A National Forest and the clean-energy revolution

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.”


3 thoughts on “A National Forest and the clean-energy revolution”

  1. From my experience as Assistant Secretary for Lands & Minerals and the former Mine Minister of US (2005),”Sustainable Mining” is a term and set of practices that have been widely publicized, supported and implemented around the world for at least 20-25 years– long before ESG became popular. BLM gives out annual awards for “Reclamation and Sustainable Mineral Development,” several international mining companies have sustainability offices, sustainable mining conferences are conducted, groups of companies formed around this concept. It flowed out of UN sustainability initiatives and is centered around 3 concepts: social inclusion, environmental protection and economic growth. On the environmental side it looks to reduce pollution and disturbance and improve closure and reclamation. On the social side, it involves looking at the community in terms of jobs, impacts and what can be left behind to replace the economic role of a mine in the community. The context of mining is international, mines typically have long lives and can afford to engage in more long-term thinking. Not perfect but a serious effort, beyond green-washing.

    • Maybe the concept is socially responsible mining, which would be a good thing, but the term “sustainable mining” is an oxymoron that overstates the case and suggests green-washing.

  2. Does anyone remember about Idaho Roadless and cobalt.. I thought there was something in there allowing a cobalt mine.. does it cover all the areas desired for cobalt and other strategic minerals today?


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