By Max Wilbert/Protect Thacker Pass
A criminal slips a police officer a handful of bills and walks free. A businessman buys a politician with a briefcase full of cash. We often think of bribery and corruption in these blatant terms, and as something that happens in poor countries, elsewhere.
But corruption often looks different.
In the United States, where I live, corruption is common. It’s also mostly legal.
In fact, dirty money has become part of the political fabric of our nation. It has become normalized, institutionalized, and even regulated. And yet, the effects of this corruption are just as insidious and destructive as blatant payoffs. Corruption is a rot in our political system, and it is spreading.
This article is about American corruption, but the story will be told by looking at one particular Canadian mining company called Lithium Americas, which is working in the United States through a wholly-owned U.S.-based subsidiary, Lithium Nevada Corporation.
For two and a half years, I’ve been fighting Lithium Nevada to stop them from destroying Thacker Pass — a biodiversity hotspot and Native American sacred site known Peehee Mu’huh in the Paiute language that is in northern Nevada, just shy of the Oregon border. Lithium Nevada, as you have probably guessed, wants to turn this place into an open-pit lithium mine.
This is a special place. Thacker Pass is home to dwindling sage-grouse, Pronghorn, mule deer, and golden eagles. It’s a migratory corridor and climate change refuge. It’s the watershed for local communities, and the site of two massacres of Paiute people, including one on September 12, 1865 in which US Army soldiers killed between 30 and 50 men, women, children, and elders in a surprise attack at dawn. It’s been recognized by the Federal Government as a “Traditional Cultural District,” a landscape of outstanding importance to Native American history and cultural identity.
And right now, as you read this, it is being destroyed by a corrupt corporation and a corrupt government. Bulldozers are rolling and centuries-old sagebrush, millennia-old artifacts, and the lives of precious desert creatures are being crushed under metal treads.
How is this possible? How, in a democracy where people have the right to protest, to speak out, to comment, to petition, to file lawsuits, how is it possible to have such a miscarriage of justice? And more broadly, how is it possible that our governmental system is failing to address the ecological catastrophe we are facing: the 6th mass extinction of life on Earth?
Part of the answer is corruption, which we can break down into five categories: lobbying, writing laws, the revolving door, campaign contributions, and community bribery. Let’s look at each in turn, using Lithium Americas and Thacker Pass as an example.
Lobbying: How Corporations Gain Disproportionate Access
Lobbying is based on a simple principle: that government officials should listen to their constituents.
Transparency International defines lobbying as “Any activity carried out to influence a government or institution’s policies and decisions in favor of a specific cause or outcome.”
“Even when allowed by law,” they say, “these acts can become distortive [harmful to democracy and justice] if disproportionate levels of influence exist — by companies, associations, organizations and individuals.”
Today’s lobbying is not the simple practice of people talking to their elected officials. Instead, it’s a tightly regulated $3.73 billion industry dominated by political insiders and major corporations, rife with corrupt “revolving doors,” and matched by at least $3-4 billion in “shadow lobbying” that isn’t regulated or disclosed to the public in any way.
The regulation of lobbying is essential to its proper functioning as a method of corruption. As Ben Price, National Organizing Director at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, puts it, “regulation is not so much a way to curb corruption, but more to the point, regulations legalize the corruption by defining the limits to it that will be disallowed.”
“In doing so,” he continues, “the principle effect of regulations is to shield bribery from legal liability by legalizing enough of it to serve the purpose of the corporate legislative influencers.”
Like advertising, corporations use lobbying because it works.
Studies have found that spending more money on lobbying and campaign contributions results in direct reductions in federal taxes, state taxes, and more federal contracts. One analysis looking at only the nation’s 200 most “politically active” corporations found they spent $58 billion on lobbying the federal government and “campaign contributions”[i] between 2007 and 2012, but received $4.4 trillion in federal subsidies, contracts, and other support during the same time period. That’s a 7,580% return on investment.
Another study found even bigger returns: “on average, for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government” — a 76,000% payout.
Corporations are Writing Our Laws
Corporations use lobbyists because their wealth allows them disproportionate access to the government, meaning that they can build relationships with politicians and staffers, influence policy, share ideas, and even draft legislation. They can also bribe judges, as the recent Clarence Thomas corruption scandal shows. But it goes further. As one report in NPR notes, “It’s taken for granted that lobbyists influence legislation. But perhaps less obvious is that they often write the actual bills — even word for word.”
Our laws are being written by corporations.
