A Power Struggle over Cobalt Rattles the Clean Energy Revolution

The quest for Congo’s cobalt, which is vital for electric vehicles and the worldwide push against climate change, is caught in an international cycle of exploitation, greed and gamesmanship.

KISANFU, Democratic Republic of Congo — Just up a red dirt road, across an expanse of tall, dew-soaked weeds, bulldozers are hollowing out a yawning new canyon that is central to the world’s urgent race against global warming.

For more than a decade, the vast expanse of untouched land was controlled by an American company. Now a Chinese mining conglomerate has bought it, and is racing to retrieve its buried treasure: millions of tons of cobalt.

At 73, Kyahile Mangi has lived here long enough to predict the path ahead. Once the blasting starts, the walls of mud-brick homes will crack. Chemicals will seep into the river where women do laundry and dishes while worrying about hippo attacks. Soon a manager from the mine will announce that everyone needs to be relocated.

This wooded stretch of southeast Democratic Republic of Congo, called Kisanfu, holds one of the largest and purest untapped reserves of cobalt in the world.

The gray metal, typically extracted from copper deposits, has historically been of secondary interest to miners. But demand is set to explode worldwide because it is used in electric-car batteries, helping them run longer without a charge.

Outsiders discovering — and exploiting — the natural resources of this impoverished Central African country are following a tired colonial-era pattern. The United States turned to Congo for uranium to help build the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then spent decades, and billions of dollars, seeking to protect its mining interests here.

Now, with more than two-thirds of the world’s cobalt production coming from Congo, the country is once again taking center stage as major automakers commit to battling climate change by transitioning from gasoline-burning vehicles to battery-powered ones. The new automobiles rely on a host of minerals and metals often not abundant in the United States or the oil-rich Middle East, which sustained the last energy era.

But the quest for Congo’s cobalt has demonstrated how the clean energy revolution, meant to save the planet from perilously warming temperatures in an age of enlightened self-interest, is caught in a familiar cycle of exploitation, greed and gamesmanship that often puts narrow national aspirations above all else, an investigation by The New York Times found.

The Times dispatched reporters across three continents drawn into the competition for cobalt, a relatively obscure raw material that along with lithium, nickel and graphite has gained exceptional value in a world trying to set fossil fuels aside.

More than 100 interviews and thousands of pages of documents show that the race for cobalt has set off a power struggle in Congo, a storehouse of these increasingly prized resources, and lured foreigners intent on dominating the next epoch in global energy.

In particular, a rivalry between China and the United States could have far-reaching implications for the shared goal of safeguarding the earth. At least here in Congo, China is so far winning that contest, with both the Obama and Trump administrations having stood idly by as a company backed by the Chinese government bought two of the country’s largest cobalt deposits over the past five years.

As the significance of those purchases becomes clearer, China and the United States have entered a new “Great Game” of sorts. This past week, during a visit promoting electric vehicles at a General Motors factory in Detroit, President Biden acknowledged the United States had lost some ground. “We risked losing our edge as a nation, and China and the rest of the world are catching up,” he said. “Well, we’re about to turn that around in a big, big way.”

China Molybdenum, the new owner of the Kisanfu site since late last year, bought it from Freeport-McMoRan, an American mining giant with a checkered history that five years ago was one of the largest producers of cobalt in Congo — and now has left the country entirely.

In June, just six months after the sale, the Biden administration warned that China might use its growing dominance of cobalt to disrupt the American push toward electric vehicles by squeezing out U.S. manufacturers. In response, the United States is pressing for access to cobalt supplies from allies, including Australia and Canada, according to a national security official with knowledge of the matter.

American automakers like Ford, General Motors and Tesla buy cobalt battery components from suppliers that depend in part on Chinese-owned mines in Congo. A Tesla longer-range vehicle requires about 10 pounds of cobalt, more than 400 times the amount in a cellphone.

Already, tensions over minerals and metals are rattling the electric vehicle market.

Deadly rioting in July near a port in South Africa, where much of Congo’s cobalt is exported to China and elsewhere, caused a global jump in the metal’s prices, a surge that only worsened through the rest of the year.

Last month, the mining industry’s leading forecaster said the rising cost of raw materials was likely to drive up battery costs for the first time in years, threatening to disrupt automakers’ plans to attract customers with competitively priced electric cars.

Automakers like Ford are spending billions of dollars to build their own battery plants in the United States, and are rushing to curb the need for newly mined cobalt by developing lithium iron phosphate substitutes or turning to recycling. As a result, a Ford spokeswoman said, “we do not see cobalt as a constraining issue.”

Increased mining and refining of cobalt by Chinese companies has helped meet the growing demand and advanced the fight against climate change. But as more electric vehicles are produced by more automakers worldwide, the International Energy Agency expects a cobalt shortage by 2030, based on an analysis of existing mines and those under construction. Other forecasters say a shortage could hit as soon as 2025.

A review by The Times of documents filed with regulatory authorities in China shows the acquisitions in Congo have followed a disciplined playbook, announced with great fanfare by Beijing in 2015, to dominate the world’s emerging clean energy economy.

As of last year, 15 of the 19 cobalt-producing mines in Congo were owned or financed by Chinese companies, according to a data analysis by The Times and Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. The biggest alternative to Chinese operators is Glencore, a Switzerland-based company that runs two of the largest cobalt mines there.

These Chinese companies have received at least $12 billion in loans and other financing from state-backed institutions, and are likely to have drawn billions more. In fact, the five biggest Chinese mining companies in Congo had lines of credit from state-backed banks that totaled $124 billion, according to the documents reviewed by The Times, even though one of them, China Molybdenum, described itself as “a pure business entity” traded on two stock exchanges.

China’s goal is to control the global supply chain from the metals in the ground to the batteries themselves, no matter where the vehicles are made. The approach, in part, echoes Henry Ford’s investments in Amazonian rubber plantations as the auto industry turned to mass production in the early 20th century.

The forested mine site at Kisanfu was just one of two major purchases in recent years by China Molybdenum. The first came in 2016, when it took control of Tenke Fungurume, a mine that on its own produces twice as much cobalt as any other country in the world. At least $1.59 billion of the $2.65 billion Tenke Fungurume price tag, financial records show, came from loans provided by Chinese state-owned banks.

At the same time, Chinese companies are running into new headwinds from Congo’s government, according to documents obtained by The Times and interviews with current and former senior U.S. officials.

Congolese officials are carrying out a broad review of past mining contracts, work they are doing with financial help from the American government as part of its broader anti-corruption effort. They are examining whether companies are fulfilling their contractual obligations, including a 2008 commitment from China to deliver billions of dollars’ worth of new roads, bridges, power plants and other infrastructure.

Congo’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, in August named a commission to investigate allegations that China Molybdenum, the company that bought the two Freeport-McMoRan properties, might have cheated the Congolese government out of billions of dollars in royalty payments. The company risks being expelled from Congo.

At the Tenke Fungurume mine, there have long been problems associated with trespassers from nearby villages scavenging for cobalt. After China Molybdenum called on the government to help, Congolese troops fired on a trespasser inside the mine’s gates, killing him, as well as a second person who was shot after riots broke out in protest, witnesses and local officials told The Times.

Separately, at least a dozen employees or contractors at the mine told The Times that Chinese ownership had led to a drastic decline in safety and an increase in injuries, many of which were not reported to management. Two Congolese safety officers said workers were assaulted after they raised concerns and were offered bribes to cover up accidents.