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Falling US caustic soda exports reflect Brazilian alumina rate cut

Houston — The ongoing 50% rate cut at the world's largest alumina refinery in Brazil continued to show its fallout on US caustic soda exports in the first two months of 2019, with shipments down 45% on the year, the latest data from the US International Trade Commission showed.

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That decline also reflected emergency shipments to Brazilian petrochemical producer Braskem in early 2018 when the company suddenly shut a chlor-alkali plant for weeks after a fire damaged the utility that provided its power.

Norwegian aluminum producer Norsk Hydro, the majority owner of the Alunorte plant in Brazil, said Tuesday that its overall first-quarter production levels fell on the year, reflecting the Alunorte curtailment and a cyberattack last month that affected production in other regions.

That rate cut, ordered by state and federal Brazilian authorities in March 2018 after heavy rainfall prompted concerns about contaminated leaks, remains in place more than a year later. The 6.3 million mt/year plant normally sources about 50,000 mt/month of US caustic soda, but that demand has fallen by half, pressuring US export pricing to a 31-month low of $320/mt FAS Houston.

A state environmental agency has lifted its embargo limiting production, but a federal court has yet to do so regarding embargoes limiting output and prohibiting operation of a second newer bauxite residue deposit area. Earlier this month, Norsk Hydro and a Brazilian public prosecutor submitted a petition asking the federal court to lift the remaining embargoes, but outgoing CEO Svein Richard Brandtzaeg said in a statement Tuesday that the company has no timeline on when the judge may respond.

"Recent developments in Brazil show that we are progressing toward a resolution of the production embargo on Alunorte, although the timing continues to be uncertain," Brandtzaeg said.

The cyberattack last month affected operations in other regions, but not at Alunorte, according to the company.

Brazil is the top export market for US caustic soda, but the Alunorte rate cut showed up in the US ITC data released this month. Brazil received more than 2 million mt of US caustic soda in 2018, down 21% from 2017, and through February this year such shipments were down 45% at 257,246 mt compared to the first two months of 2018.

The US ITC data also showed how US tariffs on Chinese caustic soda has shifted trade flows.

The US received 828,498 mt of imported caustic soda in 2018. Of that, 34% came from the top source, Taiwan, and 14% came from China. However, caustic soda was among Chinese products on which the US imposed tariffs last year amid an ongoing trade war between the two countries.

The US has received no caustic soda from China in the first two months of 2019, down from 20,369 in January and February of 2018.

However, the data showed Japan more than filled the gap with 33,078 mt of caustic shipped to the US in the first two months of 2019. Japan sent 48,589 mt throughout 2018.

--Kristen Hays, kristen.hays@spglobal.com

--Edited by Pankti Mehta, pankti.mehta1@spglobal.com