Batteries vs. Buckwheat: Mining for Lithium on Federal Lands

Photo of rare buckwheat from CBD via AP.

This AP story has all the challenges of the “good industry” versus “bad industry” philosophical conundrum. We know that electric cars are good, at least if they are run off all carbon-free sources. Unfortunately, they require (as almost everything does) mining minerals to build them.

CBD says “not where they occur on federal land in Nevada, due to an endangered buckwheat.”

The company acknowledges Tiehm’s buckwheat hasn’t been documented anywhere else on earth, but denies the mine would lead to its extinction.

Company officials say they’ve been researching the plant since 2016, going to great lengths to ensure its protection and examining how it’s fared during previous mining operations at Rhyolite Ridge, near the small town of Tonopah, over the past 80 years.

They recently spent $60,000 for a yearlong study at the University of Nevada, Reno. Scientists there are growing hundreds of seedlings in a greenhouse to determine whether it’s feasible to transplant them into the wild to bolster the limited population, an estimated 43,000 plants covering a total of 21 acres (8.5 hectares).

“We have always been aware of the buckwheat. It didn’t come as a surprise,” Ioneer President Bernard Rowe told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Australia.

All site activity has been undertaken with the “protection of the buckwheat first and foremost in mind,” Rowe said. He added the company’s mitigation strategy “will ensure protection and, in fact, the expansion of the buckwheat population.”

“We’re seeing evidence of that at the greenhouse at UNR,” Rowe said. “We’ve got a reasonably high degree of confidence we can successfully propagate these plants and protect them.”

But what I thought was most interesting about this article, given our discussions about abstraction, are quotes from the scientists involved (caveat, they may have been misquoted, but I’m taking this at face value).

Leger, who also serves as director of UNR’s Museum of Natural History, said those who dismiss the flowers as weeds unworthy of all the fuss don’t understand the value of biodiversity.

“Weed is a human construct. A weed is a plant that grows anywhere a human doesn’t want it,” she said, adding biodiversity is “magic” and a safeguard against future loss.

Biodiversity is actually a human construct, as is the idea of species, especially when we get to telling closely related species apart.

I’m a little concerned with a scientist saying that that biodiversity is “magic”, though. Anyway, it’s interesting what it means to potentially lose “a species” of buckwheat that grows on 21 acres as opposed to losing “biodiversity”. Is it more compelling, or magic, or less compelling or magic?

Meanwhile, Donnelly of CBD (not a scientist) says:

He acknowledged a difference between transplanting plants and growing them from seeds, but said it’s “beside the point, really.”

“A species is more than a set of genetic material. A species is inextricable from its habitat,” Donnelly said. “To allow a species’ habitat to be wiped out and put it someplace else, is functionally allowing it to go extinct.”

I always thought ESA was about “sets of genetic material” but maybe CBD intends to raise the bar.

13 thoughts on “Batteries vs. Buckwheat: Mining for Lithium on Federal Lands”

    • Reminds me of a story I heard about a concert given years ago as part of a protest of a gold mine of federal land. Might have been in Idaho. A keen observer noted that the plugs musicians use to connect their instruments are often …. gold-plated.

    • Thanks, Susan, that’s one of those things where it’s really easy to talk past each other because I’m thinking biological species and someone else is thinking “species in the context of ESA.”

      • ESA does not protect habitat. Critical habitat may be designated for threatened and endangered species, but that is only a trigger for consultation on federal land. There are only penalties for “take” of individuals of a species, there is no “take” of habitat.

        For plants rooted in the ground, transplanting is still considered a type of take that needs to be permitted. The service could permit it, but I have never heard of wholesale moving of an entire population of a protected plant.

        • There is that prohibition on destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat in the Act. Of course, what that means and whether it matters to a listed species depends on several things, including the regulatory definition (which has recently changed), and the species at issue. But in general, I would agree that just because critical habitat is designated doesn’t mean that habitat is actually “protected” from disturbance. (Example: the continued logging – including clear cutting in some places – of northern spotted owl critical habitat.)

          • Another example: the continued logging – including clear cutting in some places – of Canada lynx critical habitat.

  1. I don’t see “biodiversity” as a “human construct”, at least not in the sense of classifying plants as good or bad (weeds) in terms of current direct uses by humans.

    I don’t see “biodiversity” as a “human construct”, at least not in the sense of classifying plants as good or bad (weeds) according to current, direct uses by humans. “Weed” is an evaluation according to a limited set of values. Biodiversity is nature, our inheritance from the past. It is much more than species diversity, including ecotypical variation (the same species living and responding to different environments) and genetic variation. Biodiversity is dynamic. Our species classifications are the current best attempts to organize our thinking about biodiversity.

    • Different types of human constructs? We’re using words that we invented to describe the world. Good and bad are values, so maybe they are more subjective than scientific concepts that describe nature. But saying that biodiversity is good is a subjective human value, based on subjective human concepts. What do we count as biodiversity? A million acres of buckwheat have been bulldozed over the last 100 years, but somehow we decided those buckwheat weren’t “special”, and this one is….that seems pretty subjective to me, IMHO.

    • Biodiversity is an abstraction of a bunch of very different ideas about Nature glommed on together. Genetic and species diversity, ecosystem diversity and all that. It seems to devolve to “maintaining current species distributions” but that’s not how it’s defined. And it is very much a human abstraction. In my early years it wasn’t even a concept and Nature was pretty much the same as now.

      • How about “sustainability?” It seems like that is something real, like extinction, only the opposite. Here’s the Planning Rule:
        “The capability to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. For purposes of this part, ‘‘ecological sustainability’’ refers to the capability of ecosystems to maintain ecological integrity;”

        I could allow that “diversity of plant and animal communities,” as used in NFMA in 1976 was a construct created by Congress to provide for “sustained yield” of fish and wildlife uses and benefits (and now we would include “ecosystem services,” another abstraction). The “best available science” was then consulted to determine the best way to measure and assess that – ecological integrity and natural range of variation. But I’m not sure what the point is here – it’s just common sense to, in the real world, not wipe out the last of something.

        There is no blanket requirement to “maintain current species distributions” in either ESA or NFMA. However, for at-risk species, and especially where limited distribution is a threat to their survival, reducing their distribution is likely to cause greater harm than is allowed by these laws.

      • Biodiversity is “nature” plus us. It’s immense, it’s dynamic, it’s complicated in its “diversity” across many levels of organization. What is a “human construct” includes all the diverse attempts to describe, categorize, understand the dynamics of biodiversity. Biodiversity isn’t “good” or “bad”. It is the world’s biological resource that we inherited from the past and have to work with. What is “good” or “bad”, in my opinion, is whether we steal it from future generations of us, or leave as many options as possible to them. I consider theft from our fellows to be “bad”.

  2. To SJ’s point, here is ESA: “The purposes of this Act are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species may be conserved …” Echoing James’ point, species protections are our best attempts to protect biodiversity.

  3. Here’s another “bad” thing that corporations can do – misrepresent their business to investors. Interesting that the Center for Biological Diversity is pursuing this claim against the lithium miners before the Securities Exchange Commission, accusing them of, “misleading investors about how soon it might start building a Nevada lithium mine at the center of a fight over a rare desert wildflower.”


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