Endangered Flower at Crossroads of U.S.’s Lithium Future

Tiehm’s Buckwheat Flower    Photo: Jim Morefield, Wiki CC

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A battle is raging in Nevada as the U.S. Fish, and Wildlife Service announces it will be listing Tiehm’s buckwheat flower as an endangered species, striking a blow to a lithium mining project in the region. Lithium is required for the batteries that power electric vehicles, which the government is making significant investments in to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. But environmentalists argue that the Rhyolite Ridge lithium mine in Nevada will do more harm than good. 

Why This Matters: The world is facing two major crises: global temperature rise and biodiversity loss. In the U.S., investing in renewable energy and electric power has been identified by experts as the quickest path to net-zero emissions and preventing catastrophic temperature rise. But along that path, we risk damaging the very biodiversity we hope to save.

  • In California, worries of wind turbine deaths sparked a preemptive California Condor breeding program. The case of Tiehm’s buckwheat is one of many that the nation and the world will have to resolve as we attempt to make net-zero emissions a reality.
  • For the Biden administration, which has also invested in lithium abroad, this could prove to be the first of many balancing acts along the road to our renewable energy future.

In Bloom

“The impact to Tiehm’s buckwheat from mining, salvage operations, or both would be permanent and irreversible under the proposed project,” said the Fish and Wildlife Service. The flower is found nowhere else on earth and already suffered a blow last year when a cluster was destroyed by squirrels searching for water in the roots of the plants. The analysis found that the incident combined with a mining project would reduce the flower’s population by up to 88%. “The Biden administration is at a crossroads, and the Tiehm’s buckwheat is a symbol of our times,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Patrick Donnelly.

The Rhyolite Ridge lithium mine project, proposed by Ioneer Ltd., is currently open for public comment and is expected to be finalized by the end of the year. “We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to make this mine coexist with Tiehm’s buckwheat,” said Ioneer’s executive chairman, James Calaway. The company has proposed relocating the cluster of flowers, but environmentalists have expressed doubt because the flowers have thrived only in the soils above this very lithium deposit.

In addition to concerns about Tiehm’s buckwheat are concerns from Indigenous groups fighting battles against Nevada’s lithium rush. One project, Lithium Americas, is expected to use billions of gallons of groundwater in the already drought-stricken region and contaminate some of it for 300 years. Local Tribes have protested the project, saying that it would profoundly impact the health of local communities and the environment. The project developers have promised that the mine will be one of the cleanest operations ever undertaken, but many advocates aren’t buying it. “Our new clean-energy demands could be creating greater harm, even though its intention is to do good,” said Aimee Boulanger, executive director for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance. “We can’t allow that to happen.”

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