May 20, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Sinema pushes to open up mining

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is seen arriving at the Capitol on Thursday.
Sen. Kysten Sinema is seen arriving at the Capitol on Thursday. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) wants the Senate's bipartisan energy and climate talks to prioritize domestic battery production — and make it easier to mine critical minerals at home, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Sinema's engagement on mining reform reveals both the possibilities — and pitfalls — of a potential bipartisan deal. Democrats are eager for a win this critical midterm year.

  • Sinema's support for permitting the mining reforms puts her on the same page as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — as well as some Senate Republicans.
  • It also reveals the contours of a package that would unlock billions of dollars for electric vehicles and green energy.
  • But tackling permitting reform, especially on the politically sensitive issue of mining, could create a chasm in the Democratic Party.

Driving the news: Axios is told that Sinema made her case during Tuesday night’s meeting of bipartisan senators, led by Manchin.

He wants to cobble together a compromise package on climate, energy independence, deficit reduction and prescription drug reform after putting the dagger in President Biden's bigger Build Back Better package in December.

  • "Sen. Sinema remains laser-focused on an all-of-the-above energy approach," said Sinema spokesperson Hannah Hurley.
  • The senator "will continue her work increasing investments in American production of critical minerals and manufacturing of electric vehicles, semiconductors, battery storage and other technologies that tackle our climate challenges, strengthen our national security and help ensure our energy independence."

The big picture: The United States is reliant on minerals from foreign sources, including China, to supply the raw materials necessary for a clean energy transition.

  • Manchin has used energy independence as a driving force in the bipartisan talks aimed at salvaging some of the president's original $1.75 trillion plan.
  • A cornerstone of that initial package was $550 billion in new spending for green energy and electric vehicles.

Sinema wants to ensure the batteries that power those vehicles come from materials sourced domestically, including from states like Nevada and Arizona.

  • Like Manchin’s push to accelerate regulatory approval for pipelines, changes to environmental regulations for mining are difficult to do via the budget reconciliation process.
  • Those kinds of policy changes are traditionally done via regular order, meaning they need 60 votes in the Senate to pass — as opposed to the majority vote used in the reconciliation process.
  • Democrats also are divided on expanding mining for critical minerals and rare earth materials, as it pits groups demanding immediate action to address climate change with those fighting to avoid environmental injustices, E &E News has reported.

Between the lines: Even if the bipartisan talks fall apart, the framework the senators are working on could serve as a starting point for any pared-down version of Build Back Better.

  • The fallback position would be a minimalist package that Democrats could try to pass — via budget reconciliation — without any Republican votes.

Go deeper: Some Democrats are less than optimistic about the prospects of reviving the BBB legislation, and question Manchin’s ability to forge a deal.

  • "It took a year of my legislative life; I have nothing to show for it. I wish Chuck well on reconciliation," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate majority whip, told Politico.

Flashback: In the $1.25 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law that passed last year, Sinema fought for a provision to study how abandoned mines could be used to extract critical minerals and materials.

  • In April, she held a roundtable in Phoenix with local mining and defense industry officials.
  • The purpose was to discuss supply chain issues around batteries, and ways to reduce inflation.
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