Today we begin with an important area of competition in which China dominates and the U.S. is rushing to keep pace: the production of important raw materials needed to power everything from smartphones to electric car batteries. America’s longstanding disadvantage is so serious, we’re now on the verge of spending billions of taxpayer dollars to address it. Scott Thuman digs deeps to find a U.S. solution in Idaho’s landscape.
The following is a transcript of a report from "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson." Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.
It is a daunting, sometimes nerve-wracking drive through these Idaho hills. Up 8,000 feet on dirt roads and sheer drop-offs, up into the Salmon-Challis forest. The breathtaking views and remote silence broken by the prospect of a modern-day gold rush, as part of America's green energy revolution.
We are some of the few outsiders allowed hundreds of feet down into this mine shaft in search of cobalt.
Matt Lengerich: We're building a big spiral that'll spiral down, and every time we come around, we'll build another access off to the ore body. So that's what we're doing here. These holes will be used to widen this opening. We'll load these holes with explosives shortly. We'll widen this opening. This opening then allows us to get over to the ore body so we can extract where the cobalt is.
The expensive and labor-intensive work to access this rare mineral is a matter of need, explains Matthew Lengerich, executive general manager for the mining company Jervois Global.
While America has plenty of the fossil fuels that have powered our vehicles for the last century, we're not even close to having the resources necessary to make enough modern batteries. Electric vehicle sales were up 43% in August over the same month just last year, and now expected to top 5.6 million vehicles a year by the end of the decade.
Lengerich: So cobalt plays a really important role in battery chemistry. most every battery that you're using in your power tool, in your phone, in your electric vehicle — it's all lithium. But it's combined with nickel, cobalt, and manganese. The cobalt plays a really important role of stabilization. So it's what prevents the battery from overheating.
Right now, the biggest global producer of cobalt is the Democratic Republic of Congo in the middle of Africa. Though the big mines were once American-owned, China now controls 70% of the production. And globally, China now refines 80% of the world's cobalt and 60% of another key battery ingredient, lithium.
For America, now way behind, this is a race to catch up. And at the White House, worries have been mounting.
President Obama took China to a world court over its restricting sales of vital minerals to other nations. He won his case, but it didn’t address the core issue of so much of the materials coming from China. When Donald Trump was president, he declared a national emergency, but that didn’t change our reliance on China. And now, President Biden is pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into solutions, including loans, incentives, and direct investment for new mines and processing facilities.
President Biden: For most of the 20th century, we led the world by a significant margin because we invested in our people. We invested in ourselves. But something went wrong along the way. We stopped. We risked losing our edge as a nation, and China and the rest of the world are catching up.
Many members of Congress are now increasingly concerned, including Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa.
Sen. Ernst: This is very dire. It is extremely important that we as the United States are developing our own resources using that for the defense industry, for manufacturing. We need to know that we shouldn't be reliant upon Russia and China. We see the types of activities that they're engaging in, whether Russia invading Ukraine or China eyeballing Taiwan, we know we can't rely on these countries.
Scott: You see this as more than an economic issue; you see it as a national defense one?
Sen. Ernst: It goes way beyond an economic issue, although it is an economic issue. But it really comes down to our national security. Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen our defense stockpiles of critical minerals decrease by 99%. That should be frightening to everyday Americans on the street. We have to know that we have those resources to develop and grow our military capabilities, should we need them.
The Idaho mine is privately financed, but the company is now talking to the administration about possible government funding — though even with a new sense of urgency and support, it’s still a challenge. Senior geologist Josh Kluck relies on lidar, a form of laser mapping, to cut through the dark.
Josh Kluck: You can see things like the water level, you can see singular boulders that are up against what we call the rib. And what this allows us to do is know exactly the volume of rock that we've taken out of the ground.
But before they can get to the cobalt, they've got to dig out these tunnels using explosives and giant machines.
Kluck: So what we are looking at on the wall right here is a small 1-to-2-inch horizon of what we call cobaltite. That's what we are targeting.
Scott: So it's not easy to find, is it?
Kluck: No, it's extremely difficult. I suppose I've pointed to it 3 or 4 times just as we've been talking, and I'd very much invite you to pick out which one's the cobaltite versus the host rock.
Scott: Well I mean, I, as a lay person, would go to this shiny object over here, but I'm guessing that's going to be wrong.
Kluck: I'll tell you, you're right in the neck of the woods, but, in fact, it's more this dull-looking gray right above it.
Scott: I mean, when we talk about finding the needle in a haystack, is that what you're doing?
Kluck: That is what we're doing, yeah, absolutely.
These underground tunnels, eventually to exceed 50 miles, should give them seven years-worth of mining.
In about one year's time, they believe they can pull about 4 million pounds of cobalt out of this mine. And, over the lifespan of the operation, that's enough for 2.8 million electric vehicles.
But there are other significant hurdles. Above ground, plumes of smoke from nearby wildfires dot the horizon. Charred acres show how dangerously close they’ve come.
And there are endless environmental concerns. Close by, a mine that closed in the 1980s and left the ground contaminated with copper, cobalt, and arsenic is still being cleaned up. While Jervois spent $100 million to get this mine up and running, much of it is to prevent pollution.
But playing by the rules is more costly and time-consuming when compared to competing countries.
Lengerich: Our goal is to be able to sustainably, and with minimal environmental impact, produce cobalt for the United States. The United States currently does not have a primary domestic source of cobalt.
Scott: Will we ever be able to compete with someone like China when it comes to this?
Lengerich: I think as a country, we have a long history of showing that when we're backed into a corner and the chips are down, we rise to our best, and I think you're absolutely seeing that with this project.
Scott: Let's be real, even if we get to 15% of what the U.S. consumes, that's still going to be paltry compared to what places like China are churning out, isn't it?
Lengerich: It is, and I think it's why we see bringing this project on is so important, because it does give us the opportunity to show that it's possible here in the United States, and then look at whether or not the mineralization here in Idaho and elsewhere around the country can support the establishment of an American refinery.
And America's energy experts hoping these hills of Idaho might just hold the key.
Sharyl: So interesting. We have reported a lot here on what we call the "dirty little secrets" of clean energy. Is this another one — with the mining process?
Scott: Well to some degree, all mining is dirty, including cobalt. At least in Idaho, there is environmental oversight to minimize the damage. But not so much in places like China, where domestically they have an issue, but also overseas. We showed you the Congo, and that's where operations are criticized both for destroying the land, but also for the use of child labor and unsafe working conditions. But really there's also another major concern about China’s lead in mining the deep oceans with a process that some believe could be catastrophic.
Sharyl: We'll keep on it. Thanks a lot, Scott.
Watch cover story here.
Karen Leff says
Disappointed in this piece. You buried the headline. The story should have focused on how we got to the point where we are so far behind in cobalt and other rare earth sources. Biden said "something went wrong along the way". What was that something? How did the US lose control of the mines in Congo? Why is the US no longer leading the way? This piece never addresses that. The Dali Lama is quoted as saying "It is only a mistake if the lesson is lost." If this country doesn't figure out what went wrong along the way, the lesson is lost and the mistake will be repeated until America finally gets it or it collapses under the weight of its cumulative willful blindness.