Dash for Africa’s Minerals to Fuel the Biden Green Energy Transition
Institute for Energy Research, February 17, 2023
Africa may be an alternative to China for the critical minerals needed for electric vehicles and wind and solar technologies, especially if the Biden Administration continues to stop mining opportunities in the United States. Last year, The Biden administration opened the door to financing cobalt mining projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Zambia to bolster the global green energy supply chain in order to meet the goals of his climate agenda, despite the DRC’s documented issues with child laborers working in the mines. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed a memorandum of understanding with the two nations in December, indicating that the U.S. State Department and other U.S. agencies will offer technical assistance to the two countries, cooperate on feasibility studies and explore opportunities in the sector for U.S. companies.
Cobalt is not the only mineral in abundance in Africa. African countries, including Zimbabwe and Namibia, are rich in lithium and are trying to develop processing and refining industries to capture more of the profits of the global demand for the battery material. Lithium prices and demand have soared as the auto industry is transitioning towards electric vehicles spurred by proposed bans on gasoline and diesel cars. For example, the European Union just banned the sale of new internal combustion engine cars by 2035. Currently, China is the world’s top lithium refiner and a leading producer, dominating the supply chain. But, Africa could become a major player with its lithium production expected to increase from 40,000 metric tons this year to 497,000 metric tons in 2030—a factor of more than 12–with the bulk of that coming from Zimbabwe. Prices for lithium more than doubled last year as demand from the electric vehicle industry outstripped supply.
Green energy technologies like electric vehicle batteries, solar panels and wind turbines require a massive expansion of cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, graphite, zinc and other mineral production. In fact, the International Energy Agency has estimated a typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant. The vast majority of mining and processing of such materials takes place outside the United States, making the United States more reliant on foreign minerals despite our large domestic resources. Biden is kowtowing to environmentalists by not opening critical mineral mines in the United States that would bring a massive number of jobs and wealth.
Cobalt in the DRC
In 2021, the DRC mined more than 70 percent of the global supply of cobalt in industrial and artisanal mines, compared to 0.4 percent for the United States. About 80 percent of the industrial cobalt mines in the DRC are owned or financed by Chinese companies. The DRC has an estimated 3.5 million metric tons of cobalt reserves, the largest amount in the world. Up to a fifth of the production in the DRC is generated by artisanal miners working in squalid and dangerous conditions with little if any pricing power for the ore they mine. There are about 150,000-200,000 artisanal miners working cobalt deposits in the Congo with more than a million others directly economically dependent on their activity. The artisanal cobalt sector last year produced about 18,000 metric tons of cobalt with a notional value of $800 million at current prices.
The DRC also uses child slave labor to mine cobalt and has almost zero labor and environmental standards, and those they have are not enforced. About 40,000 children are believed to work in mines in southern DRC, according to UNICEF. Many children are frequently ill, inhaling cobalt dust that can cause hard metal lung disease — a potentially fatal condition, and skin contact with cobalt that can cause dermatitis — a chronic rash. The children and other miners work with neither masks nor gloves. They endure long hours — up to 12 hours a day — working at the mines hauling loads of between 20 and 40 kilograms (44 to 88 pounds) for $1-2 per day. Many have nothing to eat all day. A 14-year-old boy, who began mining at age 12 and works underground, would often spend 24 hours down in the tunnels, arriving in the morning and leaving the following morning.
Biden’s Recent Actions against Domestic Mines
In January, the Biden administration blocked plans for a major copper, nickel and cobalt mine in northern Minnesota. The “Twin Metals Project” would have tapped the Duluth Complex within the Superior National Forest, where 95 percent of the nation’s nickel reserves and 88 percent of American cobalt reserves are found. Biden’s Department of the Interior blocked the nearly $3 billion mine over stated concerns about the safety of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness inside the national forest. Interior withdrew more than 225,000 acres of the Superior National Forest from consideration for mining operations for 20 years, ensuring the Twin Metals project’s demise for the foreseeable future.
Also in January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency blocked the development of the proposed Pebble mine–the most significant undeveloped copper and gold resource in the world–because of stated concerns about its environmental impact on Alaska’s aquatic ecosystem. The site is located in southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a final determination under the Clean Water Act that bans the disposal of mine waste in part of the bay’s watershed. Determinations using the 1972 Clean Water Act are rare with only three issued in the past 30 years. The area contains deposits of precious-metal ores that are thought to be worth several hundred billion dollars, producing up to 73 million tons a year.
Other mining projects in Minnesota, Arizona, Nevada and elsewhere have been stuck in permitting delays and lawsuits from environmentalists. Unfortunately, Interior’s Superior National Forest withdrawal sets a precedent that could expedite the process of blocking other mining projects. The Superior National Forest withdrawal acts as anti-permitting reform because it precludes the need for environmental reviews required for permits that are usually followed by lengthy lawsuits. In sum, it ignores the scientific process in favor of a political one.
President Biden is not placing Americans first because, rather than permitting critical mineral mines in the United States, his administration is looking for ways to invest in foreign mineral mines, producing jobs abroad and helping the economies of those countries to expand. Several companies have spent decades trying to get permits in the United States to develop mines in Minnesota, Nevada, Alaska, and Arizona only to be thwarted by environmentalists and the Biden Administration.
What is most frustrating is that these minerals are needed for Biden’s energy transition with goals that he claims he wants to achieve. He is therefore making the United States much more dependent on foreign countries, particularly China, than the United States was ever dependent on the Middle East for oil. Today, the United States is the largest producer of oil and gas, has the most coal reserves in the world and the largest inventory of nuclear plants that can produce reliable power for centuries to come and yet Biden wants to throw that away for unreliable, intermittent electricity, while pushing for the electrification of everything, without developing the domestic energy mineral mines that the solar and wind technologies require.
Biden’s push for total electrification of the U.S. economy with intermittent technologies is a disaster waiting to happen, including huge transfers of wealth to foreign nations and powers, rapidly growing dependency upon China and other authoritarian regimes, and increased foreign entanglements to ensure delivery of foreign made products that could be produced by Americans here at home.