Friday Dec 02, 2022

Cobalt poses human rights test for Biden on clean energy – E&E News


The solar industry was rattled last year when the United States cracked down on imports linked to the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghur Muslims.

Human rights groups now are concerned about alleged abuses linked to another key component for clean energy: cobalt, a silvery-blue battery metal that is pivotal for electric vehicle batteries.

This time they’re not holding out hope the U.S. will take steps to deal with the harsh labor conditions identified in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

For a complicated set of financial, legal and political reasons, experts told E&E News they expect the U.S. to do little to address what its own government agencies acknowledge is a blot that taints the transition to a zero-carbon future.

The DRC, sometimes called the “the Saudi Arabia of the electric vehicle age,” produces about 70 percent of the world’s cobalt. About 80 percent of cobalt processing occurs in China before being incorporated into lithium-ion batteries.

But given the country’s dominance, auto and technology companies are effectively stuck sourcing from the DRC, advocates say, until engineers figure out how to make cheap cobalt-free batteries.

“There’s just no appetite in America for this at the moment,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, executive director of U.K.-based human rights organization RAID.

Allegations of forced labor in Chinese polysilicon factories prompted Congress last year to pass a blanket ban on solar imports tied to one region of that country. Customs officials impounded huge shipments from at least three companies, and blacklisted one major Chinese supplier. Polysilicon is a key input for most types of solar panels.

Products using Congolese cobalt, like the lithium-ion batteries used in EVs and energy storage, have escaped those kinds of enforcement actions. Advocates say that’s because while the conditions in many Congolese cobalt mines are brutal — featuring low pay, long hours, harsh conditions and, sometimes, abuse from superiors — they fail to meet the standard for forced labor. That’s a key legal distinction that can prompt abrupt seizures by customs guards and other tough measures.

Still, the Biden administration has refused to categorically rule out the existence of forced labor in Congolese cobalt mines.

Spokespeople from the State Department said there had “long been concerns about forced labor in the mining sector in the DRC,” although they didn’t offer concrete examples. Labor Department representatives told E&E News that the absence of evidence about forced labor in Congolese cobalt mines “does not necessarily indicate” that it is not happening.

The White House declined to comment for this story.

In recent weeks, the Biden administration has made broad statements prioritizing the need to responsibly source metals for the energy transition.

The Interior Department released a set of principles for sourcing minerals, which stressed the importance of “socially responsible” mining. The Energy Department unleashed a voluminous set of reports on supply chains, identifying cobalt supplied from Congo as a risk for manufacturers and a need to promote human rights standards at mines abroad.

A DOE report identified cobalt as an area in the lithium-ion battery supply chain where the department wants to see “environmental, climate or human rights issues” in the supply chain “adequately addressed.” However, that report did not address reports of human rights abuses at Congolese mines.

Advocates also hesitant

Compared to the solar panel actions, few people …….


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to Top