A new cobalt mine is set to begin operations in the United States later this year.
The mine, located in Lemhi County, Idaho, is owned by Jervois Mining, an Australian company that specializes in extracting minerals used for making batteries. Although the main mineral produced at the underground mine is cobalt, the company also expects it to produce copper and gold.
Cobalt is used in a variety of essential technologies, among them, rechargeable batteries electrodes, superalloys for jet turbine engines, and magnets, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
Demand for cobalt has risen as it is an essential mineral for the production of the lithium ion batteries used in electric vehicles (EVs) and electronics, and in the magnets used in wind turbines.
The USGS reports the more than half of world’s cobalt is produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Regardless of where it is produced almost all the world’s cobalt is shipped to China for processing and refining before it makes its way into consumer and industrial products.
The USGS estimate the U.S. contains about 1 million tons of cobalt reserves, with the largest deposits located in of in Minnesota. Alaska, California, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, also contain cobalt reserves.
At present, the United States produces only about 500 tons of the tens of thousands of tons contained in the products sold here, annually with that production coming from concentrate associated with a nickel-copper mine in Michigan and from old mine tailings being processed at a plant in Missouri.
Jervois says its Idaho mine will use a state-of-the-art equipment and design to minimize any damage to water quality and the local environment.
“The site will operate on a zero-discharge basis with the water used in our processes, so there will be no degradation to rivers and streams,” said a company statement.
Domestic Production Needed
Relying on cobalt produced in the DRC or processed in China is problematic for a number of reasons, says Ann Bridges, author of Groundbreaking! America’s New Quest for Mineral Independence.
“Based on numbers recently released by the USGS, 79 percent of the world’s cobalt is mined in the politically unstable Kinshasa region in the Democratic Republic of Congo, unfortunately relying partially on child labor to bring this key metal to the Western marketplace via China,” said Bridges. “If possible it would be better for the U.S. to skip over the Congo to China pipeline entirely by outsourcing the refining American cobalt to Brazil instead, even though that still would not completely alleviate the risks involved with depending on foreign nations for our critical mineral needs.
“I suppose it would represent some progress, if we send our few tons of cobalt mined in Idaho to a refinery in Brazil rather than China, who controls 85 percent of refining for EVs batteries,” said Bridges. “However, until we also remove barriers to processing, either on-site or at least domestically, then we still have a risk of supply chain disruptions from natural disasters and geo-political conflicts and competition.”
Anti-Mining Bias Must End
The Obama administration held a strict anti-mining stance, which President Biden’s Department of the Interior will need to set aside in order to move ahead with other critical mineral projects like the Idaho cobalt mine, says Bridges.
“If the President Biden is serious about tapping American resources and ingenuity, he will need to get Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on board, too,” said Bridges. “Her efforts seem fixated on blocking any progress for even permitted mines, like those in Minnesota and Alaska.
“For instance, Haaland seems intent to maintain the Obama administration’s withdrawal of 101,000-acres of Forest Service and BLM land astride the Oregon-California border, which blocks mineral entry and exploration in the area for 20 years,” said Bridges.
Ethical and Environmental Concerns
Even if the federal government were not pushing climate policies encouraging the increased use of electric vehicles, the demand for the technologies that utilize cobalt is climbing and will continue to do so, says E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., president of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.
“Regardless how stringent climate policies are, or how rapidly we move from internal combustion to electric vehicles, increasing battery needs around the world presage a huge increase in demand for cobalt,” said Beisner. “Unlike other countries like the Congo, where human rights are violated and environmental standards are poor, here in America, cobalt mining will have to meet stringent environmental and labor standards.
“Aside from being better from a moral and environmental perspective, mining cobalt here will reduce our dependence on hostile foreign states for this strategically vital mineral,” said Beisner.
For the good of the planet and for the health of people around the world, it makes sense for the United States to increase domestic mining and mineral refining, which would also benefit people in other nations, says Beisner.
“For decades, we’ve short sightedly pushed mining out of America, thinking we were protecting nature,” said Beisner. “But nature’s in other countries, too, and when mining moves from places with strong environmental and human-rights protections to places with weak or none, nature and people suffer.
“For people and for the planet, expanding mining of critical minerals in the United States makes good sense,” said Beisner.
Linnea Lueken (email@example.com) is a research fellow with the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at The Heartland Institute.
United States Geological Survey, Cobalt Statistics and Information, Retrieved March 4, 2022; https://pubs.usgs.gov/periodicals/mcs2020/mcs2020-cobalt.pdf