A vast and barren lakebed in eastern Nevada has become an unexpected battleground in a spaceflight vs. battery tech showdown. A portion of land slated for lithium mining in the state is no longer free for development after federal forces intervened. But extraction companies and Republican lawmakers want to reverse the decision.
Railroad Valley Playa is a dried-up, preternaturally flat expanse of land encompassing about 90 square miles of Nevada’s Tonopah Basin. Rich mineral deposits mean lithium mining companies have laid claim to large sections of it for resource extraction, through the purchase of federal leases. However, at NASA’s behest, the Bureau of Land Management recently withdrew more than 35 square miles of the playa from mining or other development for at least the next 20 years.
By the agency’s own account, NASA has relied on the ancient lakebed since 1993 to calibrate its satellites. “Railroad Valley is the best location in the United States (and one of the best in the world) for satellite calibration,” NASA writes in a factsheet about the region. The area is apparently ideal for fine-tuning space sensors because of its size, pancake-esque topography, consistent surface color and makeup, mostly cloudless weather, good air quality, utter lack of plant life, and a long history of going undisturbed by humans.
NASA and other federal agencies use the unique land in Railroad Valley to calculate the timing and accuracy of satellite signals transmitting between Earth and orbit. Much of the data verified through this process comes from instruments that track greenhouse gas emissions, climate trends, and weather— making the satellites in question critical for keeping tabs on human-caused climate change and its consequences.
In April 2021, NASA requested that BLM set aside nearly 23,000 acres of the valley for this continued purpose. After two years of review and assessment, BLM abided by the ask, issuing Public Land Order No. 7291, which reserves the land for NASA and thwarts the prospect of mining any time soon.
Environmental advocates, ranchers, and other stakeholders have been fighting against certain lithium mining proposals in Nevada for years—often to no avail. But NASA is an outlier opponent and victor in the ongoing extraction debate.
In response to the agency’s win, mining company 3 Proton Lithium Inc. claims it will lose out on one-third of its claimed land and the chance to extract about 60% of the Railroad Valley site’s lithium and value, as reported by the Associated Press. Though lithium mining development hasn’t begun in the Railroad Valley, and 3PL hadn’t yet submitted any formal plans, the company says it has already spent millions of dollars exploring and researching extraction there. Moreover, the corporation has characterized BLM’s decision as “a sad irony” because “NASA studies carbon dioxide, but 3PL eliminates carbon dioxide.”
“This project is a vital part of transitioning to a green economy, creating good-paying American jobs, combating climate change, ending America’s over-reliance on foreign adversaries and securing a domestic supply chain for critical and rare earth minerals,” Kevin Moore, a 3PL executive, said during a congressional subcommittee meeting on mining last week.
Lithium is a central metal in battery manufacturing, making it an important resource in electrifying transport and the energy grid. But, despite its potential role in pivoting humanity to more sustainable power sources, it comes with its own suite of environmental issues—from endangering rare plants to harming wildlife populations and degrading and depleting groundwater.
Advocates for extraction assert that mining more lithium, fast, is key to moving away from fossil fuels. To some extent, they’re correct. An electric future will undoubtedly require more lithium and other scarce materials. However, the amount and intensity of mining activity that will be required is unresolved and could be far less than companies claim. Simple steps like improving public transit and urban walkability could reduce demand for lithium by up to 90%, according to one 2023 analysis from UC Davis researchers.
Meanwhile, NASA says Railroad Valley Playa is an indispensable and irreplaceable site for space-based research. “Protecting the RRV’s surface integrity is an important goal for NASA,” the agency wrote. Keeping the area un-mined is “crucial to the viability of several important Earth Science missions.”
Obviously, the mining company disagrees. In 2021, 3PL proposed that 41 other sites (with less lithium) could be used by NASA instead of the playa. The agency says this isn’t true. “The Railroad Valley playa is a one-of-a-kind national asset that is the only suitable location in the United States for ground-based satellite calibration,” Jeremy Eggers, a NASA spokesperson, told Gizmodo in an email. “We evaluated the 41 sites recommended by 3PL during the notice and comment process last year and none met the standards for satellite calibration.”
“Nearly every sector of the U.S. economy, including weather forecasting, food production and agriculture, air quality monitoring, aviation safety, climate prediction, disaster response and recovery, and water resource monitoring rely on the information provided by satellites that use RRV for calibration,” Eggers further wrote. “Ensuring the accuracy of this free and openly available data is critical. Activities that stand to disrupt the surface integrity of Railroad Valley would risk making the site unusable.” Though, 3PL has also said that its activities at RRV wouldn’t disturb the surface—a claim which NASA additionally disputes.
Now, it’s not just mining companies and federal agencies getting involved. Lawmakers, too, are beginning to weigh in. Earlier this month, Republican Nevada congressman, Mark Amodei, introduced legislation intended to reverse the BLM’s recent land order. The legislator described NASA’s stake in the Railroad Valley as an “unreasonable demand” that “goes directly against America’s economic and national security needs,” in a press statement on his proposed bill. So far, the legislation has yet to progress beyond the subcommittee. Likely, it won’t pass and the BLM’s decision will stand.
Yet the back and forth is indicative of just how complicated lithium mining and other non-fossil resource extraction discussions can get—especially when there are scientific and sustainability arguments to be made on both sides. We need resources, but we also need undisturbed, undeveloped land. In this case, space science beat out private mineral interests. In the future, the best way forward may not always be clear-cut.