RENO, Nev. (AP) - A federal judge has ordered the government to revisit part of its environmental review of a lithium mine planned in Nevada but denied opponents' effort to block the project in a ruling the developer says clears the way for construction at the largest known U.S. lithium deposit.
The ruling late Monday marks a significant victory for Canada-based Lithium Americas Corp. at its subsidiary's project near the Oregon line, and a setback for conservationists, tribes and a Nevada rancher who've been fighting it for two years.
President Joe Biden's administration says the mine is key to producing raw materials for electric vehicle batteries to help speed the nation's transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
"The favorable ruling leaves in place the final regulatory approval needed in moving Thacker Pass into construction," Jonathan Evans, Lithium Americas' president and CEO, said in a statement Tuesday. The company expects production to begin in the second half of 2026.
Last week, General Motors Co. announced it had conditionally agreed to invest $650 million in Lithium Americas in a deal that will give GM exclusive access to the first phase of the Thacker Pass mine. The equity investment is contingent on the project clearing the final environmental and legal challenges it faces in federal court in Reno.
The Bureau of Land Management approved the project in January 2021. A rancher, conservationists and tribes started filing lawsuits opposing it weeks later.
Spokespersons for the plaintiffs said they were considering whether to appeal the ruling. They said they will keep trying to find other ways to block the project.
"We don't intend to stop fighting this destructive project," Greta Anderson of the Western Watersheds Project said Tuesday in an email to The Associated Press.
Will Falk, a lawyer for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said in an email Tuesday that "American law priorities mining on public lands over all other users - including Native American spiritual uses.
"Until that changes, law will be a limited tactic in protecting public land and Native American sacred places," he said.
In a 49-page ruling late Monday, U.S. District Judge Miranda Du in Reno concluded opponents had failed to prove the overall project would harm wildlife habitat, degrade groundwater or pollute the air.
She also denied - for the third time - relief sought by Native American tribes who argued it could destroy a nearby sacred site where their ancestors were massacred in 1865.
Du's ruling reflected the high-stakes battle that pits environmentalists against so-called "green energy" projects the Biden administration is pushing over the objections of conservation groups, tribes and others.
Other projects that face legal challenges in federal court in Nevada include a proposed lithium mine where a desert wildflower has been declared endangered, and a proposed geothermal power plant near habitat for an endangered toad.
"While this case encapsulates the tensions among competing interests and policy goals, this order does not somehow pick a winner based on policy considerations," Du wrote.
Du handed a partial victory to environmentalists in agreeing that the Bureau of Land Management had failed to determine whether the company had valid mining rights on 1,300 acres (526 hectares) adjacent to the mine site where Lithium Nevada intends to bury waste rock.
But she denied the opponents' request to vacate the agency's approval of the overall project's Record of Decision, which would have prohibited any construction to begin until a new record of decision was issued.
Instead, she said she would remand the case back to Bureau of Land Management to determine whether valid mining rights exist on the neighboring lands.