Shale gas revolution a major boost to US steel sector
BlueScope is among the companies planning to build plants in America, writes Sonja Elmquist.
The US shale gas revolution, which has revitalised chemicals companies and prompted talk of domestic energy self-sufficiency, is attracting a wave of investment that may revive profits in the steel industry.
Austrian steelmaker Voestalpine said in December it may construct a €500 million ($634 million) factory in the US to benefit from cheap gas. Nucor Corp, the most valuable US steelmaker, plans to start a $US750 million Louisiana project in the middle of this year. They are among at least five US plants under consideration or being built that would use gas instead of coal to purify iron ore, the main ingredient in steel.
The new capacity may signal a turnaround for an industry that has suffered from overcapacity since the financial crisis and collapse in commodity prices four years ago. US steelmakers have struggled to stay profitable amid sluggish domestic demand, depressed prices and competition from Chinese imports. While global steel output has grown by 14 per cent since 2008, US production has shrunk 3.4 per cent.
The newest group of steel projects are called direct-reduced iron plants, which account for the first stage of steelmaking. DRI technology produces iron about 20 per cent cheaper than using a conventional blast furnace.
Foreign competitors are now following Nucor's lead. A joint venture between Australia's BlueScope Steel and commodity trader Cargill plans to build a DRI plant in Ohio, say analysts at Barclays in New York. India's Essar Global plans one for Minnesota.
Hydraulic fracturing of shale rock formations from Texas to West Virginia has boosted supplies of gas and sent prices plunging over the past two years. Gas futures reached a decade low of $US1.91 per million British thermal units in April in New York trading.
"The shale revolution is triggering an avalanche of industrial expansion plans," Barclays said.
There's been a reversal of fortune for US chemical producers after years of decline. Shares of LyondellBasell Industries have more than doubled since it emerged from bankruptcy in 2010. The company is now among chemical producers planning billions of investment in plants around the Gulf of Mexico to capitalise on cheaper gas.
"Other companies from around the world that consume gas may be attracted to move their facilities to the US market, which would then provide even more steel consumption and manufacturing capacity," said Aldo Mazzaferro, an analyst at Macquarie Capital USA. "It could result in a re-industrialisation of the US."
Still, gas may not get much cheaper from here. Prices are up 75 per cent from their April low and will average $3.70 per million British thermal units next year, or about 31 per cent more than in 2012. There's also no guarantee that steel demand in the US will improve, and steelmakers's earnings haven't recovered. Nucor will post a $US504 million net income for this year, less than a third of what the company earned in 2008. US Steel Corp, the country's biggest producer, is expected to post a fourth consecutive annual loss.
Iron is the largest component of steel. While it is the fourth most abundant element in the earth's crust, iron is rarely found in its elemental form and must instead be separated from other minerals, or "reduced". For steelmakers, the process typically occurs in a blast furnace. That method accounts for 94 per cent of global iron output, according to the World Steel Association.
While Nucor will use DRI iron in Louisiana at its electric arc furnaces, the final stage of its steelmaking process, the company will still get most of its raw material from scrap steel. The DRI iron doesn't just provide a cost advantage: it also helps to make smoother, blemish-free steel that's stronger.