Sibanye Stillwater Ltd. and ioneer Ltd. announced they have formed a joint venture to develop the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project in Esmeralda County that they hope to develop into a producing mine.
The project operator will continue to be ioneer.
“We are extremely pleased to welcome Sibanye-Stillwater, a leading international mining company, as a strategic partner in the Rhyolite Ridge Project,” said James Calaway, executive chairman of ioneer. He said the partnership “will allow ioneer to unlock the tremendous, long-term value of Rhyolite Ridge.”
The chief executive officer of Sibanye-Stillwater, Neal Froneman, said the arrangement with ioneer is the second lithium transaction and the third transaction in the battery metals sector for the company. The company has the Keliber lithium site in Finland and the Sandouville nickel site in France.
“We are excited to build a long-term relationship with ioneer, who share our vision of facilitating security of lithium supply to the North American markets. Rhyolite Ridge is a world-class lithium project, and we recognize its strategic value, with the potential to become the largest lithium mine in the U.S.,” he said.
President Joe Biden’s clean energy plan relies on lithium that is used to create rechargeable batteries.
The companies anticipate lithium production at Rhyolite Ridge will start in the second quarter of 2024.
Sibanye-Stillwater, a South African company that owns the Stillwater and East Boulder underground platinum mines in Montana, and Australia-based ioneer have agreed to the deal that calls for Sibanye-Stillwater to contribute $490 million for a 50% interest in the joint venture.
Rhyolite Ridge faces challenges, however, with environmentalists protesting that the proposed mine threatens Tiehm’s buckwheat. The plant grows on just 10 acres of public land in Nevada, and that land is where the lithium project is located.
“Sibanye-Stillwater just made a foolish move,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The science is clear: Rhyolite Ridge would drive Thiehm’s buckwheat toward extinction.”
He said in a Sept. 16 statement that “even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has affirmed that ioneer’s mitigation plans are speculative and unproven,” and the agency must develop a proposed rule to list Tiehm’s buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act by Sept. 30.
Rhyolite Ridge is on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management west of Albemarle’s Silver Peak lithium operation that has been Nevada’s only lithium producer.
The agreement also allows Sibanye-Stillwater an 18-month option to acquire a 50% interest in the North Basin exploration asset near Rhyolite.
Sibanye-Stillwater also entered into a subscription agreement with ioneer for a strategic placement of $70 million of ioneer shares, according to the announcement that states that the placement requires shareholder approval at an Oct. 21 general meeting. Both companies will have shareholder meetings that day.
The joint venture itself does not require shareholder approval, according to announcements by both companies. They will form joint venture committees on technical, marketing, and environmental, social and corporate governance.
Formation of the committees will leverage deep skill sets of both parties to help deliver the project, according to ioneer.
“With a strong strategic partner in place, we can now look to finalize the debt financing for the project and move towards construction,” Calaway said.