In the eight months since inauguration, the Biden administration has been hard at work frantically unraveling President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies.
Amid the flurry of executive fiats and new agency rules, President Joe Biden’s ban on solar panel materials from certain Chinese companies is the first move we’ve seen that doesn’t put America dead last. It should be followed by even stronger reforms to crack down on environmental recklessness and human rights abuses by our trading partners.
The green energy movement is synonymous with dependence on foreign imports. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s solar panels are imported from China, over half of which come from the Xinjiang region. For too long, renewable energy activists have turned a blind eye to the well-documented forced labor and human rights abuses in their supply chain. The Chinese regime’s own publications detail the “placement” of over 2 million Uyghur and Kazakh people in forced labor programs, particularly in the solar industry. Every manufacturer of polysilicon, the main component of most solar panels, in the Xinjiang region participates in these barbaric programs.
The Biden administration’s decision to block solar panel imports from Xinjiang—a move the U.S. solar industry association has finally publicly supported—is a correct move, and it’s a good thing that rampant abuse of minority groups in China is finally reaching public consciousness. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the Congo, for example, children as young as 4 are forced to work in cobalt mines to supply the electric car-battery industry. There’s much more work to be done to protect workers’ rights and ensure all people are treated with dignity.
In addition to human rights concerns, Chinese dominance in the renewable energy industry has serious environmental consequences for the world. The vast majority of rare earth minerals, which are used in many types of manufacturing but especially renewable energy, are also imported from China. Wind turbines, for example, rely on neodymium magnets, with heavier-duty offshore turbines requiring a literal ton of the element per turbine.
China’s lax environmental rules allow the valuable metals to be mined with reckless abandon. Reports from the few journalists who have visited Chinese rare earth mines are chilling. One state-owned facility in Baotou left behind a lake of toxic radioactive waste that destroyed land and displaced nearby families. Neighboring villages were forced to give up on farming when their crops stopped bearing fruit and animals grew sick. Concerns have been raised that the waste could contaminate the Yellow River, which provides water for many of China’s residents.
Cities near rare earth mines are referred to as “cancer villages.”
And it’s not just Chinese citizens who will suffer because of their country’s environmental irresponsibility. Studies in 2010 and 2017 found that Asian air pollution was responsible for as much as 65 percent of the increase in ozone concentrations on the West Coast and nearly 30 percent of airborne lead in the San Francisco Bay area. Enabling China’s environmental recklessness has far broader ramifications for the global environment, including right here in the United States.
If Biden wants an energy future with clean energy for all, he should follow his Chinese solar ban not with more renewable mandates and slush funds, but with policy changes that reduce government burdens on American energy production.
As much as advocates for green energy might hope renewables are the way of the future, even decades of subsidies and hundreds of billions of dollars haven’t made solar or wind technology sustainable as primary energy sources. These resources still provide just 4 percent of our annual energy use (pdf). Meanwhile, U.S. oil, natural gas, clean coal, and nuclear producers continue to power the nation, offering the cheap, reliable, and environmentally friendly energy we need.
America’s global leadership in clean air and water is proving that abundant energy and environmental quality go hand in hand. Even as our energy consumption, vehicle use, population, and economy have boomed, the United States has cleaner and safer air than nearly every developed country—five times cleaner than China’s. That progress will only continue unless the federal government continues penalizing domestic energy producers.
Just as dependence on China for solar panels facilitates that country’s pollution, strangling responsible American fossil fuel companies with red tape will shift production overseas to unstable countries that don’t share our environmental or labor standards. Ceding power by becoming dependent on foreign oil once again will threaten our economic stability and strength—and our environment.
The Biden administration deserves praise for cracking down on forced labor in the solar industry. But this is only one small change, and the president shows no sign of backing down from the renewable energy agenda. The American people will be far better off if fossil fuel energy producers are allowed to thrive free from bureaucratic overreach. Unfortunately, the administration’s haste to overturn Trump-era policies shows this isn’t a priority.