And this isn’t just a federal problem. A 2019 USA Today investigation found more than 10,000 bills introduced to legislatures in all 50 states over an 8-year period were “almost entirely copied from bills written by special interests.” The report also notes that their investigation detected these bills using automated techniques, and “the real number is probably far higher.”
Our politicians rarely write laws. Instead, corporations and lobbyists write laws; congress sells the laws to the public; then lobbyists pay their congresspeople in campaign contributions, Super PAC funding, and revolving-door job opportunities – topics we will look at next.
The Revolving Door
Another way that corruption has become endemic inside the government of the United States is through what’s known as the “revolving door.”
The revolving door refers to the common practice of corporate employees quitting their jobs and going to work in the government, and vice versa. It’s quite common for government employees and elected officials to quit or end their terms and immediately get jobs in the industries they were supposedly regulating.
Why, you might ask? Money. As one headline reads, “when a congressman becomes a lobbyist, he gets a 1,452% raise (on average).
This is a sort of “retroactive bribery” where government officials do what corporations want, then get paid off afterwards. And it’s completely legal.
Occasionally there will be stories of lobbyists who stray into outright bribery — Jack Abramoff, notably — but these stories are rare, not because corruption is uncommon, but because you don’t really need to break the law as a corporation: you wrote the laws. And you did it deliberately to make your bribery and influence campaigns legal.
As of 2016, about half of retiring senators and a third of retiring House Representatives register as lobbyists to collect their checks. This is equally common among Democrats and Republicans.
Lithium Nevada Corporation’s Lobbying Activities (the ones we know about)
Lithium Nevada has spent at least $310,000 on Federal lobbying since 2016, via a lobbying company called Harbinger Strategies.
Harbinger is “a leading federal government and political affairs firm” that was founded by and employs former high-level Republican congressional aides and political operatives. They have been listed as among the top lobbyists in Washington D.C. and made a total of $10.9 million in 2021 from a client list which includes the airline industry, major banks and investment firms, mining companies, biotech, the military-industrial complex, Facebook, electric utilities, General Electric, and the oil and gas industry.
“We leverage our experience as former senior staff to the Congressional Leadership and the Executive Branch to position clients for a seat at the decision-making table,” they write on their website. They continue: “[Harbinger is] founded on the belief that every client deserves partner-level legislative expertise” — a “boutique model” — that they use “for one simple reason: it gets results.”
In the state of Nevada, Lithium Nevada Corporation has hired at least 4 lobbyists since 2017 from two businesses: Argentum Partners, “a full-service strategic communications firm… with a hungry, energetic, and experienced team of lobbyists,” and Ferrato Corporation, “a full service bi-partisan public affairs firm.”
Notably, Lithium Nevada’s Argentum lobbyists included Mike Draper, who “helmed the media relations and public affairs for the planning, permitting, construction and opening of the Ruby Pipeline, the largest natural gas pipeline in North America.” The Ruby Pipeline was fought vehemently by environmentalists and Tribes in 2009 and 2010.
Another technique of legalized corruption is “campaign contributions,” also known as donations to politicians.
Many countries in the world place strict limits on the amount of money that people can donate to political candidates, or even have political campaigns funded by the government, removing the influence of money almost entirely. The United States is not one of those countries.
Elected officials in the United States are desperate for money. The average U.S. senator has to rase $14,000 a day just to stay in office — and that’s once they’re already elected. This is true for both Democrats and Republicans, which is why corporations, both directly and through their lobbyists and employees, tend to play both sides by donating to both political parties.
For example, Jonathan Evans, CEO of Lithium Americas Corporation, donated at least $10,250 to political candidates between 2021 and 2022 including Catherine Cortez Mastow (Democratic Senator from Nevada) and Mark Amodei (Nevada’s Republican Governor). George Ireland, Board President of Lithium Americas, has donated at least $19,800 to candidates since 2011, including $500 to the Trump campaign and $6,600 to John Hickenlooper. Data from OpenSecrets.org shows that 7 other Lithium Americas employees, Board members, and associated parties gave at least another $10,819 to political candidates between 2018 and 2022.
These amounts don’t include the MUCH larger political contributions given by employees and family members of Harbinger Strategies, who gave $392,842 to political candidates in the 2020 election cycle alone.
Many of these people donated up to the legal limit, implying that if the limit were higher, they would give more money — and perhaps that they would seek ways to circumvent contribution limits via so-called “Super PACs” and other dark money techniques.
