Welcome to the critical mineral craze, K Street

By Hannah Northey | 05/29/2024 01:37 PM EDT

Mining companies are turning to Washington insiders to navigate permitting fights, access lucrative tax incentives and find ways to compete with China.

A K Street street sign is pictured.

A K Street street sign is pictured. Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images | Getty

The national scramble for critical minerals has landed on K Street.

A growing number of major and junior mining companies are enlisting former Hill staffers as well as administration and agency officials to navigate gnarly permitting fights, access lucrative tax incentives and find ways to compete with China.

It’s part of an ongoing advocacy blitz that’s generating an outsize focus inside and outside the Beltway on accelerating federal and state approvals of new mines to produce minerals like lithium, nickel, graphite, zinc and cobalt, shaping how the Inflation Reduction Act is implemented and ultimately juicing the nation’s domestic mining sector.


“We’re noticing a massive uptick in new groups,” said Leslie Hayward, a spokesperson for the energy security group SAFE, which has been deeply involved in the critical minerals space since 2020. “Time will tell which ones emerge as most effective.”

Dozens of former congressional staffers, administration officials and federal agency staffers have been enlisted to help companies navigate a difficult regulatory landscape and tap into tax credits flowing from the IRA, the nation’s biggest climate law. Companies are positioning themselves to fulfill the need for IRA-compliant battery metals for use in electric vehicles and rules in the law aimed at squeezing out adversaries like China from forming supply chains.

But whether the buzz around the Beltway can help deliver a cohesive plan for shoring up critical minerals remains unclear.

Despite the Biden administration’s stated goal of securing minerals both domestically and through allies to fulfill ambitious climate goals, some in the industry say there’s little prospect that Congress will help break a long-standing permitting logjam anytime soon. Meanwhile, House Democrats are casting a wary eye at foreign companies digging up critical minerals on U.S. public lands.

Without a cohesive strategy that pulls in more than a dozen federal agencies, the U.S. may have to accept China’s dominance over specific parts of strategic mineral supply chains, including mining or processing of specific minerals and materials, said Peter Bryant, a strategist with the consultancy firm Clareo who advises global mining companies.

“We’re at a pivotal point … if we don’t come up with a strategy by 2025, I think it’s game over,” said Bryant. “What I mean by game over is … we have to live with these supply chain risks because China, by mineral, dominates the supply chain of those minerals in one way, shape or form.”

Bryant recently launched and is lobbying for a new, informal coalition dubbed the Key Minerals Forum. Representing six of the world’s largest mining companies — BHP; Rio Tinto; Vale; Barrick Gold; Teck Resources, one of Canada’s largest miners; and Albemarle, the world’s largest lithium producer — Bryant’s end goal is a U.S. mining strategy that’s more coherent and competitive in a market dominated by state players like China.

Abigail Hunter, executive director of SAFE’s Center for Critical Minerals Strategy, said she’s seen a proliferation of associations, task forces and programs emerging around critical minerals that are increasingly working together on issues like a tax package slated to be taken up on Capitol Hill next year. Hunter does not lobby for SAFE, but the group does have an advocacy arm.

Hunter agreed that time is of the essence when it comes to competing with China and said there’s currently a mismatch between how much money the U.S. has invested in processing and EV battery manufacturing compared to mining.

“We have really, really focused on supporting processing and battery manufactures … without maybe thinking about the feedstock as critically, especially in a low-price environment,” said Hunter, adding that doing so undermines the ability to get gigafactories running at full capacity. “That’s not what you want to see … a bunch of empty factories that haven’t been able to actually produce, but just losing to China.”

‘Deeper bench’

From Alaska to Pennsylvania, mining companies are turning to K Street to help get a better regulatory and financial foothold.

“It’s really about permitting, but it’s also about taking advantage of grants, IRA tax incentives,” said one mining official who was granted anonymity to speak freely. “It’s about making sure policymakers and decisionmakers are educated about what we’re trying to do.”

Ben Steinberg, a former Energy Department official and now spokesperson for the Battery Materials & Technology Coalition, a trade group for members of the supply chain that includes mining companies, said there’s a growing number of people pulling from their days on the Hill and in federal agencies to focus on critical minerals.

“There is a deeper and deeper bench of folks who worked on these issues during Trump and Biden or in the 116th through 118th Congress and are taking that experience and applying it to public-private sector coordination,” said Steinberg.

That includes people who have worked in Congress, federal agencies, trade associations, think tanks and industry, he said, and are now interfacing with each other around core issues important to the critical minerals industries.

