The element cobalt isn’t something most people think of every day. And yet cobalt is critically important for the production of cell phones, wind turbines, and satellites. It’s also a key part of the lithium-ion battery — making it an essential resource for the emerging green revolution.
Right now, much of the world’s cobalt comes from one source — the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC produces roughly two-thirds of the world’s cobalt. Unfortunately, much of that mining is done by child labor, with revenues that often end up in the hands of autocratic rulers and warlords.
As global competition for resources like cobalt continues to grow, one country has moved quickly to dominate the field. Thanks to heavy investment in the DRC, China now owns much of the world’s cobalt production. In fact, China’s heavy investment in both copper and cobalt has given it a strong stake in global metal and mineral supplies.
Lithium is another element that’s integral to high-tech industries — everything from electric vehicle batteries and energy storage to aerospace and defense applications. Right now, three countries possess more than 75 percent of global lithium reserves: Chile, Argentina and Australia. And once again, China has taken control. It owns 67 percent of Chile’s lithium output, 61 percent of Australia’s, and 41 percent of Argentina’s. China also owns all of Bolivia’s lithium reserves — which are believed to be the world’s largest.
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Clearly, China recognizes the importance of mining when it comes to advanced technologies. And what’s troubling is that China is now the primary supplier of 26 out of the 48 minerals — ranging from graphite to rare earth metals — on which the United States has become completely import-dependent.
This is an enormous problem. Minerals vulnerability poses a serious threat to America’s long-term economic and national security. Having taken control of so much of the global reserves of key metals and minerals, China can simply use its leverage for geopolitical purposes, especially in a trade war.
It’s time for the United States to embark on a new minerals policy. There is cause for optimism, though. The U.S. possesses an estimated $6.2 trillion in domestic mineral reserves. And these resources — located mainly on public lands in the western United States — have been neglected as a vital area of national interest. But they contain a wealth of needed metals that can boost America’s global stake in the production of emerging technologies.
Washington should consider legislation that authorizes financial incentives for U.S. industries to source strategic, domestically-produced minerals. A good start would be key inputs like cobalt, lithium, and rare earth metals.
Initially, it may be difficult to relaunch domestic mining. But future generations will have difficulty comprehending why today’s leaders didn’t focus on boosting domestic minerals production. Most mining companies already recognize the importance of matching the mobility and agility of Chinese companies. It’s time for Washington to move with equal speed to end America’s troubling reliance on imported metals and minerals.
Matthew Kandrach is the president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.