Electric Cars Threaten Energy Independence

Published September 24, 2010

We’ve all heard the mantra: we must wean ourselves from foreign oil to save the nation not only from global warming but also from oil-revenue-fueled terrorism. This situation, the mantra goes, warrants spending billions in federal funds for subsidies and tax credits to foster a market for electric cars. But the proposed cure may be worse than the asserted problem.

Hostile Lithium Providers
The top two suppliers of foreign oil to the United States are Canada and Mexico. But electric cars need batteries, and these batteries need lithium. “All these vehicles use lithium,” a Ford spokesman told the New Yorker. “We don’t think about electric vehicles using anything else.”

That’s because lithium is lighter than the nickel now used in batteries. It also holds a larger charge for a longer period of time.

“[W]ith the emergence of electric cars, lithium could challenge petroleum as the dominant fuel of the future,” the New Yorker article noted. “And nearly half the world’s known resources are buried beneath vast salt flats in southwestern Bolivia, the largest of which is called the Salar de Uyuni. Bolivians have begun to speak of their country becoming ‘the Saudi Arabia of lithium.'”

There’s one important problem with tapping into lithium from Bolivia, though. The BFFs of Bolivia’s president Evo Morales are Hugo Chavez of Venezuala, Fidel Castro of Cuba, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In fact, Iran and Bolivia recently announced a collaborative project on lithium technology.

Bolivia’s Domestic Roadblocks
Bolivia’s government hopes to make a financial killing on lithium by nationalizing it, as it did with the country’s hydrocarbon reserves.

“Either capitalism dies, or else Planet Earth dies,” Morales has proclaimed, the New Yorker reports. “Such rhetoric tends to scare away the kind of foreign investment that would facilitate the development of” lithium recovery, the magazine notes.

Another barrier to Bolivia becoming the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” is the lack of infrastructure in the desert regions where lithium is plentiful. Landlocked, Bolivia needs an airport large enough to transport lithium to users abroad. The same problem exists in remote regions of China, another area where lithium resources are abundant and infrastructure scant.

Global Uncertainties
What remains unclear is how much lithium there actually is in the world, where it is, how readily it can be recovered and made available, and whether the supply is sufficient for an expanded market in electric cars.

If the market for electric cars expands rapidly, some analysts predict lithium shortages in ten years. Capitalists such as Warren Buffet and many other private sources of capital are investing in exploration and development of technology to bolster the supply.

These questions prompt one certain conclusion, however. Given the uncertainties of the supplies of lithium and potential hostility of some of its suppliers, the Obama administration should stop putting its lead foot on the accelerator of this industry by forcing taxpayers to invest billions of dollars in it.

Maureen Martin ([email protected]) is an attorney and senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.