Race to the Future: What to Know About the Frantic Quest for Cobalt
The clean energy revolution is replacing oil and gas with new world powers: minerals and metals needed in electric car batteries, solar panels and other types of renewable energy.
Places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which produces two-thirds of the world’s cobalt supply, are stepping into the role that Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich nations have played, for example. And the race between China and the United States to secure supplies could have far-reaching consequences for the shared goal of protecting the planet.
The New York Times investigation includes interviews with more than 100 people from three continents and thousands of pages of financial, political and other documents. Here are some conclusions.
The United States is at risk of price shocks and supply shortages as it embraces green energy.
The US government has failed to protect decades of political and economic investment in the Congo, even as China seeks to dominate the new electric vehicle era.
In 2016, the sale of two major cobalt deposits in Congo by an American mining company to a Chinese group ended any major US mining presence in the country.
Chinese battery makers have forged contracts with mining companies to secure a stable supply of metal.
Beijing tried to buy mines in the Congo and shut down the main supply chain.
According to data analysis, as of last year, 15 of the 19 cobalt-producing mines in the Congo were owned or financed by Chinese companies. The companies had received at least $ 12 billion in loans and other financing from state-backed entities, and are expected to withdraw billions more.
The five largest Chinese mining companies in the Congo, which focus on cobalt and copper mining, also owe a total of $ 124 billion from Chinese state-backed banks.
One of the government-backed companies, China Molybdenum, which bought two US-owned reserves, described itself to The Times as a “pure business entity” on two stock exchanges. Records show that 25 percent of the company is owned by local government in China.
Congolese officials accuse Chinese mining companies of defrauding the country of promised revenues and reforms.
As part of a broader anti-corruption effort, Congolese people are reviewing previous mining agreements, with financial support from the US government. They are also investigating whether Chinese promises to build roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure have been kept.
Separately, Chinese molybdenum has been accused of withholding payments to the government from its tanke fungurum cobalt and copper mines. The company said it had done nothing wrong and questioned whether it was a concerted effort to spoil it.
There is a Chinese phrase that means: “Wherever there is a desire to condemn, the evidence will be followed,” the spokesman said. “I vaguely think we’re stuck in big power gaming.”
The purchase of the US-owned mine from the Chinese was facilitated by a firm with Hunter Biden on board.
Tenke Fungurume, one of the largest cobalt mines in the world, was controlled by the American company Freeport-McMoRan. It was later sold in 2016 to China Molybdenum in a series of transactions worth 8 3.8 billion. The sale was helped by a Chinese private equity firm that bought the mine from a minority owner.
Understand US-China relations
A tense period in US-China relations. The two powers have sharp differences as they jockey for influence beyond their own coast, compete in technology and maneuver for military gain. Here’s a look at some of the key milestones in US-China relations:
Hunter Biden, a founding board member of a private equity firm, was the son of an American president. According to Chinese economic documents, the Washington Company on which Mr. Biden is a shareholder in the company he controls. Chris Clark, Mr Biden’s lawyer, said his client had “no longer any direct or indirect interest” in Washington and Chinese companies. Filing in China shows that he is no longer a board member of the Chinese firm. Mr Biden did not respond to a request for comment.
Asked if the president had been informed of his son’s involvement in the sale, a White House spokesman said, “No.”
Chinese ownership has boosted global supply of cobalt, but workers have complained of poor safety.
Increased mining and refining of cobalt by Chinese companies has helped meet growing global demand. But at least a dozen employees or contractors at the Tenke Fungurum mine told The Times that Chinese ownership has dramatically reduced safety and increased injuries, many of which have not been reported to management.
The company said the complaints were mostly fake and therefore actually increased security.
The US is lagging behind in the mineral race.
As the world focuses on the future of electric vehicles, the United States is playing catch-up, although both Congress and the Biden administration are now taking the first steps. The legislation passed in the House on Friday will provide more than half a trillion dollars to move the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels to renewable energy and electric cars.
Amos Hochstein, senior adviser to the State Department for Global Energy Safety, said future access to solar panels and batteries for electric vehicles would ensure energy security.
“National security is essential for the United States to ensure that the insecurity of the 20th century does not recur in the 21st century,” he said.
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