One of the keys to President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion clean energy plan could be a mineral that lies in a salt flat above a prehistoric volcano just south of the Oregon-Nevada line.
But the question of how to extract lithium and whether former President Donald Trump’s Department of Interior rushed a mine through the approval process could be an early test for Biden and his nominee for Interior secretary, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued a record of decision on Trump’s final Friday in office for an open-pit lithium mine at Thacker Pass, which is roughly 53 miles (85 kilometers) north of Winnemucca, Nevada.
Lithium Americas, the company behind the mine, believes it can supply a quantity "critical for establishing a strong domestic lithium supply chain required to support a low-carbon economy,” its President and CEO Jon Evans said in a statement.
Lithium, long used for rechargeable batteries found in cellphones and laptops, is expected to become an increasingly valuable commodity if the new administration pushes carmakers to scale up electric vehicle production. But its extraction has splintered environmentalists. While technologists are eager to use it to transition away from carbon-based fuels, conservationists worry about the impact new mines have on endangered species and the environment.
The approval of the mine is among several eleventh-hour decisions issued by Trump’s Department of Interior to advance energy and mining projects, including a West Virginia oil pipeline and an Arizona copper mine on land the San Carlos Apache Tribe considers sacred. Unlike those decisions, which could be reversed, Thacker Pass procured the final federal permit needed to begin construction — one difficult to overturn.
“We are not going to fix the climate if we don’t do it right,” John Hadder, the executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch, said of the approval. “There’s nothing ‘green’ about sloppy permitting.”
Hadder said he worries efforts to usher in a “green revolution” overshadow the need to adhere to established environmental review processes required under federal law.
Shielded by Trump’s executive orders streamlining reviews, he said the project’s environmental impact statement was roughly one-third the length of reviews prepared for similar-sized projects. Hadder said the lithium mine will harm wildlife, including sage grouse, and threaten water and air quality.
Unlike other projects fast-tracked in Trump's final days, lithium production could bolster Biden's plans to transition the economy away from fossil fuels.
The Trump administration listed lithium among the minerals critical to national security and, amid trade disputes, thought mines could help wean the country off of foreign supply. For Biden, boosting domestic production could potentially lower the price tag on a key component of his climate plan: offering rebates to consumers to trade in gas-powered for electric cars.
Biden's Department of Interior did not respond to request for comment, but a Wednesday executive order revoking permits for the Keystone XL oil pipeline mentions plans “to both reduce harmful emissions and create good clean-energy jobs.” And in October, his campaign reportedly told miners that he wanted to increase lithium production domestically.
The enthusiasm could put him at odds with conservationists, who are fighting another proposed Nevada lithium mine they say would destroy Tiehm’s Buckwheat, a desert flower not known to exist elsewhere.
Australia-based mining company Ioneer Ltd. is developing plans to mitigate damage to the flower by trying to grow replacement plants. The executive chairman of its board doesn’t understand why environmentalists want to prevent development of a key element to future “clean energy.”
“Climate change poses an immediate threat to all the species on Earth,” James Calaway said late last year. “This will enable the nation’s transformation from oil and gas drilling to renewable energy.”
Much of the world’s lithium supply comes from Australia and South America, where Chinese firms are heavily invested. Thacker Pass would be the second commercial lithium mine in operation in the U.S., following a central Nevada facility that plans to invest $30 to $50 million to double production. Elsewhere, thousands of claims for the mineral have been staked on federal lands by speculators who anticipate carmakers will expand investments into electric vehicles.
Lithium helped lure Tesla to Nevada. The company opened a massive battery factory near Reno in 2016. The state sees the mineral as key to diversifying its tourism-reliant economy and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak mentioned it specifically in his Tuesday State of the State Address.
Lithium Americas said in a statement that the company now plans to seek financing for the project. Nevada has offered the company $9 million in tax rebates over a 10-year period. The mine is projected to require 1,000 jobs during construction and 300 once completed, generating roughly $75 million in state and local tax revenue over a decade.
Humboldt County Commission Chairman Ken Tipton said the mine has garnered some local opposition, but most support it for the jobs it could bring.
“Anytime a county of our size gets the amount of jobs they’re talking about, it’s a real boon for our economy,” he said.
The takeover in 2016 by right-wing extremists of a federal bird sanctuary in Oregon. A standoff in 1992 between white separatists and federal agents in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.
Right-wing extremism has previously played out for the most part in isolated pockets of America and in its smaller cities. The deadly assault by rioters on the U.S. Capitol, in contrast, targeted the very heart of government.
