Kevin L. Kearns
This opinion column was submitted by Kevin L. Kearns, president of the U.S. Business and Industry Council.
Policymakers in Washington are calling for a nationwide “energy transformation” — a future dominated by electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines. But there’s a catch: Not only does China currently control the supply of critical minerals required for these advanced technologies, but recent news reports make clear that Beijing also relies on forced labor to make them a reality. This begs a question: Do Americans really want an energy future monopolized by Chinese supply chains rife with labor abuses?
Nowhere is this quandary more evident than in the electric vehicle industry, particularly high-tech EV batteries. The International Energy Agency predicts that, by 2040, the demand for lithium, nickel, graphite and cobalt used in EV batteries could jump by a staggering 30 times. And that’s where China smartly has a stranglehold, since it controls 70 percent of the world’s lithium supplies, for example, and almost all of the world’s graphite.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has allowed itself to become heavily reliant on imports for 47 of the world’s key minerals. In fact, the U.S. is 100 percent import-reliant for 17 of them. This leaves the United States dependent on mineral supplies from China in order to build its EV future. And that’s doubly problematic since it’s now apparent that Chinese companies are using forced labor to extract these raw materials.
Specifically, the mining conglomerate Xinjiang Nonferrous Metal Industry uses hundreds of ethnic Uyghurs from western China in its mining workforce. This isn’t the first time we’re hearing about labor abuse in China, however. It’s estimated that since 2017 at least 80,000 Uyghurs have been transferred from Xinjiang to forced labor across China. And roughly 82 well-known global brands have utilized this forced labor in their supply chains.
Beijing’s comfort with labor abuse should be no surprise, though. Chinese firms also control much of the cobalt mining in the Congo — and are complicit in the use child labor to extract raw cobalt under grueling conditions.
America’s EV revolution shouldn’t be built on a foundation dominated by China. As the demand for critical minerals soars, the U.S. must get serious about building a secure, reliable and responsible supply chain of our own. We can do so if we choose, since the U.S. is home to an estimated $6.2 trillion worth of untapped mineral reserves. That includes everything from rare earth elements to lithium, nickel, and cobalt.
What we need now is a commitment to produce these critical resources at home. But China is hard at work trying to stop that from happening. In the wake of President Biden invoking the Defense Production Act to ramp up America’s mining sector, China has launched social media campaigns to discredit U.S. mining. The cyber-security consulting group Mandiant says that China has used fake social media accounts to “feign concern over environmental and health issues” related to U.S. mining. These fraudulent accounts have also criticized President Biden’s use of the DPA.
Clearly, China wants the U.S. to remain reliant on mining imports. But that’s all the more reason to get American mining up and running.
The answer is for Washington to finally address the bureaucratic hurdles handcuffing America’s mining industry — particularly the duplicative and painfully cumbersome mine permitting process that regularly takes a decade or longer. Doing so will strengthen U.S. economic and national security while also creating good jobs at home. And that means future U.S. energy policy won’t fund China’s abhorrent labor abuses.
Kevin L. Kearns is president of the U.S. Business and Industry Council.
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