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Mining conditions for minerals essential to clean energy tech under scrutiny

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Eric Tegethoff

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(Washington News Service) Critical minerals are crucial for the United States' clean energy future. But civil society and environmental groups are raising concerns about the working conditions under which these minerals are mined in other countries. Nickel, cobalt, lithium and other minerals are mined and shipped to the U.S. for use in manufacturing electric vehicles, long-storage batteries, microchips and solar panels.

Clayton Tucker, climate organizer with the nonprofit Trade Justice Education Fund, said conditions in countries where the minerals are mined do not meet U.S. standards.

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"Mining cobalt, there's artisan mines and child slavery is very, very commonly used. With nickel in Indonesia, to mine that you basically have to raze entire parts of the jungle and raze basically entire indigenous communities," he said.

Some of Washington's most important industries, including clean energy, transportation and aerospace, rely on these critical minerals. Tucker and representatives from 38 other groups recently testified at a hearing with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, calling for more stringent requirements for future Critical Mineral Agreements between the U.S. and other countries.

The only CMA that currently exists is between the United States and Japan. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative says the agreement strengthens and diversifies critical minerals supply chains and promotes the adoption of electric vehicle battery technologies. But the environmental groups say the agreement doesn't go far enough to ensure that workers and the environment are protected, and that it sets a concerning precedent. Tucker says the contracts come with certain perks and the U.S. needs to leverage its power.

"We need these minerals. We're basically trying to make sure that if you receive a subsidy, a tax credit or any form of other support, that you play by our rules with climate protections that you play by our rules with labor protections," he continued.

Funding from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is helping to bring supply chain manufacturing back to the United States in some instances, including two projects in Washington to manufacture silicon-based battery anodes.