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OPINION

Dirty Mining, Slavery, and Child Labor Are at the Core of Elites’ Green Energy Obsession

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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Kevin Frayer

The much-touted green energy economy and the net zero goals it aims to obtain are built upon a dirty little secret: slavery and child labor.

A large percentage of the rare earth elements and critical minerals required for modern electronics, in general, and green energy technologies in particular, are produced and/or refined in countries where, if labor and environmental standards exist at all--and are enforced if they do—the standards are far short of what is required in developed countries.

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The mining, refining, manufacturing, and transportation of the huge amounts of rare earth elements and critical minerals is a dirty business. Yet, they are vital to the magnets used in wind turbines, the cables, and stations used to transform the electricity produced by turbines and solar panels, and transmit it to its final destination, and the battery back-up needed to maintain electric power supply and reliability from those intermittent sources.

The International Energy Agency reports that offshore wind requires more scarce minerals, rare earth elements, and other critical metals per kilowatt hour of energy produced than any other source of electric power generation, renewable and non-renewable alike. Onshore wind and solar are the next most critical-mineral-intensive sources.

The vast majority of these critical minerals and elements are mined abroad, and almost all the refining of them is done by China alone.

A single on-shore wind turbine requires up to three metric tons of copper and magnets. Much larger offshore wind turbines require even more copper and magnets composed of rare earth elements. Thousands of pounds of ore must be mined to produce a single pound of rare earths, much less the combination of rare earths required for the magnets used in wind turbines. In addition, between 200,000 and 1.5 million pounds of earth must be mined and moved to produce the lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel, and other metals and trace elements necessary to produce a battery pack for a single electric vehicle. Thus, billions of tons will have to be mined and refined to produce the thousands of batteries that will compose the large-scale battery facilities providing backup power when wind and solar facilities are offline.

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 The conditions under which many of these minerals are produced are appalling. For example, cobalt is a necessary component of the green energy technologies President Biden is pushing on an expedited timeframe. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the largest producer of the cobalt in the world, by far. A large percentage of the cobalt is produced from small mines, where child labor is the norm, not the exception.

What’s more, China is the largest single provider of most of the critical minerals and rare earths used around the globe, and is almost the only refiner of such products. This means minerals and rare earth elements mined elsewhere, often with Chinese funding, are shipped to China for processing into usable materials. Much of the mining and refining of materials in China is produced by forced or slave labor, often of persecuted religious minorities, like Falun Gong followers and Uighurs.

To be clear, those pushing Net Zero goals, like Democrats in Congress, green energy elites profiting from government support in the form of mandates and subsidies, and the Biden administration, know child- and slave-labor are used to produce the minerals their green technologies depend upon. They claim to care about human rights, but their actions belie their words.

The U.S. State Department has a memorandum of understanding with the DRC to reduce the practice of child labor, however, that agreement doesn’t carry the force of law. The United States wants the cobalt and other minerals produced in the DRC, and nearby regions where child labor is also a problem, in large quantities. Indeed, the Biden administration is leaning more on Africa to counter China’s control over U.S. energy. As such, there is little doubt that growing government demand for wind turbines, solar panels, and battery packs in America and elsewhere in the West will increase pressure on cobalt mines to produce more. This will result in either more children being put to work, or existing child laborers being forced to work longer and harder under extremely dangerous conditions.

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Concerning China, the Biden administration acknowledged the problem of slave labor, having signed the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act in 2021. Still, the reality of today’s globalized supply chain, combined with insufficient intelligence on the ground to track forced-labor manufacturing, and less still the raw materials, makes it almost a certainty the massive green energy transition being pushed by the Biden administration will be built with minerals and parts produced using Chinese slave labor.

In economic terms, Western climate hysteria is imposing severe negative externalities on developing countries. Ethically, the West’s climate obsession is immorally condemning present generations of impoverished peoples and nations to continued penury and early death. Make no mistake, this ruse exists to further enrich people in developed countries while they simultaneously avoid the cost and inconvenience of adapting to future climate conditions.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., (hsburnett@heartland.org) is the Director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at the Heartland Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research organization based in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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