A U.S. judge said on Thursday she will rule “in the next couple of months” on whether former President Donald Trump erred in 2021 when he approved Lithium Americas Corp’s Thacker Pass lithium mining project in northern Nevada.
The timeline further delays the company’s plans to build North America’s largest lithium mine even as Washington pushes to boost domestic production of metals crucial to the green energy transition and wean the country off Chinese supplies.
Chief Judge Miranda Du of the federal court in Reno, Nevada, held a nearly 3-hour hearing on Thursday to review allegations from ranchers, environmentalists and Indigenous groups that the mine would permanently scar a region home to wildlife and key water sources for livestock.
Du, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, brushed aside an argument from Lithium Americas that the court should give extra weight to the mine’s potential in the global fight against climate change.
“That’s a policy argument … which really doesn’t apply to my decision,” Du told the company’s attorney.
Du seemed especially interested in a U.S. appeals court ruling from 2022 that found federal law allows mining companies to dig for metals on federal land but not necessarily use federal land without metals reserves for ancillary purposes – such as storing waste rock or running power lines.
Conservationists argued that some of the nearly 6,000 acres at the Thacker Pass site do not contain lithium. They told Du that U.S. mining law does not allow Lithium Americas to use that acreage without separate regulatory studies, which would further delay construction.
A government attorney told Du she did not believe the government needs to find evidence of lithium across the entire project site in order to allow Lithium Americas to build its mine.
Du’s options include overturning Trump’s decision, upholding it or ordering federal regulators to re-review the project. “I hope to have a written decision, well, in the next couple of months,” the judge said.
Several Native American tribes argued in court that they were not properly consulted and asked for a new round of consultation that gives them specific details about how the mine will affect the region. “The whole system works against us,” Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, told Reuters. “It’s a continuation of taking tribal lands from tribes and desecrating them before they can have valid consolation.”
Vancouver, Canada-based Lithium Americas said after the hearing it is focused on completing the project. “Today’s hearing provided an opportunity to reaffirm our confidence that the permitting process for Thacker Pass was conducted thoroughly and responsibly,” said Jon Evans, the chief executive of Lithium Americas.
Lithium Americas has received all necessary permits to begin construction, but the long-running case has delayed the process. The company had expected a ruling by last September.
Du in 2021 ruled the company could conduct minor excavation work at the site while she considered whether Trump should have approved the mine. Lithium Americas has promised the court it would not begin major mine construction without giving the court 60 days notice.
The Biden administration issued an archaeological digging permit in late 2021 for the project, a step that the White House said underscored its efforts to boost U.S. lithium production. (Reporting by Ernest Scheyder Editing by Chris Reese and Josie Kao)