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Monday, August 7, 2017

Wyoming Coal vs. Congolese Cobalt

Sometimes, people ask me if I don’t like the minerals industry. On a couple of occasions, I have even been asked if I am anti-coal. The reason is that I criticize how the state government has allowed itself to become irresponsibly and unsustainably dependent on severance taxes.

Of course, I am not “anti-coal”, nor am I against the minerals industry. I support free enterprise, free markets and capitalism, and that includes all businesses, minerals and non-minerals.

I am the first to admit that there are flaws in the free market, and that capitalism is not a perfect socio-economic system. But they are the best we have, and anyone expecting perfection out of anything created by men is either arrogant, or ignorant of God. We are imperfect by design, and so is everything we create.

One of the many good things about a free society and a free economy is that they allow entrepreneurial minds to strive to solve, or reduce the impact of, the flaws in our economy and our society. When people are given the chance to benefit from success, and learn from failure, we all benefit.

Social and economic change through the free market sometimes takes time. The free market is one giant trial-and-error system where we all have a voice: ultimately, the way we choose to spend our money is how we signal approval or disapproval of people’s attempts at solving problems. The results of this “voting” process can take a while to materialize, but when they do, the verdict is genuine.

This goes for all kinds of problems, including environmental pollution. The environmental movement has done a lot of good, such as bringing cleaner water and air to all of us. They could have achieved their good goals by using the free market, rather than government regulations, but they do deserve recognition for having brought environmental problems to the attention of all of us. 

The problem is that the environmental movement has turned into a political industry like any other. The idealism that drove the original environmentalist movement (at least here in the United States; European environmentalism has some ugly ties to fascism that are worth noting but I won't go into here) has given way to a career-building conglomerate where professional activists and do-good politicians form alliances to further issues that no longer make any sense from an environmental viewpoint. 

We, here in Wyoming, have suffered some of the consequences of this new enviro-lobby. Without regard to the fallout of their political and legislative activism, they have abandoned the free market, where they could have continued to push their agenda by convincing people of their good cause. Instead of motivating people to spend their money in a more environmentally friendly way, the enviro-lobby has cheated the free market by using government as an instrument of interference. 

We here in Wyoming know all too well how the minerals industry has been, and still is, on the receiving end of the enviro-lobby's self-serving agenda. Environmentalists of all calibers, from naïve do-gooders to hardline socialists, have vilified fossil fuels as planetary destroyers. Relying on questionable research – and, it turns out, deliberately manipulated analytical models – this movement has tried to use the force of the state to either cheat the free market, or outright alter it.

The economic crisis in Wyoming is predominantly the cause of bad state government policies, but the federal government's war on coal has exacerbated the situation. On top of that, we are all somehow supposed to feel guilty because we like coal, oil and natural gas, and because we use severance taxes to pay for some of our government. 

When we try to point out how the enviro-lobby is raising the cost of living for all of us, and in some cases destroying communities, we are all told that it is for a higher good. The world, we are told, will burn up if we do not stop burning fossil fuels.  

What we never hear is how the political and legislative victories of this enviro-lobby is wreaking havoc in its own way. It starts in the microcosm of a wind turbine that kills birds and expands to hydro-electric power plants, the dams of which destroy entire eco systems and sometimes wipe out communities. 

Then we get to the crown jewel of the enviro-lobby: the electric car. Innocent as a Nissan Leaf may look, and ingenious as a Tesla might seem, they represent a form of predatory, exploitative assault on the poorest and most vulnerable people on this planet.

Children being born into abject poverty in Africa.