And it brought together, in large numbers, members of disparate groups, creating an opportunity for extremists to establish links with each other.
That, an expert says, potentially sets the stage for more violent actions.
“The events themselves, and participation in them, has a radicalizing effect. And they also have an inspirational effect. The battle of Capitol Hill is now part of the mythology,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation think tank.
Mary McCord, a former acting U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, said the climate for the insurrection had been building throughout the Trump presidency.
She cited the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that killed one person, aggressive demonstrations at statehouses by armed protesters railing against COVID-19 public health safety orders and mass shootings by people motivated by hate.
“All have led to this moment,” McCord, now a visiting law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said in an email.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors U.S. extremists, has recorded a 55% increase in the number of white nationalist hate groups since 2017.
Among those who participated in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol were members of the Oath Keepers, which often recruits current and former military, police or other first responders; the Proud Boys neo-fascist group; followers of QAnon, which spreads bizarre conspiracy theories; racists and anti-Semites; and others with nearly blind devotion to then-President Donald Trump.
“January 6th was kind of a Woodstock of the angry right,” Jenkins said in an interview. “The mere fact those groups were coming together, mingling, sharing this anger, displaying this passion — it is going to have effects.”
But what happens next? Will Jan. 6 be a high-water mark for right-wing extremists, or lead to other attacks on America's democracy?
Right now, the movement — if it can be called that — seems to be on pause.
Supposedly planned armed protests at all 50 state capitals and Washington this past week that the FBI issued a nationwide warning about drew virtually no one. That could indicate the groups are demoralized, at least temporarily.
Donald Trump is no longer president and his social media reach has been severely curtailed, with Twitter banning him. The extremists had come together in Washington on Jan. 6 because of their fervent belief in Trump's lies that the presidential election had been stolen, and in response to Trump's tweeted declaration that the protest in Washington “will be wild.”
But now, some are clearly angry that Trump disassociated himself with the very insurrection that he stoked. They're upset that he failed to come to the rescue of rioters who were arrested while he was still president and are still being detained and charged.
Online, some people associated with the Proud Boys, which adored Trump, appear to have dumped him.
“No pardons for middle class whites who risked their livelihoods by going to ‘war' for Trump," a Telegram channel associated with the group said after Trump issued many pardons, but none for the insurrectionists.
Another posting on the channel said: “I cannot wait to watch the GOP completely collapse. Out of the ashes, a true nationalist movement will arise.”
Believers in QAnon are also reeling after Trump left office without fulfilling their baseless belief that he would vanquish a supposed cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibals, including top Democrats, operating a child sex trafficking ring.
Among them was Ron Watkins, who helps run an online messaging board about QAnon conspiracy theories.
“We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able,” Watkins wrote on Telegram after President Joe Biden was sworn in and Trump flew off to Florida.
Jenkins said the next phase for the extremist groups and people who saw Trump as a savior could transform into a broader national movement in which factions coordinate and combine their assets.
Or the widespread condemnation of the insurrection could cause the movement to shrink, leaving more determined elements to strike out on their own and launch attacks.
Jenkins recalled the 1970s, when some anti-Vietnam War militants hardened into the Weather Underground, which launched a bombing campaign. Among places targeted were the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, but the only people who died were three militants who accidentally blew themselves up.
“I think given the events of this past year, and especially what we’ve seen in the last couple of months, this puts us into new territory," Jenkins said "And you don't put this back in the box that easily."
Someone in Michigan bought the winning ticket for the $1.05 billion Mega Millions jackpot, which is the third-largest lottery prize in U.S. history.
The winning numbers for Friday night’s drawing were 4, 26, 42, 50 and 60, with a Mega Ball of 24. The winning ticket was purchased at a Kroger store in the Detroit suburb of Novi, the Michigan Lottery said.
“Someone in Michigan woke up to life-changing news this morning, and Kroger Michigan congratulates the newest Michigan multimillionaire,” said Rachel Hurst, a regional spokeswoman for the grocery chain. She declined to comment further.
The Mega Millions top prize had been growing since Sept. 15, when a winning ticket was sold in Wisconsin. The lottery's next estimated jackpot is $20 million.
Friday night's drawing came just two days after a ticket sold in Maryland matched all six numbers drawn and won a $731.1 million Powerball jackpot.
