Biden admin bows slightly to European pressure in trade clash

Biden admin bows slightly to European pressure in trade clash

POLITICO — 2022-12-29

News from Brussels

The new electric vehicle tax credit provision in the Inflation Reduction Act has heightened trade tensions between the US and other auto-producing countries.

The Biden administration on Thursday 29 December 2022 signaled some flexibility in how it would implement a revised tax credit for electric vehicles in the new Inflation Reduction Act that has rankled the European Union and other trading partners.

The Treasury Department, in a new “white paper” published on 29 December,  indicated it would adopt an expansive definition of which countries have a “free trade agreement” with the US. That could help some overseas automakers qualify for at least a portion of the credit that favors US manufactured vehicles.

The department also issued guidance for a separate tax credit for clean commercial vehicles which isn’t as stringent as the one for new consumer car sales. That could provide some opportunities for overseas manufacturers through dealerships that lease cars to consumers.

The EU welcomed that move, calling it “a win-win” for both sides. “US taxpayers will be able to take advantage of highly efficient EU-made electric vehicles and components, while EU companies that provide their customers through leases with cutting-edge clean vehicles can benefit from the incentives,” the EU said in a statement.

However, the EU said it still had concerns about the main electric vehicle tax credit contained in the Inflation Reduction Act, which requires final assembly of the cars to take place in the US, Canada or Mexico. That makes many imported automobiles ineligible for the full $7,500 tax credit consumers can get on the purchase of a new electric vehicle. Treasury will propose a more detailed rule on the tax credit in March, missing an end-of-year deadline set by Congress in the IRA.

The law and its new electric vehicle tax credit provision have heightened trade tensions between the US and other leading auto-producing countries such as France, Germany, South Korea and Japan. European leaders, in particular, have publicly raised concerns with President Joe Biden that the tax credit and other IRA provisions that subsidize US clean energy could be the death knell for European industry as investment is siphoned away to the US. Congressional lawmakers have been unapologetic, saying they crafted the law to boost US jobs and production of electric vehicles.

Discriminating against EU produced clean vehicles and inputs violates international trade law and unfairly disadvantages EU companies on the US market, reduces the choices available to US consumers and ultimately reduces the climate effectiveness of this green subsidy,” the EU said in its statement on Thursday 29 December, while welcoming Treasury’s announcement that it would take more time to work out many of the remaining details.

A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council indicated they did not expect the latest Treasury Department communication to put the matter to rest.

We are committed to continuing to understand our partners’ concerns, including through the US-EU Task Force on the Inflation Reduction Act, chaired by senior officials from the White House and European Commission, and through bilateral channels with our other partners, including the ROK and Japan. These are regular conversations and we expect conversations to continue,” the NSC spokesperson said.

Treasury released a preliminary list of which vehicles qualify for the credit on Thursday 29 December, and expects it to grow in coming days as they hear from more manufacturers. That still could be shorter than the list of cars the Energy Department has previously said are eligible for the credit.

Treasury also published answers to a list of “Frequently Asked Questions” about the new tax credit to help manufacturers and consumers sort through the complexities. Neither the EU nor Autos Drive America, a group representing foreign brand manufacturers, immediately responded to a request for comment on 29 December. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who played a key role in crafting the final version of the tax credits that Biden signed into law, criticized the Treasury Department’s move and urged officials to pause implementation. Treasury’s interpretation “bends to the desires of the companies looking for loopholes and is clearly inconsistent with the intent of the law,” he said.

Why countries are concerned: The Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden signed into law on 16 August, immediately required electric vehicles to be assembled in North America to qualify for the $7,500 consumer tax credit.

Previously, EVs assembled outside North America could qualify for the credit, although each automaker was limited to a cap of 200,000 vehicles before they maxed out.

The new North American assembly requirement eliminated many electric vehicles made overseas that previously qualified, angering the EU, Japan and South Korea and raising the prospect of a legal challenge at the World Trade Organization.

The EU, which is home to big automakers like Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, has been concerned the EV tax credit will siphon investment away from Europe in favor of the US. However, South Korea has an opposite concern.

Its biggest car company, Hyundai, has already announced plans to build a $5.5bn electric vehicle facility in Georgia that won’t become operational until 2025.

The South Korean automaker has asked Treasury for a grace period so it can continue importing cars that qualify for the credit until the Georgia facility starts production. However, Treasury’s white paper does not address that issue, potentially leaving the automaker out in the cold. A spokesperson for Hyundai said the company is still reviewing Treasury’s latest statements.

Important battery provisions: The guidance released on Thursday 29 December provides more hope for foreign producers of electric vehicle batteries. The IRA introduced separate requirements effective on 1 January for critical minerals and other battery components that Congress intended to spur more production in the US. Additional provision that take effect in 2024 also would would prevent cars containing material and parts from China from being eligible for the tax credit.

To qualify for a portion of the tax credit, 40% of the value of the critical minerals in the battery must be extracted or processed in the US or in any country with which the US has a free trade agreement. That level increases to 80% by 2027. The critical minerals could also be recycled in North America to qualify.

The US currently has formal free trade agreements with 20 countries, including Canada, Mexico, South Korea and other countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

Treasury noted that the term “free trade agreement” is not defined in the IRA or any other statute, enabling the department to come up with its own definition. This could potentially broaden the group of countries eligible for the tax credit, including the European Union which does not have a formal trade deal with the US.

Treasury said it would identify a list of criteria for what qualifies as a free trade agreement with the US in a notice of proposed rulemaking it plans to issue in March.

Treasury and the IRS “also expect to propose that the Secretary may identify additional free trade agreements for purposes of the critical minerals requirement going forward and will evaluate any newly negotiated agreements for proposed inclusion during the pendency of the rulemaking process or inclusion after finalization of the rulemaking.

The EU, in its statement, indicated it hoped to work out a solution with the Biden administration that would allow it to be treated “the same way” as all US free trade agreement partners.

To qualify for the another portion of the tax credit, at least 50% of the vehicle’s battery components have to be manufactured or assembled in North America, starting in 2023. That requirement increases to 100% by 2029.

IRA did not provide any leeway for components manufactured or assembled in free trade agreement countries, like it did for the critical minerals content requirement.

Commercial vehicle tax credits: Taxpayers that buy electric or other clean vehicles for their business operations can also apply for a separate tax credit that has less stringent criteria than the ones for the cars sold directly to consumers.

That potentially could provide a sizable market for overseas manufacturers who want to work with dealers to lease electric vehicles in the US. However, companies have to take care that the lease does not contain terms that would prompt the IRS to recharacterize it as a sale, Treasury said.