According to this article from the BBC, production of hybrid and electric cars may be stifled by a shortage of lithium at some point in the next decade. Mitsubishi’s general manager in La Paz, Eichi Maeyama, said:

The demand for lithium won’t double but increase by five times.

There is plenty of lithium out there, but half of the reserves are in the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia. This would explain why Mitsubishi has a man on the ground negotiating for lithium supplies. Note that they didn’t quote a general manager from an American car company.

Here’s the problem. The socialist president of Bolivia does not care much for capitalists. From Bolivia’s minister for mining, Luis Alberto Echaz:

“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 industrialisation of the west that has left us poor.

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 … It is also going to generate pollution, not just from fossil fuels but also from lithium plants, which produce sulfur dioxide. This isn’t a magic solution.

The man makes some good points. Why does a mining minister in Bolivia sound so much wiser than our lame duck president ever did? And good thing incurious George is on his way out or we might be launching a shock and awe attack on Bolivia’s store of WMDs to get at their lithium. Hopefully the Bolivian government will do a good job of protecting the environment and providing jobs for its citizenry because the automakers sure won’t if left to their own recognizance.

How would you like to live in a shack on a salt plain near the crest of the Andes Mountains (12,000 feet in elevation) hacking salt out of the ground to sell to passing trucks? Apparently, that’s all Alfredo, a Peruvian salt miner asks of life:

“I just want to work until I die” he says, a smile across his face. It is not an uncommon sentiment here.

Alfredo is a free man with a roof over his head and food in his belly. He doesn’t want that to change for the worse and he knows that it can. He probably gets up, goes to bed, and works whenever he wants. Happiness is relative. In the not-too-distant past he might have been a slave in a salt mine. Read the book Salt: A World-History by Mark Kurlansky for more on this subject. Alfred is probably happier than your average American who devotes 10 hours a day, five days a week for 40 years or so to some mind-numbing job so he can pay the interest on his gargantuan Visa bill and watch talking heads and reality shows on his wide-screen television.

America will never be energy independent any more than it will be lithium independent. We need to learn to get along with our trading partners. We can reduce our energy dependence by importing less oil. There are only three ways to do that:

  1. Use less oil.
  2. Find more within your borders.
  3. Try to grow the vegetable version instead of food.

Drilling for more is a shortsighted, temporary patch that does nothing to alleviate global warming. Growing your own fuel drives up food prices and destroys carbon sinks and biodiversity while also exacerbating global warming — not to mention we can’t possibly drill or grow enough to make an appreciable dent. Options 2 and 3 are Trojan horses, and we don’t need them. They are the results of government support for powerful special interests disguised as means of achieving energy independence. That leaves option 1.

The immediate global warming concerns are primarily coal and deforestation. Reducing oil use by half would scratch our energy independence itch and double the time we have to find alternatives for it.

One key to reducing oil use is to greatly increase the gas mileage of our cars. Toyota has proven that a popular, profitable, mid-size car can be built that gets double the American average. Lithium will allow us to take this to a whole new level, and once these batteries are ubiquitous much of the lithium supply will come from recycled batteries.