Energy & Environment

Youngkin cites China concerns on EV plant while critics see presidential ambitions   

Gov. Glenn Youngkin gives remarks on his proposed tax cut, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, at Weinstein Jewish Community Center in Richmond, Va. (Shaban Athuman/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) announcement removing his state from consideration for a Ford electric vehicle (EV) battery plant over connections to China has triggered a controversy, with critics saying he is picking fights as a prelude to a possible 2024 White House run.   

Youngkin announced in January that he had withdrawn Virginia from the selection process for the plant. A Virginia facility would have been located in Pittsylvania County near the North Carolina state line.   

The governor cited the involvement of Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. (CATL), a Chinese battery manufacturer that would have operated the facility as a joint venture with Ford.

“This is an easy one where Virginia taxpayer money along with federal taxpayer money wasn’t going to go to the benefit of a [Chinese Communist Party]-influenced company and a workaround arrangement for what federal law is,” Youngkin told Fox News’s Neil Cavuto last week. 

The planned joint venture would be operated by CATL but owned by Ford, which could have made the plant eligible for subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act.  

Youngkin elaborated on his objections to CATL’s involvement in an interview with Bloomberg TV, saying, “The structure was CATL and the Chinese Communist Party would have full operational control over the technology. I would have loved to have had Ford come to Virginia and build a battery plant if they were not using it as a front for a company that is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.” 

While CATL is not state-owned, Beijing has heavily subsidized the development of EV battery technology in the country, prompting concerns from China hawks that the government could have access to technology developed by China-based companies.    

Initial reports by the Richmond Times-Dispatch claimed Ford had already decided on Virginia when Youngkin made his announcement, but both the automaker and Youngkin’s office have disputed the claim. Ford spokeswoman Melissa Miller told the newspaper last week that the company had made no decision on the plant but that “beyond that, our talks with CATL, the world’s leading battery producer, continue.” 

Youngkin is seen as a rising GOP star who could be a dark-horse candidate for president in 2024 or a vice presidential candidate. He just won Virginia’s governorship in 2021 but is term-limited and cannot run for a second consecutive term in 2025.    

Democrats have blasted Youngkin’s announcement and accused him of putting his presidential hopes ahead of the state.

In an interview last week with NBC News, Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell (D) noted that the right-leaning outlet The Daily Caller broke Youngkin’s decision as an exclusive. 

“The only explanation that I can see” for that,” he said, “is that the governor is in some kind of a China-bashing contest with [Republican Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis and [Republican Texas Gov.] Greg Abbott.” 

“The governor chose to make a splash and on his own disrespect[ed] the people of Southside Virginia by not letting them know that he was going to turn down 2,500 jobs and a $5 billion investment in a region of the commonwealth that has been suffering,” Virginia state House Minority Leader Don Scott (D) told The Hill in an interview. “We believe that he put his political and presidential aspirations before the people of Virginia who elected him.”   

Youngkin, Scott said, is “putting MAGA culture war talking points ahead of hardworking Virginians.”    

Keith Naughton, a Republican political consultant who co-founded the firm Silent Majority Strategies, argued Virginia was always less likely to get the plant than competitors such as Michigan, which has deep ties to Ford and has mounted an aggressive push for the plant.

“I think that Youngkin was just maybe trying to get a little bit of political gain out of it,” he said. 

As for Youngkin’s Democratic critics, he said, “I think it’s pretty disingenuous for the Democrats to criticize Youngkin on this because Virginia was never going to get that plant, and it would have been a waste of time. And you’ve got a state that just gave a fortune in freebies to Amazon competing against a bunch of states that weren’t going to win anyway.” 

“If you’re anti-corporate welfare, you should support what Youngkin decided to do to not be a pawn in some sort of a competition game,” he added. 

Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for the governor, said the move was consistent with Youngkin’s stance on China both as governor and on the campaign trail.   

“Governor Youngkin has a history of standing up to China and was thanked by President Trump for his support in holding China accountable for its unfair trade practices and malign influence,” she told The Hill in an email. “Since day one, the governor has utilized his business experience to take on China, and ensure taxpayer dollars in Virginia don’t enrich the Chinese Communist Party.”   

Porter also cited Youngkin’s ongoing efforts to remove the state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), an interstate carbon-capping partnership the General Assembly voted to join under his predecessor, Gov. Ralph Northam (D). Democrats in the Assembly maintain the state can only exit the partnership through new legislation and killed a bill in committee to withdraw from RGGI earlier this month.  

Youngkin has also vowed to overturn a Virginia law signed by Northam that would require all new cars to be electric by 2035, in keeping with a California standard. Democrats killed the reversal bill in committee earlier this year.   

Youngkin has won support for his decision from Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who represents the area where the plant would have been sited.

“Governor Youngkin has been working tirelessly to bring jobs to our Commonwealth, but I share his concerns about offering any incentives that will benefit the Chinese Communist Party,” Good told The Hill in a statement. 

As demand has built for electric vehicles in recent years, Republican governors have often been happy to tout their economic benefits.   

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) recently directed a task force to identify where the state should expand charging stations, while Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) touted investments in the state by Rivian and Hyundai last fall in his successful reelection campaign.      

Ultimately, Naughton said taking a broader anti-EV line is likely less salient in national politics than a hawkish stance on China.  

“There is some benefit [to anti-EV rhetoric] but not a lot,” he said. “It will benefit some Republicans in parts of the country, but I think it’s a weak national message.” 

Taking a tougher line on China can play well to GOP voters, and Youngkin has been doing so.

During the same State of the State address in which he formally announced his decision on the Ford plant, Youngkin called for a ban on TikTok on state devices over the company’s Chinese ownership.  

“You’re seeing other presidential hopefuls [also] take every opportunity they can to bash China, and I think it’s kind of concerning and says he’s putting political rhetoric over job creation in one of our most economically depressed parts of the state,” said Lee Francis, deputy director at the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.    

Tags China Electric vehicles Ford Glenn Youngkin Glenn Youngkin Virginia

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