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Interview: Import monitoring critical to US steel market recovery: SMA president

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SMA advocating for import monitoring around USMCA

Sees landscape shifting to more EAF production

Pittsburgh — As the US steel market looks to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, import monitoring remains critical to protect against the effects of global steel excess capacity, Philip Bell, president of the Steel Manufacturers Association, said in an interview with S&P Global Platts this week.

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Along with keeping the Section 232 tariffs in place for steel, now that the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, has been approved in all three countries, the US needs to have measures in place to monitor imports to make sure that the circumvention and evasion of duties is not taking place with shipments of steel coming from Canada and Mexico, Bell said.

There are three measures the SMA is advocating for, he said.

Interview: Infrastructure spending key to US recovery: SMA CEO

"We have to know the origin of where steel is melted and poured, even if it is used in intermediate processing or in products," he said. "We need the government to make sure that they don't require exemptions of low-dollar steel shipments into the US to be abused. You need to make sure that the exemption level is at a high enough dollar amount that importers and exporters don't use warehousing schemes or multi-load shipment schemes to get steel in under the radar. And we need to make sure there is appropriate funding and staffing at the Commerce department to man and run the steel import monitoring system."

Overall US mill utilization rates have fallen dramatically in the wake of the coronavirus. The US raw steel capability utilization rate fell to 51.1% last week, down from 80.5% in mid-March, according to data from the American Iron and Steel Institute. Blast furnace-based producers have been hit particularly hard in recent weeks as low oil prices and automotive production stoppages have depressed steel demand for their primary customers.

"I think when you look at the landscape you are going to continue to see more [electric arc furnace] production in the US," Bell said. "EAFs account for almost 70% of all production now and we are the future. We are segment of the industry that is investing capital, building greenfield facilities, and really managing in such a way to minimize the impact of COVID-19."

Bell noted that while the timing on some projects may be delayed as a result of the current environment, both Nucor and Steel Dynamics Inc. are moving "full steam ahead" with planned greenfield steel mill projects.

"They have not idled any facilities, so I think this is a good sign," Bell said.

A positive for the growth of EAF production is that it will replace inefficient US capacity, Bell said.

"When people comment on the new capacity that is coming online, they often just see it as an addition or subtraction equation, but you really need to look at it as an algebraic equation," Bell said. "This new capacity, plus capital expenditures, is going to replace inefficient capacity."

EAF steelmakers have overcome the steel crisis of 2001-02, 2008-09, and will overcome the current crisis, Bell said.

"The reason is, we are among the safest, most efficient, and most sustainable steelmakers in the world and I think when we look at the new normal we will emerge from, if you have more EAF producers you're going to have lower CO2 emissions, you're going to have well-run, efficient mills and companies that can meet customer needs. ... The future is definitely more EAF-based."