Honest environmental talks

May 15, 2021

Christina Myer


Making progress in doing what is right for the environment isn’t simple. We have heard for years the critics of a switch to electric vehicles worried about mining the rare earth minerals required to make batteries for those vehicles.

It is, in some ways, trading one kind of destructive extraction industry for another, and it will increase our reliance on China, they claim. Meanwhile, reliable and plentiful sources of electricity are still needed to provide the power that charges those batteries. And right now, the bulk of that electricity comes from traditional fossil fuel sources.

So which parts of that problem can we tackle first? Hey, let’s look for lithium in the U.S. That’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?

It’s complicated. An Australian company called Ioneer owns the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project, in Esmerelda County, Nev. It is facing a federal lawsuit and allegations of criminal activity because of the reported destruction of what one Reno, Nev., news organization calls “a significant amount of a native Nevada plant.”

That would be Tiehm’s Buckwheat, a species “at very high risk of extinction or elimination” which is found only in the Silver Peak Range in Esmerelda County. Some organizations suggest Ioneer’s work could destroy up to 70 percent of what’s left of the plant — and therefore the habitat it provides for other species.

The Center for Biological Diversity has sued to have Tiehm’s Buckwheat listed as an endangered species. CBD’s Nevada Director Patrick Donnelly wrote in October 2019 “(Bureau of Land Management) is allowing ongoing mineral exploration activities which are having immediate and significant impacts on this species.” Then, in September 2020, about 40 percent of the plant’s population was wiped out.

“This appears to have been a premeditated, somewhat organized, large-scale operation aimed at wiping out one of the rarest plants on Earth, one that was already in the pipeline for protection,” Donnelly said, according to the news site This Is Reno. “It’s despicable and heartless.”

But Ioneer is disputing CBD’s claims, and says the damage done to Tiehm’s Buckwheat was not caused by human activity. U.S. Fish and Wildlife appears to agree with them.

Meanwhile we have a battle between environmental activists and industrial barons — not of the coal, oil and natural gas variety, but people like Tesla’s Elon Musk, who has bemoaned the Nevada regulatory hurdles that are preventing the operation of lithium mines.

Tiehm’s Buckwheat is just one example among many in which the push to make changes that appear at first glance to be better for the environment actually come with their own environmental questions and national security/economic drawbacks.

If we can’t agree to talk about making a different for our planet in terms of making sure we aren’t doing more harm than good to the people living on it, maybe we can talk about it in terms of watching out for creating more environmental woes than we had to begin with. Maybe we can all agree there is no clear-cut way to get this done, no easy answers … no way (for now) to avoid some trade-offs.

It’s a more honest discussion, and therefore a more difficult one — but it is necessary if we really are interested in getting this right.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com