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⚡ "The Global Race to Mine the Metal of the Future"

The Daily

Photo by Kefentse Molotsane / Unsplash

Table of Contents

Host: Michael Barbaro
Guest: Dionne Searcey | Correspondent | The New York Times
Category: ⚡ Renewable Energy | Cobalt

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[1:20] “Cobalt is going to be extremely important to the future. It's a key ingredient in batteries of electric vehicles. […] Cobalt makes the battery go farther without needing a charge. And the place to go for cobalt is the Democratic Republic of Congo.

[2:29] “Congo has two thirds of the world's entire supply of cobalt. It has more cobalt in its tailings piles, the trash that mines throw out when they're digging for other minerals and metals, than most countries have in their entire landmass. And the cobalt you find there is a really, really high grade. It's pure and it's easy to get. […] Whoever controls Cobalt is going to have a key role in this new industrial revolution that's happening across the world.”

[5:23] “The ground in Congo is so bursting with cobalt that really what you need to dig for cobalt is a shovel. […] [Regular people] would dig it and load up these bags on the back of bicycles or motorcycles and drive it out down the highway to this row of basically 10 shacks, like a mile long, where they would take it inside and pulverize it […] and having someone determine the the purity and the grade and setting a price and selling it and shipping it off.”

[9:16] “Like with any kind of rush on something valuable, there are winners and losers. And the miners I met […] with his shovel and pickaxe, they aren’t reaping the benefits of this cobalt rush. Congo itself is barely reaping these benefits. What's happening is that cobalt has become this big competition between two great superpowers China and the United States.”

[9:56] “America's interest in Congo dates back decades and decades. Even Albert Einstein was writing secret cables to the President trying to get America to pay attention and get access to what Congo had, to all the minerals and metals there and including uranium. And in fact, we used uranium that came from Congo when we dropped bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And so the states back to World War II and in the Cold War, the CIA launched missions to get into Congo, all aimed at keeping Russia out because Russia was also interested in what Congo had to offer with its natural resources. […] We supported the military there, we supported electricity, bringing power lines and all kinds of things. We spent millions and millions of dollars. And then in the 80s, as the Cold War waned down, we changed our focus.

[12:06] “The US became consumed specifically on oil and on gaining access to oil. So the countries that became important were in the Middle East. […] During the Bush administration, of course, September 11 happened and that was a major distraction for America's interests. And we turned our attention to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. […] And just as America is stepping away, China becomes very interested in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the early 2000s and China is looking at developing the western part of its nation. And in order to do that, it needs resources, it needs minerals and metals to build all the things that it wants to build and to industrialize. So it turns to Congo.”

[14:21] “In 2005, Congo and China struck up a deal. It was an infrastructure for minerals deal, where China would come in and build the things that Congo needed, and Congo would give China access to its copper and cobalt. And this became a familiar pattern. It was kind of a blueprint that China used when it struck deals in other countries, this sort of template that it used for a big strategy that it had called the Belt and Road Program.”

[15:22] “When the world wakes up to the potential of cobalt, and in the past few years starts thinking about electric car batteries, China is in this really strong position. […] China controls the overwhelming majority of the cobalt market there. In fact, it controls 15 of the 19 existing industrial cobalt mines in Congo.”

[20:31] “[Biden] wants to try to get back in the game in Congo. And meanwhile, another interesting thing happening is in Congo itself. They're having a bit of […] buyer's remorse about China, and they are re-evaluating a lot of the contracts, those ones that were signed in 2005. They're thinking that maybe all the projects that were promised weren't built, and that some of the construction that happened is shoddy. […] There are some really testy allegations flying right now. And the Congolese government is looking into things and it could change the relationship.”

[22:38] “[Congo] officially controls all the cobalt, but it can't really mine it and get it out of the ground and put it on the market on its own. It is just the colonial legacy, the years of civil wars, that corrupt presidents have left it really at the mercy of international partners. […] And it's trying to be more assertive and […] gain control.”

[23:40] “The problem with just one country controlling the supply chain for electric batteries is that they would have political leverage. If relations sour then that country doesn't have to share. And it's really not that much of a stretch to imagine things going sour between the US and China, or there could be disruptions. Cobalt isn't used only just in electric vehicles, it's used in a lot of things we need for renewable energy like wind turbines, and it's used in things like phones and computers. […] Whoever controls cobalt in all these other metals and minerals, is going to be a leader in the new global economy, which is really going to rely on renewable energy.

Rating: ⚡⚡⚡⚡

🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify | Google
🕰️ 27 min | 🗓️ 03/18/2022
✅ Time saved: 24 min

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