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How a rare plant species could hinder a needed lithium mine

Nov. 20, 2022 Updated Sun., Nov. 20, 2022 at 8:12 p.m.

The most pressing threat to the survival of the rare Tiehm’s buckwheat is mining, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  (Sarah Kulpa/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/TNS)
The most pressing threat to the survival of the rare Tiehm’s buckwheat is mining, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Sarah Kulpa/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/TNS)
By David Jordan CQ-Roll Call

WASHINGTON – Skyrocketing demand for domestically sourced lithium to meet federal goals for zero-emission technologies has developers planning for the next great mining boon in Nevada, but a rare wildflower may stymie one proposed project.

The site of a proposed lithium mine in western Nevada’s Silver Peak Range also happens to be the only known place on Earth where a rare wildflower grows in the wild. Environmentalists say the plant is on the verge of extinction, and it’s being considered by the Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Tiehm’s buckwheat faces multiple threats to its survival, including grazing, invasive species and the effects of climate change, but the service said the most pressing threat is posed by mineral exploration and development.

The Australian company proposing the mine, Ioneer Ltd., says it believes it can harvest the lithium without harming the plant, even if it is listed as protected under the act. But it has filed comments opposing the listing on technical grounds.

The Center for Biological Diversity first petitioned for the plant species to receive federal protection in 2019, citing the “dire threat” posed by further exploration of the site’s potential as a lithium mine, “notwithstanding the broader overall threat of the mine actually being developed.”

“I would be hard-pressed to see how (FWS) could justify not listing it as endangered, just based on the things the service has said,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The situation for the species only grew worse after a mysterious event in 2020 killed over half the plants. The Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately blamed “small mammal herbivory” by rodents.

That same year, the Center filed a complaint that the service was in violation of federal law by not acting on the initial petition. In April of 2021 the service settled with the group, agreeing to propose a listing decision, and in October 2021 it released a proposed rule that would list the species as endangered under the ESA.

First discovered in 1983, the plant can be found on an area of less than 10 acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The plant has adapted to live in boron and lithium-rich soil of the landscape, and with only roughly 40,000 existing plants in the wild, biologists have said it warrants immediate protection under the ESA. A listing would then be considered during BLM’s determination on whether to permit the mine.

Demand for lithium-based batteries has been growing over the last decade. But it has been supercharged by the climate, health care and tax law signed by President Joe Biden in August, which provided tax incentives to boost the adoption of clean energy technologies, including electric vehicles. To receive the full tax credit, the law requires that critical minerals be mined within the U.S. or a nation with which it has a free trade agreement, which excludes imports from some of the world’s largest producers, led by China.

The U.S. produces less than 1% of the global supply of lithium, and its entire supply comes from one facility operated by Albemarle Corp. roughly 80 miles south of the buckwheat habitat.

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