The key is cobalt, a rare metal essential to the batteries in modern electric and hybrid cars. In the wake of the British government's decision to ban combustion engines by 2040, British newspaper Daily Mail reports about the horrific conditions under which cobalt is being extracted in the "Democratic" Republic of Congo:
Picking through a mountain of huge rocks with his tiny bare hands, the exhausted little boy makes a pitiful sight. His name is Dorsen and he is one of an army of children, some just four years old, working in the vast polluted mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where toxic red dust burns their eyes, and they run the risk of skin disease and a deadly lung condition. Here, for a wage of just 8p a day, the children are made to check the rocks for the tell-tale chocolate-brown streaks of cobalt – the prized ingredient essential for the batteries that power electric cars. And it’s feared that thousands more children could be about to be dragged into this hellish daily existence – after the historic pledge made by Britain to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2040 and switch to electric vehicles.
The obsession with "clean energy" has dramatically increased the value of natural resources such as cobalt, which in turn makes it even more lucrative for the Congolese government to turn a blind eye to, or even encourage, child slave labor in the extraction process. The Daily Mail again:
Dorsen, just eight, is one of 40,000 children working daily in the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The terrible price they will pay for our clean air is ruined health and a likely early death. Almost every big motor manufacturer striving to produce millions of electric vehicles buys its cobalt from the impoverished central African state. It is the world’s biggest producer, with 60 per cent of the planet’s reserves. The cobalt is mined by unregulated labour and transported to Asia where battery manufacturers use it to make their products lighter, longer-lasting and rechargeable.
Stop for a moment and compare this image to the coal mines and oil fields here in Wyoming. Think about how our minerals companies take care of their employees, pay them well, and how they interact with their communities. 

With that contrast in mind, please note that every car buyer who deliberately chooses an electric or hybrid vehicle sends his or her money down the production chain, from the dealership via the global shipping of cobalt and batteries around the world, all the way down to the hands of ruthless slave owners in the Congo. 

Let us not forget that we are all culprits if we own a cell phone or a tablet. (Yes, I am considering getting rid of my iPhone.) But, as the Daily Mail explains, it is government regulations favoring electric-power cars that encourages the continuation, and expansion, of child exploitation and slave labor in Africa:
The planned switch to clean energy vehicles has led to an extraordinary surge in demand. While a smartphone battery uses no more than 10 grams of refined cobalt, an electric car needs 15kg (33lb).
To be clear, it is not just the British government that is driving this predatory colonialism in one of the most vulnerable regions of the world. Keep in mind that for every electric car that is bought here in the United States, we who pay federal income taxes dole out $7,500 in subsidy. That subsidy, combined with ever tighter MPG regulations on combustion-engine vehicles, allows environmentalist activists to feel good about themselves (and tweet about their good deeds on their cobalt-equipped iPads) at the expense of children whose abhorrent daily lives they neither see nor want to hear about. 

The same goes for our elected officials, whenever they pass a bill that gives further favors to electric-car manufacturers over traditional cars and trucks. They can lean back in their armchairs, take a congratulatory call - and check - from the Sierra Club and turn a blind eye to the plundering of children and the destruction of nature and future that is the fallout of their deeds. 

Or, as the Daily Mail explains,
Car maker Tesla – the market leader in electric vehicles – plans to produce 500,000 cars per year starting in 2018, and will need 7,800 tons of cobalt to achieve this. Sales are expected to hit 4.4 million by 2021. It means the price of cobalt will soar as the world gears itself up for the electric car revolution, and there is evidence some corporations are cancelling their contracts with regulated mines using industrial technology, and turning increasingly to the cheaper mines using human labour.

At the end of the day, not even the most tunnel-visioned environmentalist can escape stories such as the one in the Daily Mail. Some of the comments circulating on Facebook and other media try to dilute or divert the argument, suggesting that this predatory abuse of children and the environment in Africa is somehow the result of "consumerism" and "capitalism". 

No, it is not. It is the result of government tax policies and regulations that, in turn, are motivated by questionable, even forged, "scientific" research. The terrible abuse of children in the Congo is the result of political greed and self-obsessed do-goodery here in the United States and in Europe.

We do not use child slave labor to extract coal from the ground here in Wyoming. We do not abuse children to pump oil from the ground. We do not enslave people to refine that oil into gasoline. Our minerals companies are some of the most responsible, professional and reliable businesses in the world. 

It is time to stop vilifying our fossil-fuel industry. It is time to give them a chance to operate without a government noose around their necks. And while we liberate them of regulatory shackles, let us roll back every government initiative that leads to the sacrifice of children at the altar of environmental do-goodery.

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