Home » White House Chief of Staff’s Wealth and Connections Collide With Biden’s Clean Energy Strategy

White House Chief of Staff’s Wealth and Connections Collide With Biden’s Clean Energy Strategy

As the Biden administration pursues its strategy of building resilient supply chains for the surging clean energy industry, one metals company has seen a substantial boost. Last month, TechMet, which is part-owned by the U.S. government, announced that it had closed a $200 million fundraising round. Celebrating more than $180 million invested in projects around the world over the last year, the company noted in a press release that “both the US President and Vice President have cited TechMet’s role as a leading critical minerals company in the global effort to combat climate change.”

At the G20 summit last November, President Joe Biden touted a TechMet project in Brazil to mine nickel and cobalt for electric vehicle batteries. And during her trip across Africa earlier this year, Vice President Kamala Harris announced a U.S.-brokered agreement between TechMet and another company, Lifezone Metals, to mine one of the largest nickel deposits in the world: Tanzania’s Kabanga mine. 

Yet White House chief of staff Jeffrey Zients, whose job involves implementing the administration’s policy, has sidelined himself from the U.S. government’s deepening involvement with TechMet — thanks to what could be perceived as a conflict of interest stemming from his family’s vast wealth.

TechMet’s CEO is Brian Menell, a South African mining baron and the brother of Zients’s wife, Mary Menell Zients. Jeffrey Zients disclosed the relationship when he was brought on as chief of staff, the White House said, and recused himself from all matters related to the company. His recusal, which has not been previously reported, was the appropriate move, as ethics experts agree, but it also means the U.S. is operating without its chief quarterback in its dealings with a major player in the green energy transition.

“Zients informed vetting and ethics lawyers about Techmet as part of the standard onboarding process for his hiring,” White House spokesperson Saloni Sharma told The Intercept. “Even though he was not required to do so under relevant ethics regulations, out of an abundance of caution, he elected to recuse himself from all particular matters involving Techmet to avoid even an appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Securing ingredients like nickel for electric vehicle batteries is a critical part of the green energy transition heralded by the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, both of which were passed before Zients took over as chief of staff and represent hundreds of billions of dollars in government spending. As part of the administration’s multipronged approach to reduce carbon emissions, federal and executive agencies are working to source these metals away from their primary producer and chief U.S. competitor, China. 

U.S. backing for TechMet dates back to 2020, when the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation put $25 million in the company under President Donald Trump. Last year, the DFC approved another $30 million of investments in the company’s clean energy projects. The Biden administration went on to facilitate a partnership between TechMet and Lifezone in Tanzania, which Harris promoted in March, as part of the Biden administration’s $560 million of support for the East African country. Thanks to U.S. diplomatic and financial coordination, the Tanzanian government partnered with Lifezone to extract nickel from the Kabanga mine in the northwestern part of the country and deliver it to the U.S. and international markets by 2026.

Zients’s relatives, it turns out, had a stake in both sides of the U.S.-brokered agreement around the mine. The Zients Children’s Trust, which was set up for the benefit of Jeffrey Zients’s adult children, owned more than 400,000 shares of Lifezone before it went public on the New York Stock Exchange in July. The company had a successful first day of trading, seeing its shares jump nearly 50 percent. (Zients is not required to disclose the holdings of his adult children. Sharma said that he is not involved with the trust. “He does not have a position with, receive income from, or have a financial interest in the Trust,” she wrote.)

Even as the clean energy revolution marks a much-needed break from the era of fossil fuels, the potential for the family of the chief of staff to profit from the deal around the Kabanga mine illustrates that when it comes to resource extraction from the periphery flowing to the benefit of elites in the center, structurally, much will remain the same.

Before assuming his role as Biden’s chief of staff early this year, Zients flitted between the federal government and an extraordinarily lucrative career in finance and consulting. He worked in the Obama administration in a variety of roles, including two stints as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget. Like his father, who oversaw the privatization of certain veterans health care services, Zients became heavily involved in privatized medicine. In 2015, while he was serving as director of the National Economic Council, Zients’s investment firm Portfolio Logic reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the Justice Department resolving allegations that its subsidiary health care firm committed Medicare and Medicaid fraud. 

More recently, he sat on the board of Facebook and was CEO of the Wall Street investment firm Cranemere, which he left in 2020 before becoming Biden’s Covid czar, a position he held until April 2022. 

In his most recent ethics filing, Zients disclosed tens of millions in index fund shares, gold bars, gold shares, federal bonds, commercial real estate holdings, and banked cash. All told, his holdings reflect a net worth somewhere between $89 and $442 million, making him one of the wealthiest members of the administration. Jeff Hauser, executive director of the watchdog organization the Revolving Door Project, said that Zients’s wealth and connections are part of a worrying trend in who inevitably rises to power overseeing the federal government.

Jeffrey Zients’s holdings reflect a net worth somewhere between $89 and $442 million, making him one of the wealthiest members of the administration.

“There are many reasons to prefer our government be made up of dedicated public servants rather than members of an international oligarch set whose personal networks are comprised of the rich and powerful,” Hauser told The Intercept. “One of them is that ‘recusals’ and ‘firewalls’ are necessary but imperfect responses to the inextricable problem that people cannot forget what their interests are.” 

He added that the breadth of a chief of staff’s responsibilities makes it impossible to fully separate familial interests from the administration’s policy priorities. “Jobs as all-encompassing as Chief of Staff can never be truly separated from issues as consequential to the Administration as industrial policy, economic rivalry with China, and the Green Transition,” Hauser said. “Almost everything the US does in foreign policy is connected in some way to these goals, but very few of the questions that foreign policy raises will reference a specific mining company by name — even if that company is sprawling and strategically central.”

