The Biden administration recently opened the door to funding mining projects in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to bolster the global green energy supply chain. The administration continues to push forward on its climate agenda, despite documented issues with child labor in the DRC, where children are used in mines.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU), entering into an agreement with the two nations and praising their work improving the supply chain for electric vehicle batteries. During the signing, Sec. Blinken said the “future” is happening because of the necessity for manufacturing electric vehicles.
“I really want to commend the DRC and Zambia, their governments, for their leadership and vision in developing an electric vehicle battery council,” said Blinken. “This is the future, and it is happening in the DRC and in Zambia.”
Stanley Kakubo, DRC foreign minister, added that his country is committed to making the deal “in a hurry.”
Green energy technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicle batteries require a considerable expansion of nickel, copper, lithium, cobalt, zinc, graphite, and other mineral production. However, most of the processing and mining of those materials takes place outside the United States, making the country more reliant on foreign resources, despite significant resources available domestically.
The DRC mined more than 70% of the global cobalt supply in 2021, while the U.S. mined only 0.4%, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Additionally, the DRC has around 3.5 million metric tons of cobalt reserves, the most significant amount in the world.
Independent investigations conducted in the past few years by Amnesty International and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have documented how many DRC cobalt mines employ child laborers. In October, the Biden administration also released a report showing that child labor continues to be used in the mines.
“Many children we spoke to told us that they were frequently ill. Inhaling cobalt dust can cause hard metal lung disease — a potentially fatal condition,” stated a 2016 Amnesty International report. “Skin contact with cobalt can cause dermatitis — a chronic rash. Yet the children and other minders have neither masks nor gloves to protect them.”
“The children told us that they endured long hours — up to 12 hours a day — working at the mines hauling back-breaking loads between 20 and 40kg for U.S. $1-2 per day,” the report continued. “Many had nothing to eat all day. Fourteen-year-old Paul, who began mining aged 12 and worked underground, told us he would often ‘spend 24 hours down in the tunnels. I arrived in the morning and would leave the following morning.” Overall, UNICEF believes about 40,000 children are working in mines in southern DRC.
“It’s egregious that the Biden administration would enter into an MOU to mine critical minerals in the Congo, where we know they use child slave labor to mine these minerals, and they have almost zero labor standards and almost zero environmental standards,” said the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Energy and Mineral Subcommittee, Representative Pete Stauber, Republican of Minnesota. “And yet this administration will not allow mining in the United States.”
Stauber said his subcommittee would be conducting investigations into the administration’s policies on mining once the Republicans take control of the House and he becomes chairman of the panel in January.
“We are not only going to legislate, but we’re going to have oversight,” Stauber said. “We want to know why this administration continues to not allow mining in the United States. We want to know why they’ve pulled federal permits without allowing an environmental impact statement to move forward.”
Administration moving forward on new 20-year-ban on mining projects in northern Minnesota
Earlier in the year, the Department of the Interior canceled two already-existing hardrock mineral leases in northern Minnesota in the mineral-rich Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and announced it would be moving forward on a 20-year-ban on any new mining projects, in the region, because of environmental concerns.
Additionally, the Biden administration has implemented regulations that caused roadblocks on mines in Arizona, Nevada, and Alaska, where there are enormous molybdenum, lithium, and copper deposits.
Meanwhile, the National Association (NMA) said it wasn’t surprised at the administration’s action due to the critical need for resources and argued there was a severe need for a better strategy in the long term.
“It would be a mistake to interpret a strategy intent on ensuring immediate supply as a long-term comprehensive strategy that will effectively meet demands for the future,” said Ashley Burke, NMA spokesperson.
“There needs to be a much greater focus on mine permitting at home.”
Burke continued, “We have robust mineral reserves here in the U.S.; there is simply no better place for the administration to be supporting mining projects, supporting our economy with high-paying American jobs that are producing American materials under world-leading environmental, labor, and safety standards,” continued Burke.
The NMA has consistently sounded a warning on U.S. mineral supply chains as the government continues to push green energy policies. The group said relying on mineral imports has become an “increasingly problematic issue for decades and how now become a crisis.” The group is also advocating for more streamlined permitting for mining projects.