US domestic production of lithium, a key electric car battery material, hit a new hurdle this week after a government order to protect a rare flower that grows in Nevada.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service said it proposed to protect Tiehm’s Buckwheat, a wild flower, under the Endangered Species Act, which could hinder progress of a mine being developed by Australian company Ioneer.
Shares in Ioneer, which is seeking a secondary listing in the US this year, fell 11 per cent on Friday in Australia. The company said its Rhyolite Ridge lithium project in Nevada has the largest lithium resources in the US.
The dispute highlights the difficulty of opening new mines in the US to meet the demands for a switch to cleaner energy technologies. Another proposed lithium mine in Nevada, Thacker Pass, has also been opposed by conservation groups.
Tesla, Ford and General Motors are all expanding their US battery production capacity for electric cars. Tesla said in September it had also bought rights to a lithium deposit in Nevada.
Most of the world’s lithium is currently extracted in Chile and Australia and processed in China to be used in batteries. Last month, US president Joe Biden said China had cornered the market for battery raw materials such as lithium.
The entire global population of Tiehm’s Buckwheat covers just 10 acres of public land in Esmeralda County in western Nevada, the location of the Rhyolite lithium project, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service said on Thursday: “The Service has determined, after a review of the best available scientific and commercial information, that the petitioned action to list Tiehm’s Buckwheat, a plant species native to Nevada in the United States, is warranted.”
The Center for Biological Diversity said the lithium mine could cause Tiehm’s Buckwheat to become extinct.
“We’re thrilled that the Biden administration has proposed Endangered Species Act protection for this delicate little flower,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director of the Center. “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.”
Ioneer said in a statement that it supported the decision to protect Tiehm’s Buckwheat and the company had undertaken “significant work and investment” to minimise and mitigate any impact on the flower from its mining operation.
The company said Tiehm’s Buckwheat was also threatened by drought, eating by small mammals and climate change.
“We remain confident that the science strongly supports the coexistence of our vital lithium operation and Tiehm’s Buckwheat,” said managing director Bernard Rowe.
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