This January 2022 article in The Atlantic was recently mentioned in an email from the magazine to subscribers. A quandary: the shift from fossil fuels to cleaner fuels — and electric cars — requires metals such as cobalt, and thus mining.
The Salmon-Challis sits atop what is known as the Idaho Cobalt Belt, a 34-mile-long geological formation of sedimentary rock that contains some of the largest cobalt deposits in the country. As the global market for lithium-ion batteries has grown—and the price of cobalt along with it—so has commercial interest in the belt. At least six mining companies have applied for permits from the U.S. Forest Service to operate in the region. Most of these companies are in the early stages of exploration; one has started to build a mine. In Idaho, as in much of the world, the clean-energy revolution is reshaping the geography of resource extraction.
Johnson’s group, which has fought for decades to protect the state’s forests and streams from mine pollution, is watching the new and proposed cobalt mines closely, evaluating them on a case-by-case basis. “Do we have a moral obligation to mine cobalt here in the U.S.?” asks Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Justin Hayes. He suggests that the answer is yes: He’s well aware of the human-rights abuses documented in the Congo, and of the need to secure a reliable supply of cobalt in order to reduce the threat of climate change. Still, he emphasizes that “sustainable mining,” a term used often by industry insiders, is a misnomer; the best anyone can hope for is “environmentally responsible mining.”