One of the inconvenient truths about modern renewable energy, especially from non-consumptive sources like solar and wind, is that they need lots of rare earth metals to make them viable as a replacement to fossil fuels as a reliable energy source. Unlike gas or oil, which can create energy by burning on an as-needed basis provided that there are continuing supplies to replenish what has been consumed, renewable energy is not available 24/7 and needs to be stored after it has been created or captured so it can be transmitted from places where it is generated or captured to places where it is needed, even when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.
The most promising way to do that involves battery technology, but there are presently insufficient numbers of batteries at proper scale to match energy production with demand in a vibrant, modern economy. Assuming that problem can be overcome with better logistics and improvements to the energy grid, modern batteries also need rare earth metals like cobalt and lithium to work at all, which most decidedly are not renewable resources and are mostly found in certain inhospitable places around the planet.
More than 75% of the world's known lithium reserves are found in salt flats high up in the Andes Mountains in South America. (Source). This region, known as the "Lithium Triangle," is where the countries of Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile meet.
Aside from the enormous technical difficulties in extracting and then separating the lithium from its present location so it is collectable, transportable, and usable - a process that can take as much as two years - the countries that own the deposits now are all politically unstable. If that instability, which has hindered lithium development in the past, continues, it most decidedly could retard the world's ability to transition away from fossil fuels at all.
That puts those in the environmental community who argue that we must take instantaneous action because we are in a global "climate crisis" in a real quandary. If we truly do need the lithium that fast, because there is no other way to save the planet, and if the lithium is in places where the host governments either cannot or will not facilitate its easy collection and retrieval , what would the environmental community suggest we should do in order to prevent imminent planetary disaster from occurring?
If we believe that we absolutely need to transition away from fossil fuels immediately (see "Just Stop Oil"), and cannot transition into that state in a more leisurely manner, then it would appear there is no viable alternative to getting the lithium out of the ground as quickly and efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, that may have to mean even seizing it by force, if it has to come to that extreme. So, under the guise of environmentalism, those who favor instant action without full consideration of the consequences may need to accept becoming imperialists, something I doubt they – or anyone else – would have anticipated, or fully appreciated.
In layman's terms, we need to "get real." While different people use different metrics, it is generally considered that Bolivia has the world's largest proven lithium reserves. Argentina and Chile also are in the top five (Source). Whatever lesser reserves may wind up being discovered elsewhere, including but not limited to the United States, there is no presently anticipatable chance of finding other lithium deposits on a viable scale that would meet the future (and more or less immediate) requirements of the planet without massive production from these three countries, at least. But can that be done at all in the current political climate
After nearly twenty years of sustained growth and improved standards of living, Bolivia now faces an economic reckoning. For over a decade, Bolivia, buoyed by high commodity prices for its exports, spent lavishly on fuel subsidies and infrastructure projects. This produced strong stable growth for Bolivia's people, but also massive waste. That came to a head around 2018, and by early this year the nation faced a foreign currency reserve crisis. By earlier this year, the supply of dollars had all but disappeared (Source).
Earlier this year, Bolivia entered into a contract with the Chinese consortium CBC to develop the country's lithium, but that also has been beset with problems. The bidding process was shrouded in secrecy and the contract still has not been signed. (Source) The opposition to Bolivia's leftist government has little confidence in the government's ability to deliver, and it believes the country squandered much of the massive inflows from the past decade's commodity boom. Add to that the fact that Bolivia chose a Chinese company to control the world's largest lithium reserves, with all that entails in terms of China's economic and military quest for world dominance, and the ability of the West to obtain this metal from Bolivia certainly seems in question. (Source)
Meanwhile, when it comes to economic uncertainly, few countries can match Argentina, a remarkably rich nation with a perpetually unstable government and economy. During the years 1998 to 2002, a massive economic depression in Argentina caused the country's economy to contract by 28%, with over 50% living below the poverty line and 25% being indigent.
