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Obama’s Holland visit, electric cars and lithium mining

August 9, 2011

In the last week there have been several news stories about this week’s Holland visit by President Barack Obama. He will be visiting the Johnson Controls-Saft battery factory for a second time within the last 13 months.

The coverage in local news has primarily been positive with little criticism of the Presidential visit because it is believed that the push to manufacture electric cars and batteries for those cars will create jobs and benefit Michigan’s economy.

First, it seems a bit strange that there has been little discussion about the fact that Johnson Controls-Saft battery factory received $168.5 million in tax incentives from the state. This huge tax incentive was on top of $300 million the company received from federal grants. Johnson Controls-Saft claims they will create 500 jobs from this endeavor, but this is somewhat misleading rhetoric.

Johnson Controls-Saft eliminated an estimated 1,000 jobs just from Holland (MI) in the past 15 years and moved them abroad with the passing of NAFTA and other trade agreements, according to the data-based created by Public Citizen. If 500 jobs are indeed being created with their new electric battery factory then that is a good start to replacing the 1,000 jobs they eliminated.

Another aspect of this deal is that the $300 million from the federal government and the $168.5 million in state tax incentives are essentially a form of corporate welfare. Public tax dollars are being used to subsidize a private company that will no doubt make substantial profits in the coming years, yet has made to promise to keep the electric car battery production in Michigan.

New Lithium Report

Beyond the “jobs” aspect of the President’s visit on Thursday is the information now coming out about a new report from U of M on projected global lithium deposits. MiBiz ran a story last week praising the news that there is enough global lithium production to supply the new electric car boom that Michigan companies are hoping to cash in on.

The MiBiz article states that the new report from the University of Michigan (in partnership with the Ford Motor Company) estimates that there is 39 million tons of lithium globally, enough to power electric vehicles through 2100. “We believe our assessment is a timely and comprehensive study that settles the question of whether the global resources are sufficient for electric vehicles using lithium-ion technology,” said one of the report’s main researchers.

However, the jubilant article does not explore what this will mean in terms of the environmental impact of lithium mining nor the need to reduce global carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

There are a variety of mining companies engaged in lithium mining in numerous countries around the world, such as the US, Canada, China, Australia and several Latin American countries. One of the Latin American countries with some of the largest known lithium deposits is Bolivia.

Bolivia is a country that has seen its share of resource extraction, particularly from the mining industry. However since the anti-water privatization uprising in Cochibamba, Bolivia in 2000, that South American country has taken strong measures to resist future resource extraction, especially since lithium mining depletes local water sources and is very toxic. Indigenous President Evo Morales has even made it a point to challenge the rich countries of the world, like the US, to stop generating the bulk of the pollutants that are causing global warming for the entire world.

For serious environmentalists the idea that we need to reduce global carbon emissions by at least 80% by 2050 should drive whatever policies they would endorse. The majority of the global scientific community is pretty much in agreement on the need to have significant carbon reduction over the next forty years, as has been stated by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC).

This new report on global lithium deposits seems to be celebrating the fact that we can supply electric batteries for cars til 2100. There is no evidence that this will be sustainable and it doesn’t address how it fit into the need to reduce global carbon emissions by 80% over the next forty years. The news coverage doesn’t even ask what will the world do for transportation in 90 years when the lithium supply is depleted.

This is not the kind reporting we need. We need journalists that will ask hard and probing questions that can benefit all of us who are living in the age of global warming. However, considering that MiBiz is a pro-business publication it is no surprise that they would be thinking about short-term gains instead of long term sustainability.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    August 10, 2011 8:23 pm

    Why is everyone ignoring the most obvious problem with this visit? JCI and Saft are in suing each other right now because JCI wants to dissolve the JV. When Obama visits are is JCI and Saft going hold hands around the fire and sing Kumbya?

  2. Jeff Smith permalink*
    August 10, 2011 8:43 pm

    Steve, thanks for sharing this information, which I was unaware of. However, I don’t think that this is the most obvious problem with the Obama visit as I state in the article. The issues I raise are equally problematic along with the JCI/SAFT potential divorce.

  3. Steve permalink
    August 11, 2011 6:42 pm

    Actually Jeff you raise alot of great issues and facts that I was not aware of and I do follow the industry. Very nice article. I’ve been watching the press on the visit and I have not seen anyone link the “divorce” to the visit.

  4. August 11, 2011 6:50 pm

    Steve, it is extremely unfortunate that the commercial media is not mentioning what you mentioned about JCI and Saft.


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