Democratic governor Steve Sisolak is backing a foreign company's plan to deliver America's green energy future through a massive Nevada lithium mine. That company's largest shareholder is a Chinese enterprise led by known Chinese Communist Party members, prompting concern that the project could ultimately benefit America's top adversary.
Sisolak in September 2020 approved $8.5 million in tax abatements for Lithium Americas, a Canadian company that intends to mine tens of thousands of tons of lithium—the key component in electric vehicle batteries—from a site in northern Nevada. Another top Nevada Democrat, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, in 2019 met with the company's executives and two years later persuaded her colleagues on the Hill to scrap legislation that would have imposed costly royalties on Lithium Americas and other hardrock miners.
Both Sisolak and Cortez Masto have argued that lithium mining in Nevada will accelerate America's clean energy economy by securing a domestic supply chain for crucial minerals, a sector that China dominates. But those arguments ignore Lithium Americas's largest shareholder—Chinese mineral giant Ganfeng, which holds a seat on Lithium Americas's board and "may … be in a position to affect the company's operations and direction," according to Lithium Americas's most recent annual report.
Ganfeng's influence over Lithium Americas is prompting concern that Sisolak and Cortez Masto's green energy push will prop up the Chinese Communist Party, particularly given Ganfeng's extensive ties to Beijing. Ganfeng president Li Liangbin, for example, holds positions on an array of committees and advisory boards that feed into the Chinese Communist Party, and the company's 2021 annual report describes board member Yu Jianguo as "a member of the Communist Party of China." In addition, Ganfeng executive vice president Wang Xiaoshen—who serves on Lithium Americas's board—"established himself in the lithium sector with China State-Owned Enterprises," according to a 2011 press release.
China already controls roughly 60 percent of the world's lithium resources thanks in part to Ganfeng. With the support of China's state-owned banks, the company has acquired sizable stakes in lithium mining projects in Chile, Argentina, and Australia. Now, Ganfeng could extend its footprint into the United States for the first time, causing former secretary of state Mike Pompeo to express extreme alarm over the Chinese company's significant stake in Lithium Americas and ties to China's government. Should the project move forward, Pompeo argued, China would "get a foothold in America on lithium mining."
"The United States government has a responsibility to look through this façade, this corporate entity that is fronting the Chinese Communist Party, and prevent them from moving forward," Pompeo told the Washington Free Beacon. "This is clearly an intention by the Chinese Communist Party to control the entire supply chain for green energy. They want a monopoly on lithium, and allowing them to do this by presenting themselves through a Canadian entity is dangerous. The United States Department of Treasury has the capacity to stop this from happening, and they should."
Lithium Americas minimized its connection to China, telling the Free Beacon that while Ganfeng has direct ownership in a different Lithium Americas mine in Argentina, the company "owns 100 percent" of its Nevada project and remains "focused on selling to U.S.-focused customers to strengthen the domestic battery supply chain." Still, Lithium Americas confirmed both Ganfeng's 11.1 percent stake in the company and Wang's role on the company's board. Lithium Americas's management and directors, by contrast, hold a 5.6 percent stake in the company, according to its September corporate presentation. No company or individual other than Ganfeng owns more than 10 percent of Lithium Americas's shares, the company's 2022 shareholders report states.
Neither Sisolak nor Cortez Masto returned requests for comment. Sisolak in September 2020 said he was "grateful" for Lithium Americas's "major" investment in Nevada. Roughly two years later, in July, the Democrat said Nevada "is leading the way in clean energy" thanks to Lithium Americas's work with the University of Nevada-Reno to "help identify and advance new processes for the electrification and battery industry." Cortez Masto, meanwhile, is known as a "fierce critic of policy proposals that would create new rules around mining" and argued that President Joe Biden's $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which allocated $17 billion in loans to "support the domestic battery supply chain," would "benefit national security by leveling the playing field with China."
Now, China-tied companies such as Lithium Americas could tap into the loans. In April, the company announced its "submission of a formal loan application to the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Technologies Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program," a funding source that Lithium Americas expects will cover "the majority" of "capital costs" stemming from its Nevada mine, which sits on the largest known reserve of lithium in the United States.
It's unclear if the company's connections to Beijing will deter its loan application. Ganfeng invested $174 million in Lithium Americas in 2017, and Li has acquired considerable political clout in China since the deal. A 2019 Foreign Policy report, for example, says Li in 2018 joined the Standing Committee of the 12th Political Consultative Conference of Jiangxi province. And in June, Li became an elected leader of the China Democratic Construction Association, a Chinese Communist Party front group that last week published a report pledging to adhere to Communist leadership and "unswervingly follow the party."
Beyond Biden's 2021 infrastructure bill, Lithium Americas—and, by proxy, Ganfeng—has benefited from Democrats' so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which invests $370 billion in green energy. Lithium Americas CEO Jonathan Evans went in "full celebration mode" after Biden signed the law, which was "chock-full of mining industry benefits," according to E&E News. "It's a big deal. We're delighted with it," Evans said of the law in August. Just weeks later, Biden tapped John Podesta, who has encouraged Chinese investment in American infrastructure, to oversee the law's hundreds of billions in climate spending.
Lithium Americas plans to yield a quarter of the world's lithium demand from its Nevada mine, according to Real Clear Investigations. The company expects "early-works construction" at the mine to commence "later this year."