Over the next 48 months a large scale electrolyzer will begin producing hydrogen from water, separating and storing the green hydrogen in the salt domes while releasing the two oxygen molecules harmlessly into the atmosphere. This bit of magic has never been attempted at scale and there are a million ways this can go off the rails. All living creatures on earth have a dog in this hunt, we need this new technology to work.

Mitsubishi will first try to spin the turbines using a blend of 30% hydrogen with 70% methane. The combustion process is complex, hydrogen burns hotter, the turbines and exhaust gases create new challenges. To fuel with pure hydrogen special stainless intake and exhaust manifolds will need to be designed, metallurgically refined turbine blades capable of withstanding the heat generated by the hydrogen will be installed. Engineers are working to zero out nitrogen oxide exhaust gases created in the combustion process. Mitsubishi is confident this technology can work, it’s just that nobody has done it yet. There’s a first time for everything.

It’s what is underground…

The 18,000 acre mine on Thacker Pass is potent environmental problem solver. Imagine the thousands of offshore oil platforms scattered across thousands of miles in the Gulf of Mexico all being safely shutdown. Imagine the fossil fuel operations in West Texas, Eastern New Mexico, Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming, Louisiana and Oklahoma all no longer being needed. Mining for other metals will be necessary, the electricity for this new century isn’t cost free, but it will be cleaner, the atmosphere will begin to heal, we have a path, we can do this right.

In the United States there remain about 75 coal fired generating stations to shutter. Job losses will devastate the communities where these facilities and workers are located. As of now without salt domes adjacent to a power station the cost of repowering with hydrogen doesn’t pencil out. The energy transition is a term of art for the creative destruction the climate emergency has unleashed. Our fragile politics is that red flashing light on our dashboard. The fossil fuel industry isn’t going to go quietly. Not here, not anywhere, those working on the transition have to build out a new energy system and build out a glide path for all the businesses and people disrupted by this change.

An arctic blast knocks Texas out. In the Atlantic the Gulf Stream is stalling. All around the world promised targeted reductions in carbon dioxide are missed. The urgency of our circumstances keeps confronting us. The mine up on Thacker Pass, the salt domes in Utah offer us a way forward, a chance to work mankind’s magic. Traveling between California and Colorado getting a firsthand look at the efforts that are underway, the work being done. We are in a climate emergency, the world is responding, the efforts give hope, we have a path, a way to walk this crisis back, there is still much to do.

thacker pass mine approved

Running the backroads

I diverted from Winnemucca north to Orovada. In town I inventoried one school, one church and one gas station.  If you take Hwy 293 west, you’ll end up atop Thacker Pass. I drove out 22 miles parked my rig and took a walk. Clear sky, cool, wind was calm, beautiful up top this discovery. You wouldn’t know by looking that I was standing on the largest known lithium deposit in the United States, there is still room for uncertainty, could be the biggest whopping lithium deposit in the world, for all we know this is the largest recoverable deposit geophysicists have ever discovered or a mining company has laid claim to.

For ten years one mining company after another has been seeking the Department of the Interior’s permission to develop a mine here. Hay growers and ranchers have been scheming like a pack of chicken chasing coyotes trying to stop the project. Then, this last weekend, word came down from on high the Bureau of Land Management sent a formal notice that they had approved the claim and that Lithium America may officially proceed. 

Man Cave Misbehavior

First it was the Atomic Test Site and now for all the pickles, burros, and brothels you can find, the fate of the world has once again come to rest in the Silver State’s hands. Lithium batteries will not save humanity singlehandedly but could be that our ability to manufacture electric automobiles plays an outsized role in our quest to snatch our tender behinds from everlasting vanquishment. I swear to God Cliven Bundy slammed his hat into the dirt, cursed one of his steers, the geezer is jumping up and down, and it is not with joy.

The American West is fated with a first come-first dibs sensibility. The lineage of this tradition stretches back at least to when the first pioneers crossed the frontier to open this territory for homesteading. Cowboys believed that their rights came first, last, and in-between. The original people, the indigenous population, the ancient prehistoric citizens that had arrived here 20,000 years ago, the first to have long settled the Great Basin, a civilization of hunters and gatherers, were pushed off their homeland, and replaced by a more aggressive European immigrant. Hypocrisy, dirty dealing, and no-good rotten irony went lost on this crowd of bronco busting fur trappers.

