A Rare Flower Is Screwing Up Plans for a Nevada Lithium Mine

It's flower versus power in a remote corner of Nevada.

Illustration for article titled A Rare Flower Is Screwing Up Plans for a Nevada Lithium Mine
Photo: Patrick Donnelly, Center for Biological Diversity (Other)

Last week brought some good news for an at-risk desert flower. The Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday it will propose listing the Tiehm’s buckwheat flower, a cute little puffball-style plant with yellow-orange petals, as an endangered species. But doing so could make it harder to mine lithium, a key metal for batteries needed to combat the climate crisis.

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Discovered 40 years ago, the Tiehm’s buckwheat grows on just 10 acres of public land in Nevada, concentrated in an area known as Rhyolite Ridge in Esmerelda County. Rhyolite Ridge also happens to be the home of a huge lithium-boron deposit. With an estimated 146.5 million metric tonnes of minerals in the deposit, it’s the only known lithium-boron deposit in North America, and one of just two known in the world. Australian mining company Ioneer is looking to build a $600 million mine on the site and was hoping to secure permits for construction by the end of this year. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the mine’s construction would destroy 60% of the remaining Tiehm’s buckwheat habitat during its first phase, eliminating up to 90% with subsequent construction phases.

In an attempt to safeguard the flower’s habitat from the mine, conservation groups have stepped up efforts to get the federal government to list the species as endangered over the past year and a half. (For its part, Ioneer has been working with the University of Nevada to propagate and grow Tiehm’s buckwheat seedlings in a lab to test how they grow in other locations, and has plans to plant them on the Rhyolite Ridge site.) Last week’s ruling won’t stop construction of the mine, which was slated to open in 2023, but it would put in place a lot more hurdles for Ioneer to jump through to get construction and financing permits finalized.

“We’re thrilled that the Biden administration has proposed Endangered Species Act protection for this delicate little flower,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center, in a statement on the decision. “Tiehm’s buckwheat shouldn’t be wiped off the face of the Earth by an open-pit mine. The service stepping in to save this plant from extinction is the right call.”

What’s good for the flowers in the short term may actually, in the long run, be bad news for the Earth they grow on. As the world ramps up the production of batteries for electric vehicles, energy storage, and other energy transition essentials like solar panels and offshore wind farms, we’re quickly running out of the stuff we need to make them. An analysis from the International Energy Agency released last month finds for lithium could skyrocket 70 times in less than two decades. (Ioneer has made sure to hammer home its role in combatting climate change in press materials, while also noting that the Tiehm’s buckwheat is “under threat from ongoing drought.”)

Lithium along with rare Earth minerals that are also crucial for carbon-free power are often concentrated in a few regions in the world, making those supply chains particularly vulnerable. That creates lots of problems for flora, fauna, and people alike, including water pollution and human rights abuses. Another proposed lithium plant in Nevada has united conservation groups citing concerns over trout and sage grouse with locals worried about noise and water pollution in opposition, and mining waste in other parts of the world has also created an environmental catastrophe.

Things are pretty precarious for the Tiehm’s buckwheat even without the threat of the lithium mine. Last fall, botanists reported that a surprisingly huge number of plants had been mysteriously destroyed, leaving less than 40% of the population intact. While the unusual destruction patterns at first suggested potential human involvement, in December, FWS released a DNA analysis naming the likely culprit as the white-tailed antelope ground squirrel, which the agency said may have snacked on the buckwheat because extreme drought conditions led them to try and get water from the taproots of plants they normally wouldn’t touch. Drought conditions are likely to intensify in the region due to the climate crisis.

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The whodunit kicked off another round of finger-pointing between the mine and conservation groups. Some conservationists suggested the DNA analysis was incomplete and that people associated with the mine dug up the plants intentionally, while the mine’s owners called the Center for Biological Diversity and other group’s claims about human involvement “irresponsible.”

Regardless of what murdered the plants last fall, or what will become of them in the future, these cases point out two simultaneous truths: These mines are huge projects that disrupt local and sensitive ecosystems, and they’ll be providing materials we desperately need to keep these—and other—ecosystems from changing any more in the future.

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“No matter what happens, there is no guarantee that the buckwheat will be able to survive in that place in 20 years where it is now,” Peter Raven, the president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, told the Nevada Independent in January. “The climate’s changing very rapidly.”

Correction 6/7/21 1:48 PM: This piece has been updated to correct the amount of lithium-boron in the deposit. It is 146.5 million metric tonnes, not 146.5 metric tonnes.

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Writing about climate change, renewable energy, and Big Oil/Big Gas/Big Everything for Earther. Formerly of the Center for Public Integrity & Nexus Media News. I'm very tall & have a very short dog.

DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Conceptually...

Average concentration of lithium in seawater from a quick googling is somewhere around 0.5 ppm (or milligrams per liter). Volume of earth’s ocean(s) is about 1.3 x 10^21 liters. So there’s about 650 billion metric tons of lithium to be had. Amount of lithium in a typical EV battery pack has about 10 kilograms of lithium (or about 0.01 metric tons). So we’re talking 65 trillion EVs or roughly 8,000 EVs per human on earth. /s

Please note: kinja math is 50/50

There might be some mass transfer units of operation stuff common of chemical/biological/environmental engineering that could limit feasibility. Nonetheless it is being looked into pretty seriously by folks all over the world, this clean and green tech metals exploitation thing.