Dec 12, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Exclusive: Behind Biden's overseas mining funding

Photo illustration of Biden in a construction hat.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo Mark Makela/Getty Images

The Biden administration is looking at funding roughly a dozen mineral projects overseas in a bid for more resources used in lower-carbon technologies.

Why it matters: Supporting more mining overseas could ease a raw material squeeze hurting electric vehicles, but it could also have a side effect: giving Biden’s foes fodder against him for rejecting mines at home.

Driving the news: Jose Fernandez, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, said in an interview the administration is mulling “around a dozen” mineral projects around the world for potential federal financing.

  • It’s one way the administration is responding to the rapidly rising demand for EV battery minerals like lithium — an issue that's raising prices.

How it works: This money may be distributed through the Mineral Security Partnership, a Biden program leveraging international relations to address U.S. mineral supply concerns.

  • The partnership includes Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the European Commission.
  • Part of its work will include mineral projects around the world “potentially receiv[ing] financing from the U.S. and/or other MSP partners,” a State Department spokesperson confirmed.
  • This includes mining, mineral processing and recycling projects.
  • Federal funding will be available via two agencies: the Export-Import Bank and the Development Finance Corporation, which is already funding a nickel mining project in Brazil.

The big picture: Unless something drastic changes, the world would need to mine a lot more to rid itself of fossil fuels.

  • EVs and solar panels rely on unique metals produced in only a few places. Most of the supply is currently controlled by China.
  • Tech innovation and recycling won’t be enough to resolve this — at least not as fast as scientists recommend we cut carbon emissions.
  • Some of these minerals, like graphite, are hard to find in the United States, per E&E News.

What they’re saying: Fernandez said the program "is what we believe is the best way to address" the problem that "we're going to need an exponential amount of rare earths and critical minerals, above what we have today."

  • The program's success will mean “raising the level of investment and [doing] it in a way that benefits these countries and would be sustainable.”

Of note: The partnership is talking with American carmakers, including Ford, General Motors, Rivian and Tesla.

  • They’re also talking to at least two U.S. lithium mining firms, Albemarle and Piedmont Lithium.
  • These companies are members of a State Department “clean energy resources” committee formed in March that Fernandez said is involved with the partnership.
  • Fernandez declined to specify companies the partnership is considering for potential financial support.

The other side: Republicans aren’t huge fans of considering the overseas mineral funding at a time when mining projects are facing hurdles at home.

  • Conservatives love to mention that Biden rejected and stalled some of the nation’s largest mining projects. Some mines were rejected for pollution concerns.
  • Rep. Bruce Westerman, the incoming chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, told Jael “we need to be forming alliances with our friends around the world,” but directly financing foreign projects was “horrific.”
  • The State Department responded to Westerman’s remarks with a statement asserting it supports an “all-of-the-above approach” to minerals that includes backing for “more secure domestic supply chain projects.”

What’s next: Expect House Republicans to scrutinize the program next year.

  • “As soon as we get into the majority, we will be getting pretty deep into it,” said a GOP aide to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Fernandez declined to name the companies the partnership is considering.

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