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The first cobalt mine in America in decades is opening in Idaho

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now to Idaho, where a cobalt mine that had been defunct for decades is getting a reboot as the U.S. and the rest of the world try to transition away from fossil fuels. Cobalt is a metal needed for electric vehicle batteries and for storing wind and solar energy. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, getting a major cobalt industry up and running in the U.S. is still a long shot.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Today's opening of the Idaho cobalt mine comes as the Biden administration is trying to fast-track domestic development of strategic minerals needed for an energy transition. But getting away from dirty, combustible engines and moving toward more green power still requires mining.

BRYCE CROCKER: So I'm Bryce Crocker, chief executive officer of Jervois Global.

SIEGLER: Jervois Global is the Australian-based company opening the cobalt mine in the remote mountains of Idaho not far from the famous Salmon River. Unlike the past mine, which polluted local trout streams, CEO Bryce Crocker says environmental safeguards are in place, including $40 million in guaranteed cleanup funds if something goes south. This mine is also mostly underground, not the old massive open pit.

CROCKER: I think this is a really important development for the U.S.

SIEGLER: Important geopolitically, he means. Most of the cobalt mined in the world currently comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there are widespread child labor and other human rights problems.

CROCKER: Idaho is the only cobalt mine in the United States and is going to remain so. So we viewed it as a strategically important asset for the country, and then all - by default, Jervois, for us to be trusted with stewardship of it, to bring it in production.

SIEGLER: The Idaho mine will at least initially be a blip in the global market, barely projected to meet 10% of current demand in the U.S.

BRAD MARTIN: It'll be a while before we could actually say that this is going to be a growth industry.

SIEGLER: Brad Martin is director of supply chain security at the RAND Corporation.

MARTIN: If the ultimate product is batteries, batteries are all pretty much made in China or Korea. So, you know, there may be - you know, this is a step and maybe a useful step, but it's certainly not the be-all, end-all.

SIEGLER: And the cobalt from this mine will all be shipped to a refinery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to be processed. That's because current projections show only an initial seven-year run here, making building a U.S. refinery too costly for now. But company officials say they're eyeing new federal funds that might help extend the mine's life cycle. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "CONCRETE (FEAT. WESTSIDE GUNN AND TERMANOLOGY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.