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America’s electric cars are so desperate for lithium that it could wipe out that species

Environmentalists say the benefits of Tiehm’s buckwheat could be enormous, but its full meaning is unknown. What is certain is that the protection of Tiehm’s buckwheat is important in order to preserve biodiversity on earth. The flower was so newly discovered that it has not been thoroughly examined, it is said. But botanists are impressed with Tiehm’s buckwheat ability to thrive where few species can – poor soil full of boron and lithium.

This lithium in Nevada and elsewhere in the world has increasingly attracted the attention of businesses and governments. Ioneer, an Australian mining company, has announced that it will be laying the foundation stone later this year with a lithium mine on the land where Tiehm’s buckwheat grows. Under the barren soil lie 146.5 million tons of lithium and boron. The project is valued at 1.265 billion US dollars.

The fate of Tiehm’s buckwheat underscores the compromises and difficult choices associated with “green technologies”. Businesses talking about helping the environment may not be overwhelmed by making one species threatened with extinction. Ioneer argues that building his lithium mine is good for the environment from an overall perspective. It believes the facility can survive if largely relocated, a claim that environmentalists are questioning.

Electric vehicles cannot pass without lithium – and much of it. Lithium is a critical mineral in the batteries that power electric vehicles. According to the International Energy Agency, the world will have to mine 42 times as much lithium as it will in 2020 if we are to achieve the climate targets set in the Paris Agreement. Existing mines and projects under construction will only cover half of the lithium demand in 2030, the agency said.

The United States has only one active lithium mine today. According to a study by RK Equity, a New York company that advises investors on lithium, the country will need 500,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent by 2030. The total global lithium carbonate equivalent market last year was 325,000 tons, RK Equity partner Howard Klein told CNN Business.

The uncertain future of a plant

Tiehm’s buckwheat has yellow flowers, is about five to six inches tall, and grows on about 10 acres in the Silver Peak Range in southwest Nevada. It was discovered in 1983 and is one of the 255 species of buckwheat. There are 80 species of buckwheat in Nevada and 11 are exclusive to the state. Experts say Tiehm’s buckwheat cannot grow anywhere else in the world. The construction of the mine is likely to trigger extinction, it is said.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, has asked the federal government to designate Tiehm’s buckwheat as an endangered species in order to save it.

A Nevada District Court judge ruled April 21 that the US Fish and Wildlife Service must decide within a month whether Tiehm’s buckwheat should be classified as an endangered species. The agency, which was already conducting a review of Tiehm’s buckwheat at the time of the judge’s decision, told CNN Business that it is addressing pending litigation.

Patrick Donnelly, state director of the Center for Biodiversity in Nevada, told CNN Business that his group is ready for years of fighting in court to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat. He believes that society needs to think more critically the appropriate location for a lithium mine and the value of biodiversity.

“On an endangered buckwheat is not the place,” he said. “Biodiversity gives us clean air to breathe and clean water to drink and brings food to our plates.”

Other environmentalists warn that we don’t know what will be lost if Tiehm’s buckwheat is wiped out. Jim Morefield, regulatory botanist with the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, told CNN Business that Tiehm’s buckwheat’s ability to live in soil where few plants can survive could offer lessons to those who grow plants .

Thousands of the plants died in September 2020, sparking speculation about a plant damage program. A federal government study later concluded that squirrels had eaten many of the plants. Rodents were likely motivated by drought conditions to seek moisture in buckwheat’s shallow roots, the report said.

The study’s merits have been questioned by the Center for Biological Diversity as well as Naomi Fraga, the director of conservation programs at the California Botanic Garden.

Fraga said she doesn’t expect the study to stand if it goes through a peer-reviewed publication process.

“This is not the nail in the coffin that closes the case,” said Fraga, explaining that the DNA evidence collected was insufficient to link all of the damage to squirrels.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on criticism of the report.

James Calaway, chairman of Ioneer, said his company will move some of the remaining plants to another area nearby where they will be protected, including barriers to protect against rodent attacks. He said a fraction of the plants will stay in their original location. According to an Ioneer spokesman, about 30% of the occupied habitat would be affected by construction and 65% of the plants would be relocated.

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However, Morefield, the Nevada botanist, warned that attempts to transfer plants that adapt to very specific soils have not been successful in the past.

He said that 80% of the buckwheat of the buckwheat compared to its population in 2019 would have disappeared from its original habitat after the mine was built, which would significantly reduce the chance of the entire species surviving.

“Any conservation biologist would look at this number, and it’s not a hopeful number for a species,” Morefield said.

Calaway, chairman of Ioneer, believes recent problems at the facilities highlight the risks associated with climate change and the need to take preventive measures such as building lithium mines in order to achieve the environmental benefits of electric vehicles.

“Climate change is getting worse,” said Calaway. “Is this the fight against biodiversity that makes sense for all diversity in the context of the crisis?”

Dale Jamieson, a professor of the environment and philosophy at New York University, said the United States would be better off with centralized industrial planning to cope with difficult situations like dealing with Tiehm’s buckwheat. The Scandinavian countries and Germany are leading the way, and their plans take into account concerns about national security and critical resources for transportation.

There is a risk that companies will respond to short-term economic incentives without longer-term strategies. He pointed to the uranium mines that were built in the United States in the mid-20th century when nuclear power was seen as the future. Now the US is dealing with the consequences of many unused mines, such as negative health effects, he said.

“Lithium looks good now. What will lithium look like 10 years from now?” Said Jamieson. “We know that extinction is forever.”

Calaway said the US must be serious about securing the electric vehicle supply chain and that the country is already lagging behind China. Resources will be drained in a few years if we don’t start building capacity now, he said.

“We are preparing to make one of the biggest bets on electrification,” said Calaway. “It’s not that we’re going to give up the sequioas. It’s 10 acres of slightly altered buckwheat.”

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Lithium analysts say the mines are important, but every project isn’t necessarily critical to US national security.

Simon Moores, executive director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, which conducts research into the supply chain of electric vehicles, said lithium is geopolitically more important than oil today.

“The US is on high alert for Lithium Red,” said Moores. “Unless environmental concerns are a concern and pose an immediate risk to human life, the US must focus on the greatest challenge of all: building its own supply chain for EV batteries.”

Klein, the RK Equity partner who studies lithium, said that while all electric vehicles and most energy storage technologies require lithium, it is relatively common. As such, not a single lithium project is strategically important to US national security as it requires minerals to be electric vehicles.

He said shutting down lithium projects could make the US more dependent on China’s production for a few years. But lithium is abundant elsewhere, like North Carolina, Arkansas, California, Canada, and Australia, he said.

The sentiment coincides with remarks from Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who said last year that there is enough lithium in Nevada to electrify the entire US fleet.

“There’s so much damn lithium on earth it’s crazy,” Musk said.

Tesla is among the companies that have spoken about developing new methods of extracting lithium from alternative sources such as clay or geothermal and oil field brine. There is a way for the US to run on lithium, Klein said.

“We should be lithium independent and we have that potential if we develop the resources here,” said Klein.


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