Rush to Mine Electric Vehicle Battery Elements Threatens People and Ecosystems

The Inflation Reduction Act became law this summer. Much of the excitement was focused on the potential boost it would give to electric vehicle sales. Sadly, though, manufacturing and driving tens of millions of individual electric passenger cars won’t get us far enough down the road to ending greenhouse-gas emissions and stanching the overheating of this planet. Worse, the global race to electrify personal vehicles will likely increase ecological degradation, geopolitical tensions and military conflict.

International competition is likely to be a problem for electric vehicle batteries. The problem lies in cobalt and lithium, which are the two metallic elements used to make them. Most of the deposits of these metals are located outside the United States. This will mean that manufacturers here (and elsewhere) will need to rely heavily upon foreign supplies to power electric vehicles on the scale currently being imagined.

Adventurers and opportunists

In the battery business, the Democratic Republic of Congo is referred to as “the Saudi Arabia of cobalt.” For two decades, its cobalt — 80% of the world’s known reserves — has been highly prized for its role in mobile-phone manufacturing. This cobalt mining has already caused a great deal of ecological and human suffering.

Now, the pressure to increase Congo’s cobalt output is intensifying on a staggering scale. A phone has a thousandths of an gram of cobalt. An electric vehicle battery, however, contains pounds of the metal. To fully electrify America’s passenger car fleet, it will take a quarter-billion of these batteries to make.

Not surprisingly, the investment world is now converging on Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. In a remarkable series, the author of this article late last year reveals that the New York Times reported on how the cobalt rush in that country has been caught up “in a familiar cycle of exploitation, greed, and gamesmanship that often puts narrow national aspirations above all else.” The most intense rivalry is between China, which has, in recent years, been buying up cobalt-mining operations in Congo at a rapid clip, and the United States, now playing catch-up. These two nations, wrote The Times, “have entered a new ‘Great Game’ of sorts,” a reference to the nineteenth-century confrontation between the Russian and British Empires over Afghanistan.

Chinese control fifteen of the 19 Congolese cobalt mines. The safety and health of workers in and around these mines has been seriously compromised. Local residents have been forced from their homes. People are being attacked for trying to sneak into the area to steal leftover cobalt to sell. At the request of Chinese mine owners, the Congolese military killed one man. This sparked a rebellion in the village and a protester was also shot to death.

The Times further reported, “Troops with AK-47s were posted outside the mine this year, along with security guards hired from a company founded by Erik Prince.” Prince is notorious for having been the founder and boss of the mercenary contractor Blackwater, which committed atrocities during America’s “forever wars” of the 2000s. Blackwater mercenaries also fired upon civilians unarmed in both. Iraq AfghanistanThey were convicted for the killings and injuries that occurred. He was the chairperson of Frontier Services Group, a China-based company that provided Blackwater-style services for Congo mining companies.

Prince has joined what is Times calls “a wave of adventurers and opportunists who have filled a vacuum created by the departure of major American mining companies, and by the reluctance of other traditional Western firms to do business in a country with a reputation for labor abuses and bribery.”


Forbes reportedRecent research has shown that 384 additional mines could be required worldwide by 2035 in order to keep battery factories supplied of cobalt and lithium. Even if there was a rapid acceleration in the recycling of metals form old batteries, 336 more mines would still need to be built. A CEO from the battery industry told the magazine:

“If you just look at Tesla’s ambition to produce 20 million electric vehicles a year in 2030, that alone will require close to two times the present global annual supply [of those minerals] and that’s before you include VW, Ford, GM, and the Chinese.”

Currently, the bulk of the world’s lithium production occurs in Australia, Chile, and China, while there are vast unexploited reserves in the southern part of Bolivia where it joins Chile and Argentina in what’s come to be known as the “lithium triangle.” China owns lithium mines outright throughout that triangle and in Australia, and two-thirds of the world’s lithium processing is done in Chinese-owned facilities.

