Lithium mines fighting flower power as Biden looks to ramp up production

One mine produces a fraction of lithium needed to meet the president's clean energy goals

President Biden promises the U.S. will own the future of electric cars. Some conservationists are challenging that pledge as they contest the two largest lithium mining projects in the U.S. The opposition is emblematic of how some environmentalists are at cross-purposes with how the Biden Administration will achieve its climate goals.  

"The real question is, will we lead or fall behind in the race for the future," Biden asked during a tour of a Ford manufacturing plant in May. "Whether we will build these vehicles and the batteries that go in them here in the United State or rely on other countries. Right now China is leading in this race. They think they will win that race. I got news for them. They will not win this race."

The key component in an electric car is the battery, which in other forms is also used to store power from solar panels and wind turbines. The key element in the battery is lithium. Right now, a single U.S. mine produces a fraction of the lithium needed to meet the president's clean energy projections. To address global warming, two additional mining companies are seeking federal permits, but both face litigation by some environmentalists. 


One 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 U.S. 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 if not kill the lithium project. The Tiehm’s wildflower grows only in one place on earth - the nine acres where ioneer Corp. proposes to build the Rhyolite project, which will produce enough lithium annually for 400,000 electric cars and employ some 300 workers each year over an estimated 40-year life.

 "Communities near the project have overwhelmingly shown support for our project that provides hundreds of quality, multi-generational jobs, minimally impacts the environmental and supports the carbon-neutral future that is critical to all species on our planet," says ioneer President James Calaway.


 The environmental group's fight with ioneer came to a head last year when nearly 50% of the Tiehm's population was wiped out. The ultra-progressive CBD implied ioneer was the culprit, saying the destruction was clearly done by humans. But USFWS and the state of Nevada concluded ground squirrels ate roots of the plant looking for water.

"Buckwheat DNA was detected in the scat, and the genetic signatures were a strong match (96.9-99.8 percent) to ground squirrels," said the federal report. "Current drought conditions likely motivated the rodents to seek moisture by consuming the shallow taproots of mature buckwheat plants."

Calaway immediately issued this statement, "This report categorically refutes the irresponsible assertion by the Center for Biological Diversity that this was an intentional human attack."

Donnelly fired back, "federal agencies came up with this cockamamie rodent theory and passed around some trumped-up report...Frankly, it's somewhat of a circus sideshow and a distraction."

But it's not, according to Glenn Miller, a professor of natural resources and environmental science at the University of Nevada-Reno. Miller is on the board of the Great Basin Institute and advisor to the Sierra Club on sustainability. He is a frequent critic of mines but says the feds should approve both lithium permits.


"I'm a big fan of endangered species legislation. But on the other hand, if we don't do something about climate change, the extinction of species is going to be much, much worse," said Miller. "On balance. I'm supportive of having this large domestic source of lithium."

The other big lithium mine application is Thacker Pass, an area of high desert and sagebrush facing protests and now delays because of 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 says on his Facebook page. "Some think it's fine to sacrifice a place like this so people can drive electric cars and executives can have big paycheck. A lot of people are ok with it. I'm not."

Hundreds gathered last week in downtown Reno to protest the environmental impact statement issued in the last days of the Trump Administration. Opponents claim the 28 square mile area contains numerous sacred and prehistoric burial sites that deserve evaluation and protection. Challenged in federal court by the Western Watershed Project, the mining company agreed to hold off construction until July 29 when a federal court will rule on the injunction. A spokesman for the company says the mining project underwent a thorough review by local tribes and only requires a minor review.

"The Thacker Pass project is great for Nevada. It is providing jobs and investment both during operations as well as construction. It will provide products downstream in the manufacture of batteries," says Alexi Zawadzki, Lithium Americas' president of North American Operations.


The two lithium projects pose a challenge for the Biden administration and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a Native American. Both are at the core of the administration's goal to meet the Paris Climate Accords and infrastructure spending on renewable energy. Some environmentalists however oppose open-pit mining, especially on public lands. They also believe the Endangered Species Act is sacrosanct and can not be compromised for wind or solar energy.

In Texas, the administration is considering a proposal to list the lesser prairie-chicken as endangered, threatening oil and gas development in the Permian Basin as well as wind power.

In the West, many large-scale solar projects are increasingly drawing opposition from environmental activists and local residents for destroying pristine desert lands and critical habitats for species that don't make it on wildlife posters. 

Even if they’re ultimately unsuccessful in stopping new industry projects, environmental groups often use years of litigation to delay the permitting process. If climate change is a crisis, as the president insists, he may have to depend on outsourcing to China and elsewhere this nation’s lithium needs.