Fact: 155,000 workers are directly employed in the U.S. aluminum industry, generating more than $65 billion a year. While the figures are impressive, accounting for all secondary jobs created and adding up all indirect economic benefits resulting from the production of the silver-grey metal, more than 670,000 people and some $152 billion (or 1 percent of US GDP) can be traced back to aluminum. But now, because of a combination of tax rebates, cheap energy prices, lax regulatory environments and immoral business practices, Chinese aluminum producers could send US smelters into bankruptcy, axing hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process. Alcoa, the largest US producer already announced the closing of three smelters, leaving it with just one facility in the entire country. Century Aluminum, a Glencore-owned company, saw 82 percent of its market capitalization wiped off and posted losses of $56 million that will lead to a dramatic cut in output capacity and further job losses.

However, unlike manufacturing, the American aluminum industry is not on its deathbed, a victim of globalization that should just be left to expire. Indeed, much of China’s comparative advantage is purely artificial and comes from lower operating costs derived from softer industrial standards. In the case of aluminum, a third of its ultimate price rests on energy costs. Beijing continues to fuel a large portion of its aluminum plants with coal – far cheaper, albeit dirtier, than what American companies are using. And when that isn’t enough, the government steps in to rescue its loss-making producers. Recently, a Chinese aluminum producer on the brink of closure, secured lower energy prices from a state-run electricity company in order to keep them afloat.


Unlike China, the U.S.’ Clean Power Act (CPA) has encouraged local aluminum producers to power their plants using green alternatives to coal, which has resulted in numerous aluminum sustainability initiatives and a significant reduction in the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, this has pushed up energy prices, eroding the paper-thin competitiveness U.S. producers had enjoyed over their Chinese counterparts.

Alongside the White House, Congress should take notice, and plot a course to offer some measure of relief to beleaguered producers while also strengthening dialogue with China to innovate its own industry. While Obama has stayed true to his commitment to fight climate change and stood by the environmental initiatives he has implemented, a move to cleaner energy sources at home needs to be coupled with a hefty push abroad to ensure China sticks to its environmental promises.

The upcoming Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21) offers some hope – Obama will have a vital opportunity to win over guarantees of ending coal usage with Chinese President Xi Jinping. If properly implemented, Beijing’s current pledge is fine as far as it goes, but it is a long way from being a one-size-fits-all solution. Recent revelations that China is burning 17 percent more coal than previously announced should give pause to those who think the winding down of coal usage in the PRC may happen without a gentle nod from other nations, in spite of Beijing’s commitments to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the main pollutant resulting from coal usage.

By getting a firm commitment to wind down coal usage, and not merely slow its growth, Obama will satisfy the green lobby and help convince the nation’s industries that he cares for troubled business and jobs in America. But as change in China comes very slowly, it would also be prudent to look within the industry at home for solutions. A totally level playing field with China is still a long way off – no matter what commitment is obtained from Xi in Paris.

At this point, it is unclear whether members of Congress can muster the political will to take much needed actions, such as raising import duties for Chinese primary aluminum products or offering incentives to U.S. aluminum producers to move towards cleaner sources of energy and lessen the financial pain of adopting higher standards in the midst of a sector-wide downturn. Similarly, Congress should consider some manner of incentives for those plants already using greener sources of electricity  – perhaps a rebate on money spent on green alternatives. And while we wait for China to get its house in order as regards to the environment, money should be budgeted to aid aluminum producers in dire straits. It has been done for other industries – banking and automobile producers spring to mind.

Let's just hope that whatever solutions are tried, it's not too little too late for America’s aluminum producers.

Talley, a former commodities analyst in New York and Amsterdam. Is now a freelance consultant based out of New York, involved in the development of copper mines in South Africa. He has no financial interests in the aluminum sector.