The jackpot figures refer to amounts if a winner opts for an annuity, paid in 30 annual installments. Most winners choose a cash prize, which for the Mega Millions game would be $776.6 million before taxes and $557 million after taxes, Michigan Lottery spokesman Jake Harris said.
“No way!” Ryan Gabrielli told The Detroit News after shopping Saturday at the lucky Kroger. “We meant to play the lottery but forgot to.”
Harris said the ticket holder should sign the back and keep it in a safe place.
“I wouldn't be surprised if the winning ticket holder held onto that ticket for a little bit, got their affairs in order, put together a financial plan and then reached out to contact us,” he said.
Only two lottery prizes in the U.S. have been larger than Friday's jackpot. Three tickets for a $1.586 billion Powerball jackpot were sold in January 2016, and one winning ticket sold for a $1.537 billion Mega Millions jackpot in October 2018.
In Grosse Ile, a suburb south of Detroit, 126 people bought more than 600 tickets for the Friday drawing but didn't win the jackpot. They hoped to win enough money to replace a publicly owned bridge on their island in the Detroit River that has been closed indefinitely for major repairs. The only other transportation option for the island's 10,000 residents is a privately owned toll bridge.
“We used this to lift our spirits and dream a little bit,” said organizer Kyle de Beausset. “Of course we're open to any help with the bridge, but I can't imagine the winner would want to finance it.”
The odds of winning a Mega Millions jackpot were incredibly steep, at one in 302.5 million.
The game is played in 45 states as well as Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
It's taken only days for Democrats gauging how far President Joe Biden's bold immigration proposal can go in Congress to acknowledge that if anything emerges, it will likely be significantly more modest.
As they brace to tackle a politically flammable issue that's resisted major congressional action since the 1980s, Democrats are using words like “aspirational” to describe Biden's plan and “herculean” to express the effort they'll need to prevail.
A cautious note came from the White House on Friday when press secretary Jen Psaki said the new administration views Biden's plan as a “first step” it hopes will be “the basis" of discussions in Congress. Democrats' measured tones underscore the fragile road they face on a paramount issue for their minority voters, progressives and activists.
Immigration proponents advocating an all-out fight say Democrats' new hold on the White House and Congress provides a major edge, but they concede they may have to accept less than total victory. Paving a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, the centerpiece of Biden's plan, is “the stake at the summit of the mountain,” Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice, said in an interview. He said proponents may have to accept “stepping stones" along the way.
The citizenship process in Biden's plan would take as little as three years for some people, eight years for others. It would make it easier for certain workers to stay in the U.S. temporarily or permanently, provide development aid to Central American nations in hopes of reducing immigration and move toward bolstering border screening technology.
No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois said in an interview this week that the likeliest package to emerge would start with creating a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers. They are over 1 million immigrants who’ve lived in the U.S. most of their lives after being brought here illegally as children.
Over 600,000 of them have temporary permission to live in the U.S. under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Former President Barack Obama created that program administratively, and Durbin and others want to protect it by enacting it into law.
Durbin, who called Biden's plan “aspirational,” said he'll push for as many other elements as possible, including more visas for agricultural workers and others.
“We understand the political reality of a 50-50 Senate, that any changes in immigration will require cooperation between the parties,” said Durbin, who is on track to become Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. He said Senate legislation likely “will not reach the same levels” as Biden’s proposal.
The Senate is split evenly between the two parties, with Vice President Kamala Harris tipping the chamber to Democrats with her tie-breaking vote. Even so, passing major legislation requires 60 votes to overcome filibusters, or endless procedural delays. That means 10 Republicans must join all 50 Democrats to enact an immigration measure, a tall order.
“Passing immigration reform through the Senate, particularly, is a herculean task,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who will also play a lead role in the battle. He said Democrats “will get it done” but the effort will require negotiation.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who's worked with Democrats on past immigration efforts, said “comprehensive immigration is going to be a tough sale” this year.
“I think the space in a 50-50 Senate will be some kind of DACA deal,” he said.
Illustrating the bargaining ahead, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a moderate who’s sought earlier immigration compromises, praised parts of Biden's plan but said she wants changes including more visas for the foreign workers her state's tourism industry uses heavily.
Democrats' hurdles are formidable.
They have razor-thin majorities in a House and Senate where Republican support for easing immigration restrictions is usually scant. Acrid partisan relationships were intensified by former President Donald Trump's clamorous tenure. Biden will have to spend plenty of political capital and time on earlier, higher priority bills battling the pandemic and bolstering the economy, leaving his future clout uncertain.
Democrats also must resolve tactical differences.
