Just days after U.S. wildlife officials declared a Nevada wildflower endangered at the site of a proposed lithium mine, federal land managers are initiating a review of the latest project plans the developer says will allow the mine and flower to co-exist.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management published a notice of intent Tuesday to move forward with the environmental review despite last week’s determination by Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service that Tiehm’s buckwheat is on the brink of extinction.
Ioneer Ltd., the Australian mining company, said it’s a “major milestone” that sets in motion the final stage of permitting necessary to begin mining by 2026 a key component in batteries for electric vehicles central to President Joe Biden’s “clean energy” agenda.
The mine is projected to produce enough lithium to manufacture approximately 400,000 EVs annually for decades, “quadrupling the current domestic supply critical to meeting the climate goals established by the Biden administration,” Ioneer Managing Director Bernard Rowe said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said in listing the flower that the potential mining poses the biggest threat to the survival of the 6-inch-tall plant with yellow blooms at the only place it’s known to exist. It’s also threatened by road-building, livestock grazing, rodents that eat it, invasive plants and climate change, the service said.
Conservationists who oppose the mine don’t believe Ioneer’s environmental mitigation plans will pass legal muster. They stand ready to resume court challenges if necessary to protect the plants on the high-desert ridge where the mine is planned halfway between Las Vegas and Reno near the California border.
“We’re gearing up for a fight,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned for the flower’s listing in 2019 and sued last year to expedite protection under the Endangered Species Act.
“The recent endangered species listing gives us the most powerful tool in the conservation toolbox to prevent extinction of this rare, beautiful wildflower,” Donnelly said.
Ioneer’s is the first lithium project to be issued a notice of intent to conduct a formal environmental review under the Biden administration.
Ioneer Executive Director James Calaway said it’s “a significant step toward ensuring a strong domestic supply of critical minerals and strategic materials necessary for development of a domestic battery supply chain essential to the electrification of transportation in the U.S.”
At the same time, the internal conflict unfolding within the Interior Department agencies demonstrates some of the challenges Biden faces as he promotes an aggressive shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy resources.
“It’s a real failure of leadership at Interior to have these agencies directly undermining each other like this,” Donnelly said.
The same dynamic is at play in a federal court battle over a Nevada toad USFWS declared endangered earlier this month and a geothermal power plant the BLM has approved in the adjacent wetlands about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Reno.
In both cases, Donnelly said, the agencies appear to “be at cross purposes, with the service declaring species endangered precisely because of actions the other federal agency is approving.”
“If the Biden administration wants the renewable energy transition to succeed, it needs to devise a plan that doesn’t drive species extinct.” he said.
BLM’s notice launches a 30-day “scoping process” with public comment through Jan. 19 to help determine what kinds of alternatives to develop in a subsequent environmental impact statement.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated last week only about 16,000 Tiehm’s buckwheat plants remain in six subpopulations on a total of just 10 acres (4 hectares) spread across about 3 square miles (7.8 square kilometers) — all on the mine site at Rhyolite Ridge in the Silver Peak Range west of Tonopah.
Ioneer’s mitigation plan is based largely on a “buckwheat exclusion area” where all plants would be surrounded by fencing away from any mining operations at distances varying from 13 to 127 feet (4-38 meters), the BLM said.
The company said this week “there are no project-related direct impacts to any of the subpopulations of Tiehm’s buckwheat.”
The Center for Biological Diversity maintains a protective buffer up to 1 mile (1.6 km) is necessary to protect the plants from erosion, fugitive dust, a reduction in nearby pollinators and other potentially adverse impacts.
“Ioneer’s ‘Buckwheat Island’ scenario would spell doom for this sensitive little flower,” Donnelly said.
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