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The Energy 202: Biden's electric vehicle plans put to test in dispute between battery makers

By Steven Mufson and Dino Grandoni

with Alexandra Ellerbeck

The U.S. International Trade Commission is throwing a wrench into President Biden's electric vehicle plans, restricting a major battery manufacturer from importing some of the hardware at the heart of many emissions-free cars made in the United States.

In a decision issued Wednesday evening, the independent agency ruled the battery maker, SK Innovation, was making batteries with trade secrets stolen from one of its competitors, LG Chem.

The spat between the two South Korean corporate giants could have ripple effects for U.S. automakers gearing up to produce electric vehicles. It also puts Biden himself in the hot seat since he has to decide whether to let the ITC's decision move forward. 

ITC is trying to reprimand the South Korean battery maker without disrupting the nascent electric vehicle market.

The agency's decision would prevent SK Innovation from importing certain lithium-ion batteries and other components for the next 10 years, with a few exceptions. The limitations would make it very difficult for the company to get the parts it needs to manufacture batteries in the United States. 

But crucially, the agency is giving two automakers — Ford and Volkswagen's division in North America — time to find alternative sources of batteries to put into the electric F-150 and other electric models. The commission said SK Innovation can still make enough batteries to satisfy Ford’s needs for four years and VW’s for two.

Ford spokeswoman Rachel McCleery said the exemption “supports our plans to bring the all-electric Ford F-150 to market in mid-2022." Making an electric version of the bestselling truck is ”a top priority for the company," she added. 

Volkswagen did not respond to a request for comment. The order also allows for the repair or replacement of batteries for Kia vehicles already on the road. The commission issued a 96-page nonpublic opinion that the companies involved were scrutinizing.

In a statement, Jong Hyun Kim, the chief executive of LG Chem's energy division, said the company was grateful for the ITC's decision. "SKI’s total disregard of our warnings and intellectual property rights gave us no choice but to file this case."

SK Innovation, meanwhile, said it will discuss what to do next with Ford and Volkswagen — and plans to appeal to the Biden administration for relief. The ruling “could have a serious adverse impact on President Biden's policies to combat climate change," it said.

The firm is sinking about $2.6 billion into a massive plant in a rural Georgia, making for the largest foreign investment in the state’s history and expected to employ 2,600 people when completed. 

The ruling comes as Biden prepares to jump-start the domestic EV industry to confront climate change.

The president campaigned on juicing the market for electric cars by helping Americans buy more of them. Congressional Democrats are preparing to try to pass into law a new rebate for electric vehicle buyers later this year — a linchpin of Biden's $2 trillion climate plan.

In response to those changing political winds in Washington, General Motors and other major automakers have announced plans to move away from producing cars with internal-combustion engines to ones running solely on electricity.

But those plans hinge on building out a delicate supply chain in the United States that gets electric vehicles from the factory floors to roads — all while, Biden hopes, creates thousands of well-paying jobs.

Biden has 60 days to nix the ITC ruling.

The carve-outs for Ford and VW avoid putting as much pressure on Biden as a broader ban would. And historically, presidents have exercised that authority only a handful of times over the decades. 

“It renders the likelihood of presidential veto, which was already small, vanishingly small,” said David K. Callahan, a lawyer at the firm Latham and Watkins representing LG Chem.

The ITC itself said that the “tailoring of its orders is appropriate in view of the public interest considerations.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But in a confirmation hearing last week, Biden's energy secretary nominee, Jennifer Granholm, said the United States needs to manufacture more batteries at home if it wants to compete in the world's electric vehicle market.

“Of the 142-lithium ion battery mega factories that are under construction, 107 are in China. Nine are in the U.S. We can't sustain this,” she said. “We have got to lean in much more quickly.”

Power plays

Kids are vowing to take their climate case to the Supreme Court after a federal court refused to rehear it.

The Ninth Circuit court refused to rehear a climate case brought by 21 children and young adults who argued that the government jeopardized their future by failing to stop climate change. In 2020, the Ninth Circuit tossed out the legal case after ruling that the court could not dictate a broad climate policy and, thus, could not provide the relief the plaintiffs sought, Bloomberg News reports.

The next step, according to a lawyer for the kids, is to take the case to the Supreme Court.

But environmental lawyers and experts have warned that bringing the case before the Supreme Court could backfire if the court’s conservative majority uses the case to narrow environmental standing or preclude other climate cases.

French oil company Total is changing its name as part of a renewable energy rebrand.

The French oil and gas company is asking shareholders to approve a name change to TotalEnergies, according to a recent statement. The company says that the name change is part of a broader pivot after it spent $2 billion to expand its renewable energy portfolio last year.

The United Auto Workers' president met with top White House environmental officials about electric vehicles.

United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble met last week with White House domestic climate change adviser Gina McCarthy and other members of the Biden administration, Reuters reports. Speaking at a Detroit Automotive Press Association event on Wednesday, Gamble said that the union spoke with the Biden administration about electric vehicles and the development of battery cell technology, among other issues.

The Environmental Protection Agency ordered Amazon to stop selling illegal pesticides.

The EPA’s demand is the third time in three years that federal officials have ordered the online marketplace to take down listings that pose a health risk to consumers, children and pets — including some products that claim to kill the novel coronavirus, the Seattle Times reports. 

Amazon said in a recent statement that it has removed the products flagged by the EPA and put processes in place to proactively block unregistered pesticides and other products that make inaccurate claims about the coronavirus. (Jeff Bezos, the executive chairman of the board of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

Per the Seattle Times: “The environmental agency has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with illegal pesticide vendors on for almost a decade. Between 2013 and 2018, the EPA charged that Amazon committed nearly 4,000 violations of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act by allowing third-party vendors to sell and distribute from Amazon warehouses pesticides and disinfectants that had not been evaluated by the EPA for safety and efficacy.”

Organizers for this year’s climate summit are grappling with the possibility of some of it being virtual.

The COP26 summit has already been delayed once because of the pandemic, and the United Kingdom, which is hosting the event, has said that it will do everything possible to ensure that it can take place in person in November. But on Monday, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres urged countries to start preparatory negotiations in the lead-up to the high-stakes summit online. And organizers already are considering the possibility that some sessions may be remote or hybrid if the pandemic is not controlled, Bloomberg News reports.

“I really, really hope it doesn’t have to be virtual.” Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the U.K. minister in charge of climate adaptation issues at COP26, told Bloomberg. “The power of having people in a room together is unassailable when you’re trying to negotiate from lots of different positions.”

Biden’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget talks climate.

If confirmed, Neera Tanden would oversee the Office of Information and Regulatory affairs, a body that analyzes the costs and benefits of regulations and can play a make-or-break role in allowing environmental policies to go forward. 

In a wide-ranging confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday, Tanden told lawmakers that she was “excited by the possibility of taking into account the cost of inaction on climate.” 

Tanden, who serves as the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, also discussed PFAS chemicals in water and nuclear waste containment in Nevada’s Yucca Mountains during a confirmation hearing with Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which took place on Tuesday.

Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) on Feb. 10 scolded Neera Tanden, the nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, for her Twitter history. (Video: C-SPAN)

But policy questions were often overshadowed by debates about Tanden’s history of sending caustic tweets, targeting both Republicans and left-wing politicians, including budget committee chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Extra mileage

A newly discovered chameleon can fit on your fingertip.

Two of the miniature lizards, known as Brookesia nana, or nano-chameleon, were identified in northern Madagascar. The male of the species is only 0.53 inch long, making it the smallest known species of reptile, Reuters reports.