China has engineered a remarkable industrial rise over the past 20 years. But that success has been accompanied by a disturbing record of human rights violations, environmental pollution and shoddy production standards — in addition to illegal practices such as intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer. Particularly troubling are reports of slave labor and genocide in the Xinjiang region of Western China. In response, the Biden administration has now banned imports of polysilicon from Xinjiang.
This step is important in terms of human rights, but the rights of U.S. companies and their workers to free and fair markets also need to be considered. Additionally, there is the broader issue of a healthy U.S. economy that raises living standards for all Americans. So a critical accompanying step to President Biden’s new ban is for his administration to spur greater U.S. self-sufficiency in the production of raw materials needed for solar panels, electric vehicles (EVs), and semiconductors.
Last year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute reported that more than 80,000 ethnic Uyghurs were transferred from Xinjiang into forced labor across China between 2017 and 2019. The Trump administration responded by banning goods sourced from cotton or tomatoes produced in Xinjiang. Now, the Biden administration has gone a step further—banning polysilicon produced via forced labor in Xinjiang.
It’s morally correct to ban such imports. But some in Washington worry that limiting polysilicon imports could hamstring America’s deployment of solar panels and other advanced technologies. This view lacks a strategic, long-term perspective. Instead, Washington should embrace this moment to confront America’s dependence on China for the raw materials needed to produce renewable energy systems like wind turbines, solar panels and EV batteries.
All of these renewable technologies require copious amounts of metals and minerals. An EV, for example, uses six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car. An onshore wind plant requires nine times the mineral resources of a gas-fired power plant. And for solar power, photovoltaic systems need not just polysilicon but a wide array of metals, including silver, cadmium, gallium, germanium, indium, selenium and tellurium.
Unfortunately, the United States is now heavily reliant on China and other nations for these raw materials. In fact, America’s mineral-import reliance has doubled in just the past two decades. And thanks to aggressive, self-aggrandizing policies, China now controls 70 percent of the world’s lithium supplies, 80 percent of rare earth metals and roughly 70 percent of the world’s graphite. Beijing uses its supply chains to dominate the renewable energy sector, producing 70 percent of the world’s solar modules, half of global wind turbines, and many of the world’s lithium-ion batteries.
There is something else deeply rotten at the heart of China’s industrial dominance and its control of these global supply chains. China uses extremely toxic practices to extract rare earth metals and other resources. In Inner Mongolia, for example, China’s mining operators have poured refining waste into a poisonous artificial lake large enough to be visible on Google Earth. And China’s Bayan-Obo dumping site, containing dangerous sludge, is roughly three times the size of New York’s Central Park.
In contrast, America’s mining operators adhere to world-leading environmental standards. To meet soaring demand and reduce imports from China, the United States must now start mining these resources at home. A recent 100-day supply chain review from the Biden administration acknowledged this problem, concluding that the U.S. must “invest in sustainable production, refining, and recycling capacity domestically.”
Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm recently echoed that sentiment, saying that the U.S. must stop “bowing to the altar of low cost”—including resources— mined in China. The good news is that the U.S. possesses more than $6 trillion in mineral reserves. By reducing barriers to mining investment, reducing the cost of capital for new mining and processing projects, and creating a market for responsibly produced domestic materials, Washington can begin to break America’s reliance on China‘s supply chains and their abhorrent environmental and labor practices.
Mr. Biden is right to take a strong stand against China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang by banning polysilicon imports—as well as any other products produced by slave labor. But further steps are called for to protect American workers and the companies that employ them. The Biden administration must commit to ramping up America’s own domestic materials production and processing. Now is the time to enable responsibly produced materials and start building the domestic supply chains necessary for a “Made-in-America” energy future.
• Kevin Kearns is president of the U.S. Business & Industry Council. Follow him at @KevinLKearns.
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