The agency’s decision, outlined in a notice scheduled to be published Friday, comes after years of back-and-forth between Ioneer, the Australian-based company proposing to build the mine, and environmental groups seeking to protect the wildflower.
The wildflower, known as Tiehm’s Buckwheat, is only known to grow in Nevada’s Rhyolite Ridge, a region halfway between Las Vegas and Reno with one-of-a-kind mineralogy Ioneer hopes to take advantage of to produce lithium at some of the world’s lowest costs.
However, the fight over Ioneer’s project exemplifies the tension the Biden administration faces more broadly as it pursues an aggressive climate agenda while also attempting to bolster conservation efforts in the United States.
To support the significant growth in renewable energy and electric vehicles President Joe Biden is proposing, the U.S. will need access to a much larger supply of critical minerals. This includes lithium, one of several key inputs into those technologies. The International Energy Agency recently projected the world’s appetite for critical minerals could increase as much as six times in the next two decades.
Companies such as Ioneer say the U.S. should mine domestically, so companies don’t have to rely on foreign nations for their supply. However, Biden faces pressure from environmental groups who say mining projects threaten U.S. lands, wildlife, and those who live close to those operations.
Recent reports indicated the Biden administration, in a move to appease environmentalists, would focus on building a domestic industry to process critical minerals rather than exploring opportunities to mine in the U.S. That news drew immediate opposition from the mining industry, including Ioneer executives.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s notice responds to a 2019 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to protect Tiehm’s Buckwheat from the proposed mining project.
“Tiehm’s Buckwheat shouldn’t be wiped off the face of the Earth by an open-pit mine,” said Patrick Donnelly, the center’s Nevada state director. “The Service stepping in to save this plant from extinction is the right call.”
Ioneer executives say the mine can coexist with Tiehm’s Buckwheat because the company is taking steps to preserve the plant, including proposals to transplant wildflower populations to another location.
“We remain confident that the science strongly supports the coexistence of our vital lithium operation and Tiehm’s Buckwheat,” said Bernard Rowe, the company’s managing director.
He added the Fish and Wildlife Service’s listing process “will provide greater certainty around our schedule and diminishes the prospect of future litigation.”
Nonetheless, the listing process could undoubtedly delay the advancement of Ioneer’s $800 million mining project, the fate of which is currently in the hands of the Interior Department. Ioneer is waiting for the department to release a notice of intent for the project that would jump-start a public comment period on its plans, according to James Calaway, who chairs the company’s board.
In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, Calaway encouraged the Biden administration to focus on speeding up approvals for mining projects, which he stressed are large capital investments that take a long time to build.
In its notice, the Fish and Wildlife Service said that the mining project, along with an event in October where wildlife destroyed part of the wildflower population, would reduce the overall species population by 70% to 88%. The agency also expressed uncertainty that Ioneer’s plans to transplant the wildflower would succeed because the plant is “soil specialist.”
“The impact to Tiehm’s Buckwheat from mining, salvage operations, or both would be permanent and irreversible under the proposed project,” the agency said.✪