When American politicians like Bruce Westerman talk about mining cobalt in the United States, they are almost always talking about copper and nickel mining. According to the US Geological Survey, the US has only 4 percent of the world’s cobalt reserves; and with the notable exception of the Jervois cobalt mine in Idaho and some unexploited reserves in Missouri, “any future cobalt production” would be a “byproduct” of copper and nickel mining.
Most of that mining would be done in the Lake Superior region. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Lundin’s Eagle Mine has produced cobalt-bearing nickel concentrate. Rio Tinto-Talon Metals already control copper and nickel development from Ishpeming to the Keweenaw. In addition to this massive 400,000 acre land package in Michigan, the joint venture also controls the 31,000 acre Tamarack project in Minnesota, the state where most US cobalt reserves are located.
Even here, the primary target resource is nickel, followed by copper, as Tamarack’s own estimates clearly show. In 2017, Antofagasta briefly floated the idea in its annual report that its Twin Metals project near the Boundary Waters would be a significant source of cobalt, but this looks like nothing more than an attempt to position the mine as a source of critical minerals, and the company abandoned that posture. (Trump’s Department of Interior toyed with the idea, too.)
In light of these basic facts, Westerman’s arguments look specious and his moral posture deeply cynical. It’s concerning to see the Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources use the artisanal, small-scale miners of the Congo as a political prop – I use that word advisedly – and trade on serious human rights concerns without any plan to address them. Amnesty International’s Mark Dummet fears this kind of “wholly self-serving” virtue signaling could even harm the people it pretends to protect.
Westerman seems to be taking his cues from Minnesota Republican Pete Stauber, who made the same argument after the Biden administration announced the 20-year mineral withdrawal to protect the Boundary Waters:
Joe Biden banned mining in over 225,000 acres of Minnesota’s Iron Range, and locked up development of taconite, copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum group elements, and more…not even one month ago, Joe Biden signed an agreement [presumably the Minerals Security Partnership] to fund mining projects in Chinese-owned mines in the Congo, where over 40,000 children work as slaves in forced labor and inhumane conditions with no environmental protections.
Stauber has made similar shows of concern about human rights in the Congo in the past. This time, just a couple of days later, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal repeated the talking point: “The reality is that if minerals aren’t mined in the U.S., they will be extracted in countries with far less stringent environmental and labor standards.”
A small correction: the reality is that even if minerals are mined in the United States, they will be extracted in countries with far less stringent environmental and labor standards.**
The focus instead should be on taking steps to raise those standards, as Dorothée Baumann Pauly of the Geneva Center for Business Human Rights argues in a new white paper. Trying to eschew artisanally-mined cobalt from the DRC is tantamount to “denial of market realities,”* she writes:
global companies buying cobalt need to encourage the formalization and responsible extraction of the mineral rather than engaging in a futile attempt to avoid cobalt associated with ASM [artisanal small-scale mining] — an attempt that also ignores the sustenance that artisanal mining provides to millions of poor people.
In the Mutoshi pilot formalization program studied by Baumann-Pauly, mechanically prepared (open pit) small-scale mines improved safety. “Formalization stopped children and pregnant women from coming to the mine site.” Other measures encouraged women to participate in mining. The pay these women miners earned could double household income, and in interviews they said the extra income helped offset educational expenses for their children, who were now in school instead of working at a mine site. (Though the pilot program ended during the Covid-19 pandemic, a local cooperative continues to try to enforce these new standards at Mutoshi.)
None of this amounts to a perfect solution, but there’s clearly an opportunity to build on what this pilot accomplished, and it’s encouraging that Microsoft’s Michele Burlington, who accompanied Baumann-Pauly on her trip to the Congo, called for a “coalition” to address ASM in the cobalt supply chain.
If Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) want to address human rights abuses in the DRC, then they should focus on taking constructive steps. And if they are really concerned about China’s outsize influence in the mineral supply chain, then they might want to take a closer look at China’s ownership stakes in companies like Rio Tinto, the very companies that promise to bring jobs and economic development to their own districts.
*This chart from The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) nicely illustrates the point.
** A briefing from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre also warns against the complacency behind these arguments: “assumptions [that] localisation of supply of transition minerals and their production in Europe and North America will guarantee respect for human rights and a sustainable, ethical provision of these materials are misguided.”