Mining companies in recent months have reached out to a slew of former Republican staffers to help shape implementation of the IRA and navigate state and federal regulatory processes.

That’s especially true in Alaska, a mineral- and water-rich state where the Biden administration has blocked controversial mining projects — from the Pebble mine to Ambler Road — to the dismay of Republicans there.

Annie Gayman, a former staffer for the state’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and now vice president of the energy-focused public affairs firm Lot Sixteen, is now lobbying for Alaska Energy Metals, a company trying to develop a massive nickel deposit about 125 miles southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, according to a disclosure form.

Lot Sixteen also lobbies for the National Mining Association, a trade association, on hardrock mining issues, as well as Ambler Metals, a joint venture between Australian firm South32 and Canadian company Trilogy Metals. Ambler Metals is pursuing an open-pit copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver at its proposed Arctic mine, as well as other potential mineral deposits.

Colin Hayes, co-founder of Lot Sixteen and the former staff director of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement that Washington policymakers have increasingly realized that the nation’s ability to compete globally depends on access to critical minerals, be it for defense, tech or clean energy.

“Getting these minerals from inside the United States, in ways that are well-regulated and safe for both the people who work there and the surrounding communities, is far better than outsourcing production to unstable regimes with little regard to the human or environmental costs of doing that development the wrong way,” said Hayes.

Another D.C.-based shop, the all-Republican advocacy and lobbying firm CGCN Group, has been enlisted by NewRange Copper Nickel, a joint venture made up of two international mining giants — Teck Resources and PolyMet Mining, a company that Swiss commodities giant Glencore owns controlling interest in.

NewRange has been thrust into a regulatory quagmire in recent months after the Biden administration pulled a key water permit for its proposed copper, nickel and precious metal mine in Minnesota. The Army Corps of Engineers said the project didn’t comply with a downstream tribe’s water quality standards.

Bipartisan blitz

Staffers who used to work for powerful lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have jumped into the critical mineral lobbying blitz.

One well-known advocate is Peter Stahley, a former staffer for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who recently took on the role of senior vice president at the Washington-based public affairs firm Cassidy and Associates.

Stahley, who helped shape minerals provisions in the IRA, is focusing on a host of environmental and energy issues, including critical minerals, permitting, carbon capture and storage, and the Bureau of Land Management. Cassidy’s lobbying clients include Barrick Gold, Donlin Gold and Perpetua Resources, which has secured billions of dollars in federal support to build the Stibnite Gold project in Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains.

And late last year, Cornerstone Government Affairs launched the American Critical Minerals Association to advocate for policies to boost domestic processing, refining and recycling capacity of critical minerals. Overseeing that effort is Sarah Venuto, a former senior adviser and chief counsel to Manchin who also worked at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, alongside former Energy and Commerce staffer Chris Sarley.

That activity is only ramping up among both Republicans and Democrats.

Last month, Teck Resources retained Burke Consulting to focus on trade between the U.S. and Canada as it relates to minerals, with Elizabeth Burke, who previously worked for Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.), focusing on “any U.S. energy or trade legislation impacting import of natural resources from Canada,” according to a disclosure form.

Dale Steeves, a spokesperson for Teck, said in an email that the company “engages with consultants to support its Red Dog Operations and other US critical minerals interests and files with government registries as required.” Teck’s Red Dog Operations in Alaska is one of the world’s largest zinc mines.

Yet another company with a former Trump official at the helm has tapped lobbyists with both Democratic and Republican ties.

In March, the project finance company Greenmet — named Greentech Minerals Holdings on disclosure forms — retained three lobbyists from Cogent Strategies, including former staffers with experience on both sides of the aisle. The lobbying firm and Greenmet did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Drew Horn, Greenmet’s founder and CEO, has repeatedly appeared on Capitol Hill to warn lawmakers about the influence of adversarial countries like China and call for a boost in federal support. Horn served at the Energy Department under the Trump administration and was an adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence.

Last year, Horn testified at a House Ways and Means Committee that China is taking advantage of loopholes in the IRA to fight competition around critical minerals and rare earth elements. Horn also told a House committee that companies must compete against adversarial economies backed with state money and little to no oversight.

“My view of government funding in this sector is that it’s essential to serve as a catalyst to get the private market truly into this space where they can outcompete some of these adversaries,” said Horn.

Reporters Timothy Cama and Kevin Bogardus contributed.