Streetwise Professor

December 26, 2021

No Blood For Batteries?

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:46 pm

The latest hyperventilation over Russia relates to the alleged involvement of the Wagner Group–Russian mercenaries/paramilitaries–in Mali. Wagner is run by “Putin’s Chef,” Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Russia denies involvement. Wagner denies involvement. Mali denies involvement. Since none of them are remotely trustworthy, I will accept as true that Wagner (or some other Russian entity) is involved.

At one level, one could answer “So what?” or even “Good!” Western militaries, notably American and French, have been involved in the Sahel for years. The US involvement has been marked by some tragic events, notably the destruction of a US Army Special Forces team in Niger and a murder of a Green Beret by other US special operations members in Mali. France recently withdrew its troops from Mali after 8 years of inconclusive fighting that resulted in the deaths of 52 French soldiers, including a highly decorated special operator. (And which also saw two coups in Mali. So much for creating stability.)

The American and French efforts had little effect on Muslim insurgents. So why not let the Russians have a go, if the real objective is to kill Salafists–and the objective isn’t worth American or French lives?

But this level is likely a very superficial one, and that is likely why there has been such alarm at Russian involvement. West and central Africa, including the desolate Sahel region, are now the cockpit of a 21st century version of a “great game” not so much because of ISIS or Al Qaeda, but because of . . . batteries.

And unlike the Great Game of the 19th century, which involved Russia and Great Britain, the 21st century game in Africa involves Russia, the West (especially but not exclusively the US), and notably China. The largely desolate and desperately poor region which the world’s richest nations are contesting is of increasing importance because it is disproportionately endowed with materials like lithium, copper, and cobalt, all essential for the manufacture of batteries or other components for electric vehicles that the alleged green elites in the West claim will be our climate salvation.

And don’t think that the Salafists are solely motivated by religious fervor–they no doubt understand the economic calculus as well. If oil made Saudi Arabia, another otherwise desolate and impoverished region, what economic power could control over lithium, copper, and cobalt create? Oil fueled Wahhabism. EV materials could well fuel another radical Islamist movement.

A rallying cry of the left, and especially the environmentalist left, from the 70s onward was “no blood for oil!” No doubt their CO2 monomania, and the resultant obsession with electrifying everything and especially electric vehicles, has blinded them to the inevitable if unintended consequences of their idée fixe.

Specifically, realizing their vision will require vast amounts of materials. Put aside the environmental consequences of mining for these materials. Focus on the geopolitical consequences. These minerals are found disproportionately in vast, violent, and largely ungoverned spaces. Control over them can be achieved only by violence, and even if violence was not necessary, the incentive for unscrupulous governments and corporations to utilize violence to capture the rents these resources promise (especially in an electronic world) is great indeed.

Furthermore, the powers contending for these resources are facing off on every continent, and are armed with nuclear weapons. What starts in Africa is unlikely to stay in Africa. And something could very well start in Africa. Great Power conflicts almost erupted in Africa on several occasions in the era of imperialism, when the economic stakes were far smaller: what did Fashoda matter, really? Yet Britain and France almost went to war over it. The stakes are far larger now.

Especially in a world obsessed with replacing petroleum with electricity.

Methinks that the evident panic over Russians in one of the world’s armpits really has little to do with the stated reasons: again, why would France or the US mind if Russians killed Salafists, and took the casualties necessary to do it? Instead, the panic is over the prospect of an impending struggle between the US/Western Europe, China, and Russia over a vital economic resource in an ungoverned region that requires organized violence to control it.

Environmentalists are so absorbed in their monomania that they are oblivious to the unintended consequences thereof. They have lectured us for years about no blood for oil. What about blood for batteries? Because that is the inevitable consequence of replacing the former with the latter.

They need to be forced to face this reality and to own the consequences of their obsessions. Now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. I don’t doubt that some idiots will be willing to go to war over lithium in those west African desert areas. But I do doubt that it’s likely to ever be profitable for anyone. Just the tech of it. Those deposits (I’ve been looking at several of the junior miners chasing them for a piece of work) are spodumene, that’s hard rock mining, that’s always the marginal source. Brines win hands down on cost grounds for Li. So, spodumene only fills up the supply where brine can’t cope. Which means that spod mines are, often enough, in a cycle of boom and bankruptcy.

    At which point we get to purely opinion on my part. So much money is being thrown at this that extraction from ever weaker brine solutions is becoming profitable. I’ve seen at least one team stating that the Red Sea (which is slightly more saline than normal oceans) is now viable. And desalination plant offruns definitely are. So too certain geothermal plants. And so on.

    Again, purely opinion, but I tend to think that spod is going to go the way of taconite (say) as an iron ore. Sure, there’s lots of it around, but outcompeted by hematite on cost grounds.

    But again, that is purely opinion.

