The clean-energy revolution is unleashing a rush on cobalt, reviving old mines—and old questions—in a remote forest.
On September 13, I took my first plane trip in 18 months: Kansas City to Boise with a layover in Denver. The trip itself was largely uneventful, with one exception. After I boarded my connecting flight in Denver, a pilot announced that we would be briefly delayed because Air Force One was also en route to Boise. President Biden was responding to yet another record-setting wildfire season, during which 5.3 million acres of the U.S., an area the size of New Jersey, had already burned. “We can’t ignore the reality that these wildfires are being supercharged by climate change,” he would say later that day. “It isn’t about red or blue states. It’s about fires. Just fires.”
The wildfires had both everything and nothing to do with my trip to Boise and, from there, to the Salmon-Challis National Forest, a five-hour drive northeast of the city. For me, the area’s most immediate draw was cobalt, a hard, silvery-gray metal used to make heat-resistant alloys for jet engines and, more recently, most of the lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. 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.