Keep in mind that less than 1.5% of Americans donate more than $200 to political candidates or parties in any given year. This is the domain of the wealthy.
Lithium Americas money is well-spent.
In what appears to be a quid pro quo for their lobbying and campaign contributions, Lithium Americas Corporation has been granted a total of $8,637,357 in tax abatements from the State of Nevada, including a partial sales tax abatement worth $5 million, a $3.3 million property tax abatement and about $225,000 in payroll tax abatements. That money is unavailable for schools, healthcare, social services, small business assistance, environmental programs, etc.
From the Federal Government, Lithium Americas has received a loan from the Department of Energy’s “Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program” (ATVM) which is likely to cover “up to 75% of the Thacker Pass’ total capital costs for construction.”
This loan program offers highly favorable terms that amount to a significant subsidy of as much as $3 billion USD.
Based on a very conservative estimate for Lithium Americas Corporation lobbying and employee campaign contribution of, say, $400,000, they’re looking at a return on investment of 2,100% — and that’s before including the massive financial value of the ATVM loan.
Corruption in politics is often matched with corruption at a local level.
Lithium Americas’ plans to destroy Thacker Pass have created serious community opposition among farmers and ranchers from the rural areas closest to Thacker Pass, among local citizens in the nearby town of Winnemucca, among environmental groups concerned about impacts to wildlife, plants, air, and water, and among Native American tribes concerned about their sacred and culturally important sites, animals, and medicines.
The response has been predictable. Anti-mining activist Joan Kuyek’s book Unearthing Justice: How to Protect Your Community From The Mining Industry describes the myths repeated incessantly by Lithium Americas and almost every mining company:
- “The mine will create hundreds of jobs and enrich governments.”
- The mine can make community members rich and solve all of their social and economic problems.”
- “Modern engineering will ensure that the mine doesn’t damage the water, air, or the wildlife.”
When these myths are exposed as false, they resort to legalized bribery. At Thacker Pass, that takes the form of Lithium Americas Corporation paying for a new school for the community of Orovada, and signing an agreement with one local Tribal Councilwoman for construction of a cultural center. One tribal member, my friend Shelley Harjo, wrote in response: “A few promised buildings and a cultural center do not supersede the responsibility we have to our ancestors before us nor our obligation to our unborn after.” Another Tribal leader in the region says of the mining companies, “They take advantage of our poverty.”
That poverty gives the mining companies serious leverage. Among community members at Fort McDermitt, rumors of bribery are common.
Lithium Americas’ Involvement in Human Rights Abuses Overseas
Lithium Americas has deep business links and personnel overlaps with Chinese state-owned mining corporation Ganfeng Lithium (the largest lithium company in the world). In fact, Ganfeng and Lithium Americas are co-owners of an Argentinian lithium mining company known as Minera Exar.
The Minera Exar mining project is located in the Andean highlands in the so-called “lithium triangle,” an arid region near the borders of Chile and Bolivia. Over the years that Minera Exar has been active in the region, they — like other lithium mining companies in the area — have come under criticism for serious environmental and human rights abuses.
The Washington Post, exploring these abuses, wrote that:
“Mining companies have for years been extracting billions of dollars of lithium from the Atacama region… But the impoverished Atacamas have seen little of the riches… one lithium company, a joint Canadian-Chilean venture named Minera Exar, struck deals with six aboriginal communities for a new mine here. The operation is expected to generate about $250 million a year in sales while each community will receive an annual payment — ranging from $9,000 to about $60,000 — for extensive surface and water rights.
The exposé continues:
“Yolanda Cruz, one of the leaders of the village in Argentina, said she signed the [community benefits agreement with Minera Exar] but now regrets it. At the time she valued the opportunity to create jobs for her village. But she now worries, ‘we are going to be left with nothing.’ she said. ‘The thing is the companies are lying to us —that’s the reality. And we sometimes just keep our mouths shut,’ she said. ‘We don’t say anything and then we are the affected ones when the time goes by.’”
Meanwhile, Ganfeng Lithium recently announced plans to mine for battery metals in the Xinjiang region of China, where the Chinese Government has detained and imprisoned Uyghyrs and other Muslim groups in forced labor and indoctrination camps.
Waste of Government Funds
We are being told the main goal of lithium mining at Thacker Pass is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is another lie, a new type of corporate greenwashing which is becoming increasingly common. In fact, many analyses actually find that the emissions reductions from switching to electric vehicles are relatively minor.
