A Biden administration plan to use mineral trade agreements to boost electric vehicles on U.S. roads is facing widespread pushback from unusual allies: Republicans and environmentalists.
They say President Joe Biden’s strategy imperils U.S. jobs and represents a potentially illegal end-run around Congress.
Critics are calling on Biden to halt mineral negotiations with the European Union and other nations while also slamming a recent mineral deal with Japan. The Biden administration insists that its strategy to boost supply chains among allied nations is the most potent counter to Chinese dominance over global minerals.
At issue is whether Biden should prioritize domestic mineral production and ensure producers in the United States — not manufacturers in foreign countries — reap the benefits of a coveted EV tax credit, known as 30D. The credit was included in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Now, the Treasury Department is in the hot seat as it prepares to screen new trade deals and determine whether the pacts allow access to $3,750 in U.S. tax credits for EVs produced with minerals extracted or processed in partner countries. The mineral negotiations represent a marquee example of the threat Biden’s clean energy pursuit poses to other key administration policy priorities, most notably the rapid expansion of domestic manufacturing.
“They have three goals here,” Bill Reinsch, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the Biden administration. “One is to facilitate the transition to green technology. The second one is to enhance domestic manufacturing and jobs. And the third is to do it in a way consistent with trade law and international trade rules. They can’t do all of those at the same time.”
Minerals such as lithium and cobalt are essential for today’s fleet of EVs. And experts agree that mineral production and refinement will likely form the backbone of the clean energy economy in the future and the millions of jobs that come with it. Minerals are also necessary for a long list of medical devices, smartphones and other staple products.
Meanwhile, compliance with the U.S. EV credit is based on mineral and manufacturing sourcing mandates designed to counter China by strengthening supply chains in the United States and nations with which the U.S. has trade agreements.
But critics are digging in for a fight. They’re challenging the Treasury Department’s loose interpretation of a “free-trade agreement” in the Inflation Reduction Act’s text.
“There’s enough noise to suggest Treasury is going to face some significant challenges in using this broad brush to redefine what trade agreements actually are, from a legal and constitutional standpoint,” Rich Nolan, president of the National Mining Association, a U.S. lobbying group, said in an interview.
Nolan said the mining group is “pushing the administration to bring those tax incentives home, so that those materials come from U.S. mines, from mining communities mined by American miners.”
A U.S. Geological Survey study released in January found that the United States is 100 percent import-reliant on 15 critical minerals, including minerals used in EVs like graphite and manganese. The U.S. remains more than 95 percent import-reliant on rare earths and titanium, while American companies import more than a quarter of lithium used in manufacturing, according to the study.
Another recent assessment from Securing America’s Future Energy, which promotes domestic energy production, laid out the Chinese dominance of global minerals in stark terms.
“Chinese-owned companies have strategically purchased stakes in major mineral deposits around the world, control anywhere from 60 to 100 percent of processing (depending on the mineral), and produce upwards of 70 to 90 percent of the world’s battery components,” the group said in a March report.
Talks ‘in the pipeline’
In March, Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen launched negotiations over a “targeted critical minerals agreement” that will “count toward requirements for clean vehicles in the Section 30D clean vehicle tax credit.”
The announcement came amid claims from various world leaders that the Inflation Reduction Act’s incentives violate World Trade Organization rules against subsidies that promote domestic products over imports.
The Office of the United States Trade Representative, which leads U.S. trade negotiations, said the E.U. talks are ongoing.
“We will continue to work with our EU allies to boost mineral production and expand access to sources of critical minerals while diversifying global supply chains,” said USTR spokesperson Sam Michel. The Swedish ambassador to the U.S., Karin Olofsdotter, recently told E&E News that a transatlantic pact is “in the pipeline.”
The Japanese deal, announced two weeks after the E.U. talks launched, “affirms” the two countries’ “obligation not to impose prohibitions or restrictions” on bilateral trade relations.
Now, Indonesia, Argentina, and the Philippines are signaling interest in similar deals. Even South Korea, which already shares a trade deal with the United States that was passed by Congress in 2011, is aiming for more mineral concessions.
“President Biden and I welcomed the expansion of our [bilateral] mutual investment in advanced technology, including semiconductors, electric vehicles and batteries,” South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said during a recent event at the White House, according to a translator. “President Biden has said that no special support and considerations will be spared for Korean companies’ investment.”
U.S. lawmakers say they’ve been kept on the sidelines.
Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), the chair of the House Ways and Means Trade subcommittee and the co-chair of the U.S.-Japan Congressional Caucus, said the Biden administration has not briefed him on any mineral trade negotiations.
“This is basically a workaround. And I don’t think it’s sustainable long-term,” Smith told E&E News. “I think there will be attempts to assert legislative prerogative.”
Never far from the spotlight on Capitol Hill, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has regularly blasted the Biden administration’s implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, saying recently he would “vote to repeal my own bill.”
Manchin has also threatened a lawsuit. Still, legal experts say it’ll be a tough case to make because of challenges in meeting legal standing. The moderate Democrat is now set to face off against West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice next year to retain his seat in a state Biden lost by nearly 40 points in 2020.
The Inflation Reduction Act text says that EVs qualify for half of the $7,500 credit if the minerals used in the models are “extracted or processed” in the U.S. or “in any country with which the United States has a free trade agreement.”
Meanwhile, the proposed Treasury guidance for the 30D credit gives access to 20 foreign countries with which the U.S. has traditional free trade agreements passed by Congress, along with “additional countries that the [Treasury] Secretary identifies,” such as Japan.
Reinsch, the long-time Washington trade expert, predicted the fight over the definition of a free-trade agreement will likely be settled in court.
