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Race to the future: what to know about the frantic search for cobalt

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Race to the future: what to know about the frantic search for cobalt

The clean energy revolution is replacing oil and gas with a new global force: essential minerals and metals in electric car batteries, solar panels and other forms of renewable energy.

For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which produces two-thirds of the world’s supply of cobalt, is stepping into the roles played by Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich countries. And a race between China and the United States to secure supplies could have far-reaching implications for the shared goal of protecting the planet.

An investigation by The New York Times interviewed more than 100 people from three continents and thousands of pages of financial, diplomatic and other documents. Here are some conclusions.

The sale of two major cobalt reserves in the Congo by a US mining company to a Chinese group, begun in 2016, marked the end of any major US mining presence in cobalt in the country.

Chinese battery makers have tied up with mining companies to ensure a steady supply of the metal.

As of last year, 15 of the 19 cobalt-producing mines in Congo were owned or financed by Chinese companies, according to data analysis. The companies had received at least $12 billion in loans and other financing from state-backed institutions, and are likely to have pulled out billions more.

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The five largest Chinese mining companies in Congo that focus on cobalt and copper mining also had loans totaling $124 billion from Chinese state-backed banks.

China Molybdenum, one of the government-backed companies that bought two US-owned reserves, described itself to the Times as “a pure business entity” traded on the two stock exchanges. Records show that 25 percent of the company is held by a local government in China.

Congolese people are reviewing past mining contracts financed by the US government, as part of a broader anti-corruption effort. They are also investigating whether China has fulfilled its promises to build roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure.

Separately, Chinese molybdenum is being accused of withholding payments to the government at its Tenke Fangurume cobalt and copper mine. The company said it had done nothing wrong, and questioned whether there was an organized effort to undermine it.

China has a phrase that goes like this: “Where there is a will to condemn, there will be evidence,” said a spokesman. “Obviously I think we can get caught up in the big powers game.”

One of the largest cobalt mines in the world, Tenke Fungurum, was controlled by an American company, Freeport-McMoran. It was then sold in 2016 to China Molybdenum in a series of transactions worth $3.8 billion. The sale was aided by a Chinese private equity firm that purchased a minority owner in the mine.

The founding board member of the private equity firm was Hunter Biden, the son of the US President. According to Chinese financial documents, a Washington company that was controlled by Mr Biden remains a shareholder in the firm. Mr Biden’s lawyer Chris Clark said his client has “no direct or indirect interest” in Washington and the Chinese firms. Filings in China show he is no longer a board member of the Chinese firm. Mr Biden did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked whether the president had been made aware of the sale of his son, a White House spokesman said, “No.”

The increasing mining and refining of cobalt by Chinese companies has helped to meet the growing demand around the world. But at least a dozen workers or contractors at the Tenke Fungurume mine told The Times that Chinese ownership had led to a steep drop in safety and an increase in injuries, many of which were not reported to management.

The company said the complaints were probably fabricated, and that it actually increased security.

As the world moves toward a future focused on electric vehicles, the United States is playing catch-up, although both Congress and the Biden administration are now taking the first steps. Legislation passed the House on Friday would provide more than half a trillion dollars toward moving the US economy from fossil fuels to renewable energy and electric cars.

Amos Hochstein, State Department senior adviser for global energy security, predicts access to solar panels and electric vehicle batteries will determine energy security in the future.

“It is a national security imperative that the United States ensures that the 21st century does not repeat the vulnerabilities of the 20th century,” he said.

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