Orovada Store

At first glance Nevada appears empty. Driving on a two-lane highway you may not encounter another soul all day and night. Looking off into the distance there are wide valleys and steep mountains where you will not see one ranch, hayfield or strand of barbwire. Nothing is out here but landscape, wildlife, and the sound of silence. Almost like Cliven Bundy is right. “Hell, nobody is here. Might as well put some cattle on the rangeland and make a little for the family.”

Sometimes it feels like the world is made up of nothing but claim jumpers, water grabbers and free grazers. Sometimes it seems Nevada is all nuclear weapons, roulette wheels and whiskey addled men. Feels like the Great Basin is biggest man cave known to civilization- this isn’t like just anywhere, this place is for misfits, this is the where you’ll find that home of the brave-land of the free.

Thacker Pass

Standing atop Thacker Pass there remains much unfinished business. There is the matter of scaling the lithium refinement process. Markets agree the Gigafactory would be a buyer, that China has been the global juggernaut of battery manufacturing, that the United States has some serious catching up to do, four years we’ve been awash in a tempest of conspiracy theories, Putin puppetry and peak swamp draining paralysis.  

Still, if you are going to take part in the World Emergency Full Catastrophe Climate Change Comedy Show you need something like the Great Basin Desert, a Jeep full of contradiction, and a good plot threatening existential calamity from beginning to end. It is almost like gridlock, filibuster and procrastination have brought us to the edge of doom, doom and more doom. But we got a new sheriff in town, change is in the air, I’m feeling the tectonic plates shifting. I see progress rolling across the plains. We’re making electricity for spit, and cheap batteries out Thacker Pass dirt. I bend down and grab hold of a piece of rock, it is a piece of tomorrow I’ve got a hold of, and the 10,000 acres that I can see, I’m looking at our future, and I see hope. Today was a good day for an inauguration, Today is a fine clear blue sky, the future holds a promise. Thacker Pass until you behold the place is almost unbelievable, too good to be true, then you come here, see it for yourself, and things inside you shift around, and you see deep into the human condition, and you see possibility, you see the means of building an energy system, a gift for those who have yet come for their turn, here on this earth, the one we must preserve and nurture, our response to the climate emergency isn’t technological, it is a moral duty. I am standing atop the means to our salvation. Don’t let up now, don’t be discouraged, we’re just getting started. I got a piece of hope in my hand up on Thacker Pass.

Thacker Pass as salvation

End of the Line for Texas Tea

Up on Thacker Pass in Humboldt County, Nevada there has been discovered one of the largest lithium deposits in the world. How can I explain how big-the-big, gigantic, enormous lithium ore deposit is in terms that let you wrap your head around the size of this discovery? Back of the envelop—spitballing—figure over the next 4 decades there is enough material deposited at this site to make batteries for about 1 billion electric automobiles. I could be off either way by a billion or two, but you get the idea there’s a lot of potential sitting on this caldera in the wild wonderful Great Basin Desert.

Mining lithium, in this instance an open pit mine, will tear one hell of a hole into the landscape. Cattlemen and women will lose access to 10,000 acres they have been leasing from the Bureau of Land Management, and consequently if they do lose this lease there will be a predictably tense use of pejoratives, expletives and derogatory language filled with spleen, vexations, and disgust. Range fattened heifers and steers add to the bottom line of the cowhand’s ledger, every single head is make or break.

You take a cowboy with a bent nose, toss these brawlers together with two-thousand open pit miners and you’ve got yourself a timeless tale of fistfights and deer poaching. Once the lithium mine is constructed, once both the extraction department and the refinement and packaging side of the operation, plus the steady stream of big rigs running up and down Nevada State Hwy 293, once that’s all up and running, why you have brought change to a corner of a world that hasn’t much changed at all since the European immigrants arrived and pushed out the Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute Indians, the first people to settle here 17,000 years ago.

Now figure that in this one place if it is done right, you’ll use the best pollution control systems. This will be the first lithium mine in the world to process straight from out of the ground. Evaporation ponds have been the only viable method, but geophysicists believe they have come up with an efficient means of pulling the lithium out of the ore without using evaporation ponds. East or west of Thacker Pass there are hay growing operations, and they’re all jumpy as a pack of coyotes about any enterprise that may threaten the water supply. Toss in some sage grouse endangered species concerns and well there you go, the whole conundrum mashes up into one whopping remake of the shootout at the OK Corral.

There’s a new sheriff in town. I’m going to try to paint you a picture of what the world, cowboys and miners might pull off for “each and every last dog gone one of us.” First, the mine compared to oil and gas explorers will have a footprint incalculably smaller than the fossil fuel barons’ operations. No more stinky refinery’s, no more oil drilling rigs, no more offshore platforms, no more tankers running aground, no more oil spills, no more smoke in the sky, pollution in your lungs, and credit cards at the limit because you drove to Disney World in your dang titanic V-8 internal combustion engine powered all-wheel drive pickup truck.

