Will Lithium Become the Petroleum of the 21st Century?

Commentary & Analysis
June 22, 2021

For decades, the availability, price, and security of petroleum supplies has cast a large shadow over U.S. economic policy and international relations. Now, as the clean energy transition gains momentum and our reliance on batteries grows, new energy supply threats are emerging.

Experts such as Daniel Yergin (“The Prize”) tell the story of oil’s growing importance through the 20th century as not just an energy resource, but as a keystone supporting broader economic, political, societal, and geo-strategic objectives. For the U.S.—long the world’s largest consumer of oil and its largest importer—oil policy and foreign policy were deeply entwined.

With the advent of shale and tight sands technologies early in the 21st century, foreign oil’s grip on the U.S. economic lifeblood began to loosen. As U.S. production of oil and natural gas reversed its long-term decline and began to increase sharply, imports correspondingly decreased. Today, according to EIA data, the U.S. is the global leader in production and a net exporter of both petroleum and natural gas. Our long-sought pursuit of “energy independence” has effectively been realized.

As a result, U.S. energy security risk has also shown steady improvement over the past decade. The Global Energy Institute’s Index of Energy Security Risk periodically assesses the current and future state of U.S. energy security risk, using over three dozen measures of energy security. As America’s long-running energy scarcity has shifted toward abundance, the overall U.S. energy security risk has improved from a dire state just ten years ago to dramatically better now and likely into the future.

But as these risks wane, new ones are emerging. With efforts underway in the U.S. and other countries to reduce emissions in the electricity and transportation sectors, global energy security concerns long associated with petroleum may give way to “clean energy dependence” risks. Specifically, many of the key technologies for decarbonization—such as solar panels, wind turbines and batteries—require large quantities of certain critical minerals. Presently, these critical minerals are largely imported, potentially posing economic and geopolitical risks not unlike petroleum did for much of the 20th century.