Sharry said immigration groups prefer Democrats push for the strongest possible bill without concessions to Republicans' demands like boosting border security spending. He said hopes for a bipartisan breakthrough are “a fool’s errand” because the GOP has largely opposed immigration overhauls for so long.
But prevailing without GOP votes would mean virtual unanimity among congressional Democrats, a huge challenge. It would also mean Democrats would have to eliminate the Senate filibuster, which they may not have the votes to do, or concoct other procedural routes around the 60-vote hurdle.
“I'm going to start negotiating" with Republicans, said Durbin. He said a bipartisan bill would be better “if we can do it" because it would improve chances for passage.
Democrats already face attacks from Republicans, eyeing next year's elections, on an issue that helped power Trump's 2016 victory by fortifying his support from many white voters.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Biden’s proposal would “prioritize help for illegal immigrants and not our fellow citizens.” Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who heads the Senate Republican campaign committee, said the measure would hurt “hard-working Americans and the millions of immigrants working their way through the legal immigration process."
Democrats say such allegations are false but say it's difficult to compose crisp, sound-bite responses on the complex issue. It requires having “an adult conversation” with voters, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., said in an interview.
“Yeah, this is about people, but it's about the economy" too, said Spanberger, a moderate from a district where farms and technology firms hire many immigrants. “In central Virginia, we rely on immigration. And you may not like that, but we do."
Russian police arrested more than 2,600 people Saturday in nationwide protests demanding the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin's most prominent foe, according to a group that counts political detentions.
The protests in scores of cities in temperatures as low as minus-50 C (minus-58 F) highlighted how Navalny has built influence far beyond the political and cultural centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
In Moscow, an estimated 15,000 demonstrators gathered in and around Pushkin Square in the city center, where clashes with police broke out and demonstrators were roughly dragged off by helmeted riot officers to police buses and detention trucks. Some were beaten with batons.
Navalny’s wife Yulia was among those arrested.
Police eventually pushed demonstrators out of the square. Thousands then regrouped along a wide boulevard about a kilometer (half-mile) away, many of them throwing snowballs at the police before dispersing.
Some later went to protest near the jail where Navalny is held. Police made an undetermined number of arrests there.
The protests stretched across Russia’s vast territory, from the island city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk north of Japan and the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk, where temperatures plunged to minus-50 Celsius, to Russia’s more populous European cities. Navalny and his anti-corruption campaign have built an extensive network of support despite official government repression and being routinely ignored by state media.
“The situation is getting worse and worse, it’s total lawlessness," said Andrei Gorkyov, a protester in Moscow. "And if we stay silent, it will go on forever.”
The OVD-Info group, which monitors political arrests, said at least 1,045 people were detained in Moscow and more than 375 at another large demonstration in St. Petersburg.
Overall, it said 2,662 people had been arrested in some 90 cities, revising the count downward from its earlier report of 3,445. The group, which conducts its count through regional associates and runs a hotline for information, did not give an explanation for its revision. Russian police did not provide arrest figures.
Undeterred, Navalny's supporters called for protests again next weekend.
Navalny was arrested on Jan. 17 when he returned to Moscow from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a severe nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin and which Russian authorities deny. Authorities say his stay in Germany violated terms of a suspended sentence in a 2014 criminal conviction, while Navalny says the conviction was for made-up charges.
The 44-year-old activist is well known nationally for his reports on the corruption that has flourished under President Vladimir Putin's government.
His wide support puts the Kremlin in a strategic bind — officials are apparently unwilling to back down by letting him go free, but keeping him in custody risks more protests and criticism from the West.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department condemned “the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists this weekend in cities throughout Russia” and called on Russian authorities to immediately release Navalny and all those detained at protests.
Navalny faces a court hearing in early February to determine whether his sentence in the criminal case for fraud and money-laundering — which Navalny says was politically motivated — is converted to 3 1/2 years behind bars.
Moscow police on Thursday arrested three top Navalny associates, two of whom were later jailed for periods of nine and 10 days.
Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later. Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.
Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison and have challenged German officials to provide proof of his poisoning. Russia refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.
Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he described as an alleged member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up. The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.
Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for a decade, unusually durable in an opposition movement often demoralized by repressions.
He has been jailed repeatedly in connection with protests and twice was convicted of financial misdeeds in cases that he said were politically motivated. He suffered significant eye damage when an assailant threw disinfectant into his face. He was taken from jail to a hospital in 2019 with an illness that authorities said was an allergic reaction but which many suspected was a poisoning.