Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. Now, our climate story of the week, which we're doing every Tuesday all year on the Brian Lehrer show. Today we acknowledge a negative side effect of the race to give up gasoline and move to all-electric vehicles. I'll say first so the science deniers and fossil fuel mavens don't use it as ammunition to throw out the baby of necessity with the bathwater of oil pollution that this is not really to debate, gasoline versus electrification, but it is to be holistic about the human and environmental cost of developing a mass new energy source.
Almost no energy source comes without some downside that needs careful regulation of industry. Let's be clear-eyed and open about this one. A Washington Post headline recently put it bluntly saying the quest for coveted electric vehicle metals is yielding misery. That story is set in the nation of Guinea, which is rich in bauxite, which is used in electric cars. We'll pick it up from there with one of the journalists who wrote the story, Rachel Chason, The Washington Post West Africa Bureau Chief. Rachel, thanks for coming on with us. Welcome to WNYC, and hello from New York.
Rachel Chason: Hey, Brian. Thank you so much for having me. I'm very happy to be here.
Brian Lehrer: Let's do some basics here. Help our listeners find Guinea on a map, and tell us a little about it demographically, like how many people live there, what the main sources of work are, and how it ranks in global wealth or poverty. Can you give us some of those basics?
Rachel Chason: Yes, of course. Guinea is a West African nation of about 13 million people, and in terms of development, it ranks very, very low. It's one of the least developed countries in the world even though it has, as we'll chat more about, a real wealth of different minerals including bauxite and iron ore. I did some reporting there this past fall, focused on this issue of bauxite mining specifically.
Brian Lehrer: What's bauxite and what does it do for electric vehicles?
Rachel Chason: Bauxite is refined to make illumina, which is then smelted to make aluminum, which is a lightweight metal that is useful in a whole bunch of things including-- construction is one of the biggest industries for aluminum. The Coca-Cola can you drink from, it's in lots of things. It's also incredibly important for electric vehicles because of its lighter weight to run further before needing to be recharged. It's useful in their batteries and throughout the body of the car.
An electric vehicle, on average, according to CRU, which is one of the leading consulting groups, requires between 130 and 180 more pounds of aluminum per car than a regular gas-powered vehicle. That is why bauxite is related to illumina, which is related to aluminum, which is related to EVs, and Guinea.
Brian Lehrer: Which is very illuminating. You report that hundreds of square miles of what used to be farmland is now being mined for bauxite with villagers receiving little or no compensation. How does that happen? Is someone just stealing the land of people who've been farming on it, or how does it happen?
Rachel Chason: No, it's a really good question. That's an answer that's definitely evolved a little bit over time. Human Rights Watch and Inclusive Development International did really great work on this, which helped clue me into it in the very beginning. In 2018, what they were finding was that there was very few systems in place at all for these companies to compensate villagers for the land. That there were agreements made with the government, and not that many processes in place at all when it came to compensating villagers for the land that was taken, so sometimes they weren't paid at all.
More recently, there have been more processes put in place, albeit ones that the villagers would say are woefully lacking. What happens as was described to me when we were there was the delegations come in from the companies and from the government, and they present villagers with a sum of money. They don't feel like they're given a choice in the matter.
They're given this money, it's divided up, and then they're told this land that you used to use for farming or fishing or whatever it is is going to be used, not just for the mines themselves, which sometimes does happen, but also the infrastructure that comes with the mines, so the roads, the railways. All of the associated infrastructure takes up a lot of this land.
Brian Lehrer: We're in our climate story of the week with Rachel Chason, The Washington Post West Africa Bureau chief as we talk about the misery as the headline of her Washington Post article puts it that people in the nation of Guinea in West Africa are experiencing because there's so much mining for bauxite right now that's being used in electric cars, which of course, is being promoted for the sake of preventing climate change. Now, if this is a big new industry in one of the world's poorest countries, it also, I would imagine, mean lots of new jobs. Can it be a net economic plus for people in poverty or just getting by in Guinea and not just stealing of their land or polluting of their land?
Rachel Chason: I think that's a great question and something that I tried to reach out a number of times to the Guinean government to talk more about this. I'd be really interested to get their perspective, because the former president, Alpha Condé, made a big push when it came to bauxite mining. He thought that increasing these levels of mining was going to be really good for the country. Mining under Condé increased fivefold from 2015 to 2020 in terms of the bauxite mined annually.
I do think that-- One former government official told me that there were positives associated with it. There were more jobs created, there was more tax revenue for the government, but that in terms of what actually trickled down to the villages where the mining was really located, it wasn't commensurate with the harms that came as well. When we were in these communities, we went to six different villages, interviewed dozens of people, and I can count on two hands the number of people who told me that they even knew someone who was employed by the mines.
It's not like you're going to these places and they're saying, yes, they brought a lot of jobs or anything like that. SMB, one of the main companies that we wrote about did write back and say that, I believe, and I'll have to double-check this, but more than 10,000 jobs, I think, were created as a result of their work, they said. They also talked about the things they've donated like 10 motorized fishing boats to make up for some of the losses that they acknowledge did happen.
