CORRECTION: This story contains updates from an earlier version. These updates include identifying the key source of cobalt as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are no hard statistics on how many small-scale mining operations involve forced or child labor, but between 15 and 30% of the DRC cobalt is produced by these small mining operations, called artisanal mining. An update has also been made referring to silica production from China.
LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – Some Republican state lawmakers are calling for laws to ensure an ethical transition to clean energy.
The lawmakers introduced legislation that would require minerals used in solar and battery be collected without exploiting forced and child labor in extracting cobalt and silica.
The legislation was introduced the day after bills designed to expand reliance on renewable energy and pave the way for more production of such energy were sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk for approval.
“We are accountable for what we purchase from other nations that have very poor standards on human rights,” State Rep. Gina Johnsen, a Lake Odessa Republican.
If the GOP package of legislation is approved, it would prohibit the Michigan Strategic Fund from using state dollars to pay for renewable energy materials from anywhere that cannot be certified as forced labor and child-labor free.
“Some of these children are handling very dangerous materials,” says Johnsen. “As you’ve heard from my colleagues to meet the demands of their employers. We cannot purchase products that are supplied to us on the backs of the children of these other countries who are overworked and exploited.”
Lawmakers say they need to be ‘proactive’ with this issue and make sure the state uses the proper avenues while transitioning to clean energy.
“Once we get an economic development plan moving forward, it’s really hard to stop that train,” says Republican State. Rep. Phil Green from Millington. “So, let’s make sure we find our sourcing correctly so we are not violating any human rights.”
Cobalt is a component in new energy technology, but the CIA World Factbook says “an estimated 42% of the cobalt consumed in the United States was used in superalloys, mainly in aircraft gas turbine engines; 9% in cemented carbides for cutting and wear-resistant applications; 16% in various other metallic applications; and 33% in a variety of chemical applications.”
The U.S. Geological Survey reports that 70% of the world’s cobalt comes out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports between 15 and 30% of cobalt emerging from within DRC borders is produced by small mining operations, referred to as artisanal mining. That form of operation is more likely to involve forced labor, including child labor, according to the agency.
The State Department has also issued warnings related to silica coming from China, expressing concern it is being produced with forced labor.
To overcome those concerns, Green suggested there should be an increase in U.S. mining operations to avoid human rights violations.
The U.S. lags far behind cobalt resources in Australia, Canada, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Russia, and Zambia, according to the CIA World Factbook.
“Michigan needs to make sure we are leading in an ethical manner,” Green says. “So, therefore with the source of our materials, we need to make sure they are child labor free and forced labor free.”
Michigan Speaker of the House Rep. Joe Tate did not respond to an inquiry about the proposed legislation.