Lithium Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire?

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Having read both on this blog and elsewhere about how all-electric and hybrid vehicles are going to save the planet from running out of oil and deliver the US from being held hostage to every tin pot dictator with oil reserves, we now read that something like half the world’s lithium reserves are held by Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s close ally, Bolivia.

Bolivia has recently nationalized a whole host of companies in the energy sector as part of a wider nationalistic move to exclude foreign firms and mimic Venezuela’s anti western stance. The realization that Bolivia’s southwestern ancient dried inland seas near the border with Chile hold half the world’s deposits of lithium salts has caused a flurry of overseas investors to make overtures to La Paz in the hope of gaining mining rights. Although Chile is currently the world’s largest ore producer and China is the world’s largest refined metal producer, neither of them have mineral reserves to match Bolivia. Unfortunately, under the current regime, US firms will be a long way down the pecking order in terms of mining rights even as minority partners in developing Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flats. Will this prevent US firms from taking part in the next generation of vehicle propulsion systems? Probably not – the US is well established in Chile and it looks like Bolivia’s president Evo Morales is focused on developing the resource without major outside participation. Based on the level of expertise shown elsewhere in managing such projects, it is unlikely that Bolivia will realize its dream of becoming the world’s single largest source for lithium anytime soon.

–Stuart Burns

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