Contemplate child labor, toxic mines and exploitation of vulnerable people as former Gov. John Hickenlooper runs for the U.S. Senate. These conditions increasingly cloud the legacy of his last year in office.
In 2018, Hickenlooper forced battery cars on Colorado with an executive order to adopt California’s emissions mandate. He signed it two months after boarding a luxury jet owned by the brother of battery car magnate Elon Musk to attend a Musk family celebration. The trip initiated one of several ethics investigations of the former governor.
After forcing car sales that will benefit Musk’s Tesla, Hickenlooper dedicated Colorado’s share of the Volkswagen emissions settlement to installing battery car charging stations throughout the state. More will drive battery cars, like it or not.
As these cars proliferate, problems continue emerging that make conventional vehicles seem relatively harmless.
A recent report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, prepared for the environmental nonprofit Earthworks, exposes imminent shortages of metals used in batteries that power electric cars.
“Demand for lithium and rare earths from lithium-ion batteries for EVs and storage exceeds current production rates by 2022,” the report explains. “Demand for cobalt and nickel exceeds current production rates by around 2030.”
By 2022 — the year new lanes open in The Gap of I-25 — we might lack enough rare metals to comply with Hickenlooper’s order.
Keeping up with demand will involve more dangerous mining practices that exploit child labor, deplete foreign regions of water and otherwise harm their populations. The report spells it out:
• Cobalt: Heavy metal contamination of air, water and soil has led to severe health impacts for miners and surrounding communities in DR Congo; cobalt mining area is one of the top 10 most polluted places in the world; around 20% of cobalt from DR Congo is from artisanal and small-scale miners who work in dangerous conditions; there is extensive child labour.
• Copper: Mining can lead to heavy metal contamination, as seen in Chile, China, India and Brazil; health impacts for workers in China and Zambia.
• Lithium: Mining causes water contamination and shortages in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile; inadequate compensation for affected communities.
• Nickel: Damage to freshwater and marine ecosystems in Canada, Russia, Australia, Philippines, Indonesia and New Caledonia.
• Rare earths (chemicals): Processing requires large amounts of harmful chemicals and produces large volumes of solid waste, gas and wastewater.
• Silver: Heavy metal contamination of soil and water in the U.S., Mexico, Peru and Bolivia; social conflicts in Guatemala.
A separate review published Nov. 6 in the science journal Nature raises extraordinary concerns about child labor, battery disposal dangers, and mining practices that make fracking seem relatively harmless.
“The processing of large amounts of raw materials can result in considerable environmental impacts,” the report says. “Production from brine, for example, entails drilling a hole in the salt flat, and pumping of the mineral-rich solution to the surface. … this mining activity depletes water tables. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama … 65% of the region’s water is consumed by mining.”
Battery car metals “raise multifarious social, ethical and environmental concerns around their extraction, including artisanal mines employing child labour,” the Nature report states. “ … social burdens are borne by some of the world’s most vulnerable people.”
Each battery car reduces demand for crude produced in Colorado and other oil-rich states. Unlike metal mining, oil extraction employs highly paid adult workers protected by strict state and federal safety, health and environmental regulations. Yet, by Hickenlooper’s executive fiat, we should trade that to impose more burdens on “the world’s most vulnerable people.”
As evidence mounts about the damning social and environmental toll of battery cars, remember Hickenlooper’s effort to force them upon us. When he asks for support, ask him to answer for this.