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This morning in metals news, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on Tuesday said the U.S. is working on a “practical solution” to lift the steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico, China is expected to have a 2.65-million-ton copper deficit this year, and a preliminary report on iron ore miner BHP’s train derailment in November said operators mistakenly applied brakes on the wrong train.

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USTR: U.S. Aims to Remove Steel, Aluminum Tariffs on Canada, Mexico While Preserving Gains for U.S. Industry

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the successor to NAFTA, still must be ratified by the legislatures of the three countries.

A hangup toward that end is the fact that the U.S.’s Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum remain in effect for Canada and Mexico. The two countries have indicated they would not approve the deal without removal of the tariffs. Likewise, some U.S. politicians have argued for the removal of the tariffs for the U.S.’s northern and southern neighbors.

On Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the U.S. is working on a “practical solution” to remove the tariffs while preserving gains the U.S. steel and aluminum industries have made in the last year.

“What I’m trying to do is a have a practical solution to a real problem … get rid of tariffs on these two, let them maintain their historic access to the U.S. market which I think will allow us to still maintain the benefit of the steel and aluminum program,” he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

China’s Copper Deficit

China is expected to post a copper deficit of 2.65 million metric tons this year, S&P Global Platts reported.

The report, citing data from a Beijing Antaike Information forecast, said copper demand is expected to rise 3% to 11.5 million metric tons, with production at 8.85 million metric tons.

Preliminary Report: Brakes Applied on Wrong Train in BHP Train Derailment

According to a preliminary report investigating the derailment of a BHP iron ore train in November, operators applied the brakes to the wrong train, Reuters reported.

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Per the report, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau will release a final report on the incident later this year.

The Renewables Monthly Metals Index (MMI) fell one point this month for an MMI reading of 103.

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The Hunt for Cobalt

As noted routinely in this installment of the MMI series, cobalt is a coveted material for its use in a wide variety of high-tech applications, from cellphones to laptops and much more.

A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where political instability and the government’s revision of its mining code (increasing royalty rates for cobalt and other materials) have posed business challenges to miners.

As such, it’s not surprising that some are looking for new sources of cobalt.

According to a Bloomberg report, a new startup powered by a coalition of billionaires, including Bill Gates, is seeking to do just that.

The startup, KoBold Metals, aims to create a “Google Maps for the Earth’s crust,” according to the report, in an effort to locate new sources of cobalt.

“KoBold Metals applies statistical modeling, big data aggregation, and basic science to materially improve the pace and efficacy of natural resources exploration,” KoBold’s website states. “We are applying our proprietary platform, Machine Prospector, to explore for new sources of ethical cobalt from reliable jurisdictions.”

The approach would also offer more specific focus to cobalt, as opposed to mining of the material as a byproduct of copper or nickel, as is typically the case.

“People just haven’t looked for the stuff,” KoBold CEO Kurt House told Bloomberg. “There’s very limited history of exploration at all outside of piggybacking on nickel and copper deposits.”

Cobalt Price Slides

Sticking with the cobalt theme, the price of the coveted material plunged throughout the second half of 2018 — and a recovery is not expected in the near term.

According to Reuters, the cobalt price fell to a two-year low of $32,000 per ton, down from $100,000 per ton in the first half of 2018.

What contributed to the plunge? According to the report, high prices led to an uptick in supply. However, cobalt demand is expected to exceed supply in the long term, according to the report.

GOES Prices Fall

The price of grain-oriented electrical steel (GOES) fell 4.1% month over month to $2,360/mt as of March 1.

The GOES MMI fell 8.2% for a March value of 168.

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Actual Metal Prices and Trends

Japanese steel plate fell 2.3% month over month to $772.30/mt as of March 1. Korean steel plate rose 1.9% to $586.67/mt. Chinese steel plate increased 3.8% to $642.72/mt.

U.S. steel plate fell 1.8% to $997/st.

The Chinese neodymium price fell 1.8% to $58,29.10/mt. Chinese silicon rose 0.2% to $1,539.54/mt, while Chinese cobalt cathodes jumped 0.2% to $99,397.20/mt.