Next in Bolivia: lithium wars?

Mitsubishi, which plans to release its own electric car soon, estimates that the demand for lithium—a critical ingredient in the batteries—will outstrip supply in less than 10 years unless new sources come on line. And those sources are in the remote southern altiplano of Bolivia. “The demand for lithium won’t double but increase by five times,” according to Eichi Maeyama, Mitsubishi’s general manager in La Paz. “We will need more lithium sources—and 50% of the world’s reserves of lithium exist in Bolivia, in the Salar de Uyuni,” the forbidding Andean salt flats. He adds that without new production, the price of lithium will rise prohibitively.

Lithium is set to become a globally critical resource. GM is producing a new hybrid, the Volt; Toyota is testing its next generation of the hybrid Prius. Mercedes is testing a fully electric version of its Smart hybriu, while BMW is doing the same with its Mini. And Nissan-Renault, Mitsubishi and VW are all rushing to buy or produce enough batteries to power their future models. The best of the pure electric cars can reach ranges of more than 150 kilometers per charge; more is needed.

But Bolivia’s socialist President Evo Morales is keen to expand state control over natural resources. His Mining Minister Luis Alberto Echazu says: “We want to send a message to the industrialized countries and their companies. We will not repeat the historical experience since the fifteenth century: raw materials exported for the industrialization of the west that has left us poor.”

On the flats today, independent miners work to break up the surface salt, selling it to passing trucks for just a few dollars a load. Indigenous and poor, they are fervent supporters of the president. One “grizzled old miner” giving his name as Alfredo told the BBC: “We don’t want to see foreign companies here. It would be very bad, as the government says.”

In spite of grinding poverty the Salar de Uyuni, attempts in the 1980’s and ’90’s by foreign companies to extract lithium met with resistance. Francisco Quisbert, a veteran of these movements and now a local activist with Morales’ party, said he is working with the president to hash out a new plan for a state-owned pilot plant on the flats. “We don’t want international involvement,” he says. “This plan has raised the hopes of the region.”

To begin with, the pilot plant will produce no more than 1.2 kilotons a year. If a full-scale industrial plant is later built, it may increase to some 30 kilotons by 2012—just under a third of current world production. But most lithium now goes to small batteries for electronic goods. Car batteries are far larger and Mitsubishi estimates the world will need 500 kilotons a year just to service a niche market. For electric cars to become the norm, it could need far more.

The Bolivian government is also wary of the environmental impacts of mass extraction. Minister Eschazu cites ecological reasons for blocking corporate access to the lithium: “It is also going to generate pollution, not just from fossil fuels but also from lithium plants, which produce sulphur dioxide. This isn’t a magic solution.”

“The capitalist leaders have to change. If all the world had consumers like North America, everyone with a car, it would grind to a halt,” he says, apparently speaking of the global biosphere. (BBC News, Nov. 9)

See our last posts on Bolivia and the global energy wars.