SEC defends its rule on conflict minerals, which may implicate catalysts.

In a recent court filing, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) defended its decision not to provide a de minimis exception for uses of “conflict minerals” in its rules [PDF] implementing the Conflict Minerals Statutory Provision (Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act). The rules require companies to disclose whether designated “conflict minerals” in their products originated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or nine adjoining countries, and could potentially affect manufacturers who use conflict minerals as catalysts or in a similar manner in another process.

Business groups which had previously sought a de minimis exception, including the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, challenged the rule in a lawsuit filed last year in October. The groups argued that the SEC did not fully consider the rule’s economic consequences as required by the Exchange Act, and that a failure to define the term “derivative” could mean that metals in forms that are chemically distinct from the base metals subject to the rule would also subject manufacturers to the rule’s disclosure requirements. When SEC adopted its final version [PDF] of the rule in August 2013, it clarified the definition of conflict mineral—which includes “cassiterite, columbite-tantalite, gold, wolframite, and their derivatives”—to specify that the term “derivatives” are limited to the “3Ts” (tantalum, tin, and tungsten).

In the new version of the rule, the SEC declined to include a de minimis exception. Instead, manufacturers must consider only if the conflict minerals used “are necessary to the functionality or production of a product.” In its guidance, SEC clarified that only conflict minerals contained in the product would be considered “necessary.”  Because they are not typically contained in the final product, the rule does not generally cover conflict minerals used as a catalyst,. However, SEC noted in its guidance that if a catalyst made from conflict minerals is contained in the final product, even if only in de minimis amounts, then the conflict mineral is considered “necessary” to its production and is therefore subject to the final rule.

On October 23, the SEC defended its position in a filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, having previously prevailed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The SEC stated that “creating a categorical exception for small uses of conflict minerals would thwart” the purposes of the statute.  The SEC noted that conflict minerals are frequently used in small amounts and those uses could have “large cumulative effects.” On October 31, a dozen current and former Democratic members of Congress filed an amicus brief in support of the SEC. The case is pending before the D.C. Circuit; oral arguments have not yet been scheduled.