Lithium mines fight flower power as Biden seeks to increase production

President Biden promises that the United States will own the future of electric cars. Some environmentalists are contesting this pledge as they challenge the two largest lithium mining projects in the United States. The opposition is emblematic of how some environmentalists are going against the grain of how the Biden administration will meet its climate goals.

“The real question is whether we will lead or fall behind in the race for the future,” Biden asked during a visit to a Ford manufacturing plant in May. “Whether we build these vehicles and the batteries that go into them here in the United States or depend on other countries. At present, China is leading this race. They think they will win this race. I have news for them. They won’t win this race. “

The key component of an electric car is the battery, which in other forms is also used to store energy for solar panels and wind turbines. The key element of the battery is lithium. Currently, only one US mine produces a fraction of the lithium needed to meet the president’s clean energy projections. To fight global warming, two other mining companies are applying for federal permits, but both face litigation from some environmentalists.


A mine comes from Lithium Americas, near the Oregon-Nevada border. The other, called Rhyolite Ridge, is near the California-Nevada border between Reno and Las Vegas. The Rhyolite permit is threatened by a proposed endangered species called Tiehm’s Buckwheat.

“It’s one of the rarest flowers in North America,” said Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the 3-inch-tall flower. “It is threatened with extinction and must be protected under the Endangered Species Act.”

Such a listing could delay or even kill the lithium project. Tiehm’s wildflower only grows in one place on earth – the nine acres where ioneer Corp. proposes to build the Rhyolite project, which will produce enough lithium per year for 400,000 electric cars and employ some 300 workers each year over an estimated lifespan of 40 years.

“The communities close to the project have overwhelmingly shown their support for our project which provides hundreds of quality multigenerational jobs, has minimal impact on the environment and supports the carbon neutral future which is essential for all species in our region. planet, ”said pioneer president James Calaway.


The environmentalist group’s struggle with ioneer came to a head last year when nearly 50% of Tiehm’s population was wiped out. Ultra-progressive CBD implied the pioneer was the culprit, claiming the destruction was clearly done by humans. But the USFWS and the state of Nevada concluded that the ground squirrels ate the roots of the plant in search of water.

“Buckwheat DNA has been detected in the feces, and the genetic signatures strongly correspond (96.9 to 99.8%) to those of ground squirrels,” the federal report said. “The current drought conditions have likely motivated rodents to seek moisture by consuming the shallow taproots of mature buckwheat plants.”

Calaway immediately released this statement: “This report categorically refutes the Center for Biological Diversity’s irresponsible claim that this was an intentional human attack. “

Donnelly hit back, “The federal agencies came up with this cockamamie rodent theory and circulated a falsified report… Frankly, it’s kind of a circus show and a distraction.”

But that’s not the case, according to Glenn Miller, professor of natural resources and environmental science at the University of Nevada-Reno. Miller is a member of the Great Basin Institute Board of Trustees and Sierra Club Sustainability Advisor. He frequently criticizes the mines, but says the federal government should approve the two lithium licenses.


“I’m a big fan of endangered species legislation. But on the other hand, if we don’t do anything about climate change, species extinction is going to be a lot worse,” Miller said. “Overall. I support this important national source of lithium.”

The other big application of the lithium mine is Thacker Pass, an area of ​​high desert and sagebrush facing protests and delays due to environmental challenges and opposition from local Native American tribes.

“This mine will destroy some 5,000 to 6,000 acres of this habitat behind me,” protester Max Wilbert said on his Facebook page. “Some think it’s okay to sacrifice a place like this so that people can drive electric cars and the executives can have a big salary. A lot of people agree with that. I am not. . “

Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Reno last week to protest the environmental impact statement released in the closing days of the Trump administration. Opponents claim that the 28 square mile area contains many sacred and prehistoric burial sites that deserve to be evaluated and protected. Challenged in federal court by the Western Watershed Project, the mining company has agreed to suspend construction until July 29, when a federal court will rule on the injunction. A company spokesperson said the mining project has undergone extensive scrutiny by local tribes and only needs minor scrutiny.

“The Thacker Pass project is great for Nevada. It creates jobs and investment during operation and construction. It will provide products downstream from battery manufacturing, ”said Alexi Zawadzki, president of North American operations for Lithium Americas.


The two lithium projects pose a challenge to the Biden administration and Native American Home Secretary Deb Haaland. Both are central to the administration’s goal of complying with the Paris Climate Agreements and infrastructure spending on renewable energy. However, some environmentalists oppose surface mining, especially on public lands. They also believe that the endangered species law is sacrosanct and cannot be compromised for wind or solar power.

In Texas, the administration is considering a proposal to classify the Little Prairie Chicken as endangered, threatening oil and gas development in the Permian Basin as well as wind power.

In the West, numerous large-scale solar projects are increasingly drawing opposition from environmental activists and local residents for the destruction of pristine desert lands and critical habitats for species that fail on wildlife posters. .

Even if they ultimately fail to stop new industrial projects, environmental groups often use years of litigation to delay the approval process. If climate change is a crisis, as the president insists, it may have to depend on outsourcing to China and elsewhere that country’s lithium needs.

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