Brian Lehrer: Like in so many instances of economic development and all kinds of countries, including places in this country, promise of a lot of jobs to counteract whatever environmental destruction takes place, but it doesn't always work out like they promise. Who owns the bauxite mines and all this development? Are they preexisting multinational corporations with histories of human rights abuses and environmental damage? Are they local Guineanian people? Who owns these bauxite mines?
Rachel Chason: Two of the biggest bauxite companies are CBG and SMB. CBG has existed for more than 50 years. It's a multinational company that's owned in part by the Guineanian government, and in part by big Western firms like Alcoa and Rio Tinto. They have made, I think it's fair to say, at least more public-facing efforts in terms of compensating villagers for land recently in terms of making progress on some of these issues. They're in a mediation right now with 17 villages. Maybe it's 13 villages that are suing a branch of the World Bank.
They put a lot more on their website in terms of strides that they're trying to make on these issues. Then SMB is a company that's owned in part by Guinea, and in part by a major Chinese aluminum manufacturer. They are brand new. They started in 2015. That was when they got their mining permit in Guinea, and they've quickly overtook CBG in terms of bauxite production and are really the giant in this industry right now. A lot of our reporting focused on the regions that they had touched in the last seven years.
Brian Lehrer: You report that much of the demand for EV so far, electric vehicles, is coming from China. If we assume that China doesn't have the human rights pushback that the United States and Europe do, is that a big factor in the callous way that this industry is getting off the ground in Guinea?
Rachel Chason: It's hard. I don't know for sure to answer the question. I think that that is something that environmental activists worry a lot about and that human rights activists worry a lot about including those that have seen environmental pollution happen as a result of production in China, but I can't say. Based on my reporting, I didn't get enough from the companies themselves to know that for sure, but that is definitely a fear that environmental activists have.
Brian Lehrer: I see that among the US automakers, you contacted Ford, and Tesla, and General Motors. Ford and Tesla didn't respond at all, and GM only gave you its general guidelines for human rights and corporate responsibility without addressing bauxite mining in Guinea specifically. What kinds of responses were you hoping for?
Rachel Chason: I think it would have been interesting to learn a little bit more. I recognize these supply chains are complicated. Even when I was describing it in the beginning of the segment, it's not super clear. There are some minerals that are easier to track. I think that that's a point that the car companies made when they were responding to Human Rights Watch and to Inclusive Development International. That with some things, like cobalt was one example that's received a lot of attention because there are fewer steps in the supply chain process.
They say it's easier for them to track where it's coming from and to try to police that supply chain, but because it's bauxite and then it's alumina and then it's aluminum, they say that there's just less tracking, which is what led Human Rights Watch and IDI to call this a real blind spot for the industry and say there needs to be more accountability at every level. What I would have been really interested in is to see, what are the challenges? How do they look at this issue? Are there ways in which they're trying to make it more accountable, understanding that it's not easy.
Brian Lehrer: As we run out of time, it sounds to me like the automakers should be called to a congressional hearing or something for this. Standards might need to be legislated in the United States for cars sold in this country, at least, which could then become global standards that would help the people in countries like Guinea, particularly Guinea, but it's not the only one, where mining for electric vehicle metals is starting to grow so fast. Any chance of anything like that as of now?
Rachel Chason: It's a good question. I don't know the answer because I haven't heard of any such calls yet, but it's not a bad idea. The last point that I think one of the industry analysts made to me was that these issues, they do happen when an industry starts to take off. If you look at bauxite mining in Australia, there were a lot of the same problems in the beginning.
He said that what's really dangerous is when it happens all at once. The scale of development that's been happening in Guinea for the last five years and what people say is expected to just continue, that's why it's so necessary that there is more oversight and more attention paid, because there's not a lot of accountability peeked into the Guinean government. It is just a tremendous amount of development that's happening all at once.
Brian Lehrer: Last question. Big picture, and maybe beyond the scope of your article, but has someone, to your knowledge, costed out the real net gain in human, or climate, or other terms of this trade-off to make it worth taking on this whole new area of economic development and economic justice as a challenge as we move the world toward electric vehicles?
Rachel Chason: I'm going to give a partially unsatisfying answer, but I think that this is the first part. This was the first article in a series that will look at this very question. We're going to look at the other metals and minerals that are going into EVs. I hope that over the course of that series, we'll be able to sort of better answer that question, but today I don't have a good answer.
The next story will be about nickel in Indonesia. It's written by a wonderful reporter who is our Southeast Asia bureau chief. I think that should come out soon. I think that this is a question we want to keep interrogating and that you laid out so well in the introduction. It's not to say that electric vehicles aren't incredibly important for the future. We know they are, but it's just to really focus on how those minerals that are so vital to them are mined and processed and to make sure that there's transparency and clarity around those things going forward.
Brian Lehrer: Well, I look forward to the future articles in this series. We thank Rachel Chason, who is the West Africa bureau chief for The Washington Post. Her article recently, putting it bluntly, as I said in the intro, saying, the quest for coveted electric vehicle metals is yielding misery, her article is said, in the nation of Guinea. Rachel, thanks for coming on with us. We really appreciate it.
Rachel Chason: Of course, thank you so much for having me.
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