In ‘Wait-and-See’ Mode, U.S. Aluminum Officials Hope 232 Probe Addresses Chinese Overcapacity

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Aluminum industry officials restated a long-held stance that in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Section 232 investigation into aluminum imports, China should be the primary focus of any trade action.

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During a roundtable conference Wednesday, Oct. 4, in Washington D.C., Michelle O’Neill, Alcoa’s senior vice president for global government affairs and sustainability (and newly elected chairwoman of the Aluminum Association); Ganesh Paneer, vice president and general manager of Automotive North America for Novelis; and Garney B. Scott, president and CEO of Scepter, answered questions about the state of the aluminum industry and outstanding trade legislation in the Department of Commerce.

O’Neill said the Aluminum Association will soon release a new statistical review of the aluminum market through 2016.

Citing shipment figures, O’Neill said overall demand is high, with shipments of aluminum from the U.S. and Canada up 40% from the trough of the recession in 2009 and “within striking distance “of record shipment numbers in 2005-2006. In that same vein, Paneer noted aluminum’s growing market share in the automotive market as another indicator of the versatile metal’s strength.

Despite these figures, however, the officials reiterated concerns about leveling the global trade playing field.

Scott, O’Neill’s predecessor as chairman of the Aluminum Association, said one of the Association’s biggest efforts is ensuring U.S. aluminum producers, recyclers and fabricators get to operate in a “predictable regulatory environment” and in a “rules-based global trading system internationally.”

In that vein, Scott referred to the levels of aluminum coming into the U.S.

“We continue to have a serious issue with the aluminum supply coming into the U.S.,” he said. “Last year saw record levels of imported aluminum into North America and more specifically the United States. The 13.1 billion pounds of imports accounted for more than half of U.S. supply.”

Scott further zeroed in on the problem, noting that while imports in general aren’t always a negative, the volume of imports from China continues to be a problem for the U.S. aluminum industry.

“While this industry has many responsible trading partners and does not view all imports as a problem, we do take issue when we see imports surg2ing from a country like China that operates outside the bounds of our global system of rules-based trade,” Scott said.

Imports from China have increased 200% since 2012, Scott said, and in the year to date are up 30%.

“These imports are a direct result of metal overcapacity,” he said.

He added that a negotiated agreement between the U.S. and Chinese governments is needed.

Recently, the Commerce Department opted to defer the issuance of a preliminary antidumping duty determination in its investigation of aluminum foil from China. Underpinning the deferral was a desire to incorporate information regarding the ongoing study of China’s non-market economy status. According to a Commerce Department release, rulings on China’s status and on aluminum foil will come no later than Nov. 30.

As for Section 232 — the administration’s investigation into the national security implications of aluminum (and steel) imports — there hasn’t been much chatter since the early summer, when an announcement appeared to be coming, but the administration’s self-imposed June deadline came and went.

“We’re in wait-and-see mode,” Scott said regarding the Section 232 investigation.

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According to the law, once a Section 232 investigation is launched, the secretary of commerce has 270 days to present findings and recommendations to the president, which makes for January deadlines for both the pending aluminum and steel investigations.

As for the ongoing talks geared toward renegotiating the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Scott emphasized the industry’s trade ties with Mexico and Canada, adding that the industry isn’t looking for a “significant amount of changes” with respect to NAFTA.

Trade negotiators from the U.S., Canada and Mexico recently met in Ottawa in late September for a third round of negotiations focusing on NAFTA.

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