Biden official heads to COP28 on a minerals mission

By Hannah Northey, Sara Schonhardt | 11/07/2023 01:40 PM EST

State Department official Helaina Matza has a politically complicated task on the sidelines of the climate summit, selling U.S. efforts to counter China’s influence in the critical minerals market.

Helaina Matza.

Helaina Matza is the acting special coordinator for the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment at the State Department. State Department

At the upcoming United Nations climate talks, top State Department official Helaina Matza will be focused on a tough job: convincing representatives from developing countries that the U.S. push to dilute China’s growing influence can both build out needed infrastructure and green their economies.

It’s a challenging task given that the Biden administration and its allies are using limited government funds to attract private investment in countries that some see as risky. When it comes to a certain type of project — such as mining the minerals needed to power the energy transition — Matza’s mission is also politically complicated, occurring even as U.S. miners grumble about lack of support and investment at home.

“It’s going to be incumbent on me and my team to be able to put forward the right type of events and presence that allows us to demonstrate that we are doing really creative things,” said Matza, who was once involved with the climate negotiations but is now focused on the side events and engagements that occur on the margins of those talks.


Matza currently serves as the point person overseeing the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, or PGII, an initiative among the G7 — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — along with the European Union. The partnership is aimed at boosting infrastructure in developing countries and countering China’s influence through its decade-old Belt and Road Initiative.

She expects much more attention on the sidelines of the climate talks to be on critical minerals and the supply chains needed for the green energy transition.

That’s because the materials, including lithium and graphite needed for EV batteries, are in stark demand as countries jockey to decarbonize their transportation and energy sectors and keep climate change in check.

“I think our dance cards are going to be quite filled,” she said.

Matza talked to E&E News about what the U.S. hopes to achieve with its infrastructure investment initiative, some expectations for the COP28 climate talks in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, later this month, and discontent among American mining companies:

Why is it important to counter China? 

We want to provide alternative options for investments, including infrastructure, that are transparent, that diversify supply chains. It’s taken us some time to align the tools to be able to do that, especially in emerging markets around the world that are in the process of doing their own evaluation of trying to diversify the [foreign direct investment] in their market.

PGII has become our tool [for] how we actually start aligning those resources … so bringing together our [International Development Finance Corp.], our [Export-Import Bank] and our State Department foreign policy views and the White House and translating them into material investments in other countries.

We’re really trying our best to marry the vision of what we think U.S. foreign policy is with practical, real investments as we go. This is the only way to really operate in a way that works for our partners and, frankly, works for us.

President Joe Biden recently called China’s Belt and Road Initiative “debt and a noose” for most countries that have signed on. How much of PGII is aimed at countering China’s influence globally?

[The U.S. is] offering a different investment opportunity. It’s unfair to ask our partners in South America [or] on the continent of Africa to wait for investment to come if and when every type of regulatory reform is achieved. I think we’re realizing we need to work on those in tandem. And, in turn, many of those countries are trying to find the balance in their own investment structure. So they aren’t agreeing to, you know, debt projects that they can’t repay.

Much of the way that China has invested in those countries, putting forward … projects that are very heavily subsidized, is not helping those countries evolve in that process. And so we do have a different approach, and we think it’s important that we follow through on creating some space for additional players in those markets.

How do you respond to criticism from the U.S. mining sector that the Biden administration is more intent on finding these materials abroad than boosting industry at home? 

This is a really challenging tension. First and foremost, our objectives are to grow our own economy, employ our own people and be able to design the whole clean energy ecosystem, the whole intent of the IRA to service our market and job growth.

My job is to take care of our foreign policy objectives and marry that together. I hope that my deals that I think serve our national security and foreign policy objectives help ultimately incentivize these markets at home.

You’re a former climate negotiator. What is the U.S. angling for out of COP28? 

I’m definitely going, I am very relieved I am no longer a climate negotiator because this will be quite a complicated negotiation. Our goal is, it always remains the same, is doing what we can to keep 1.5 alive, and that increasingly becomes more complicated. [Referring to the Paris Agreement aim to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.]

What’s very unique about this year is that it’s our [global stocktake] year. I think that from the report that we saw that came out in September, we understand that collectively, we’re not where we need to be and so a really important outcome of this COP would be essentially beginning to lay that road map of what we need to do to start closing that gap.

What will be your role this year? 

Outside the negotiating room, my job is to demonstrate how … PGII can work, [that] it can catalyze investments that can help decarbonize economies.

We know some of those [examples] will be related to infrastructure investments, actually demonstrating that we are taking diesel trucks off the road.

I think you’re gonna see it a lot more on the margins of COP, or in those side events … around the clean energy supply chain. I’m seeing this year, so far, more events around critical minerals than ever before.

Given the U.S. is really trying to counter some of China’s influence, how do you see those two countries being able to work together?

I think you’ve seen from the envoy for climate, so John Kerry and his team, this deep commitment to trying to make this partnership work. It’s been a while since I’ve been part of it formally, although I had the pleasure of joining John Kerry on his first visit to Shanghai earlier in this administration.

We have a couple of very high-level touches right over the coming weeks with our Chinese counterparts. And I think that there’s an awareness that the global community is looking towards our leadership and progress in that relationship.

Is mineral-rich Canada the answer to the U.S.’s push to easing China’s grip on the markets? 

Canada absolutely has a role, and they’re investing deeply right into their capabilities to leverage their production capacity across many of these materials we care about.

I don’t know if there is one single solution; we’re learning a lot about how we invest at home, how we work with like-minded aligned partners, especially those that have resources, and how we offer opportunities that are attractive and competitive and operate a timeline that other countries need and require.

Talk to us about the U.S.-Canada Energy Transformation Task Force, and what’s the goal of that group? 

There was a focused task force meeting just the other week; it was quite small and covered only two core areas: critical minerals and civil nuclear. In those areas, there’s a real understanding between both our governments that we have comparative advantages between our two economies and both those supply chains whether it’s uranium and uranium enrichment, or critical mineral production processing.

You’ll see those ideas continue to crystallize as we get to near the end of the year and beginning of next year, where there will be some public projects and maybe some less-than-public projects that we’ll start working on together, especially in those two spaces.

Another piece of this is how do we work together in third-party countries. There are so many challenges we’re trying to address with non-state actors making quick investments that are kind of opaque in the sector than involve companies from either one of our countries or other equities from our countries.

Why was Amos Hochstein tapped to lead that effort? 

You will see him I think increasingly being used for what he’s quite good at, right, which is cutting through the red tape and trying to find some practical areas of cooperation and progress.

Will we see a formal list of projects come out of that task force? 

I don’t know if I can totally answer that question. What I can say is that that group is very focused on being as concrete and proactive as possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.