Last September, in the arid hills of northern Nevada in the United States, a cluster of flowers found nowhere else on earth mysteriously died overnight.
Environmentalists were quick to suspect ioneer Ltd, an Australian company that wants to extract the lithium found under the flowers for use in electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
A conservation group alleged in a lawsuit that the flowers, known as Tiehm’s buckwheat, had been “dug up and destroyed”. The rare plant has posed a problem for ioneer as US authorities may soon add it to the endangered species list, which could derail the mining project.
The company denies damaging the flowers. Their cause of death remains hotly debated – as does the fate of the lithium mine.
The clash of environmental priorities underlying the battle over Tiehm’s buckwheat – conservation vs green energy – is a microcosm of a much larger political dilemma for President Joe Biden’s new administration, which has made big promises to environmentalists as well. than labor groups and others who will benefit by boosting mining.
To please conservationists, Biden has pledged to set aside at least 30% of federal lands and coastal areas in the United States for conservation, triple current levels.
But that goal could conflict with its promises to speed up vehicle electrification and reduce the country’s dependence on China for rare earths, lithium and other minerals needed for electric vehicle batteries. . The administration called China’s dependence a threat to national security.
The administration will be forced to make difficult choices that anger one constituency or another.
“You can’t have green energy without mining,” Mark Senti, managing director of Florida-based rare earth magnet company Advanced Magnet Lab Inc. “It’s just the reality.”
Rare earth magnets are used to make a range of consumer electronics as well as precision guided missiles and other weapons.
Two sources close to the White House deliberations on national mining told Reuters that Biden plans to allow mines that produce EV metals to be developed in accordance with existing environmental standards, rather than face a strengthened process. which would apply to the extraction of other materials, such as coal. Biden is open to allowing more mines on federal lands, the sources said, but will not give the industry carte blanche to dig everywhere.
This will likely mean the approval of rare earth and lithium mines – although some copper projects such as the Rio Tinto Plc Arizona copper mine project opposed by Native Americans are likely to be subject to debate. closer examination – sources say.
The White House declined to comment for this article.
Demand for metals used in electric vehicle batteries is expected to rise sharply as automakers including Tesla Inc, BMW and General Motors forecast major expansions in electric vehicle production. California, the largest US auto market, aims to ban fossil fuel engines entirely by 2035.
Biden has promised to convert the entire U.S. government fleet – around 640,000 vehicles – to electric vehicles. That plan alone could require a 12-fold increase in US lithium production by 2030, according to Benchmark Minerals Intelligence, as well as increases in domestic production of copper, nickel and cobalt. Federal lands are teeming with many of these EV metals, according to the US Geological Survey.
“There’s no way to produce enough raw materials right now to start replacing millions of gasoline-powered vehicles with electric ones,” said Lewis Black, CEO of Almonty Industries Inc, which operates the tungsten hardening metal in Portugal and South Korea.
Despite this shortage, US mines offered by Rio Tinto Ltd, BHP Group Ltd, Antofagasta Plc, Lithium Americas Corp, Glencore Plc and others are met with strong opposition from conservation groups. The projects would provide enough lithium for more than 5 million electric vehicle batteries and enough copper for more than 10,000 electric vehicles each year.
Mining companies insist federal lands can still be protected while the United States increases production of minerals needed to accelerate the transition to EVs.
Former US President Donald Trump and the mining industry “pushed the rhetoric that we need to mine everywhere and undermine environmental safeguards in order to build more batteries,” said Drew McConville of The Wilderness Society, a conservation group. “We are confident that the Biden administration will see through this false narrative.”
Earthmovers and other environmental groups are now pressuring automakers to buy only metals from mines deemed environmentally friendly by the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), a group non-profit. BMW, Ford Motor Co and Daimler have agreed to comply with IRMA guidelines, and other automakers may follow suit.
Biden did not weigh in on two controversial copper mining projects in the environmentally sensitive Minnesota Boundary Waters region of PolyMet Mining Corp and the Twin Metals subsidiary of Antofagasta Plc.
Tom Vilsack – the secretary of Agriculture, the department that oversees boundary waters – has in the past opposed the Twin Metals project, arguing that it threatened the wilderness and marshes.
Deb Haaland, the new Home Secretary, the department that controls most federal lands, previously voted for a bill that would have banned copper sulfide mining in northern Minnesota. The bill, drafted by U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat from Minnesota, will be reintroduced this month, her aides told Reuters.
Environmentalists remain concerned, however, that copper’s appeal to electric vehicles and other renewable energy devices may help mines ultimately gain approval.
“If these were coal mines, I would feel a lot more comfortable knowing they wouldn’t be approved,” said Pete Marshall of Friends of the Boundary Waters.
Impact on sacred sites
In Arizona, Biden promised Native Americans – whose votes helped him win the battlefield state – that they would have a “seat at the table” if he defeated Trump. Many Native Americans fear that Rio Tinto’s proposed Resolution copper mine will destroy sacred sites considered to be home to religious deities.
On Monday afternoon, officials in the Biden administration blocked an exchange of land Rio needs to build the mine. Trump officials had previously approved this land swap.
Other controversial projects include the Idaho-proposed Stibnite mine of Perpetua Resources Corp, backed by John Paulson, which is under new scrutiny by staff at the United States Environmental Protection Agency. environment, fearing that it pollutes Native American fishing grounds. The mine would produce gold and antimony, which is used to make alloys for EV batteries.
In Nevada, the Department of Wildlife is concerned that lithium mines planned by Lithium Americas and others could harm habitats for trout, deer and pronghorn. The Lithium Americas mine received federal approval last month, but ranchers have sued the U.S. government to overturn that decision.
“Renewable energy and electric cars are not green if they destroy important habitat and wipe out wildlife,” said Kelly Fuller of the Western Watersheds Project, which opposes the Lithium Americas project.
In Nevada, the death of Tiehm buckwheat flowers at the ioneer proposed mine site remains a point of contention. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service said thirsty squirrels may have gnawed the roots of more than 17,000 flowers for water amid a drought in the state.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes the mine, said there was evidence humans destroyed the flowers. “The targeted nature of the damage, combined with the lack of fecal matter, paw prints, hoof prints or other wildlife evidence suggests human involvement,” the group said in a court filing.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is due to vote this summer on whether the flower is an endangered species – a designation that would prevent development on much of the land the innovator is trying to exploit.
Ioneer has hired scientists to move the flowers to a new site, although it is not known whether this process will be successful. “We can extract this lithium and also save this flower,” said James Calaway, the president of the pioneer.