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Will Nevada support renewable energy vs biodiversity & Indigenous rights? (commentary)

Arrowleaf balsamroot brings color to the hillsides above the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine site. Photo courtesy of Max Wilbert.

  • Despite opposition from the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone tribe, ranchers and environmentalists, a company proposes to build a lithium mine on these Indigenous peoples’ lands in Nevada, which hold great ecological and cultural significance, to serve the booming renewable energy sector.
  • The proposal for Thacker Pass illustrates that while renewable energy has the potential to reduce our dependence on oil, gas, and coal, at scale it poses its own environmental threats to water, land, and biodiversity.
  • “A true ecological society must, first and foremost, protect biodiversity and natural habitat where it exists, not sacrifice it for industrial-scale energy production,” writes the co-founder of a protest camp seeking to protect the area from development.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Global emissions of carbon dioxide reached 36.8 billion metric tons in 2019, and were on track for the highest levels ever in 2020. But then the coronavirus hit, and the resulting economic slowdown caused carbon emissions to fall by 7 percent. Now that the economy is beginning to hum again, oil consumption is rebounding and is projected to surge past pre-pandemic levels.

All of this shows how difficult it will be to break our addiction to fossil fuels.

Of course, we know the Biden administration has an ambitious $2 trillion climate plan to try to replace fossil fuels with investments in renewable energy, electric vehicles and charging stations, and other infrastructure. But while renewable energy has the potential to reduce our dependence on oil, gas, and coal, at scale it poses its own environmental threats.

Fossil fuel extraction and processing is harmful, but renewable energy technologies impact more land to produce a similar amount of energy. For example, the clean energy plan promoted by Stanford Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, a prominent advocate for 100% renewable power in California, would necessitate more than 4,000 square miles of land dedicated to the installation of wind turbines — that is an area four times the size of Yosemite National Park.

Members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe protest outside a public meeting in Orovada, Nevada. Photo courtesy of Max Wilbert.

In fact, conflicts over land use for renewable energy are already common and contentious; on one side, conservationists and indigenous communities, and on the other side, renewable energy developers and mining companies.

This month in Nevada, 4.6 square miles of critical habitat for Mojave Desert tortoises is being bulldozed for the Yellow Pine solar energy project. In the north of the state, in Thacker Pass, Nevada, a planned open-pit mine for lithium — essential for the batteries used to operate electric cars and to store energy produced by wind and solar projects — is at the center of a massive controversy. Permitting was “fast tracked” under the Trump Administration, and the mine is facing determined opposition from Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone tribe, ranchers, and environmentalists – including myself – who are against the potential damage to sacred and cultural sites, harm to wildlife and habitat, and toxification of air and water.

These battles are not isolated to the United States but are gaining steam throughout the world. In Tibet, the Liqi River was once full of fish: almost none are left after chemical spills from the Ganzizhou Rongda lithium mine decimated animal populations. In Argentina, a mining company that is 49% owned by Lithium Americas, the same company operating in Nevada, has been accused of violations of indigenous people’s rights. In Sweden, Colombia, Mexico, and elsewhere, renewable energy projects are facing opposition from indigenous communities which have denounced this as a new form of “green colonialism.

When added together, the scale of new energy development is stunning. Data from a recent study published in the journal PLOS One shows solar and wind energy development threaten to destroy as much land as expansion of urban sprawl, oil and gas, coal, and mining combined by 2050.

See related: Shift to renewable energy could have biodiversity cost, researchers caution

A rainbow arcs over the site of the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine on Northern Paiute / Western Shoshone territory in Nevada. Photo courtesy of Max Wilbert.

Advocates argue that these sacrifices are necessary. “If we’re going to build out renewable energy in the ways that the climate crisis requires,” says Bill McKibben, “it’s going to require intruding on some of [the] landscape.”

My fear is that McKibben has a fundamental flaw in his premise: that the boom in renewable energy won’t actually reduce carbon emissions, and that renewables are not replacing energy derived from fossil fuels. Leading climate researcher Richard York has studied the data which shows that as renewable energy has grown rapidly over the past decade, global fossil fuel consumption has risen even higher. In fact, there has been no net decarbonization at all.

There is no doubt that the climate crisis is extremely serious. In 2010, I traveled to the Russian Arctic with a group of climate scientists from around the world as part of a National Science Foundation Research expedition.

It was the hottest summer on record in Russia at that time, and the nation was on fire. I walked on thawing permafrost, saw entire forests falling over as the soil destabilized (the locals call them “drunken forests”), and observed methane bubbling from Arctic lakes as ancient carbon was released. Perhaps most terrifyingly, I heard the fear in the scientists voices as they described the rapid changes their research exposed.

The science is clear: fossil fuels are rapidly changing the composition of our climate, and we must stop burning coal, oil, and gas. My fear, however, is that the energy sources and technologies being pushed as alternatives are little different. All the wild land sacrificed for wind and solar energy development, and for mining to support a renewable energy economy, is not actually reducing emissions, but simply adding to the energy supply—mostly for wealthy countries in the global north.

See related: Can the planet support a clean energy transition?

Banner at the Thacker Pass protest camp. Photo courtesy of Max Wilbert.

Only by confronting these uncomfortable truths will we come to recognize that living in a high-energy, industrial, consumption-based economy is simply not sustainable, no matter what the power source is. A true ecological society must, first and foremost, protect biodiversity and natural habitat where it exists, not sacrifice it for industrial-scale energy production. Second, such a society must live within ecological limits, accepting the way of life that the land permits, rather than imposing human demands.

These are the fundamental insights of indigenous and land-based peoples around the world, and to follow them means recognizing that it is possible to live not merely a good life, but a great life, with less. After all, the average person in this country today has more energy and material goods at their service than any king or emperor had even 150 years ago.

Far from lowering our quality of life, transforming our society would revitalize our culture and boost our individual and collective health. This may seem like a dream to some. But now, in a time of crisis, is the time to think big.

Max Wilbert is the co-founder of the Protect Thacker Pass camp. He is a writer, organizer, wilderness guide, and the co-author of Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It. 

Banner image: Arrowleaf balsamroot brings color to the hillsides above the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine site. Photo courtesy of Max Wilbert.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: “Can the planet support a clean energy transition?” Listen here:

Prairie falcon feather within the proposed mine site. Photo courtesy of Max Wilbert.