Aluminum Tariff Wars Are Hurting American Health and Finances

We need cleaner aluminum, not more greenhouse gases.

Old American Aluminum Plant in Washington State (now closed)
The now-closed Old American Aluminum Plant in Washington state.

Kim Steele / Getty Images

In 2018, the Trump administration made a controversial move: It imposed tariffs on the import of steel and aluminum. At the time, we noted this would harm the climate, as aluminum is essentially "solid electricity." Much of the electricity used to make aluminum in the U.S. is coal-fired and has a carbon footprint of 18 tons of carbon dioxide per ton of aluminum, while "green" aluminum made in Iceland or Norway has a footprint of fewer than four tons of CO2 per ton of aluminum.

Nobody is particularly happy with these tariffs. The beer industry says it has cost billions and advised current President Joe Biden that "tariffs reverberate throughout the supply chain, raising production costs for aluminum end-users and ultimately impacting consumer prices."

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has not been happy either and recently ruled that the tariffs, imposed by former President Donald Trump in the name of "national security," are bogus. According to Bloomberg, "The WTO panel said U.S. national-security claims 'are not justified' because they were not 'taken in time of war' or other emergency in international relations. The panel of three trade experts sided with China, Norway, Switzerland, and Turkey and encouraged the U.S. to bring its measures in line with its WTO obligations. It was a rebuke of a policy that fell under the banner of Trump’s 'America First' political slogan."

Surprisingly, the Biden administration told the WTO to drop dead, because the steelworkers are big supporters of both Biden and the tariffs.

“The Biden Administration is committed to preserving U.S. national security by ensuring the long-term viability of our steel and aluminum industries, and we do not intend to remove the Section 232 duties as a result of these disputes," Adam Hodge, a spokesman for the US Trade Representative, said in a statement, reports Bloomberg. And there is not much the WTO can do about it.

A lot of American steel is made from scrap in electric arc furnaces, so it is not much dirtier than steel made in other parts of the world. Aluminum is a different story because of the electricity supply; aluminum made in Norway or Iceland is far cleaner. Canadian aluminum was exempted from the tariffs in 2020 because the North American industry is so integrated, albeit with quotas, and it is getting even cleaner thanks to the new Elysis process that eliminates the carbon anode, replacing it with "inert" anodes.

The biggest problem with American aluminum plants is that they are old and, according to Phil McKenna of Inside Climate News, they emit far more climate pollution than their counterparts abroad. And it's not just carbon dioxide from the electricity—they are also large emitters of perfluorocarbons (PFCs).

McKenna wrote:

"Tetrafluoromethane (CF4) and hexafluoroethane (C2F6), PFCs that are unwanted byproducts of aluminum production, are among the most potent and longest-lasting greenhouse gases on the planet. They belong to a class of synthetic, fluorine-containing chemicals known as “the immortals” because of how long they remain in the atmosphere. Once the gases are released, they are “essentially permanent additions to the atmosphere,” the Environmental Protection Agency notes.

The Century Aluminum plant in Kentucky pumped out 24 tons of PFCs in 2021; Century's Iceland plant emits PFCs at one-sixth the rate. Old plants pump out far more than new plants.

Hall heroult cell


We have previously described how the Hall-Héroult process generates carbon dioxide: Aluminum oxide, or alumina, is stuck in a pot full of molten cryolite, a halide mineral, and sodium aluminum fluoride. Zap this mixture with electricity, and it breaks up the alumina into aluminum and oxygen, which combines with carbon from the anodes to make carbon dioxide. But the electricity also reacts with the cryolite if the level of alumina drops too low, releasing hydrogen fluoride, which reacts with the carbon anodes to produce CF4 perfluorocarbon (PFC).

Nobody thought this was a big deal because PFCs were considered non-toxic, but now we know differently. McKenna wrote: "In 2019, 7,510 metric tons were emitted from global aluminum production, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres. That equals the annual emissions of 12.5 million automobiles, according to the EPA. "

McKenna's very long and thoughtful article included some skepticism about whether the Elysis and other inert anode technologies will eliminate the CO2 and PFC emissions from aluminum production. We have been enthusiastic about it but McKenna quoted consultant Barry Welch, a chemical engineering professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who said, “It will never happen. There has been probably $2 billion at least spent on inert anode research in all the top labs in the world and they still have the same problem as they had after the first year.”

All of which brings us back to the point we keep trying to make: There's no such thing as carbon-free aluminum because before we even get to the fancy new smelter, we are digging bauxite out of the ground and separating out the alumina from the toxic red mud.

As American historian Carl A. Zimring wrote in his book "Aluminum Upcycled": "As designers create attractive goods from aluminum, bauxite mines across the planet intensify their extraction of ore at lasting cost to the people, plants, animals, air, land, and water of the local areas. Upcycling, absent a cap on primary material extraction, does not close industrial loops so much as it fuels environmental exploitation."

We have to improve our recycling, reduce our use of aluminum for single-use packaging, lightweight our fancy new electric vehicles to use less of it, and put a cap on the production of new aluminum. That may be the only way to reduce its emissions and environmental destruction.

But we also need to eliminate the tariffs that promote the production of aluminum at old, polluting American aluminum smelters when it could come instead from newer smelters located where the clean hydropower is. Carbon emissions don't recognize borders, and neither should aluminum production.