In the War Raging on Aluminium, the Turning Point is now Alumina

by Mario Conserva

There is a lot of concern and uncertainty in Europe due to the chaos on the aluminium market caused by the recent US measures, which we dealt with in detail on the last issue of this magazine. It must be said that with respect to the tariffs on aluminium, the issue of the sanctions imposed upon Rusal seems much more explosive. The latter measure indeed has very serious implications for the aluminium production chain because it affects a fundamental product in the industry, that is alumina, the basis for the production of primary aluminium in smelters. In the EU there is currently only one active plant producing alumina: the factory is owned by Rusal and located in Aughinish, Limerick county, Ireland, and it produces roughly half of the alumina used in the EU. It is clear that the production flows of the plant have been heavily overturned by the news of the sanctions, the situation is objectively complex from a normative and interpretative standpoint, a climate of uncertainty and panic has definitely been created among trade operators, as can easily be imagined alumina buyers are reluctant to buy, bauxite suppliers are reluctant to sell, banks are reluctant to grant loans. Even though margins are envisaged until October 23rd, 2018, the risks are very high because entire supply chains cannot be rebuilt around Aughinish in such a short time span. The Aughinish issue is so relevant that even Rusal’s competitors on the primary aluminium market are pleading in Washington and in the most authoritative political and institutional sites to seek a reasonable specific solution, one method could be for instance that of withdrawing from the perimeter of Rusal’s sanctions trying to find convincing legal certainties, but the human factor remains unfathomable, what if President Trump, Secretary Mnuchin or OFAC were to oppose in any case positions which may be valid but go against their rigid presumptions? The EU is currently evaluating the use of the so-called blocking regulation to protect European companies operating in Iran from US secondary sanctions, perhaps it should think of how to protect in a more determined way even its own aluminium industry, it should think about the thousands of jobs at stake, not just and not only about the so-called primary productions of raw materials, but really looking at the whole processing value chain, including machining, plant-related activities, applications. Aughinish is just the beginning, looking well beyond is worth the while.