Energy Department Offers $2.3 Billion Loan to Boost Lithium Production

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The Energy Department is moving forward on a deal to provide a $2.3 billion loan to Lithium Americas Corp. in an effort to shore up domestic supplies of a mineral vital for the production of electric vehicles.

If finalized, the loan would help finance the construction of a lithium carbonate processing plant at Thacker Pass in Nevada. The plant would be next to a mine site that contains the largest known lithium deposit in North America.

Demand for lithium, which is used in the rechargeable batteries that power electric vehicles, has surged as more consumers shift away from gas-burning cars and automakers ramp up production of cleaner vehicles. The United States, however, has lagged behind other countries in producing the metal. Nearly 95 percent of the world’s lithium comes from just four countries: Australia, Chile, China and Argentina. Only 1 percent of the lithium used in the United States is harvested domestically, according to the Energy Department.

Lithium carbonate from Thacker Pass could support the production of batteries for up to 800,000 electric vehicles a year, according to the Energy Department. Administration officials also expect the project would create roughly 1,800 jobs during construction and 360 operational jobs.

Energy Department officials said the project would help strengthen the domestic supply chain for critical minerals, which they said was key for “reaching our ambitious clean energy and climate goals and reducing our reliance on economic competitors like China.”

The country’s ability to meet the Biden administration’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050 will require the broader adoption of electric vehicles, which can produce fewer or zero emissions. The administration wants electric vehicles to make up half of new car sales by 2030.

Jonathan Evans, the president and chief executive of Lithium Americas, said in a statement that the conditional loan commitment was a “significant milestone for Thacker Pass, which will help meet the growing domestic need for lithium chemicals and strengthen our nation’s security.”

The project is also supported by General Motors, which agreed in January 2023 to invest $650 million in the company to help develop the Thacker Pass mine. The company beat out 50 bidders, including battery and component makers, for the stake. Many Western auto executives have recently bypassed traditional suppliers and committed billions of dollars on deals with lithium mining companies to secure their supply of the metal.

The federal loan, along with General Motors’ investment, is expected to provide the vast majority of the capital necessary to fund the first phase of the project, Lithium Americas officials said.

The mine project has previously come under scrutiny by Native American tribe members, ranchers and environmental groups because of its potential impacts on ground water and the local wildlife habitat. The company began construction early last year after a federal court ruled in its favor and declined to vacate the decision to approve the project.

Lithium Americas officials said they have “closely engaged” with the nearby Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe. In 2022, the company entered into a binding agreement with the tribe to provide infrastructure improvements at Fort McDermitt, additional job training and employment opportunities for tribe members.

“Thacker Pass will provide important economic and employment opportunities for members of our tribe,” Larina Bell, acting chairwoman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, said in a statement.

The conditional agreement was issued by the Energy Department’s loan programs office, which saw a tenfold increase in its loan authority to more than $400 billion, from $40 billion, under the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. Since its creation, the office has issued more than $42 billion in loans and loan guarantees.

Although the department intends to finance the project, the company must first satisfy certain “technical, legal, environmental and financial conditions” before the deal is finalized, according to the department.

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