The ongoing feud between two South Korean EV battery producers is coming to a head Sunday and President Joe Biden looks like he’s going to have to render the final decision.
Rivals LG Chem and SK Innovation were in a pitched battle about trade secrets, the former claiming the latter stole them. The U.S. International Trade Commission ruled in LG Chem’s favor on the matter last May, which included banning SKI from producing batteries in the U.S., although they have been bringing in components under a temporary reprieve from the ITC.
However, Biden has the ability to set aside the ruling to allow SK Innovation to operate freely in the U.S. This is crucial as SKI is building a $2.6 billion battery facility in northern Georgia that will employ 2,600 people and produce more than 300,000 batteries annually
Those batteries that will be used in U.S.-built (and sold) electric vehicles — EVs that are part of the President’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan.
Facing a deadline
Biden could render a decision as early as today, Reuters reported, but Sunday is the deadline. The White House is encouraging the two sides to reach a settlement, but that seems unlikely at this point — although not impossible.
There has been some cooperation between the two companies as LG Chem recently allowed SK to import components for batteries for Ford’s EV F-150 program for the next four years, and Volkswagen’s North American EVs for two years.
At the heart of the matter is whether or not LG Chem can produce enough batteries to supply U.S. automakers if SKI’s Georgia plant is scuttled. LG says yes. SKI says no. LG Chem is building a $2.3 billion plant in Lordstown, Ohio with General Motors to produce batteries.
It’s also reportedly building a second facility in Tennessee near GM’s Spring Hill plant that will build the Cadillac Lyriq. LG Chem contends it can build the additional batteries at those facilities. SKI claims the plants couldn’t serve GM as well as VW and Ford. It also warns that Chinese battery companies could secure that business. Currently there are four active battery production facilities in the U.S.
“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,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm during her confirmation hearing.
Support for a reversal
Given the support for a revival of the semiconductor business in the U.S. due to the shortages automakers are experiencing, asking for help ensuring a diverse supply base of battery makers by those auto companies isn’t really a surprise. Volkswagen of America CEO Scott Keogh said in a recent blog post on LinkedIn, the president needs to act.
“At this inflection point in automotive history, public policy can be a headwind or a tailwind,” he wrote in the post. “Past presidents have overridden the trade commission, and President Biden could do so in this case.
“It’s an opportunity to strengthen the battery industry, speed up America’s transition to electric vehicles, and secure thousands of clean energy jobs. Now is the time to take the wheel and drive electrification forward.”
Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp made clear his feeling about a Biden intervention in the process: “Simply put: the livelihoods of thousands of Georgians are now in your hands.”
Senator Jon Ossoff has attempted to broker a peace between the two South Korean battery makers and Biden administration while his compatriot in the upper chamber, Senator Raphael Warnock, said if Biden doesn’t reverse the decision it will be a “severe punch in the gut for the folks who were counting on those jobs, not to mention President Biden’s own goals.”