The mining of rare earth and critical mineral deposits within the state’s economy is part of an ongoing research series by the Idaho Department of Labor on how Idaho is affected by the geo-economic and geo-political interrelationships. The Idaho Geological Survey, labor market analysis, as well as environmental and economic impact scenarios of the state’s mining sector will also be examined.
High atop Idaho’s picturesque Salmon-Challis national forest sits the Cobalt Belt of Idaho, an important mining district for some of the world’s critical minerals and rare earth elements. This special grouping of locally mined esoteric minerals has noteworthy economic, geologic, political, technical and environmental dimensions of availability .
“Critical minerals” is an early 20th-century military-industrial term still in use and revamped for the 21st-century green economy . Critical minerals mining in Idaho’s Cobalt Belt and other parts of the state is seeing a resurgence as the nation moves toward energy self-sufficiency with select natural resources. Some of the raw materials like cobalt and antimony are needed to store energy in electric vehicle batteries, among many other technological applications, and they are found exclusively in Idaho mines and nowhere else in the United States.
The rare earth group of 17 elements with similar chemical properties classify within the critical metals family. Therefore, critical metals include the rare earth elements, which are chemically reactive and have electromagnetic properties conducive to energy storage manufacturing. Given the current energy technology ecosystem, the global demand for electric vehicles, consumer electronics, energy-efficient lighting and catalysts is expected to rise rapidly over the next decade.
Rare earth magnet demand is also expected to increase, as is the demand for rechargeable multi-use batteries. New developments in medical technology are likely to ramp up the demand for products like surgical lasers and magnetic resonance imaging.
Figure 1 denotes a cross-section of the major rare earth elements and critical minerals with their corresponding uses essential to high-tech manufacturing, which drives demand for them. Cobalt, antimony, thorium and copper mined in Idaho are inextricably connected to the world economy. It is noteworthy that several overlapping rare earth and critical metals in Figure 1 are common in electric vehicle battery storage. Yttrium and other strategically mined metals used for semiconductors in the microchip industry are also at the forefront of the foreign policy and global economic landscape.
Idaho mining is a relatively small part of the overall national mining economy accounting for $337 million in earnings out of $116.7 billion nationally in 2022 . It also happens to be one of the only states where critical minerals like cobalt, thorium and antimony deposits are available. Although miniscule in the role that Idaho plays in total domestic mining output, the minerals exclusively located in Idaho are of extremely high importance to national infrastructure and security. Many of Idaho’s natural resources are major players in world trade, manufacturing and technology. Meanwhile, the nation is moving toward less foreign reliance on rare earth elements and critical minerals imports from abroad.
Figures 2 and 3 denote the world’s major producers of rare earth elements and critical minerals, respectively. Nations which fall into the “other” category of producers include India, Madagascar, Vietnam, Russia, Brazil and Republic of Congo, among others. Idaho is poised to be at the forefront of domestic dependence on some of these resources, which were otherwise heavily imported. Alternative energy demand and geopolitical dynamics will in turn affect the Idaho labor market and economy at that juncture.
Source: 2022 US Geological Survey
Production share of critical materials worldwide as of 2022
A key component of the mining industry is its place within the labor market, based on a myriad of economic factors. Employment within the mining industry can be unpredictable. Figure 4 represents the percentage change in employment trend and average mining employment numbers over the past seven years in Idaho. There was 19.3% net growth in Idaho mining employment from 2016-2022. It can be difficult to get a bearing on the industry’s projections, whether locally, nationally or internationally. X-factors such as legislation, trade relations, military conflict and technological innovations come into play. How agile the industry reacts against those disruptors directly affects Idaho’s mining employment.
The blue bars in Figure 4 chart the average number of people employed in mining. The yellow trend line running through the graph is the change in percentage of mining employment year-over-year. Alternating years from 2016 to 2020, the trending peaks and troughs in mining employment numbers may represent perceived industry slowing and recovery in the short term. Even though there was not similar recovery with change in employment from 2021 to 2022, employment in the mining industry has signaled a general upward trajectory in Idaho since 2016. Mining employment data for rare earths and critical minerals, specifically, is not formally tracked by state or federal data, but data will be examined from an upcoming establishment survey.
Source: Idaho Department of Labor, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages
Idaho’s average employment of 2,541 workers in the general mining occupation (except oil and gas) for the third quarter 2022, was the highest on record since 2013 . However, the March 2023 phased layoff of approximately 250 individuals at the Idaho Cobalt Operation represented a near 10% reduction in the state’s total mining employment. The mining industry employed 7,300 Idaho workers at its peak year of 1990 . By comparison, a century ago during the mining boom and bust era, 4,800 workers were employed in Idaho’s mining industry .
Today, the stakes are high on a global scale of mining rare earth and critical minerals and for Idaho mining at large. Out of necessity Idaho’s mining industry will need to be to be agile, innovative and adaptable to change in economic demand, new technological developments, and alternative energy biproducts, as well as attuned to the reality of mining non-renewable resources “
Ryan.Whitesides@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 557-2500 ext. 3628
- 2. Foreign Policy Magazine, Thea Riofrancos, February 2022
- U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis
- Idaho Department of Labor, Quarterly Census of Employment Wages, 2022 Q3
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
- 22nd Annual Report of the mining industry of Idaho for the Year 1920: Robert N. Bell, State Mine Inspector, 1921
This project is 100% funded by the U.S. Department of Labor as part of an Employment and Training Administration award totaling $695,785.