In 2023, once again Argentina's economy is poised to contract. ( Source) Added to this is the hyperinflation that strikes Argentina periodically (it is now projected to be over 75% for 2023 by the IMF), and the result is not a pretty picture economically.
Argentina has been ramping up lithium production dramatically recently. Now it is the fastest growing lithium producer on the planet, with three active lithium mines and 38 more under development, but given Argentina's historically bad track record of managing its own economy, there is little confidence that Argentina can fully utilize its resource, let alone mine it and make it available efficiently for the rest of the world to use as soon as possible. (Source)
To that poor record of economic management for both countries, one must add political tensions, which have risen substantially recently between Bolivia and Argentina over Bolivia's strengthening of its ties with Iran. (Source) Argentina blames Iran for bombings at the Israeli embassy and the Jewish Community Center in 1994 in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. During the government of Evo Morales, Bolivia and Iran had warm ties, which caused much friction with Argentina. Should Bolivia continue to move toward Iran, that will no doubt further alienate Argentina and undermine their cooperation in extracting and delivering lithium to the rest of the world.
Finally, there is Chile, which accounts for more that 30% of global lithium production. Unlike its two neighbors, Chile has been politically stable since the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973. After 20 years of dictatorship, Chile managed to restore its democracy, but more recently both that democracy and that political stability have hit headwinds.
In 2021, Chileans elected a young leftist, Gabriel Boric, as President. Boric promised to exploit Chile's abundant resources differently, including being more environmentally conscious and distributing more to the poor. Unfortunately, political and economic reality has hit President Boric hard. His plan, which he announced in April, called for greater environmental responsibility. Since then, it has run afoul of the indigenous peoples who populate the Lithium Triangle, and who are deeply suspicious of the government in Santiago. Some tribes want more money but are willing to accept some mining, while others simply object to any lithium mining at all. There is no easy answer that will appease all of the indigenous people, and it remains unclear how, if at all, President Boric will be able to steer a path through their opposition.
Further, this was neither Boric's only setback nor his greatest. Last year, he proposed a new progressive constitution for Chile. However, it was rejected resoundingly, with 62% of Chilean voters voting no. Now Boric is dealing with tax reform, but that is also difficult as the Chilean Senate is controlled by the opposition, and any reform requires a two-thirds vote (Source). Without increased revenue, Boric will have difficulty funding his ambitious social program, but recent embezzlement scandals among high officials in Boric's government have limited his power even more.
That is the harsh, but incontrovertible, background that the world now faces as it needs as much lithium as can be gotten, as quickly as possible, but it will have to deal with these three countries and their respective problems, issues, and woes in order to get it. At the risk of sounding dismissive, there is real question that these three countries can work both together and individually to help provide the lithium needed to power world energy transition.
So, what should environmentalists who want an immediate end to fossil fuel consumption do when faced with this reality? In truth, there may be no good option. Either they will have to accept that we may eventually need to try to take control of this resource militarily in the Lithium Triangle, which would be imperialism at its ultimate; or we will all get lucky and find some as yet undiscovered large lithium and cobalt deposits elsewhere that have, so far, avoided detection; or we will suddenly and miraculously develop new forms of battery storage that do not need metals like these to work well and efficiently; or we must allow energy transition to slow down or possibly stop in its tracks.
In the real world, there are few easy decisions. It is generally true, and has been so since the dawn of Homo Sapiens, that wishing does not make it so, and often the best that we can do will simply have to suffice. Of course, we should probably try our best to get these three countries to work together cooperatively to produce large amounts of lithium quickly (even if, possibly, at the expense of the indigenous community). But there must be a Plan B if that does not work. So far, the environmentalist focus has not paid enough attention to the political and economic realities discussed above, especially as to the metals needed for ramped up battery production. Along with all other issues relating to energy transition, the whole world eagerly awaits their alternative plan.
Originally published 31 July 2023
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