The geopolitics of renewables: the lords of lithium replace the lords of oil
The geopolitics of renewables: the lords of lithium replace the lords of oil

A world in which oil, natural gas and coal will be less relevant does not mean going to a calmer world.

Wind turbines installed behind an old crane used to extract oil in Texas (USA)

“We are going to give coups against whoever we want! Go get used to the idea.” the ‘tweet’ that hung up Elon Musk, as of yesterday the second richest man in the world, with a heritage of $ 187 billion (155,000 million euros), on July 25. Musk responds like this to the accusation of an anonymous tweeter under the nickname @historyofarmani that the expulsion of the power of Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, is due to the interest of United States companies to gain control of the lithium reserves of that country.

Lithium is the equivalent of petroleum in the renewable energy world, and Musk, founder and owner of the largest electric car company, Tesla, and also one of the world’s leading battery producers, has an obvious interest in what happens to the global lithium market. The Bolivian Government also has it, because in that country there is the 30% of the Earth’s lithium reserves, according to the US Geological Survey, an agency of the US government that could be compared to the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain. For many, Bolivia is going to be the Saudi Arabia of lithium.

In reality, there is no evidence that Musk or the United States were behind Bolivia’s political crisis. The businessman also has a long history of stupid things on Twitter, which have caused him some legal problems, such as when he insulted one of the members of the rescue team of the 13 people – twelve of them children – who was called a “pedophile”. were locked in a cave in Thailand, not to mention his announcement on that social network that he was taking Tesla off the stock market at a price of 420 dlares the accin (4/20 is a type of marijuana especially appreciated by Musk).

So Musk’s phrase is simply a tasteless display of a billionaire laughing at political crises in one country. Besides, lithium is much more abundant than petroleum. The problem with this mineral is not discovering or extracting it, but adapting it for use in batteries. And Bolivia has nothing to do with it.

But still, Musk’s anecdote reveals a 21st-century reality as the global energy industry shifts away from fossil fuels – coal, natural gas, and oil – and renewables gain traction around the world. The passage from rhetoric to reality will mean that economic and geopolitical considerations will have a greater weight every day when developing new sources of energy, to the detriment of purely environmental ones. If in the 20th century there were demonstrations that said ‘No more blood for oil’, it is possible that in the 21st century we will see banners that are worthy of ‘No more blood for lithium’. As the conservative American commentator stated two months ago Walter Russel Mead in the pages of ‘The Wall Street Journal’, “the ‘greens’ are in danger of overestimating how the energy transition will help the polar bears”.

Renewable energies are less dirty, that is, they do not stain. And neither the weather nor the acidity of the ocean change. But this does not mean they stop polluting. Governments are already accepting compromises between the control of the resources and the industrial plants necessary for the development of this new economic model and the protection of the environment.

One of the most obvious examples of this situation is that of the United States. The government of Joe Biden has publicized its decision not to grant more permits to exploit oil and minerals in territories owned by the federal state. It is a long-term measure, since, for now at least, companies have licenses to spare to maintain and expand their operations, but with considerable symbolism. However, the same Government of Joe Biden has launched a review to limit the import of ‘rare earths’ from China, to the benefit of those that come from allied countries (Canada and Australia, mainly) and of production in the United States. The problem is that extracting the ‘rare earths’ is a process that is often extremely polluting. But without ‘rare earths’ there are no electric cars, long-lasting light bulbs, or wind-powered turbines. So sustainability does not come for free.

Thus, going to a world where oil, natural gas, and coal will be less relevant does not mean going to a calmer world. Power transmission networks could play the geopolitical role of pipelines today, and the raw materials of the future will be coveted by all countries. There is a difference, of course. The world of renewable energy does not depend on a single mineral, such as coal or hydrocarbons. That could make the power of the producers more distributed than, for example, in the case of oil. But even so, the old struggles for power will not disappear in a world of renewables. Sometimes the worst that can happen is that wishes are fulfilled. In the next few years, many environmentalists may discover the truth of that claim.

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