Even if you didn't hate Big Oil before now, the current disaster in the Gulf should at least give one reason to question our continued dependence on petroleum production, either foreign or domestic. There are now calls from everyone from Oprah to the President of the United States for an accelerated effort in the development of new clean energy technologies. We should now begin to see a flurry of activity in industries such as wind turbine, solar cell, high-speed rail and electric cars.
On the Chris Matthews show last week on MS NBC, there was some discussion about the head start that the auto industry has in development of viable electric cars for American consumption. It was stated that US car makers will introduce three new models in 2011. It will take some time but in the not too distant future it is possible that the stink and noise of the internal combustion engine could be largely replaced by quiet-running, economical vehicles powered by lithium ion batteries charged by simply plugging in at home. No more wars for oil. No more decimated wetlands. No more young men and women blown to hell in drilling "accidents".
Among the various opportunities for new jobs and new businesses to support this growing industry is the need for a huge increase in lithium ion battery production. It took years of research and testing for the auto industry (actually the technology was invented by Sony for use in laptop computers)to develop a battery that would do the job - powerful enough for moderate speeds and long lasting enough for practical use on America's highways.
Now, if we could just find enough lithium to make enough batteries to keep this dream alive. Here's where this story gets complicated.
According to a documentary aired by PBS in April, 2009, "As manufacturers begin to move from cars which use oil, emitting global warming gases, to battery-operated vehicles, world demand for lithium is expected to exceed supply within a decade." So, where are we to find more lithium for the multi-national corporations to provide a battery hungry planet?
No place other than than the poorest nation in South America - Bolivia, which owns 70 to 80% of the world's known reserves. As PBS reports "The price of lithium has increased eightfold in the last six years. International competition for the lithium beneath the Bolivian landscape is intense. Companies from France, South Korea, Japan, they all want to get involved." This has the Bolivians very excited and they want to get things right this time- they want not to merely export the mineral but they want anyone involved to manufacture the batteries in Bolivia and even manufacture the vehicles in their country. They are tired of holding the bag while foreign nations take their raw materials and leave nothing behind but pollution and dead Bolivians (It is estimated that, over the centuries, 8 million Bolivians have died in mines owned by foreigners).
Nowhere in this discussion is there mention of the largest consumer of vehicles of all kinds - the United States of America. There is a good reason for this: most South American countries - Bolivia included-have vivid memories of the devastation caused by American corporate meddling, the C.I.A. and the World Bank over the last half century and they are determined not to let it happen again. According to PBS, "Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, is a socialist determined to uphold the rights of Bolivia's indigenous people. He says the Americans are all imperialists." A new Bolivian socialist constitution stipulates that foreign companies exploiting the country's natural resources must reinvest all profits in Bolivia. I imagine that's enough to keep any American vampires out of Morales' hair and fitfully rotating in their Wall Street coffins.
It looks like the French, and also the Asian nations which have maintained good trading relations with Bolivia, are going to have the inside track on fairly exploiting the boom in lithium production. President Morales has already been to Paris to test drive what the French have to offer.
For the U.S. there may be few options. We can invent a new chemistry for batteries that doesn't include that socialist mineral, lithium. Or, we can pay retail for batteries and vehicles from Bolivia or, God forbid, France. Or, we can continue to build and operate the same old oil burning deathtraps and hire legions of spin Meister's to convince the populace that it was all a bad dream: Oil really IS good for America and the environment. It is oil that keeps us free.