Rep. Gary Palmer, a member of House Republican leadership hailing from Alabama’s “graphite belt,” got a recent call from former President Donald Trump’s campaign, asking for his advice on critical minerals.
That’s when Palmer, who’s secured Trump’s blessing as he fights to keep representing the state’s 6th District, knew a second Trump term would be different.
“In the case of Trump, they’ve reached out to me on energy and critical minerals and the Western Hemisphere idea,” Palmer told E&E News. “It’s indicative of … how different a second term would be with President Trump.”
Palmer is advocating for the creation of an alliance among countries in the Western Hemisphere that would allow members to pool their resources, build connections and ultimately foster private investment to shore up critical mineral supply chains tied to national security.
“I’m honored that they reached out to me. I wish the Biden administration would, but I will not hold my breath [waiting] for that,” Palmer added. He called Biden’s efforts on critical minerals a “miserable failure.”
While remaining mum about a possible role in a Trump White House, Palmer could emerge as a key player given his proximity to the former president, interest in minerals and role as chair of the House Republican Policy Committee.
The son of a logger, Palmer during an interview rejected that he’s a career politician, having landed his first full-time job at 17 years old.
Since then, Palmer said he flipped burgers, worked construction and made car and truck tailpipes before moving into a lengthy career in the think tank world, a precursor to his time on Capitol Hill.
Today, his district includes parts of Birmingham and half a dozen counties in the heart of central Alabama, an area that’s directly tied to the national hunt for critical minerals. Coosa County, for example, is home to the Westwater Resources graphite project, a key ingredient in EV batteries.
That’s where Palmer will face off in a March 5 primary against two opponents — insurance agent Ken McFeeters and businessman Gerrick Wilkins.
Palmer talked with E&E News about a potential Trump White House, why he’s pushing for a Western Hemisphere critical mineral alliance and what comes next for his Capitol Hill career:
Would you be interested in an administration role under Trump?
I need to stay focused on what I’m doing right now. If I can be in a position where I can lead on some issues in Congress, that would really be helpful. Because whatever the Trump administration wants to push forward, you’ve still got to get it passed.
What leadership opportunities are you interested in on the House Energy and Commerce Committee?
I saw my name pop up on a list of potential people to replace former [Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio)] as chairman of the [House Energy and Commerce Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Materials Subcommittee], but because I’m in leadership, as chair of the Policy Committee, I’m not eligible for that.
Unless somebody tried to waive a rule, I don’t think I can chair something else.
The Wall Street Journal reported that you’re discussing energy with Trump’s camp.
They’ve reached out to me on energy and critical minerals and the Western Hemisphere idea. It’s indicative, I think, of how different a second term would be with President Trump.
When [Trump] first went in office … in some respects, he didn’t have the most qualified people. They’re really smart, good people, but this is a different environment that you’ve got to operate in here.
I read that article, and I know some of those people that are involved, and it’s an impressive group. If [Trump] is successful and gets a second term, it will be a decidedly different ensemble of talent that people will see.
What changes do you want to see?
I think what we need in the next administration is a forward-focused energy policy. [We need to get] mines permitted but also permit the refineries in tandem with them, so that when we start bringing product aggregate out of the ground, we can turn it into product that we can use to make our own semiconductors and microchips and other things.
Trump has vowed to roll back Biden’s EV policies on his first day in office. Will that undermine the need for critical minerals?
No, because I don’t think EVs are going to be part of the future. As technology advances, it’ll make more sense. As a lot of people in these really cold places are finding out, EVs are not very reliable. Hertz is getting rid of their entire EV fleet.
The critical need for us is for the microchips and semiconductors, we need to operate military equipment, so fighter jets, or logistics systems, those components are made from critical minerals and rare earth elements.
Why do you think the U.S. needs a critical minerals alliance across the Western Hemisphere?
About 25 years ago, the United States was the leading trading partner in just about every country in South and Central America, and now it’s China.
China’s taking advantage of those countries … building out shoddy infrastructure and gaining access to their critical minerals and basically turning them into vassal states.
The other thing was a conversation I had with a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations about forming a North American compact.
After talking with her, I had a meeting with a Latin American ambassador and realized that this really needs to be a Western Hemisphere effort.
When it comes to critical minerals, I realized it’s not only an economic issue, it’s a national security issue. We’re not mining and refining and manufacturing our own materials.
Are you crafting legislation?
I’m not gonna talk so much about legislation. From the Western Hemisphere perspective, we need to be focused on private investment in some of these countries, so it’s not government aid, which has too many strings attached to it. Plus, foreign aid depends on who’s in power and in the White House.
What I’ve been promoting is working with these foreign leaders … for them to create an environment where it makes sense to make … a private investment.
What do you think of the Biden administration’s handling of critical minerals?
This administration has been a miserable failure.
Case in point is the largest deposit of cobalt in the United States is in northern Minnesota. [The Biden administration] shut that down. It not only contains cobalt, which you can’t make an EV battery without, it contains nickel, which is also a component that you have to have to make an EV battery.
Part of the problem … is the regulatory costs for mining and refining in the U.S. makes us uncompetitive. It’s actually cheaper to import cobalt or graphite or other critical minerals from foreign countries.
[In the] Democratic Republic of Congo, they’re basically using slave labor to extract it. … We know that they’re sending these kids into these mines to mine cobalt so that multimillionaires can drive an EV.
How could an incoming administration change that?
We cannot have a permitting process that runs out seven, 10, 12 years. That’s not going to work, and we don’t have that much time to meet critical needs if our relationship with China really gets bad or any of these other countries and China will put tremendous pressure on [us].
We’ve got to look at the regulatory burden that’s imposed on these companies, so we make them more competitive without compromising environmental quality.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.