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Critical Minerals, Human Rights, and the EV Supply Chain

Sep 22, 2023 | Blog |

Critical Minerals, Human Rights, and the EV Supply Chain

by Ileagh MacIvers

As people of faith and conscience, we are called to care for our neighbors and our Shared Home. Transitioning away from polluting, destructive fossil fuels that fuel the climate crisis and harm the health of communities is one way we can live out our values. The zero-emission vehicle transition is a crucial step in decarbonizing the transportation sector, but must be done in a way that builds a fossil-free supply chain, supports human, labor, and Indigenous rights, and prioritizes the reduction of materials consumed and vehicle miles traveled. But how can we accomplish these goals? We believe that supporting the industry-wide establishment of FPIC (Free, Prior, and Informed Consent), and advocating for general hardrock mining reform, automaker supply chain transparency, battery mineral recycling, and the production of vehicles that prioritize mineral efficiency can help accelerate the transition to zero-waste transportation and ensure that it is just and equitable on a global scale.

Background

Electric vehicles rely on large, rechargeable batteries, which contain many critical minerals including lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, and graphite. Minerals can be produced by mining, by recycling existing minerals, or by diverting minerals from other uses. It is important to note that electric vehicles are not the only source of demand for minerals– our society is heavily mineral-dependent, and critical minerals can be found in cell phones, computers, airplanes, and a variety of everyday goods.

Unfortunately, mining presents a host of environmental, human rights, and Indigenous rights issues, such as air and water contamination, land and biodiversity loss, labor abuses, and the destruction of sacred sites and traditional cultures and economies. Mining is the most toxic industry in the US, being responsible for 45% of toxic chemical releases in 2020. Mining sites, both active and abandoned, can leak toxic chemicals such as arsenic, cyanide, and sulfuric acid into rivers, lakes, and other waterways, exposing our communities to this pollution. Mining sites can also produce fugitive dust emissions, releasing particulate matter into the air which may also be toxic. Other concerns include habitat destruction (due to large disturbances to the land), the degradation of natural areas, and subsidence (the creation of dangerous sinkholes).

While mining for critical minerals is problematic, it is important to remember that drilling for oil and gas poses many similar risks, in addition to creating an ongoing need for carbon-intensive oil, whereas minerals can be recycled and repurposed, extending their lifetime indefinitely.

There is significant research currently being conducted around alternative battery types that reduce or eliminate the need for more problematic minerals. These alternatives include lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, which do not require nickel or cobalt and have increased thermal and chemical stability, as well as sodium-ion batteries, which have lower energy density but are “much less affected by low temperatures and appear to be able to handle more charge/discharge cycles than lithium-ion batteries.” 

Another critical issue relating to battery minerals is Indigenous rights– 97% of nickel, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt reserves and resources are located within 35 miles of Native American reservations in the United States, and over half of critical battery minerals are on Indigenous lands. There are currently 160,000 abandoned hardrock mines in the United States which unfairly expose our communities, especially Indigenous groups, to toxic mining waste, leading to poor health outcomes and environmental degradation. This is a direct result of outdated, dangerous, and harmful mining law dating back to the General Mining Act of 1872. The 1872 Mining Act still governs hardrock mining on 350 million acres of federal public lands, mostly in the West and Alaska, which constitutes more than 15% of all the land in the United States. This law is out of touch with current industrial mining, and is tainted with colonial, exploitative logic. 

Advocacy Priorities

As a faith-based organization, IPL is especially concerned about the fair and just treatment of all people, including Indigenous rights and labor practices. As major consumers of critical minerals, automakers have significant power over the development and implementation of more equitable and sustainable supply chains. We are advocating for automakers to use their purchasing power as leverage for more sustainably produced minerals and calling on automakers to commit to protecting Indigenous rights and sovereignty as well as our Common Home. We’re also calling on automakers and battery producers to accept end-of-life battery responsibility in order to ensure effective mineral recycling and/or repurposing.

IPL is advocating for the industry-wide establishment of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC). According to the United Nations, “the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples requires States to consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing [mineral extraction sites] that may affect them.” The principle of free, prior, and informed consent is widely supported by international organizations, Indigenous-led environmental groups such as the Indigenous Environmental Network, and climate advocacy organizations around the world. FPIC exists in order to establish grassroots community engagement and consultation of an Indigenous group, with the possibility of giving or withholding consent. “Free” indicates consent given without coercion or manipulation, “prior” means consent must be obtained before any project begins, and “informed” means that full disclosure of applicable information must be provided in an accessible, understandable manner. The establishment of FPIC within the global mining industry is critical to protecting Indigenous rights and prioritizing Indigenous voices in discussions that directly impact their communities.

In addition, IPL is advocating for automakers to establish transparent supply chains as well as the inclusion of Indigenous rights as a part of automakers’ human rights due diligence. Zero major automakers have “fully integrated or operationalized the rights of Indigenous Peoples in their [corporate] policies.” We are also joining our faith-based and secular partners to advocate for reform of the 1872 Mining Act, including the prioritization of proper mining site cleanup by mining companies and for the updating of state standards to require independent third party verification of compliance. Lastly, IPL supports the prioritization of smaller consumer vehicles that maximize battery mineral efficiency. 

The establishment of a new, global EV supply chain is an opportunity to build an equitable, just, and sustainable supply chain from the ground up– it is our moral opportunity to do it right the first time. Click here to learn more about equity and justice in our transportation system, and click here to join our fight for strong fuel economy across vehicle classes!

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