Processing and extraction of lithium is not exactly green. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, for instance, where lithium mining requires vast evaporation ponds, a half millionEach metric ton (or tonne) of lithium that is extracted requires gallons water. The entire process is described in 65%The region’s total water use is high and this results in soil and water contamination as well as pollution.

While evidently uninterested in Mother Nature, Tesla’s electric car tycoon Elon Musk is intensely interested in vertically integrating lithium mining with electric battery and vehicle production on the Chinese model. Accordingly, he’s been trying for years to get his hands on Bolivia’s pristine lithium reserves. Until ousted in a 2020 coup, that country’s president Evo Morales stood in Musk’s way, pledging to “industrialize with dignity and sovereignty.”

When a Twitter user accused Musk of being complicit in the coup, the Tesla tycoon responded, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” (He later deleted the tweet.) As Vijay Prashad, Alejandro Bejarano observed at the time, “Musk’s admission, however intemperate, is at least honest… Earlier this year, Musk and his company revealed that they wanted to build a Tesla factory in Brazil, which would be supplied by lithium from Bolivia; when we wrote about that we called our report ‘Elon Musk Is Acting Like a Neo-Conquistador for South America’s Lithium.’”

Bolivia will continue to explore its lithium resources, while keeping them under national control. Without sufficient wealth and technical resources, however, its government has been obliged to solicit foreign capital, having narrowed the field of candidate companies to six — one American, one Russian, and four Chinese. By year’s end, it’s expected to selectOne or more of them may form a partnership, possibly with Yacimientos de Litios Bolivianos (its state-owned firm). The Great Game could be triggered by friction between the three countries that are interested in the contract.

And whatever you do, don’t forget that Taliban-controlled AfghanistanAnother potential arena for conflict and rivalry could be the, a land rich in lithium with centuries of bitter experience hosting great powers. In fact, Soviet invaders first identified that country’s lithium resources four decades ago. During the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan in this century, geologists confirmed the existence of large deposits, and the Pentagon promptly labeled the country — you guessed it — a potential “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” According to the Asia-Pacific-based magazine Diplomat, the lithium rush is now on there and “countries like China, Russia, and Iran have already revealed their intentions to develop ‘friendly relations’ with the Taliban,” as they compete for the chance to flaunt their generosity and “help” that country exploit its resources.

Don’t Look Down

There may not be a greater risk of conflict over battery metals than Asia, Africa, or Americas. It could be anywhere on the continent. It may be far out in international waters that the most dangerous and potentially destructive future battleground lies. polymetallic nodules — dense mineral lumps, often compared to potatoes in their size and shape — lie strewn in huge numbers across vast regions of the deep-ocean floor. They are rich in a variety of metallic elements, including lithium, cobalt, and copper, which is required for large quantities of battery manufacturing. A United Nations report states that they contain a variety of metallic elements. report, a single field of nodules, the 1.7-million-square-mile Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean southeast the Hawaiian Islands (CCZ), contains more cobalt per square-mile than all terrestrial resources.

The International Seabed Authority, a U.N. agency, issues exploration licenses for mining companies that are sponsored by national governments. It plans to begin authorizing nodule extracting in the CCZ as early as next year. While the mining methods for polymetallic nudules have not been fully developed and used on a large scale yet, metal hunters advertise that they are far less destructive than the terrestrial extraction of cobalt or lithium. One can get the impression that it will be so gentle as not even to be mining as we’ve known it, but something more like running a vacuum cleaner along the seafloor.

Don’t believe it for a second. Scientists have found more than 2,000 in just a small part of the CCZ. 1,000They suspect that there are at least another 1,000 animal species, as well as 100,000 microbial species. Almost all creatures that are in the way of mining operations will be killed and any living on the surfaces of those nodules will be removed from the ecosystem. The nodule harvesting machines, which are as large and powerful as wheat combine, will cause towering clouds to form of sediment that will drift for thousands of kilometres before finally settling on, burying, or killing more sea creatures.