As for all those good paying jobs. Here’s how I would want to cut this pack of labor faced playing cards. I want the mine company to donate to the Nevada Department of Fish and Game. Make it a sizable donation, every year so long as the mine is in operation. Get some funds set aside for Environmental Protection Agency remediation efforts. Support sage grouse habitat expansion across the entire Great Basin Desert. Why not pay a stipend to the ranchers and hay growers, come up with a formula, cut them in on the deal, wouldn’t hurt anyone and might make folks who’ve been scuffing by in Northern Humboldt County appreciate and support the mine and enterprise. I’d suggest money donated to local schools, increase the size of the region’s health care services, and support the county fair south in Winnemucca. I believe it is time to cut the great Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute Indians into the deal.  

Give Bugs and Snakes a Chance

Let me explain what in tarnation all this generosity and altruistic community building is about. The last thing the good people of this region need is a corporation muscling in on their way of life and not getting one red cent for the inconvenience. Instead of alienating every single solitary tractor driver within 50 miles of Thacker Pass try sharing some of the profits, try helping that little guy who hasn’t caught a break since unionization dried up and Ralph Nader’s complaining about Corvairs was a topic of current interest.

Transactional win-win is the key to this enterprise. I would keep the mining town’s footprint as small as small can be. Pay your miners a good living wage so that when a man says, “the drinks are on me…” that the worker can actually afford to pickup the tab down at the famous Alluvial Fan Saloon and share some of the fat in his wallet with those hay growers and cattle operators.

I’d offer classes in how to plant your own garden, kill rattlesnakes, squish scorpions and how to properly clean, oil and your long gun. Volunteer to help the hay growers during harvest, make friends with a Basque sheepherder, and eat more mutton. Church is fine, but taking roping lessons, helping move cattle off a mountain for a neighbor or asking the cutest philly you’ve ever seen to the country fair dance might help everyone and everything. Rodeo queens, barrel racers and a rough and tumble rural woman you might convince to go out for a four-wheel drive to watch sunset could make this lithium mine business something to make a life around.

Capitalism mixed with a properly arranged set of social services could go a long way toward making this new energy system a success as we scramble to save our necks from the “Holy Toledo, it is too dang hot out here.” A more enlightened approach might do us all some good. Disability insurance, retirement benefits, free day care, real health insurance, yoga classes, Wednesday night bingo, and paid vacation time will help everyone.

If Thacker Pass is approved, I’ll have more to say about the project. We don’t have just a world to save we’ve got lives to build. Communities willing to help deploy carbon free technologies should benefit for their effort and sacrifice. The era of fouling our own nest with filthy fossil fuels is coming to a close. I’d prefer to see America smarten up, can’t just be about the fat cats and well connected. Time for us to cut the working man back into the deal. Not a better place to begin than up on this mountain right about starting now before we lose our way, our freedom and this experiment is self-governance. Saddle up buckaroos, we’ve got a whole world to save, and a country in need of more love.

the Mcdermitt caldera caper

Cottontail

High desert cottontail irruption of 1981 stretched from horizon to horizon, east to west, north to south, everywhere you looked all you could see were rabbits. Half the early settlers crossing through Nevada figured cottontail to be a staple in their diet the other half reckoned the animal to be emergency food. I was running south out of Boise on Hwy 95 on my way to a cutoff out to White Horse Ranch when I came across my first fifty-mile-long cottontail Malthusian growth crisis.

White Horse Ranch Est. 1867

White Horse Ranch got its start in 1867 running cattle on 65,000 acres of private land. Grazing high desert is workable for a short time but not sustainable for long. Nitrogen accumulates at a rate much too slow and cattle browse off the grasses much too fast. Antelope, deer and elk, the Great Basin’s indigenous species have browsing habits that harmonize with this terrain. Times changed and White Horse Ranch changed too. The outfit is more of a hay growing operation now. Cattle are still grazed out here, but their numbers now much reduced providing modest flow of revenue to this historic working ranch.

Dustiest part of the expeditionary effort needed to make my way to the White Horse Ranch is navigating one of the roughest dirt roads twenty-five miles out to the main gate. If you go just another bit further, and since you are already out there why wouldn’t you, off to the left is another dirt road out to Willow Creek Hot Spring. This is sagebrush soaking country.

