Do We Have a 'Moral Obligation' to Mine for Cobalt in Idaho?

One of the country's largest stores of cobalt is there
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 29, 2022 1:45 PM CST
China Is Snatching Up Cobalt. That's Where Idaho Comes In
The Idaho Cobalt Belt sits below the Salmon-Challis National Forest. A mountain range in the national forest is shown in this stock photo.   (Getty Images)

As the planet's need for lithium—or, more specifically, lithium-ion batteries—continues to swell, so too does the need for metals needed to make those batteries. Cobalt is one of them. As Michael Holtz explains in a lengthy piece for the Atlantic, a White House report issued in June framed the cobalt market as "one of the most comprehensive ways China has gained a competitive advantage in the critical materials landscape for batteries." That's because about 70% of the known cobalt supply is buried in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and nearly all of what it unearths (84% in 2019) goes to China. That's why so much interest has turned to the Idaho Cobalt Belt, "a 34-mile-long geological formation of sedimentary rock that contains some of the largest cobalt deposits in the country," writes Holtz.

He travels to Idaho to meet with some of the companies prepping to mine there, and to look at the cautionary tale that exists in the form of the long-shuttered Blackbird Mine. It was formerly the country's only cobalt mine. It shut in 1982—cobalt prices were so low it wasn't a profitable endeavor—and it's now a toxic waste site whose cleanup has cost a trio of past and present mine owners more than $100 million. Holtz writes that "more cobalt mines inevitably mean more environmental risks," but he pairs that with some fascinating insight from Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Justin Hayes, whose group works to safeguard the state's forests and streams from mine pollution. Hayes thinks America actually has a moral obligation to mine cobalt in the US, citing climate change and human-rights abuses in the Congo. He just wants to see it done in an "environmentally responsible" way. (Read the full story for much more on what's happening on the ground in Idaho.)

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