President Biden is calling for an electric vehicle revolution, but a major mining project proposed for remote western Nevada could soon show whether his administration intends to walk the talk.
All the Australian company ioneer Ltd. needs is final Interior Department clearance to start work on the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project after announcing Thursday a joint venture with the international mining firm Sibanye-Stillwater.
“We are shovel-ready with the approval of this administration,” James Calaway, ioneer executive chairman, said in a press call.
He pointed to Mr. Biden’s push to replace gasoline-powered cars with electric vehicles that run on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Demand for the metal threatens to exceed global production.
“Just this week, President Joe Biden is traveling across America’s West, pushing for immediate climate action and for obvious reasons,” Mr. Calaway said. “A big part of his plan is focused on ramping up production of electric vehicles as quickly as possible. Our project here at Rhyolite Ridge is absolutely critical to meeting those objectives.”
The mine has put Mr. Biden between a rock and a hard place with one of his core constituencies. Environmental groups have mounted opposition to the project despite its potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmentalists argue that the mine would worsen the “extinction crisis,” citing the Tiehm’s buckwheat, a flowering plant that grows only on a 10-acre stretch of federal land in western Nevada.
In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed protecting the Tiehm’s buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, which advocates for threatened species.
“The Biden administration is at a crossroads, and the Tiehm’s buckwheat is a symbol of our times,” Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “There’s only one way forward, and that’s to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat and stop this destructive mine from driving a species to extinction.”
Mr. Calaway said the plant’s most significant challenge comes from climate change, which the mine seeks to counter, and that the company has undertaken extensive research showing that the project will benefit the buckwheat.
“The science clearly demonstrates that our mine and those plants can very well coexist, and in fact, one can very much make the case that without our constant devotion to translocation, transplantation, research, support, etc., the risk to the plant is much higher,” he said.
He said his company has worked closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management to “develop a conservation agreement that allows us to move forward with the mine and, of course, protect this 10 acres of Tiehm’s buckwheat.”
“We’re feeling quite optimistic that that’s the last hurdle that we have to get over, and we expect that that process will take another 12 months or so to complete, which is why we anticipate starting construction in the second half of next year,” Mr. Calaway said.
Mr. Donnelly disagreed. “Sibanye-Stillwater made a big mistake here because this mine is unlikely to ever get built,” he said.
Demand for lithium has soared as developed nations push electric vehicles to slash their carbon dioxide emissions in the name of fighting climate change. The U.S. has only one active lithium mine, located in Nevada, despite holding nearly 10% of the world’s estimated 80 million tons of proven lithium reserves.
The largest global lithium producers are Australia and South America, followed by China, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Rhyolite Ridge holds the largest known lithium and boron deposits in North America, giving it the potential to become “a world-class lithium project” and the largest in the U.S., Sibanye-Stillwater Chief Executive Neal Froneman said in a press release.
The mine would be “the most advanced lithium project in the U.S., and will become a major domestic supplier of refined lithium products, with enough supply of lithium materials for 400,000 electric vehicles a year for another quarter of a century,” Mr. Calaway said.
About 230,000 electric vehicles were sold in the U.S. in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center, accounting for about 2% of the new vehicle market.
Mr. Calaway said the project also would be a boon for rural Esmeralda County and the surrounding area, creating 400 to 500 construction jobs and 200 to 300 operational positions that “will make a significant contribution to Nevada and indeed the U.S. over the current 26-year life of the project.”
Sibanye-Stillwater, based in South Africa, agreed to invest $490 million in the project for a 50% interest. Ioneer will maintain a 50% interest and operate the mine.
Both companies have strong environmental and social corporate governance and are “committed to ensure that Rhyolite Ridge is at the very forefront of sustainable production and operations,” Mr. Calaway said.
Mr. Donnelly said his group is not opposed to lithium production in general but wants it mined somewhere else.
“There are places in Nevada and elsewhere in the United States where lithium can be produced while reducing the impacts on biodiversity and endangered species,” he said. “We’re working to find a ‘right way’ to move forward with lithium and our renewable energy transition, but Rhyolite Ridge mine isn’t it.”
Nancy Boland, a former chairwoman of the Esmerelda County Commission, said Tiehm’s buckwheat has a better chance of surviving with the mine than without it.
Extreme drought and rodents are already threatening Tiehm’s buckwheat, she said in a June 25 op-ed for the Sierra Nevada Ally. “If the people from outside our community succeed in stopping the project, who will foot the bill to protect it? Maybe the plant’s best chance at long-term survival just might be a company that would be held accountable to its protection and conservation.”