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Biden putting 'Buy American' frame around critical minerals development efforts

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is once again draping the union-friendly, red, white and blue bunting of his Buy American philosophy over a key component of his administrative agenda — one in which Canada dearly wants to play a role. The U.S.
The White House is unveiling plans today for what it calls a “made in America” supply chain for the rare-earth minerals at the heart of the electric-vehicle revolution.  A 2021 Model 3 sedan charges at a Tesla dealership in Littleton, Colo., in this June 27, 2021 file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-David Zalubowski

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is once again draping the union-friendly, red, white and blue bunting of his Buy American philosophy over a key component of his administrative agenda — one in which Canada dearly wants to play a role. 

The U.S. intends to take a "made-in-America" approach to its strategy for securing reliable domestic supply chains for critical minerals and rare-earth elements — the building blocks for the coming electric-vehicle revolution. 

"It's all about the belief we share that to build a truly strong economy, we need a future that's made in America," Biden told Tuesday's virtual gathering, which included U.S. corporate leaders, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

The event was designed to mark this week's one-year anniversary of Biden's executive order to review and recommend solutions for shoring up the country's fragile supply chains, battered by COVID-19. 

From it, Biden decided that "if I was going to follow through on my commitment to say, 'We were going to make it in America and build it in America and have all of it built in America,' we needed a supply chain that was reliable."

It's far from the first time that the Democratic president has played the protectionism card when it comes to his much-vaunted but politically challenging effort to "build back better" from the impact of the pandemic. 

He's already established a "Buy American" office within the confines of the White House to police the granting of contracts for federal infrastructure projects, and proposed a now-dormant tax credit scheme for EVs that critics say would devastate Canada's auto sector if implemented in its original form. 

Canada, meanwhile, has been eyeing the growing demand for critical minerals and rare-earth elements with interest, considering it is home to what experts say are sizable stockpiles of the metals that will help the world kick the fossil-fuel habit.  

For those in Canada hoping to latch on to that particular rocket ship, experts on both sides of the border have a clear message: don't panic. 

Canada and the U.S. share a goal of expanding a lucrative trade relationship that's worth C$2 billion a day and supports countless jobs in both countries, said David Cohen, Biden's U.S. envoy in Ottawa. 

"Critical minerals is one of the essential ways that I think we can grow the pie, and Canada has some real natural advantages by being a repository for so many critical minerals," Cohen said in an interview. 

Tuesday's announcement, he said, "positions the United States to continue to engage in a dialogue with Canada about how we both take advantage of the presence of critical minerals in both of our countries, and build a real presence in that space and create jobs."

It was also primarily about ensuring Americans see the Biden administration putting their needs first, said Ben Steinberg, a former Department of Energy official who's now an executive vice-president at Venn Strategies, a D.C. government relations firm. 

"This is a moment for the U.S. and this administration to say that they support the critical minerals industry domestically, irrespective of the fact that they need to co-ordinate with Canada and close allies, which I think is a must," Steinberg said.

"I don't think they've lost sight of that." 

Steinberg also helps lead the Battery Materials and Technology Coalition, a group of 13 U.S. and Canadian companies from across the spectrum of the battery industry, from mining and processing to battery pack development and recycling.

"About half of our members are Canadian-based or have operations or equity in Canada, and that's a testament to how integrated the U.S. and Canada are on this from a markets perspective." 

The White House says global demand for critical minerals is expected to increase by more than 400 per cent over the coming decades, and 4,000 per cent in the case of lithium and graphite. 

With numbers like that, there's still plenty of room at the table, said Eric Miller, a Canada-U.S. expert and president of the D.C.-based Rideau Potomac Strategy Group. 

"Obviously, as Canada's good friend and closest ally, it would be highly desirable if Canada and the U.S. could work together, but part of it is the U.S. is still trying to figure out how it wants to incorporate allies into this," said Miller, a global fellow at the Wilson Center's Canada Institute who works extensively on critical minerals issues. 

Eventually, he added, the U.S. will need to be "clear-eyed about the fact that lots of the materials that it's going to use are not located in the United States."

Tuesday's event showcased a litany of government grants and private-sector projects intended to demonstrate that the U.S. — thanks, Biden and others noted, to his $1.2-trillion infrastructure plan, to date his administration's crowning political achievement — is well on its way to securing the future of U.S.-sourced and built electric vehicles. 

The administration is giving $35 million to MP Materials, the only rare-earth miner on the continent, to upgrade its California facility and establish a domestic supply chain for "permanent magnets," a vital component in EVs, defence systems and wind turbines — and a market dominated by China. 

The company, billed as the world's second-largest producer of permanent magnets, will in turn make a $700-million investment of its own that will result in the creation of 350 permanent jobs by 2024. 

"We are investing across the board, end to end, exactly as you have called for," CEO James Litinsky told the president, "so that we can have actually every aspect of this supply chain in the United States of America." 

The lesson for Canada in all this? Better get cracking, said Mark Agnew, senior vice-president of policy and government relations at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. 

"They are making in the U.S. very tangible actions towards building up their critical mineral supply chain, and they're doing it in a very specific and targeted way that we're just not yet seeing on this side of the border," Agnew said. 

"So as much as the U.S. wants to work with allies, I think what it shows is that Canada's got a fair bit of homework and labour work to do, frankly, to get the U.S. to take us seriously as a partner." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2022. 

— With files from Mike Blanchfield in Ottawa

James McCarten, The Canadian Press