Whatcom View: China’s manipulations of aluminum prices costing U.S. jobs

Every day, nearly 3,000 people in Washington state head to their jobs in the aluminum industry. From manufacturing to wholesaling, their work is directly responsible for $1.3 billion of our state’s economic output.

Aluminum is critical to Washington state’s manufacturing sector. The aluminum industry provides material for aerospace, building construction and automobile components. During the past few decades, these industries have seen the benefits of using lightweight, strong aluminum in their products. In turn, the aluminum fabrication industry has become increasingly competitive. However, recent actions by China are putting American aluminum jobs at risk and disrupting world markets.

I called for an immediate investigation of these unfair and questionable trade practices.

Manufacturing policies in China have spurred dramatic overproduction of Chinese aluminum. This has two major consequences here at home. First, China’s tax regime incentivizes the export of its excess production, flooding the global aluminum market. Second, because of the lack of strong environmental safeguards we enjoy in the United States, China is encouraging production that is the most carbon intensive, greenhouse-gas emitting in the world, displacing the more energy-efficient U.S. aluminum production.

Sustainability such as recycling is a key benefit of aluminum, but that advantage is eroded by China’s increase in carbon-intensive production. As the United States continues to be a leader on the green economy with efforts such as the recent climate change accord in Paris, this disparity will only continue to get worse.

If continued success were simply a matter of innovation, hard work and dedication, I would have all the confidence in the world. Having visited the Alcoa Intalco Works smelter in Ferndale, I’ve seen the great work these individuals do every day, some for decades. But U.S. aluminum producers are fighting an unfair, competitive disadvantage as other countries’ policies promote oversupply and market manipulation – threatening our homegrown businesses, jobs and communities. Often, these practices are obscure, complex and hidden from view. Shining a spotlight on them can be difficult, but it is the first step to stopping unfair tax, trade and environmental practices before their most devastating effects take hold.

As a co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Aluminum Caucus, I am working to ensure we protect the domestic aluminum industry because we cannot allow the unfair practices of other countries’ to harm our economic growth – Americans’ livelihoods are at stake. That’s why I called for an immediate investigation of these unfair and questionable trade practices. U.S. aluminum producers are facing debilitating competitive conditions and the root causes need to be further understood.

The Chinese government heavily subsidizes its aluminum industry and its policies have encouraged a massive imbalance of supply on the world market. In 2005, China supplied 13 percent of the world’s aluminum. Today, they supply roughly half. This rapid increase has caused American firms to idle production and lay off employees.

Unfortunately, U.S. aluminum producers have announced they will have to idle production in smelters across the country, including Alcoa Intalco Works in Washington’s 1st District. If China’s unfair trade policies continue, cleaner, more efficient producers could be forced out of business and we will be left with a weaker economy, a worse environment and an uncertain future for thousands of Washington families.

Suzan DelBene is U.S. Representative for the 1st Congressional District. The district includes most of Whatcom County except for Bellingham, Sudden Valley and areas to the southwest. It also includes most of eastern Skagit and Snohomish counties and part of King County. The Medina Democrat took office in 2012.