Denio, Nevada

Crawling along after a long soak I negotiated the 61 hard miles of dirt road that ended in Denio, Nevada. I rested there for a day getting my hand tools out so I could tighten up all the fasteners that had come loose on my truck. Back in 1981 there was a General Store. The proprietor operated the gas station, had a United States Post Office kiosk on its premises and a functional community hall set up in the basement. You could buy groceries at the store, basics anyway, deliveries came in from Winnemucca. Against another wall they’d set up a bar with stools and two slot machines. This is where most of the drinking, gambling and conversation took place.

Modern day Denio has now got pavement, moved the Post Office into a building all to its own, and miracle of miracles continues to operate the most important institution on the northern frontier of Humboldt County, the venerable Diamond Inn Bar. It is the same building as the General Store, time has passed, names and enterprise has been reconfigured, but the mission is same as ever, there must be some gathering spot where the fever of solitude can be broken. The population of Denio has swelled to 47, by my count none are tongue-tied.

Plenty of Dirt Road

Further south out of Denio on Highway 140 you’ll turn east on Nine Mile Road and travel by pavement to Kings River Valley. Here is located the biggest hay growing region in the state of Nevada. Cold winters, annual measurable precipitation totaling eight inches, with a valley bottom elevation sitting right at 4000 feet, here is pure Great Basin Desert in its most abundant grass growing form. If Denio is too busy for you and if you want to get away from it all, this is your place, there is plenty of opportunity to fix your position completely into what I would describe as self-imposed solitary confinement.

Caldera System Runs From Nevada to Yellowstone National Park

East of Kings River Valley in Nevada’s Montana Mountains you can travel by Highway 192 back over to Orovada at the junction of Hwy 95. Halfway between, up in the high country there is a two-lane road that tracks across a one-of-a-kind geological feature, the McDermitt Caldera. It is on this piece of road that is located the world’s largest unburied lithium deposit. Geologists surveyed the caldera and calculate on over 11,000 acres of lithium ore is just sitting there on the surface ripe and ready to be harvested. Boring test holes geologists calculate the lithium deposit measures 500 feet in depth. Mining the ore would be by open pit method. Draglines, electric rope shovels, and huge wheel loaders are used to move the ore for refining. The battery making metal would be processed on site and then hauled away by truck destined for both domestic and international battery manufacturers.

In September of this year Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of Lithium Americas notified various agencies of its intention to begin operations. Years of work has gone into preparing an Environmental Impact Statement with the Federal governments Bureau of Land Management’s office in Winnemucca. Issuance of the permit allowing for mining to start is expected to be decided early next year.

Thacker Pass Lithium Mine

Locals in opposition can’t be ignored. There are hay growers, cattle outfits, and Paiute concerned about the environmental impact this mine will have on the land, air and water. Sage grouse range nearby and our endangered. Eagle habitat is here too. Deciding one way or another about approving the operation is not an open and shut case. Open pit mining corporations are prone to filing bankruptcy once they cease operations leaving the taxpayers to foot the cleanup bill. Too often after a mine has closed things ends up in a tangled disputatious legal mess. Citizens opposition is substantial.

Arguments in favor of bringing this lithium ore to market is first and foremost to do with the climate emergency the world now faces. Geologists estimate of all the known marketable lithium ore in the world McDermitt Caldera contains 25% of that total. Tesla’s Gigafactory is 200 miles west in Reno. The Gigafactory manufactured 10 GWh of battery power in 2019 (that’s like 12 million wild horses of power) aiming for 1300 GWh by 2030 (an astronomically huge galloping herd in size and magnitude).

Processed Lithium Ready for Market

Whether or not the civilization collapsing climate catastrophe can be averted turns out to be tangled up with the McDermitt Caldera. The whole seething lot of us is up against the clock, time is not on mankind’s side. This is a consequential decision, figure Kings River Valley hay growers probably wish this whole thing would just go the hell away, leave their beloved Montana Mountains and the McDermitt Caldera right where it is.

Northern Humboldt County, Nevada is a five-hundred-mile drive from San Francisco. Remote, isolated, this is the American West, you had best bring everything you’ll need because there are practically no suppliers or services out here. The Great Basin Desert of Nevada has to be the most improbable place to have been thrust into the biggest most consequential fight man has ever had to wage in the struggle to walk civilization back from the brink. Fateful mashups of such towering consequence possess sturdy bones, circumstances are so serious a sane person would have to laugh, it’s a comedy. I don’t have plot yet, but I can see one, there is near sure to be a story worth telling, I see all kinds of trials and tribulations.