FACT CHECK: Does The US Import 90% Of Its Aluminum?
UPDATE: After publication of this article, The Washington Post issued the following correction: “An earlier version of this story stated the United States imports 90 percent of all aluminum used in the country. The United States imports 90 percent of all primary aluminum used domestically, according to the Commerce Department.”
The Washington Post, The New York Times and other media outlets claimed that the U.S. imports 90 percent of its aluminum needs.
The U.S. imported just over half of its total aluminum supply in recent years.
President Donald Trump recently announced that his administration will slap a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum. Reporting on the announcement, numerous media outlets overstated how much aluminum the U.S. imports.
“America imports 90 percent of the aluminum that U.S. companies use to make products as diverse as beer cans and fighter jets,” WaPo reported.
A parenthetical in a NYT article noted, “Aluminum is more heavily dependent on imports, with only 10 percent made domestically.”
“Imports make up … more than 90% of the 5.5 million tons of aluminum used here,” said a CNN Money article.
Several other articles by Fortune, WaPo and CNN Money repeated the claim.
WaPo and CNN Money pointed The Daily Caller News Foundation to a January report by the Commerce Department as the source of the figure.
“In 2016, the United States imported five times as much primary aluminum on a tonnage basis as it produced,” the report explains. “The import penetration level was about 90 percent, up from 66 percent in 2012.”
But what reporting by these outlets overlooks, however, is that this figure does not capture the entire U.S. aluminum market – it only reflects the production and trade of “primary” aluminum, or aluminum that has been smelted from raw ore.
Most unwrought (or unfinished) aluminum that the U.S. produces, on the other hand, is recycled and re-molten scrap, or “secondary aluminum.” The Commerce Department report makes clear that it is excluding this key component of the American aluminum industry.
“The United States is the world’s leading producer of secondary unwrought aluminum,” the report notes. “While aluminum produced through secondary production is an important feedstock for the U.S. aluminum industry, it is fundamentally a different industry sector and is not the focus of this report.”
The report, pursuant to Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, examined imports in the context of national security, not commerce. Specialty types of high-purity aluminum that are necessary for aerospace, defense and electric grid applications cannot feasibly be produced from scrap.
CNN Money issued a correction to both articles that featured the incorrect claim after TheDCNF reached out: “An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the amount of aluminum used in the United States that is imported.”
Experts emphasized that for most commercial and consumer applications, scrap is just as good as primary aluminum.
“You want to use as much secondary aluminum as possible,” Jorge Vazquez, founder and managing director of industry research firm Harbor Aluminum, explained to TheDCNF. “Don’t think of scrap as something dirty; it can be turned into something as beautiful as primary aluminum, but with just 5 percent of the energy.”
The proportion of aluminum that is imported nearly halves when secondary aluminum is also considered.
Data provided to TheDCNF by the Aluminum Association, an industry trade group, for instance, shows that the U.S. relied on imports for about 54 percent of its total aluminum demand in 2016. Preliminary data for 2017 suggest that import reliance increased to 60 percent.
This is consistent with data provided by Vazquez. He estimates that of the 9.1 million tons of wrought (or finished) aluminum goods that the U.S. manufactured in 2017, 4.7 million tons – 52 percent – of unwrought aluminum inputs were imported.
The NYT and Fortune did not respond to requests for comment.
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