Brian Menell, founder and CEO of metals company TechMet, speaks at the Mines and Money conference in London on Dec. 6, 2011.

Photo: Wikipedia/Max Hector Photography

Brian Menell founded TechMet in 2017 with deep foresight into the change coming to the continent his family had long profited off of. Since then, he has overseen investments in projects tied to the electric vehicle transition across the globe. 

In addition to the nickel mining project in Brazil, that includes investments in a rare earth metals refinery in Norway, rare earth mining in South Africa, tin and tungsten mining in Rwanda, lithium mining in England, geothermal lithium production in California, lithium ion battery production and lithium recycling in Ohio, and a vanadium processor in Arkansas.

“If Tesla is to reach 20 million electric vehicles a year by 2030 that will require two times the current lithium annually mined supply,” he told attendees at the London Indaba conference in July, the trade publication Miningmx reported. “That is before GM, Ford and VW (electric vehicle production) and before the Chinese which already produce two-thirds of the world’s EV batteries.” He then added prophetically, “There is a lull in the artificially depressed market at the moment before a 10-year bull run.”

Under the agreement brokered by the Biden administration this year, TechMet will work to source inputs for Lifezone’s metals processing operation in Tanzania. The agreement was facilitated through the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, the Biden administration’s G7 plan that seeks to coordinate countries’ foreign energy and infrastructure investments, according to a White House fact sheet and reporting in The Economist. Brian Menell did not respond to The Intercept’s questions.

Other members of the Menell family have also had an interest in the Tanzanian mining project. In 2021, Zients’s mother-in-law, Irene Menell, transferred 7,148 shares in Kabanga Nickel Limited, the corporate entity for the mining project, to her son Rick Menell, according to a filing with Companies House, the U.K. database for British business entities.

Rick Menell and his sister, Mary Zients, are founding co-chairs of City Year South Africa, a youth leadership nonprofit. In April of this year, they jointly visited the White House, along with Rick Menell’s daughter. The trio was welcomed by Nina Srivastava, an adviser to the chief of staff, executive office visitor logs show. Sharma said the family was taking a tour of the White House. Rick Menell declined to comment for this article. 

The Menells trace their lineage back to Slip Menell, who in the 1930s founded the Anglovaal Group, one of South Africa’s major mining conglomerates. Since then, mining has stayed a family business. Brian and Rick Menell helmed the company together through the ’90s and early 2000s, quietly seizing control from encroaching investors through an offshore fund to maintain their familial domination. 

Since his time atop Anglovaal, Rick Menell has held senior roles at a variety of mining and finance firms with large sway over the African continent’s mining operations. He is currently the lead independent non-executive director on the board of Sibanye-Stillwater, a mining company that claims to be the world’s largest primary producer of platinum, second-largest primary producer of palladium, and third-largest producer of gold.

Keith Liddell, Chairman of Lifezone Metals, rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S., July 6, 2023.  REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Keith Liddell, chair of Lifezone Metals, rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange in New York City on July 6, 2023.

Photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The U.K. corporate records also shed light on Zients’s adult children’s interest in the Kabanga mine. The Zients Children’s Trust held 3,064 ordinary shares in Kabanga Nickel Limited in early 2022, according to the company’s filing. Later that year, Lifezone subsumed Kabanga Nickel through a holding company, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission records show. 

When Lifezone went public in July 2023, the Zients Children’s Trust held just over 403,000 shares in the company, according to its SEC filing. Those shares are estimated to be worth more than $5 million on the date of the filing. 

The address listed for both the Zients Children’s Trust and the vast majority of other Lifezone shareholders is in the Isle of Man, a notorious tax haven. There is not much public information about the trust, though financial records show that it also held shares in Cranemere, the company Zients left to join the White House, during his time there. (The Isle of Man address is also registered to dozens of other companies, including the holding company of the sanctioned Russian oligarch Sergey Generalov.)

Lifezone has marketed its project at Tanzania’s Kabanga nickel mine as the next frontier in the race to provide raw materials for the electric vehicle transition. It touts the mine as one of the largest and highest-grade nickel deposits in the world that will also produce battery-grade copper and cobalt. The project’s refinery site is going to be permitted as a special economic zone, paving the way for a metal processing hub that the company says will yield “economic and social benefits for Tanzania and the East African region.”

Lifezone has highlighted the low emissions technology it plans to use to extract nickel from Kabanga ore in its public materials, in addition to the steps it is taking to ensure compliance with human rights standards, local laws, and community protections. In its required disclosures with the SEC, however, the company notes that these areas may pose a risk to shareholder profits. 

The company flagged a number of potential risks for shareholders related to its projects in Tanzania and elsewhere on the continent: claims filed over negative health effects from mining operations, labor unrest, anti-corruption compliance, and unpredictable politics, including “resource nationalism.” The Tanzanian government holds a stake in Lifezone’s local operation. 

“We are subject to global resource nationalism trends which encompass a range of measures, such as seeking the greater participation of historically disadvantaged or indigenous people, expropriation or taxation, whereby governments seek to increase the economic benefits derived by their countries from their natural resources,” the filing reads. Taken together, the disclosures serve as a reminder that even a project meant to facilitate a transition to green energy will entail the dangerous and often exploitative work that has long accompanied natural resource extraction

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September 2023