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This October in the heart of the Idaho Cobalt Belt, Australian mining company Jervois commissioned the only primary cobalt mine in the United States. Jervois estimates the mine will produce 1,915 metric tons of cobalt annually. But, for mined cobalt— known as “ore”—to be used in key applications like alloyed magnets in F-35 fighter jet engines, ore must first be refined. And the United States has zero cobalt refineries.

This lack of domestic refining capacity plagues other American critical minerals, including rare earth element ore which is currently shipped to China for refining. To bolster American supply chains and protect US national security, the US government must expedite federal permitting so that more critical minerals are mined and refined in America.  

As stated earlier, mineral ore is useless unless it is refined. Once properly refined, the mineral can be used in advanced manufacturing. For example, refined cobalt is a key component in important technologies, such as batteries in electric vehicles (EVs), superalloys in fighter jets, and permanent magnets in industrial machinery. Given cobalt’s criticality, the US government has deemed cobalt a critical mineral—that is, a mineral “essential to the economic or national security of the U.S. and which has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption.”  

Currently, China dominates the cobalt industry, producing 72 percent of the world’s refined cobalt. An American company—Westwin Elements—is poised to build and operate the only major cobalt refinery in the United States, but the US government needs to encourage more mining and refining of America’s critical minerals.  

The lengthy permitting process has especially hindered cobalt mining in the United States. In Idaho, Jervois’s new mine shares the same mining district as the Blackbird Mine, which the US government closed in the 1980s due to groundwater pollution from open-pit mining. Since closure of that mine, the US government has enacted even more regulations on the mining industry.  

However, Jervois’s new Idaho mine is underground, which mitigates many potentially harmful side effects of the mine, but even for Jervois, commissioning the new mine took eight years to receive approval. Jervois was also required to post a $30.8 million reclamation bond—a serious hurdle for smaller mining companies—to fund future cleanup activities. Similar regulatory burdens have contributed to America’s lack of critical mineral refineries.  

Continuing the Trump Administration’s efforts, the Biden Administration has sought to bolster US critical minerals supply chains, especially for EV batteries. For example, the Department of Energy recently awarded billions in grants to EV battery manufacturers to produce batteries in the United States.  

Companies like Ford have asked the Biden Administration to expedite mine permitting. In the United States, securing a mining permit takes about ten years, but only two to three years abroad. Without access to domestically mined and refined critical minerals like cobalt, American EV batteries will be more Made-in-China than Made-in-the-USA.  

America’s vulnerability to China’s critical minerals will become more severe as the US economy and military shift toward advanced technologies. For instance, the Department of Defense temporarily suspended deliveries of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jets because the alloys coating the fighter jet’s propulsion engines contained China-produced cobalt.  

In conclusion, US supply chains of critical minerals will remain vulnerable unless the US government expedites permitting for domestic mining and refining of critical minerals. Without this action, the United States will never have secure supply chains for critical minerals like cobalt—and, in turn, the key applications which require them.

Gregory Wischer is Chief Operating Officer of Westwin Elements, Inc. Joanna Miller is a former Senior Policy Analyst in the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy at the White House. 

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