This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Idaho’s Cobalt Belt is a 34-mile-long desirable stretch of ore tucked under the Salmon River Mountains that’s considered “globally significant” by mining companies. And miners are interested in that cobalt: a hard, brittle metal used in electric vehicle batteries. On Oct. 7, Australia-based Jervois Global opened the only cobalt mine in the U.S. there to much fanfare.
The new mine, which will be at full operating capacity in 2023, is part of a burgeoning Western mineral rush. These modern prospectors are focused on so-called green metals like cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and rare earth elements that are used in clean energy applications. Projects in the works range from copper and manganese mines in Arizona to a proposed lithium mine in Nevada. Jervois’ Idaho Cobalt Operations is unique in its focus: cobalt is usually a byproduct of nickel or copper and not a mine’s primary objective.
Demand for these minerals has ballooned in the last several decades. “We’re producing more metal than we ever have done at any other point in human history,” said Simon Jowitt, an economic geologist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “Modern life uses more metals and minerals than ever before.” And Idaho’s cobalt development comes amid a surge of interest in minerals used for electric vehicles, solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, in addition to everyday technologies like cellphones and laptops.
A World Bank report estimates the production of green metals could increase by 500 percent to meet demand for clean energy. That amounts to about 3 billion tons of minerals and metals needed to deploy technologies necessary to keep the planet under 2 degrees Celsius of warming. The nascent U.S. boom is further fueled by the Inflation Reduction Act: Its electric vehicle credit only applies for cars with domestically mined battery materials, like cobalt from the new Idaho facility.
As a result, mines sprouting up across the West are being billed by politicians as essential to decarbonize the energy grid. “I think it’s very critical that we mine not only cobalt in Idaho, and in America, but the other precious and critical minerals,” Republican U.S. Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, told the Idaho Statesman in a recent interview. Cobalt is a necessary component in many EV battery packs, which can contain up to 40 pounds of the element. It is considered a material supply-chain risk by the Department of Energy — the world’s top producers are the Democratic Republic of Congo and Russia. The new mine and processing facility is expected to produce enough cobalt concentrate for 400,000 vehicles, according to Jervois’ general manager Matt Lengerich.
Supply chain security, however, is far from complete: The cobalt concentrate pulled from the ground at the Jervois mine, complicated by the presence of arsenic, will be processed in Brazil due to a lack of U.S. facilities. Cobalt is often then shipped to China, where it is put into lithium-ion batteries. In order to be a truly secure supply chain, processing, refining, and manufacturing would all have to happen in the U.S. “The fact that we don’t truly produce the metals we need is a problem,” said Corby Anderson, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines who specializes in extractive metallurgy. Anderson worked on the Idaho project’s early feasibility studies for a different company in the 1990s. Mining companies are targeting the West especially because of its wide swaths of public land and history of mining.
But some believe this framing warrants caution. Should mining projects be lauded just because they’re mining for components used in electric vehicles or other environmentally friendly technologies? “I think it’s important not to get too caught up in that,” said Josh Johnson, a senior conservation associate at the Idaho Conservation League, an environmental group. “I think we also need to realize that in a warming climate, what else is critical? Clean water.”
All hardrock mining risks exposing sulfides to air and water, creating acid mine drainage, which then can mobilize naturally occurring heavy metals that can make their way to streams and harm aquatic ecosystems. The Idaho Cobalt Belt is no stranger to mining gone wrong: Blackbird Mine, a now inactive, once open-pit and underground mine for cobalt, silver, and copper ore, released contaminated soil, sediments and tailings during high flows. Operations ultimately fouled a major tributary of the Salmon River and is now a Superfund site.
Jervois has pledged to treat water in perpetuity before discharging it into a nearby stream and will dispose of waste rock and tailings in lined cells, making the Idaho Conservation League more confident that the mine’s impact will be less than other mines they’ve opposed in the past. “It’s always a little bit of a leap of faith when it comes to mining,” Johnson said. “You can do everything on paper, but now they have to prove that they can actually do it.”
The nonprofit announced a partnership with the company in March 2021 to protect and restore fish, water quality, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity within the Upper Salmon River Basin. “I think a lot of groups, not just ICL, are looking at these kinds of projects in a new light,” Johnson said. “Not necessarily in a supporting-all-mining kind of light, but in supporting the green energy transition … while most importantly, still not compromising anything in the environment or clean water.” The Upper Salmon Conservation Action Program is funded by a voluntary, annual $150,000 contribution from Jervois. That funding goes to projects that enhance nearby riparian areas, increase vegetation and fund strategic land acquisitions for fish habitat improvement.
More cobalt mining could occur in the area in the future. According to reporting by the Idaho Statesman, two other companies are exploring cobalt deposits on U.S. Forest Service land nearby. One of those companies, Koba Resources Limited, has four projects in the Idaho Cobalt Belt and calls the region “highly endowed” yet “underexplored.” And the law that established the Frank Church Wilderness, which is only three miles from Jervois’ project, enables a “Special Mining Management Zone” in the northeast corner of the wilderness for cobalt, although there are no known proposals yet.
With looming land use change on the horizon, Jowitt thinks communities will need to grapple with how green metal mining can coexist with environmental concerns and bolster rural economic development in a meaningful way. “What we’ve seen is because everybody wants laptops, everybody wants mobile phones, everybody wants Teslas, there’s a corresponding increase in demand for cobalt,” Jowitt said. “That increase is not going to go away.”