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From foreign mines to driveways


WORLD Radio - From foreign mines to driveways

The electric vehicle supply chain starts in cobalt and lithium mines before the cars make their way to driveways

The Ford F-150 Lightning displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia Associated Press Photo/Matt Rourke

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 21st of February, 2023.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: electric cars.

The Biden administration wants half of all cars sold in the United States to be electric and the goal is to do it by the year 2030.

President Biden had this to say to the Detroit Auto Show back in September.

BIDEN: The great American road trip is going to be fully electrified, whether you’re driving coast to coast on I-10 or on I-75 here in Michigan charging stations will be up and as easy to find as gas stations are now.

BROWN: The International Energy Agency says battery and mineral supply chains will have to expand by a factor of ten to meet the new demands. And that could create a cascade of unintended consequences.

WORLD’s Mary Muncy has the story.

AUDIO: [Cobalt mining]

MARY MUNCY, REPORTER: The supply chain for electric vehicles, or EVs, starts in cobalt and lithium mines in China, Chile, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Miners dig for the raw materials for EV batteries often in dangerous conditions.

The United Nations says two-thirds of the world’s cobalt comes from the Congo.

This is Mark Dummett, a researcher for the human rights group Amnesty International.

DUMMETT: In many cases they literally dig out tunnels and mines by hand. They dig deep underground. One of the miners told us the mine that he dug was 50 meters deep.

The UN says about 20 percent of the cobalt mined in the Congo comes from artisanal mines like that.

DUMMETT: They use the most basic tools—hammers and mallets to chip away at the rock, they load up their sacks and they call up to their mate at the top and they pull them up by rope.

Children can be a source of cheap labor in these types of mines. They can also get in and out of smaller spaces than adults.

The UN estimates that some 40,000 children are sent into the mines in the Congo.

Dummett says it’s hard to tell exactly how dangerous these mines are. People don’t always report accidents and sometimes bodies are left in the mines.

Once miners get the cobalt out, small mining operations take it to trading houses owned mostly by Chinese men and women.

DUMMETT: We found that a lot of this, if not most of it, goes to China where it is then processed further.

The International Energy Agency says 70 percent of battery production comes out of China.

This is Diana Furchtgott-Roth. She’s the director of the Center for Energy, Climate, and Environment at the Heritage Foundation.

FURTCHGOTT-ROTH: The batteries themselves, sources say put together in Xinjiang, with slave labor from the Uighur community, these people who are in concentration camps.

Biden is taking steps to move that manufacturing to the U.S.

BIDEN: I signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act. It gives tax credits to new electric vehicles fuel cell vehicles made in America.

Companies can get a tax break if most of their battery production is in the U.S.

Many companies are already jumping at the opportunity.

BMW is opening up a $1.7 billion battery plant in South Carolina, General Motors made a deal to get all of its raw materials from North America and private companies are opening up their own battery plants all over the U.S.

But making the batteries in America could put EVs out of many Americans’ price range.

Here’s Furtchgott-Roth again.

FURTCHGOTT-ROTH: Now, what's happening is that auto manufacturers are artificially lowering, lowering the price of electric vehicles and subsidizing them with profit making internal combustion engine pickup trucks and SUVs.

This is where the network of charging stations comes in. Once that new EV drives off the lot, the question becomes where to get electricity.

Biden’s plan could make finding a charging station a lot easier in the U-S. The federal government approved funding for all 50 states to build charging stations. But some states say maintaining the stations is not worth the investment.

Wyoming has a little more than 500 EVs in the state.

FURTCHGOTT-ROTH: Wyoming has asked that those electric vehicle charging stations be put near the national parks, such as Yellowstone National Park, or Grand Teton National Park, because that's where the tourists go in their electric vehicles.

The government rejected Wyoming’s request. So Wyoming is allowing private companies to apply for the federal funding, but the state won’t be building its own charging stations.

The final step in the EV supply chain is the electricity itself.

FURTCHGOTT-ROTH: The move to battery electric vehicles. is not as clean as it seems, is not zero emission vehicles because first of all, the electricity has to be made someplace and that causes emissions.

But that doesn’t mean EVs are automatically dirty. The Environmental Protection Agency says overall, EVs typically produce less emissions than gas-powered cars.

The determining factor is whether the electricity came from a renewable energy source. If the electricity came from solar or wind energy, that’s going to cut down emissions.

But right now, Furtchgott-Roth says those energy sources are unreliable, so dirtier forms of energy are used to back them up.

For now, it’s still a long road to a safe, reliable, and emissions-free supply chain.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Mary Muncy.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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