We are now the Saudi Arabia of green greed. America is now coveting a few metals that are vital to the electric-vehicle business, cobalt, and lithium. The reserves of these metals are only limited in a few countries. The ores can also be extracted from the seabed in large quantities, in areas far beyond the control of any country. What could possibly go wrong environmentaly, geopolitically, or militarily?

Plenty, of course. Lieutenant Kyle Cregge, U.S. Coast Guard Seafare Officer, wrote last year for the Center for International Maritime Security. arguedThe Coast Guard and Navy should have a prominent presence in seabed mining areas. He stressed that the 1980 Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resource Act “claimed the right of the U.S. to mine the seabed in international waters, and specifically identifies the Coast Guard as responsible for enforcement.”

However, he acknowledged that deep-sea mines can make it difficult to patrol certain areas. As he put it, “The Coast Guard will face the same problem the U.S. Navy does with its freedom of navigation operations in places like the South China Sea.” But by potentially putting their vessels in harm’s way, he wrote, “the services seek to reinforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as reflecting customary international law.” (Forget the fact that the U.S. has never signed onto the Law of the Sea treaty!) Cregge then predicted that, “[a]mong the most challenging in a future seabed competition would be China and Russia, states that have already used lawfare in the South China Sea and Arctic regions respectively to pursue their territorial gains.”

Seafloor mining could not only be a source of conflict, but also a part of warfighting. Manabrata Guha is a researcher in war theory at University of New South Wales. told Australia’s ABC television that data, including topographic or thermal maps of the seabed, obtained through exploration of the seafloor by mining operations projects, could be of great value to a nation’s armed forces. According to ABC

“Just 9 percentThe ocean floor is mapped at high resolution in comparison to the average of about 99 percent of the surface of Mars — a blind spot that affects both deep sea miners and military planners. This is all worth keeping in mind, because while the Pacific Ocean is set to be the sea with the most mining potential, it is also home to this century’s most consequential geopolitical tension: the rise of China, and the U.S.’s response to it.”

According to ABC, the South China Sea, which is rich in resources, has been a potential flashpoint for China and America for a long time. As Guha speculated, U.S. use of deep-sea data in the region “could be expanded beyond its battle-centric focus to also include attacks on civilian infrastructure, finance, and cultural systems.” He added, “The undersea domain provides another vector, another potential ‘hole’ that the Americans would look to penetrate,” thanks to the fact, as he pointed out, that the U.S. is 20 to 30 years ahead of China in undersea-mapping technology.

“You want to pick and choose where you hurt the adversary to such an extent that their whole system collapses,” he said. “That’s the idea of multi-domain warfare… the idea is to bring about systemic collapse.”

The Big-Ass Truck’s Burden

Systemic collapse? Really? This is not about destroying other societies with technology. increasingly heated moment, shouldn’t we be focusing on how to avoid our own systemic collapse?

A national fleet of battery-powered cars will not be sustainable and could have devastating consequences worldwide. It’s time to consider an overhaul of the whole transportation system to move it away from a fixation on personal vehicles and toward walking, pedaling, and a truly effective nationwide public transportation system (as well as very local ones), which could indeed be run on electricity, while perhaps helping to avoid future disastrous resource wars.

Even if such a transformation were to happen, it would take a long while. Electric vehicles will still be produced in large quantities during that time. For now, America should aim for fewer and smaller electric vehicles to reduce their impact on the Earth and humanity. Electrified versions of the vehicles are possible, after all. big-ass trucksSUVs and other vehicles that require larger batteries will be required in the future. This is evident in the F-150 Lightning pickup truck. It weighs 1,800 pounds and is the same size as the F-150 Lightning pickup truck. two mattresses). They will contain proportionally more cobalt, lithium and copper.

The true burden of a massive battery in an electric car or truck will be borne not just by the vehicle’s suspension system, but by the people and ecosystems unlucky enough to be in or near the global supply chain that will produce it. And those people may be among the first of millions to be imperiled by a new wave of geopolitical and military conflicts in what should be thought of as the world’s green sacrifice zones.