Cobalt mining back in business in Idaho. What that means for local economy, international supply chain.

Posted at 4:34 PM, Oct 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-14 14:57:52-04

Turns out, the "Gem State" has plenty of metals underground — and that is what's drawing global markets to the area.

Cobalt mining resumed in Idaho for the first time in decades, marked by an opening ceremony for a mine operated by Australian company Jervois Global Ltd. near Salmon last week.

"This company, this relationship is going to be something that's going to help Idaho for a long, long time," said Gov. Brad Little, who attended the ceremony and addressed the crowd.

Gov. Brad Little at Jervois mine
Governor Brad Little addresses crowd at opening ceremony for Jervois Idaho Cobalt Operations near Salmon, Friday Oct. 7.

"It's going to make America and Australia... have a better relationship and provide for the future of this country, future of the world as far as clean, renewable energy that's going to sustain this country and the world into the future," Little continued.

An expanding green technology market combined with international supply chain challenges has highlighted the need and opportunity for domestic production of rare metal elements like cobalt. Cobalt is a necessary component for electric vehicle batteries, for example.

“In the next few weeks, we'll start pre-commissioning activities, begin feeding ore into our mill and the production of (cobalt) concentrates," Matt Lengerich, executive general manager for Jervois' Idaho Cobalt Operations, told Idaho News 6. "The security of our supply chains and our access to critical minerals is important for us as U.S. consumers and it's important for the U.S. defense industry as well."

Jervois' cobalt mine near Salmon, ID
A snapshot of a facility at the Jervois' cobalt mine near Salmon, ID

American industry is at the whim of foreign supply chains when it comes to certain materials needed for clean-energy technologies. So, many public officials want to see a stronger domestic supply of rare-earth elements like cobalt and lithium, both of which are found in Idaho.

“We expect to produce enough cobalt for the batteries of 2.8 million electric vehicles," Lengerich said of the mine's overall economic contribution.

stat for Jervois Mine
The Idaho Cobalt Mine, owned by Australian company Jervois Global Ltd., is expected to contribute to the global green economy during its lifespan.

Right now, the majority of these materials are mined and refined abroad. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Democratic Republic of Congo supplies the majority of the world's mined cobalt, while China supplies the majority of the world's refined cobalt.

In August, the Biden Administration launched a $675 million dollar infrastructure program to expand and support these supply chains. The White House estimates global demand for critical materials is expected to increase 400-600% in the decades to come.

Jervois mine is a start

Despite the investment, shifting global supply chains will take time. Jervois' cobalt mine 40 miles west of Salmon is an early step.

“I think it's really important to recognize that Australia and America have a long history of collaborating together," Lengerich said.

Lengerich said the company estimates 2000 tons of cobalt concentrate will be produced annually at the Idaho location. But although the product comes from U.S. soil, it will have to be shipped to Jervois' cobalt refinery located in Brazil afterward.

“There's currently no U.S. domestic cobalt refinery, so at the moment our only option is to take our cobalt concentrate overseas," Lengerich said.

It isn't clear on how much refined cobalt will return back to the country afterwards.

"It'll obviously depend on how, what the markets look like and where the demand for cobalt is, but that is certainly one possibility is that that metal would all come back into the U.S.," Lengerich explained.

The mine's lifespan is currently seven years long, but Lengerich said there could be more cobalt deposits available and that ultimately the mine could be in operation longer.

Environmental advocates weigh in

Idaho environmental watchdogs are keeping track of an increase of mining proposals in the state.

"A lot of new technologies that are emerging that are utilizing a lot of the minerals that we happen to have here," said Nick Kunath, a conservation associate Idaho Rivers United (IRU).

IRU is an organization focused on river health and conservation across the state. Recently, the group successfully advocated for drill sites to be removed and moved at the Colson-Cobalt Copper 3 exploratory mining location just north of the confluence of the Middle Fork and Main Salmon River.

"We are trying to keep track of where these proposals are taking place," Kunath said. “It's not necessarily the mineral itself that's of concern, but it's more of just the impact that a large-scale mine can have on the ecosystem."

Kunath said if a mine is in close proximity to a watershed, it's especially concerning.

"If there's a mine or a project that has potential to have some negative impacts on water quality or fisheries. So there's things that we kind of get a little bit more engaged upon and stay involved with," Kunath said.

Jonathan Oppenheimer, external relations director for Idaho Conservation League (ICL), echoed the concern over proximity to water.

"When it comes to mining projects, it's about location, location, location," Oppenheimer said. "It is the number one toxic polluter in the United States and so ensuring that, that any kind of waste or discharge from a mine is properly treated."

Jonathan Oppenheimer, External Relations Director, ICL
Jonathan Oppenheimer, Idaho Conservation League External Relations Director

For nearly five decades, ICL has tracked mining operations in the state. Oppenheimer said mining can result in heavy metal contamination so ICL works with the government and private companies like Jervois to safeguard the environment.

"If it was habitat for endangered species or wildlife before the mining project, we want to make sure that that habitat is available after the mining project concludes," Oppenheimer explained.

ICL is working with Jervois in an additional vein to fund conservation work with the Upper Salmon Conservation Action Program.

"(It) really tries to put some dollars on the ground even before they started digging any holes or started removing any minerals," Oppenheimer said.

The joint funding from Jervois mining is already flowing to projects involving wildlife habitat and water quality, according to Oppenheimer.

"If Idaho can be part of a clean energy revolution, and do it in a safe way, we think that we should be part of that discussion," he said.

Environmental "backstop" by Jervois

The Jervois site near Salmon has another additional environmental safeguard within their operations: a water treatment plan.

According to the sites' General Manager Matt Lengerich, it was the first facility commissioned and built on location.

"That water treatment plant actually is completely a backstop. We don't expect to have to treat water during the life of the mine," Lengerich said. "But that water treatment plant exists in the event that we do need to treat water, we have that ability and we can treat it before it's discharged."

The site is expected to be operating at full capacity by Quarter 1 of 2023.

Jervois opening ceremony
Opening ceremony crowd at Jervois' mining operation outside of Salmon Friday, Oct. 7