“Since the term is undefined in the [Inflation Reduction Act], that’ll probably be resolved by litigation. This is America. Anybody can sue anybody for anything,” he said. “There’s no legislative history here to provide any guidance. And the term is not defined in the statute. So it ends up with judges.”
The two top Democratic trade lawmakers in Congress called the Japanese deal “unacceptable,” arguing the administration “does not have the authority to unilaterally enter into free trade agreements.”
“Even among allies, the United States should only enter into agreements that account for the realities of an industry, learn from past agreements, and raise standards,” Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in late March, the day the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced the deal with Japan. “Agreements should be developed transparently and made available to the public for meaningful review well before signing — not after the ink is already dry.”
An aide for Wyden’s Senate Finance Committee, who was granted anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, said the Biden administration last briefed the committee on mineral trade talks in “early March.”
The congressional complaints are echoed in environmental and labor circles.
Ben Beachy, vice president of manufacturing and industrial policy at the BlueGreen Alliance, touted domestic manufacturing as the best solution to curb the U.S. climate footprint.
“The onshoring of EV manufacturing will help to cut the climate pollution that, ironically, is often baked into imports of EV components,” Beachy said. “That’s because overseas corporations tend to be more emissions intensive than U.S. factories in producing the aluminum, steel and other materials that go into EVs.”
He said the Japanese deal should “not be repeated” with the E.U. or other countries.
A recent BlueGreen Alliance study found that the Inflation Reduction Act has spurred new domestic manufacturing projects that will create 900,000 jobs. The law sparked a wave of new battery plant announcements. And the Department of Energy recently extended a $2 billion loan to a battery recycling plant in Nevada.
But the mineral negotiations are not the first time the Biden administration has struggled to balance climate and domestic manufacturing priorities.
In April, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to repeal a Biden administration pause on solar tariffs from four Southeast Asian countries where the administration itself determined China is processing solar products in circumvention of U.S. tariffs. And despite a veto threat, the Senate passed the measure Wednesday with nine Democrats in support.
Biden administration officials say the pause was necessary to maintain high levels of solar deployment in the United States.
‘Immediate action today’
For months, top Biden administration officials have urged allied nations to band together with the U.S. to develop collaborative mineral supply chains.
“When we look at critical minerals and we look at solar panels and wind turbines and electric vehicles and batteries, there is already now an effort by some to narrow the control of that supply chain into one or a handful of countries,” Amos Hochstein, deputy assistant to the president and senior adviser for energy and investment, said in a March speech in Washington.
“We have to take immediate action today to work as a global community with our allies and to make sure that that market changes fundamentally,” he said. At the time of the speech, Hochstein was the State Department’s special presidential coordinator for global infrastructure and energy security.
David Turk, deputy secretary at the Department of Energy, told E&E News recently that the effort to boost allied mineral supply chains globally should be a “full interagency” strategy, pointing to expertise at DOE and assistance tools at agencies such as the U.S. International Development Finance Corp. and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
“We have our national labs, [and] we’re bringing some of that expertise to the table,” said Turk. “We’ve been having a lot of good conversations, including with [the White House]” and the Treasury Department.
Last year, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency helped to finance a mineral processing facility in the Philippines. And on May 1, following a summit at the White House with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Biden announced a new package of assistance to the Philippine mineral sector, including $5 million in USAID funds to boost mineral processing and EV component manufacturing in the country.
Turk said he’s looking for “good, forward-leaning language” on minerals in the upcoming G-7 nations summit in Japan.
The U.S. is home to some of the largest mineral reserves globally. And the U.S. mining sector continues to push the Biden administration to open up key mineral reserves in Minnesota, Arizona and Alaska.
But even where the administration is putting its weight behind mine proposals, judges are raising objections.
Mining experts say a 2019 judicial decision, which halted the Rosemont copper mine in Arizona, is complicating the approval mining permits by requiring companies to prove the existence of valuable minerals even at the locations mining companies want to dump mine waste.
House Republicans included language in their lead energy and permitting package to allow a company to “use, occupy, and conduct operations on public land, with or without the discovery of a valuable mineral deposit.”
Proponents of EV deployment in the United States are putting their weight behind the Treasury Department’s liberal interpretation of trade agreements.
“We’re certainly supportive of expanding negotiations. We want to make sure we have the largest reach of eligibility possible for the clean vehicle credit,” said Leilani Gonzalez, policy director for the Zero Emission Transportation Association, an EV deployment advocacy group.
She added that with countries still in the middle of developing mineral supply chains, the question to answer is whether they can meet the requirements that the Department of Treasury has laid out.
Abigail Wulf, director of the Center for Critical Minerals Strategy at Securing America’s Future Energy, the pro-domestic-energy organization, also called for a “broadened” definition of trade deals.
“We think it’s a good thing to expand the tent when it comes to trade agreement countries,” said Wulf. “Simultaneously, while we’re letting down those draw bridges, we need to be making sure that the U.S. and others are building high enough walls around the Chinese Communist Party.”
The Inflation Reduction Act disqualifies vehicles from the 30D credit if the EVs contain minerals or battery components from a foreign entity of concern. While experts expect Chinese entities to fit that definition, the foreign entity of concern portion of the 30D credit doesn’t take effect until 2024.
On top of her support for the mineral negotiations, Wulf urged the Biden administration to pass traditional trade pacts with congressional support and enforceable labor and environmental standards. The United States last closed an enforceable trade deal with Mexico and Canada in 2020.
Still, Wulf said the administration is showing little appetite for that route.
“The problem with these trade agreements that aren’t ratified by Congress is that they aren’t actually enforceable,” Wulf said.