Producing a single electric car releases greenhouse gas emissions—about 9 tons on average. This average is rising as the size of electric cars is going up substantially. The more electric cars are produced, the more greenhouse gases are released. And so while EVs reduce emissions compared to gasoline vehicles, bigger EVs don’t reduce them much. Analysis from the Center For Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice says that electrification of cars in the United States will reduce national emissions by only 6 percent.
Further, producing lithium at Thacker Pass would require 700,000 tons per year of oil refining byproducts — sulfur, perhaps largely sourced from the Alberta Tar sands. While Thacker Pass receives billions in subsidies from the government, carbon emissions are continuing to rise.
Environmental activist Paul Hawken, as another example, doesn’t put electric cars in his top 10 climate solutions. In fact, it’s number 24 on his list, with almost ten times less impact than reducing food waste, nearly six times less impact than eliminating the use of refrigerants which are powerful greenhouse gases, and behind solutions like tropical rainforest restoration (about 5 times as effective at reducing emissions as is switching to EVs) and peatland protection (more than twice as effective).
Corruption and waste go hand-in-hand. The data makes it clear that if reducing greenhouse gases is your goal, subsidizing the Thacker Pass lithium mine is not a good use of government funds. It’s wasteful.
If you actually want to allocate government funds to effectively halt global warming, giving money to extractive industries is the exact wrong thing to do.
Instead, start with women’s rights, educating girls, and making contraception and family planning widely available. Start with economic relocalization initiatives. Start with insulating homes properly, which may have the biggest immediate carbon impact per dollar spent. Start with demand-reduction initiatives.
Stop wasting taxpayer money on subsidies to Earth-destroying corporations, and start taking actions that really matter.
The Banality of Evil
Lithium Americas’ corruption reminds me of what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called “The Banality of Evil.” Writing of Otto Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi officer who was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, Arendt explains that Eichmann felt no guilt; indeed, he never even considered that what he was doing might be wrong: “He did his ‘duty’…; he not only obeyed ‘orders’, he also obeyed the ‘law’.”
As one article states, “[Eichmann] performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his ‘thoughtlessness’, a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann ‘never realised what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else’. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he ‘commit crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong’.”
Lithium Americas is not killing people en masse, nor are they even among the “worst” mining companies. They may even be acting completely within the boundaries of the law. And yet they are complicit in cultural genocide, in ecological destruction for personal gain, and in what may be an even bigger crime against the future: greenwashing their destruction as positive and thus creating more financial and political incentives for more of this madness.
They believe that what they are doing is right and they are “following the rules.”
The corruption at Thacker Pass is not unique. Lobbying, campaign contributions, greenwashing, and community bribery is common in the United States and across much of the world. I believe there is likely much more corruption that we are not aware of. Perhaps there really are briefcases full of cash being exchanged. We can only speculate. And, this article has not even begun to discuss the government complicity in lawbreaking, corruption, and ethical violations at Thacker Pass — a story that is, in some ways, even more sordid.
All of which is part of why academic analyses of the United States tend to show “economic-elite domination” rather than true electoral democracy or pluralism. The wealthy are running our country (and indeed, the world) Our government is corrupt, corporations are running rampant, and our world is being destroyed.
For many, the situation we find ourselves in is paralyzing. What can do in the face of this?
When I first came out to begin protecting Thacker Pass and setup a protest camp on the planned mine site in the depths of winter 2021, I had no illusions. I knew that the courts weren’t likely to save us. Remember, the laws were written by corporations. I knew that public commenting wasn’t going to work; the regulations are written to favor corporate interests. I knew that the government wasn’t going to help, since the politicians are mostly bought and paid for. I even knew that standard methods of protest would likely be ineffective, given the repression tactics and divide-and-conquer strategies that have been honed over centuries by corporations and colonizers.
As a society, we find ourselves in the midst of the 6th mass extinction event, a global climate catastrophe, and seemingly terminal overshoot. And as an environmental movement, despite our brave and inspired action, it has not been enough.
That’s why, for many years, I have been calling for an ecological revolution — a fundamental transformation of society — and organizing to make it happen.
Whether you agree that this is needed or not, we can all agree that what we are doing isn’t working. I don’t have all the answers. But what I do know is that it’s time to go further.
This article was originally published on Earth Day 2023. Since then, there have been developments in Thacker Pass. Direct action has been able to halt mine construction for the moment. Read more about it here.
Featured image: Resistance in Thacker Pass by Max Wilbert