About a decade ago, the environmental buzz word du jour was “divestment’, the process by which environmentalists thought they could ruin the fossil fuel industry by encouraging investors to sell their shares in these companies. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon and this was supposed to usher in an era of ethics-based investment in alternative energy companies which would put the environment above profit.
What if I told you this isn’t what happened? What if I told you that in the rush to develop environmentally friendly electric vehicles, major corporations have actually done just as much damage (if not worse) as the fossil fuel industry?
This is in no way meant to disparage those who bought EVs thinking they were doing the right thing to protect the environment. This is not on them. In much the same way Volkswagen duped its customers by rigging its diesel engines to give false emissions reports, automakers have not been forthcoming about their battery supply chains; it’s up for debate as to whether or not they have even performed the necessary due diligence to make sure their environmental claims are above board. That we, the consumers, must do what these massive corporations have an ethical and legal obligation to do is, in a word, disgusting. But do it we must.
Case in point: yesterday, Bloomberg News announced that GM has partnered with Glencore, a Swiss mining conglomerate, to purchase cobalt from their Murrin Murrin mine in Australia. No details were given as to the amount of cobalt involved or the purchase price, but GM doesn’t hide the fact that by 2025 they plan to build a million electric vehicles (EVs). That’s a tall order to complete in just over two and a half years.
Most people wouldn’t give this a second thought-it’s just another alternative energy commodity purchase. Nothing to see here. Indeed, both GM and Glencore’s stock was rising as soon as the announcement was made. I wouldn’t have given it a single moment of my time had I not come across the name Glencore in my research for an upcoming series on EVs. What I have learned about them is mortifying at best, but what I have read centers on the Democratic Republic of Congo. GM is sourcing their cobalt from Australia, but just because the continents are different doesn’t mean the methods and tactics used are. A brief online search revealed Glencore’s corruption is global, reaching from South America to Africa and the South Pacific as well as Australia. Last year, the company tried to gain access to indigenous lands in Australia’s Northern Territory to use as a waste dump for their zinc and lead mining. The land in question is currently protected by the federal government, but Glencore is lobbying for review of the protected status, and it’s feared that the government will cave to their demands.
IndustriALL Global Union, a group which represents 50 million people working in the energy, mining and manufacturing sectors in over 140 countries, put together a briefing in 2018 that was based in part on a leak of confidential information called the Paradise Papers. Those documents identified massive tax fraud and bribery within Glencore but that was really the tip of the iceberg. Among IndustriALL’s accusations are health and safety violations which have lead to severe illness and death, union busting, egregious toxic waste spills, and human rights violations too numerous to mention.
You can see now why I brought up divestment. We were all told that defunding the fossil fuel industry by encouraging investment firms to sell their stocks would put an end to their environmental degradation – what recourse do we have when the companies making bad decisions are the ones who replace the fossil fuel producers? I can’t speak to what GM knew or didn’t know about Glencore’s (relatively easy to discover) notorious reputation, but it doesn’t pass the smell test for me to think they didn’t know anything. Due diligence would require GM to investigate any company, large or small, with whom they want to work. As you will see in my upcoming series, I’m not a fan of EVs, at least not given how their batteries are produced at this time. I don’t plan to get one unless the technology changes to one that allows for cleaner battery production (and the ability to recycle them) and far better human rights records in the mining sector. I feel terrible for people who have electric vehicles, much like I did for the victims of Volkswagen’s scam, but we still deserve to know the truth about the choices we have when it comes to alternative energy sources. Right now, GM’s alliance with Glencore is not the best look, but as it stands, there won’t be an influx of their EVs on the market for over two years. There is still time for the ship to right itself. I certainly don’t have the voice to call them out – let’s hope someone who does will speak truth to power before these unethical practices make things much worse.