Why Cobalt Is Not a Conflict Mineral

MetalMiner gave reader Dominic Daly, who studies at Durham University, a chance to respond to one of our past posts about cobalt, “Conflict Minerals and Their Derivatives: Where Cobalt Fits In. In the spirit of giving the metal’s image (and the DRC) a fair shake, MetalMiner welcomes Daly’s guest commentary.

Cobalt is a strategically important metal in the modern world: it serves several different functions, such as its use as a super-alloy, its use in lithium-ion batteries and also as a catalyst in many important chemical reactions. Cobalt is normally a by-product of nickel or copper mining, and the cobalt is separated from base metals in different locations around the world.

Cobalt has recently come under some scrutiny, as it is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is infamous for its conflict mines. These are mines where the minerals extracted from them are sold to buy weapons that feed the conflict in these areas. This is, of course, a genuine industry, which is still being funded by businesses worldwide and is still causing suffering for many people in these areas.

This problem is recognized worldwide and is addressed within the Dodd-Frank Act, which talks about the problem of “conflict materials coming from the DRC and how companies should seek to find alternative supplies of material from areas that aren’t helping to fund the conflict in the DRC. [Ed. note: For a comprehensive run-down on this issue, see Lawrence Heim’s excellent series, published by MetalMiner.]

This is all very well, but a lot of people have been confused as to what materials this act refers to. In the Dodd-Frank Act, “conflict minerals are described as:

(A) columbite-tantalite (coltan), cassiterite, gold, wolframite, or their derivatives; or

(B) any other mineral or its derivatives determined by the Secretary of State to be financing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or an adjoining country.

In reading this, it is clear that cobalt is not explicitly mentioned as a “conflict mineral, nor has it been determined by the Secretary of State to be financing conflict in the DRC or an adjoining country and it won’t be for several reasons.

Firstly, the cobalt mined in the DRC is found as a by-product of the copper mining in the copper belt of the country’s southeast Katanga region, on the border with Zambia. This location is more than 1,000 kilometers away from what are considered to be the “conflict mines in the northern Kivu region. The cobalt is not handled, produced or sold for profit by the people who are creating the current conflict in the DRC. Secondly, if authorities find the cobalt in the DRC to be funding any sort of conflict, which is highly unlikely, then copper would have to undergo the exact same classification.

Another thing to consider is how the classification of cobalt as a “conflict mineral would affect the DRC’s people, as it provides them with legitimate work and foreign investment. Further, it would affect the global cobalt industry, as approximately 75 percent of the world’s cobalt is mined in the DRC. Not only would the price of cobalt skyrocket, but it would also create a large drop in the available cobalt to use in the world. This creates problems for many important businesses (such as shortages of super-alloys and lithium ion batteries); those businesses in turn would then have to pay the alternative price of cobalt, which would be astronomical, or switch away from cobalt, leading to inferior products.

In conclusion, Dodd-Frank doesn’t mention cobalt as a “conflict mineral for a reason: it isn’t one and if it ever was, not only would it implicate a lot of other metals, but it would also completely destroy any chance the DRC has of an economy that is beneficial to its citizens.

–Dominic Daly

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