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New Idaho mine could mark beginning of cobalt boom as demand for climate-friendly minerals skyrockets

The rugged South Fork of Salmon River Canyon near its confluence with Salmon River. Beneath the mountains lies cobalt, a material highly sought-after for its use in lithium ion batteries.  (Photos courtesy Rich Carignan)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has set the United States on an ambitious path toward dramatically cutting its carbon emissions in an effort to slow climate change. Thanks to skyrocketing demand for minerals needed to build electric vehicles, that path could lead through Idaho.

In Lemhi County, about 25 miles west of the town of Salmon, the Australian firm Jervois Mining is on track to open later this year what would be the only underground cobalt mine in the United States. The metal is an important component of the lithium-ion batteries that power everything from next-generation cars to smartphones and power tools.

But while supporters of the project emphasize new mining practices reduce the risk of environmental harm, the transition to more climate-friendly vehicles comes with risks. Josh Johnson, who works on cobalt issues at the Idaho Conservation League, said his organization has had to grapple with that tension as they have partnered with battery minerals company Jervois on a program to protect the Upper Salmon River basin.

“We know that mining has historically been a destructive activity to the environment,” Johnson said, pointing to the defunct Blackbird site near the new mine, where extracting cobalt and other minerals starting in the late 1800s led to its designation as a Superfund site. “As they go into production, we’ll be watching to see if all of their environmental safeguards are working as they should be.”

Still, Johnson noted the mine could be an important part of a global effort to cut carbon emissions, another goal of the Idaho Conservation League.

“The fact that they are mining cobalt is important,” he said. “But we also need to make sure that that cobalt is being extracted in an environmentally responsible way. That’s the bottom line.”

In April, Biden committed the U.S. to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions in half from peak levels by the end of the decade. In June, the president signed an executive order directing the federal government to expand domestic production of critical minerals and “next-generation” electric vehicle batteries.

The Gem State sits atop the biggest deposit of cobalt in North America, said Claudio Berti, director of the Idaho Geological Survey. The group he leads, which is housed at the University of Idaho, conducted an unprecedented aerial survey last September of the Idaho Cobalt Belt, which lies under the Salmon River Mountains. Their findings will be made public in the next two months, Berti said.

While the Jervois mine is slated to be the first active cobalt mine in the region, it likely won’t be alone for long. According to a 2019 Idaho Geological Survey presentation, of about 6,000 new mining claims filed in the previous year, roughly 5,000 were in Idaho’s cobalt belt.

The potential boom in cobalt mining could affect the area in numerous ways, Berti said.

“There is of course a fundamental economic impact for the region,” he said. “Developing one or several cobalt operations can be an incredible economic boost for the region. It also has a fundamental impact in (not only) Idaho’s but the nation’s ability to sustain the energy transition from fossil fuels into renewable energy.”

“Of course, there is also the environmental impact,” he said, including “a whole suite of possible issues,” including water contamination.

According to its website, Jervois will operate a water treatment plant on-site, and the mine “will operate on a zero-discharge basis with the water used in our processes, so there will be no degradation to rivers and streams.”

Those safeguards could make Idaho cobalt even more attractive to companies, like the automaker Tesla, that have recently made commitments to cleaning up their supply chains. The world’s cobalt supply relies on mines in countries without the environmental and worker-safety standards that apply in the United States.

Most of the global supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Central African country that holds more than half of the world’s reserves of the mineral, according to the latest U.S. Geological Survey estimates. Numerous reports of child labor and other human rights abuses have emerged from Congolese mines, most of which are controlled by Chinese companies.

Pandemic-era supply chain problems have also shined a spotlight on the U.S. economy’s reliance on China, which accounts for two-thirds of global output of refined cobalt, according to a 2021 report by market research firm Fitch Solutions.

“I don’t want to see the United States forced into a position where we grow even more reliant on countries that in some cases are not too friendly to us,” Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican whose district includes the mine site, said during a virtual event Tuesday.

Rep. Russ Fulcher, another Idaho Republican, echoed that sentiment at the event celebrating the mine organized by Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Central Washington Republican who leads the Congressional Western Caucus.

“To me, it’s made no sense whatsoever to depend on our enemies for critical minerals, especially when we have such blessings of those minerals in domestic areas, and one of those is right in my home state of Idaho,” said Fulcher, whose district could also benefit from the project.

In 2019, former Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who sat on the board of a rival mining company whose bid to acquire the mine came up short, called for the Treasury Department to review the sale to Jervois for potential links to China. Jervois CEO Bryce Crocker dismissed Otter’s allegation, and the acquisition went ahead.

In a phone call Friday, Matt Lengerich, executive general manager of the Idaho mine at Jervois, said the cobalt mined in Idaho will be sent to a refinery in Brazil. There are no active cobalt refineries in the United States.

That may change in the years ahead, as demand for cobalt and other minerals is expected to skyrocket.

A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a gas-powered car, according to a May 2021 report by the International Energy Agency that projected “cobalt demand could be anything from 6 to 30 times higher than today’s levels depending on assumptions about the evolution of battery chemistry and climate policies.”

In the event with lawmakers Tuesday, Lengerich estimated the mine will produce about 2,000 tons of cobalt in concentrate each year, enough to meet roughly 15% of U.S. demand for the metal based on 2019 figures. The site is currently permitted to operate for eight years, but Lengerich said it could double that production if it receives a permit for an expansion.

In a phone call Friday, Lengerich said the mine will employ up to 120 people during construction and create a total of 180 full-time positions at the mine site, including contractors. The mine is scheduled to begin operating in the second half of 2022, he said, declining to give a precise start date.

“When you talk about 180 jobs in Seattle or Boise or somewhere else, that has an impact,” Simpson said in Tuesday’s event. “But 180 jobs in Salmon, Idaho, is critical. That is a big, big deal.”

Berti said because domestic cobalt mining will be “a fundamental part of the economy to come,” Americans will need to realize “there is not a perfectly clean solution to anything, unfortunately.”

“If we want to detach ourselves from one ‘bad thing’ like fossil fuels, something has to be done in one way or another,” he said. “Nobody wants to see the mountain next to your home mined, but we have no choice – we have to find ways to produce concentrated energy, and we either use fossil fuels or we use minerals that allow us to store it in batteries.”

Johnson said because the Jervois site is just the first of what will likely be many more cobalt mines in Idaho, he hopes the company will set the bar high in terms of environmental standards.

“A lot of eyes are going to be on this project,” he said. “Both in the Idaho Cobalt Belt and across the country.”