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South African firm to invest $490M in Esmeralda lithium project

Updated September 22, 2021 - 12:10 am

Sibanye-Stillwater, a South African precious metals mining company, will invest $490 million in the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project near Tonopah and take a 50-percent stake in the project, Ioneer Ltd. announced.

The joint venture, that will allow them to develop the flagship Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project, was announced on Thursday by Ioneer Executive Chairman James Calaway during an online press conference.

“We are shovel-ready with the approval of this administration,” Calaway said during a Thursday press call.

Under the terms of the agreement, Sibanye will contribute $490 million for a 50-percent interest in the joint venture, with Ioneer to maintain a 50-percent interest and retain operatorship.

The Biden administration expressed a strong support for lithium production as its demand is expected to ramp up.

The proposed Rhyolite Ridge Project has the potential to become the largest lithium mine in the United States, according to previous statements from Ioneer.

“Just this week, President Joe Biden is traveling across America’s West, pushing for immediate climate action and for obvious reasons. A big part of his plan is focused on ramping up production of electric vehicles as quickly as possible. Our project here at Rhyolite Ridge is absolutely critical to meeting those objectives,” Calaway said.

Calaway said the project is expected to become a major domestic supplier of refined lithium products, “with enough supply of lithium materials for 400,000 electric vehicles a year for another quarter of a century.”

During the conference call, Calaway also touted potential economic benefits of the Rhyolite Ridge Project for Esmeralda County, as the project would create 400 to 500 construction jobs and 200 to 300 operational jobs.

However, the Rhyolite Ridge faced a controversy over the last year. The site of the proposed project shares the area with Tiehm’s buckwheat, a rare desert wildflower that grows nowhere else in the world.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed protecting the Tiehm’s buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act in June after a lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Calaway, however, said that the biggest threat to the plant is climate change, the issue the Rhyolite Ridge aims to resolve with production of lithium, a metal that is used to produce electric car batteries as well as other components for grid decarbonization.

“The science clearly demonstrates that our mine and those plants can very well coexist, and in fact, one can very much make the case that without our constant devotion to translocation, transplantation, research, support, the risk to the plant is much higher,” Calaway said.

Ioneer has worked closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management to “develop a conservation agreement that allows us to move forward with the mine and, of course, protect this 10 acres of Tiehm’s buckwheat,” Calaway said.

He added that this would be the last hurdle, and added that Ioneer anticipates to start construction on the project in the second half of next year.

“We’re feeling quite optimistic that that’s the last hurdle that we have to get over,” Calaway said.

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