Much of the excitement over the Inflation Reduction Act, which became law this summer, focused on the boost it should give to the sales of electric vehicles. 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 yet, the coming global race to electrify the personal vehicle is likely to exacerbate ecological degradation, geopolitical tensions, and military conflict.
The batteries that power electric vehicles are likely to be the source of much international competition and the heart of the problem lies in two of the metallic elements used to make their electrodes: cobalt and lithium. Most deposits of those metals lie outside the borders of the United States and will leave manufacturers here (and elsewhere) relying heavily on foreign supplies to electrify road travel on the scale now being envisioned.
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 percent of the world’s known reserves—has been highly prized for its role in mobile-phone manufacturing. Such cobalt mining has already taken a terrible human and ecological toll.
Now, the pressure to increase Congo’s cobalt output is intensifying on a staggering scale. Whereas a phone contains just thousandths of a gram of cobalt, an electric vehicle battery has pounds of the metal, and a quarter-billion such batteries will have to be manufactured to fully electrify the American passenger car fleet as it now exists.
Not surprisingly, the investment world is now converging on Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. In a remarkable series of articles late last year, 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. Those two nations, wrote the Times, “have entered a new ‘Great Game’ of sorts,” a reference to the 19th-century confrontation between the Russian and British Empires over Afghanistan.
Fifteen of the 19 cobalt mines in Congo are now under Chinese control. In and around those mines, the health and the safety of workers have been severely compromised, while local residents have been displaced from their homes. People sneaking into the area to collect leftover lumps of cobalt to sell are being shot at. The killing of one man by the Congolese military (at the urging of Chinese mine owners) spurred an uprising in his village, during which a protester was also shot and killed.
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. Among other mayhem, Blackwater mercenaries fired upon unarmed civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan and were convicted of the killings and woundings that resulted. From 2014 to 2021, he was the chair of a China-based company, Frontier Services Group, that provided Blackwater-style services to mining companies in Congo.
Prince has joined what the 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 reported recently that 384 additional mines may be needed worldwide by 2035 to keep battery factories supplied with cobalt, lithium, and nickel. Even were there to be a rapid acceleration of the recycling of metals from old batteries, 336 new mines would still be needed. A battery-industry CEO 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.
Lithium extraction and processing is not exactly a green business. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, for instance, where lithium mining requires vast evaporation ponds, a half million gallons of water are needed for every metric ton of lithium extracted. The process accounts for 65 percent of the total amount of water used in that region and causes extensive soil and water contamination, as well as air 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 and 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 continues to seek to exploit 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 select one or more of them to form a partnership with its state-owned firm, Yacimientos de Litios Bolivianos. No matter who gets the contract, friction among the three suitor nations could potentially kick off a Western Hemispheric version of the Great Game.
And whatever you do, don’t forget that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a lithium-rich land with centuries of bitter experience in hosting great powers, is another potential arena for rivalry and conflict. In fact, Soviet invaders first identified that country’s lithium resources four decades ago. During the US 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 The 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
The greatest potential for conflict over battery metals may not, in fact, be in Asia, Africa, or the Americas. It may not be on any continent at all. The most severe and potentially most destructive future battleground may lie far out in international waters, where 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 contain a host of metallic elements, including not only lithium and cobalt but also copper, another metal required in large amounts for battery manufacturing. According to a United Nations report, a single nodule field, the 1.7 million-square-mile Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean southeast of the Hawaiian Islands, contains more cobalt than all terrestrial resources combined.
A UN agency, the International Seabed Authority, issues exploration licenses to mining companies sponsored by national governments and intends to start authorizing nodule extraction in the CCZ as soon as next year. Mining methods for polymetallic nodules have not yet been fully developed or used on a large scale, but the metal hunters are advertising the process as being far less destructive than the terrestrial mining of cobalt and 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. In just a small portion of the CCZ, scientists have identified more than 1,000 animal species, and they suspect that at least another thousand are also living there, along with 100,000 microbial species. Virtually all of the creatures in the path of mining operations will, of course, be killed, and anything living on the surface of those nodules removed from the ecosystem. The nodule-harvesting machines, as large as wheat combines, will stir up towering clouds of sediment likely to drift for thousands of miles before finally settling onto, burying, and so killing yet more sea life.
To recap: In America, the Saudi Arabia of green greed, we now covet a couple of metals critically important to the electric-vehicle industry, cobalt and lithium, the reserves of which are concentrated in only a small number of nations. However, the ores can also be sucked straight off the seabed in humongous quantities in places far outside the jurisdiction of any nation. Environmentally, geopolitically, militarily, what could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, of course. Writing for the Center for International Maritime Security last year, US Coast Guard Surface Warfare Officer Lt. Kyle Cregge argued that the Coast Guard and Navy should have a high-profile presence in seabed mining areas. He stressed that the 1980 Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resource Act “claimed the right of the US to mine the seabed in international waters, and specifically identifies the Coast Guard as responsible for enforcement.”
He did acknowledge that patrolling areas where deep-sea mining occurs could create some dicey situations. As he put it, “The Coast Guard will face the same problem the US 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 United States 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.”
To make matters worse, seafloor mining might not only spark military conflict but also become an integral part of war fighting itself. Manabrata Guha, a researcher in war theory at the 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 per cent of the ocean floor is mapped in high resolution, compared to about 99 per cent 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 US’s response to it.
The resource-rich South China Sea in particular, notes ABC, has long been a potential flashpoint between China and America. As Guha speculated, US 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 United States 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 Burden of the Big-Ass Truck
Systemic collapse? Really? Instead of devising technologies to take down other societies, in this increasingly heated moment, shouldn’t we be focusing on how to avoid our own systemic collapse?
A national fleet of battery-powered cars is unlikely to prove sustainable and could have catastrophic consequences globally. 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.
Such a transformation, even were it to occur, would, of course, take a long time. During that period, electric vehicles will continue to be manufactured in quantity. So, for now, to reduce their impact on humanity and Earth, America should aim to produce fewer and far smaller vehicles than are currently planned. After all, electrified versions of the big-ass trucks and SUVs of the present moment will also require bigger, heavier batteries (like the one in the F-150 Lightning pickup truck, which weighs 1,800 pounds and is the size of two mattresses). They will, of course, contain proportionally larger quantities of cobalt, lithium, and copper.
The true burden of a massive battery in an electric car or truck will be borne not 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.