Tiehm’s buckwheat. (Center for Biological Diversity photo)
An effort to develop the proposed Rhyolite Ridge lithium mine west of Tonopah gained financing under an agreement announced Thursday in which South African mining company Sibanye-Stillwater will contribute $490 million to a joint venture with ioneer LTD, the Australian firm that has been trying to develop the project.
The proposed open-pit mine is opposed by conservationists citing the company’s plan to develop the site on the only known habitat of a rare desert wildflower called Tiehm’s buckwheat.
Late last year, scientists and researchers discovered wide-scale destruction to the plants that destroyed more than 50 percent of the total global population.
In June the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the Tiehm’s buckwheat warrants federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency concluded that the potential impact from the proposed lithium mine, combined with the recent wide-scale loss, would “reduce the total Tiehm’s buckwheat population by 70 to 88 percent, or from 43,921 plants to roughly 5,289–8,696 plants.”
The agency said it would submit a proposed rule to list the species as endangered by September 30, 2021.
In a call with media Thursday, ioneer executive chairman James Calaway said ioneer is committed to “demonstrating the environmental responsibility and character of our project and to ensure the final federal permit necessary to begin construction.”
The company has argued that its lithium operations can coexist with Tiehm’s buckwheat due to salvage efforts undertaken, including a plan to transplant live plants to another location.
Conservationists argue the mine is incompatible with the survival of the rare wildflower.
“Sibanye-Stillwater just made a foolish move,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “The science is clear: Rhyolite Ridge mine would drive Tiehm’s buckwheat toward extinction. Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has affirmed that ioneer’s mitigation plans are speculative and unproven. Meanwhile, thanks to our legal action, the Service is obligated to put forward a proposed rule to list Tiehm’s buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act by September 30th. We are fighting every day to ensure that this mine does not go forward as proposed.”
Despite legal and environmental challenges, ioneer expects to begin Rhyolite Ridge construction by the second half of 2022, said Calaway.
“For the last number of years we have been working to develop the science” in an attempt to “make the project exist with the plants and actually help the Thiem buckwheat’s survival,” Calaway said. The flower’s already “very threatened due to climate change” and the mine “directly addresses reduction of CO2,” he said, referring to lithium’s use in batteries. “So it’s not as if our project isn’t contributing to fundamentally saving the plant.”
Calaway said ioneer has worked closely with the U.S department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and is confident they can develop a conservation agreement that will allow the mine to move forward.
Calaway said the planned mine at Rhyolite Ridge is “absolutely critical” in President Joe Biden’s agenda for immediate climate change action.
“We are shovel-ready” once federal agencies approve the project, he said.
In a separate statement, Sibanye-Stillwater likewise noted the promise of lithium production, saying the U.S. government “has declared lithium as critical to economic and national security.”
The joint venture planned with Sibanye-Stillwater is the next step by ioneer to secure funding for the project in anticipation of its eventual development. The mining company considers its proximity to the Telsa gigafactory in Northern Nevada as a key selling point for investors.
Under the agreement, Sibanye will contribute $490 million to secure a 50% interest in the lithium play, while ioneer will retain the remaining 50% and operator status.
The cash injection is enough to cover the project’s equity funding requirement, while the joint venture team will work together to secure debt funding in the future, according to statements released by the firms.
According to a January, 2021, U.S. Geological Survey report, “excluding U.S. production, worldwide lithium production in 2020 decreased by 5% to 82,000 tons of lithium content from 86,000 tons of lithium content in 2019 in response to lithium production exceeding consumption and decreasing lithium prices.” Part of that decline is likely attributable to the economic impact of the pandemic, the report said.
“Owing to continuing exploration, identified lithium resources have increased substantially worldwide,” the USGS report added.
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