Geologists have reportedly discovered what they believe to be the largest lithium deposit in the world, located within the McDermitt caldera—an enormous depression formed millions of years ago by Yellowstone.
While efforts are ongoing to verify the mineral quantities, it is believed that the caldera may hold as much as 40 million metric tons of lithium, surpassing Bolivia’s 23 million-metric-ton salt flats. However, due to McDermitt’s indigenous heritage, conversations about mining in the region are already fraught with tension.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chevron Minerals Inc., a subsidiary of Chevron, initiated the exploration of the mineral composition of the McDermitt caldera. Upon discovering lithium-rich sediments in the western area, Chevron enlisted the assistance of the US Geological Survey, which progressively extended its exploration efforts northward. By 2011, a mining company, now identified as Lithium Nevada Corp., leveraged the groundwork laid by the US Geological Survey, conducting over 200 drilling operations at Thacker Pass, the most accessible lithium deposit within the McDermitt caldera.
Lithium demand has continued to rise, driven by the expanding electric vehicle market and government incentives. Consequently, mining companies, including Lithium Nevada, are increasingly focused on discovering larger lithium deposits. In collaboration with the US Department of Energy and the University of Nevada, Lithium Nevada undertook exploration efforts in the late 2010s in previously unexplored areas within the McDermitt caldera. Their efforts paid off, as they uncovered an estimated 20 to 40 million metric tons of lithium spread across a 1,575-square kilometer region.
According to Anouk Borst, a geologist not affiliated with the project, if we trust their rough estimate, this lithium deposit could have a profound impact on the global landscape, potentially influencing lithium prices, supply security, and geopolitics.
Industrializing the McDermitt caldera isn’t straightforward due to its cultural significance to indigenous groups, such as the Fort McDermitt Paiute, Shoshone, and Bannock tribes. The caldera holds vital resources like first foods, medicines, and hunting grounds for these tribal communities, both historically and in the present. The pursuit of lithium on a global scale is seen by some as a form of “green” colonialism, where those deeply connected to the land endure hardship while disconnected parties reap the benefits.
Indigenous tribes have previously protested mining activities in the Thacker Pass caldera. Members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute, Shoshone, and Burns Paiute tribes argue that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) did not allow sufficient time for community input when approving Lithium Nevada’s operations in the area. It’s worth noting that in 1865, government soldiers massacred 31 Paiute individuals at Thacker Pass, which adds historical and cultural significance to the region. Transforming these untouched caldera regions, which are still utilized by the tribes, into lithium mines would further exacerbate cultural distress and disrupt local ecosystems that are home to multiple endangered plant and animal species.