    Comment by Tim Worstall — December 27, 2021 @ 4:54 am

  2. Cobalt is mined in the DRC, not in the Sahel. The DRC have plenty of problems, but Islamist insurgents ain’t one.

    Comment by [email protected] — December 27, 2021 @ 10:13 am

  3. More generally, which parts of the earth are worth invading just to control the land and its minerals? I can see China or Russia invading Taiwan or Ukraine whenever the regime wishes to build up nationalist fervour, or to distract from its own blunders. But nobody (surely?) would want the expense of a war just to seize the soil?

    I can see seizing Crimea for its warm water port. But where would you seize for minerals? Australia, Canada, …?

    Can a partial list be drawn up by considering whereabouts China invests in Africa?

    Comment by dearieme — December 27, 2021 @ 1:50 pm

  4. No one will ever replace oil/NG with batteries. Nor with wind turbines. Nor with solar PV. Never, ever. Can’t be done.

    Nuclear works fine. The potential upside of Russia and China fighting over the Sahel for battery copper and cobalt is that the US may realize that burning cheap, available and efficient fossil fuels for energy is in its strategic interest.

    Burning fossil fuels for energy is already in the US strategic interest, of course. It’s just that the present crop of politicians is too stupid to know that.

    Comment by Pat Frank — December 27, 2021 @ 5:21 pm

  5. For the arms suppliers it may well be all about the mineral reserves. For the mass of the population it’s probably more about the age old (Cain and Abel) conflict between pastoralists and agriculturalists. As the Sahel gets greener (thanks, CO2) the latter look more likely to be on the winning side.

    Comment by philip — December 28, 2021 @ 7:06 am

  6. So we can add Africa to the growing list of countries/regions/continents the US has no business being present in, yes? To be brutally honest all this talk of Russian mercs smacks of an under-employed/over-resourced military seeking to justify its existence. I doubt the US military give a flying f*ck about the continent’s natural resources, and on the off-chance they do, it appears they’ve been left the scraps to fight over (re Worstall’s comment), they and the rest of us in the west having been comprehensively outplayed by China on this front (re Deari’s comment).

    That said, are there any natural resources you would consider fighting Russians over? I hear there are some sizeable coal deposits in eastern Ukraine. Very on-brand and all that…

    @Pat – hmm, I doubt there are many people in Europe who think the answer to our problems is ‘more fossil fuels’, especially if it involves us collectively being beholden to a nuke-armed geriatric lunatic (no, not Biden – that other guy) or LNG tankers chugging halfway around the globe.

    Comment by David Mercer — December 29, 2021 @ 11:40 am

  7. @Pat Frank. I don’t disagree. The problem is that you that and I know that but the idiots in charge will only learn what we know after trying and failing, at massive cost.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 29, 2021 @ 12:50 pm

  8. @dearieme. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown invasion. Low intensity warfare. And the reason that Africa is so tempting is that it is ungoverned territory, unlike Australia and Canada. That is tempting, but seldom ends well.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 29, 2021 @ 12:51 pm

  9. @libte. No shit. Note that I referred in my post to central Africa, which includes the DRC. And if you’ve been paying attention, Islamist insurgency is spreading throughout central Africa. You think DRC will be immune? As fucking if.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 29, 2021 @ 12:53 pm

  10. @Tim. Supply curves slope up, with progressively less efficient sources becoming viable as prices rise. The massive increase in demand that would accompany the green electronic dreams (not just for EVs, but grid storage) would almost certainly bring currently marginal supply sources into play.

    And again, the post is not just about lithium. That was the launching point, but the ungoverned regions of Africa have other minerals essential for the electronic revolution. Cobalt and copper in particular.

    And your argument begs the question: why should the Russians give a shit about the Sahel? Maybe they’re wrong, but almost certainly they are betting that over the medium to long term the mineral resources there are worth the lives of at least a few mercs. And likely a lot more.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 29, 2021 @ 1:06 pm

  11. “Maybe they’re wrong”

    Yes, that’s my assertion. That they will turn out to be wrong because of the technical issues surrounding those Li deposits. Sure, I can be wrong too. But I know a lot more about Li than the average Russian politician.

    Comment by Tim Worstall — December 30, 2021 @ 12:26 pm

  12. @Tim–A Chinese/Australian joint hardrock Li mining project in Mali is nearing FID. The decision was supposed to be announced late-2021/early-2022. The Chinese (Ganfeng Lithium) invested $130mm for a 50 pct stake in the project. Not chump change. And I presume China’s largest largest lithium producer knows a lot more about lithium than the average Russian politician too. I also note that Ganfeng Lithium entered into a 5 year contract last year to buy spodumene concentrate from a mine in the DRC.

    And again, my post is not exclusively about lithium. It’s about mineral assets in Africa generally. And it’s not about just the near term, but the long term. If there is a huge increase in demand for lithium, currently uncommercial resources may become viable.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 31, 2021 @ 4:30 pm

  13. “It’s about mineral assets in Africa generally.”

    But only those which have anything to do with green tech (EVs etc), the myriad other applications of Li battery tech (and Co) being given a free pass? Good luck trying to figure that equation and resulting policy out.

    Or are proposing the US cede all its mineral interests in the continent? Xi and Vlad will be chuffed.

    Comment by David Mercer — January 5, 2022 @ 6:22 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress