Australia's ioneer says U.S. gov't loan application moves forward

Dec 20 (Reuters) - Australia-based ioneer Ltd (INR.AX) said on Monday its application for a U.S. government loan has advanced to the penultimate stage of review, bringing the company closer to full funding for its Nevada lithium mine project to supply the electric vehicle industry.

The company said the U.S. Department of Energy found that its application for funding through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) loan program is "substantially complete" and can move to the third of four stages. A final decision is expected within six months.

The Department of Energy could not immediately be reached outside of normal office hours.

While it is not guaranteed that ioneer will receive the loan, the step is a vote of confidence in the company's $850 million Rhyolite Ridge project - 220 miles (355 km) north of Las Vegas - despite pushback from environmentalists, regulators and others.

It also reflects rising U.S. government concerns that without more investment, demand for the white metal could outstrip supply and delay efforts to combat climate change.

South African miner Sibanye Stillwater Ltd bought half of the Rhyolite Ridge project in September for $490 million. Ioneer hopes the U.S. government will lend it 40% to 50% of the remaining project cost via the ATVM.

The third stage of the ATVM loan review will include more detailed analysis of the project's economics by government and outside experts, ioneer said.

The company has said it expects the mine to open by 2024. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service may list a rare flower at ioneer's mine site as endangered, a step that would not necessarily block the project but could impede permitting.

Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) and Nissan Motor Co Ltd are among past recipients of ATVM loans. Piedmont Lithium Inc (PLL.O) has applied for ATVM loan funding for its North Carolina lithium mine project.

Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Peter Cooney

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