Fewer than 40 years after humans discovered Tiehm’s buckwheat, a Nevada plant with yellow flowers, they may drive it to extinction in pursuit of electric vehicles, a technology widely hailed as being environmentally friendly.
Environmentalists say the benefits of Tiehm’s buckwheat could be vast, but its full significance is unknown. What’s certain, they say, is that guarding Tiehm’s buckwheat is important for preserving biodiversity on Earth. The flower is so newly discovered that it hasn’t been studied thoroughly, they say. But botanists say they’re impressed with Tiehm’s buckwheat’s ability to thrive where few species can — poor soil that’s full of boron and lithium.
That lithium in Nevada, and elsewhere in the world, increasingly has the attention of businesses and governments. Ioneer, an Australian mining company, has said it’s ready to break ground on a lithium mine later this year on the land where Tiehm’s buckwheat grows. Under the barren soils lies 146.5 million metric tons of lithium and boron. The project has been valued at $1.265 billion.
The fate of Tiehm’s buckwheat highlights the tradeoffs and tough decisions surrounding “green technologies.” Businesses that talk of helping the environment may not be above putting a species at risk of extinction. Ioneer argues that from a big-picture perspective, building its lithium mine is good for the environment. It believes the plant can survive being largely relocated, a claim the environmentalists question.
The push for lithium stems from the electric vehicle craze that’s unfolded in the last year. States such as California and Washington have said they’ll phase out gasoline cars. Tesla has become the world’s most valuable automaker. Automakers like VW and GM have begun to invest billions to transition to electric cars and trucks. Electric vehicles are a cornerstone of President Biden’s infrastructure plan, with a $174 billion investment.
Electric vehicles can’t happen without lithium — and a lot of it. Lithium is a critical mineral in the batteries that power electric vehicles. The world will need to mine 42 times as much lithium as was mined in 2020 if we will meet the climate goals set by the Paris Agreement, according to the International Energy Agency. Existing mines and projects under construction will meet only half the demand for lithium in 2030, the agency said.
The United States has only one active lithium mine today. The country will need 500,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent by 2030, according to research by RK Equity, a New York firm that advises investors on lithium. The entire global lithium carbonate equivalent market last year was 325,000 metric tons, RK Equity partner Howard Klein told CNN Business.
A plant’s uncertain future
Tiehm’s buckwheat has yellow flowers, stands about five or six inches high and grows on about 10 acres in the Silver Peak Range of 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 can grow nowhere else in the world. Building the mine is likely to trigger extinction, they say.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, has pushed for the federal government to designate Tiehm’s buckwheat an endangered species in a bid to save it.
A Nevada District court judge ruled April 21 that the US Fish and Wildlife Service needs to decide within a month whether to list Tiehm’s buckwheat as an endangered species. The agency, which was already conducting a review of Tiehm’s buckwheat at the time of the judge’s ruling, told CNN Business that it does comment on pending litigation.
Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told CNN Business his group is ready for years of fighting in court to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat. He believes society needs to think more critically about the appropriate site for a lithium mine, and the value of biodiversity.
“On top of an endangered buckwheat isn’t the right place,” he said. “Biodiversity is what gives us clean air to breath and clean water to drink and it’s what puts food on our plates.”
Other environmentalists caution that we don’t know what will be lost if Tiehm’s buckwheat is wiped out. Jim Morefield, supervisory botanist at the Nevada department of conservation and natural resources, told CNN Business that Tiehm’s buckwheat’s ability to live in a soil where few plants can survive could offer lessons to people breeding crops.
Thousands of the plants died in September 2020, stirring speculation of a scheme to hurt the plants. 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 the shallow roots of the buckwheat, the report found.
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 would hold up if subjected to the scrutiny of a peer-reviewed publication process.
“This isn’t the nail in the coffin that closes the case,” said Fraga, explaining that she feels the DNA evidence collected didn’t seem sufficient to link all of the damage to squirrels.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the criticism of the report.
Ioneer chairman James Calaway said his company will transfer some of the remaining plants to a different area nearby, where they will be protected, including barriers to guard against rodent attacks. He said a fraction of the plants will remain at their original site. About 30% of the occupied habitat would be impacted by the construction, and 65% of the plants would be relocated, according to an Ioneer spokesman.
But Morefield, the Nevada botanist, cautioned that attempts to transfer plants that are adapt to very specific soils have not succeeded in the past.
He said that 80% of the Tiehm’s buckwheat, when compared to its 2019 population, would be gone from its original habitat following the mine construction, significantly decreasing the whole species chance of surviving.
“Any conservation biologist would look at that number, and it’s not a hopeful number for a species,” Morefield said.
Calaway, Ioneer’s chairman, feels that the plants’ recent issues highlight climate change-related risks, and the need to take preventive measures, like building lithium mines, to bring about the environmental benefits of electric vehicles.
“Climate change is only getting worse,” Calaway said. “Is this the biodiversity fight that makes any sense in context of the crisis for all diversity?”
Dale Jamieson, a NYU professor studies environment and philosophy, said the United States would be better off with centralized industrial planning to help navigate sticky situations like what to do with Tiehm’s buckwheat. Scandinavian countries and Germany lead on doing so, he said, and their plans take into account concerns around national security, and critical resources for transportation.
There’s a risk, he said, of businesses responding to short-term economic incentives without longer-term strategies. He pointed to the uranium mines built throughout the United States in the mid-20th century when nuclear power was thought to be the future. Now the US deals with the fallout of many unused mines, like negative health impacts, he said.
“Lithium looks good now. How will lithium look in 10 years?” Jamieson said. “We do know that extinction is forever.”
Calaway said that the US needs to be serious about securing the supply chain for electric vehicles, and the country is already lagging behind China. Resources will be strained in a few years if we don’t start building out capacity now, he said.
“We’re getting ready to make one of the biggest bets ever on electrification,” Calaway said. “This isn’t we’re going to give up the Sequioas. It’s 10 acres of a slightly altered buckwheat.”
Lithium analysts say that the mines are important, but every project is not necessarily critical to US national security.
Simon Moores, managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, which conducts research on the electric vehicle supply chain, said that lithium is now more geopolitically important than oil.
“The USA is on lithium red alert,” Moores said. “Unless the environment concerns are of significance in scale and immediate risk to human life, the USA has to focus on the biggest challenge of all: building its own EV battery supply chain.”
Klein, the partner at RK Equity who studies lithium, said that while all electric vehicles and most energy storage technologies need lithium, it’s relatively abundant, so no one lithium project is of strategic importance to US national security, in terms of having needed minerals for electric vehicles.
He said that halting lithium projects could make the US more dependent on China’s production for a few more years. But there’s plenty of lithium elsewhere, such as North Carolina, Arkansas, California, Canada and Australia, he said.
The sentiment matches remarks from Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who said last year that there’s 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 talked of developing new ways of harvesting lithium from alternative sources, such as from clay or geothermal and oil field brines. There’s a opportunity for the US to lead on lithium, Klein said.
“We should be lithium independent and we have that potential, if we develop the resources here,” Klein said.