Biden turns to Congo with documented child labor issues for green energy mineral supplies

Top Republican on House Natural Resources subcommittee vows oversight of Biden admin

The Biden administration opened the door to financing mining projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Zambia to bolster the global green energy supply chain as it pushes ahead with its climate agenda, despite the DRC’s documented issues with child laborers being used in such mines.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken entered into the agreement Tuesday, signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the two nations and lauding their work improving the electric vehicle battery supply chain. During a signing ceremony, Blinken said the “future” was happening, given the importance of cobalt for manufacturing electric vehicles.

“I really want to commend the DRC and Zambia, their governments for their leadership and vision in developing an electric vehicle battery council,” Blinken said Tuesday. “This is the future, and it is happening in the DRC and in Zambia.”

DRC foreign minister Stanley Kakubo added during the event that his country was committed to actualizing the deal “in a hurry.”

Green energy technologies like electric vehicle batteries, solar panels and wind turbines require a massive expansion of cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, graphite, zinc and other mineral production. The vast majority of mining and processing of such materials, though, takes place outside the U.S., making the nation more reliant on foreign minerals despite its large domestic resources.

In 2021, the DRC alone mined more than 70% of the global supply of cobalt, while the U.S. mined just 0.4%, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The DRC also has an estimated 3.5 million metric tons of cobalt reserves, the largest amount in the world.

However, independent investigations conducted in recent years by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and Amnesty International have documented how many cobalt mines located in the DRC employ child laborers. The Biden administration also released a report in October showing that child labor continues to take place in the mines.

“Many children we spoke to told us that they were frequently ill. Inhaling cobalt dust can cause hard metal lung disease — a potentially fatal condition,” a 2016 Amnesty International report stated. “Skin contact with cobalt can cause dermatitis — a chronic rash. Yet the children and other miners have neither masks nor gloves to protect them.”