By Chris Greissing*
In the industrial minerals
category, few industries are as well positioned for growth both
now and well into the future as US soda ash; an industry with a
long, valuable history.
Soda ash has been used in the
manufacturing of goods for centuries. The Egyptians first made
glass containers using trona and the early Romans used it as an
ingredient in medicines and bread.
Today, the majority of US soda ash
is primarily used in glass manufacturing, including food, juice
and other beverage containers, fiberglass insulation and flat
glass for cars, houses and buildings. This versatile product is
also used in laundry and dishwashing detergents, for water
treatment and as an industrial air pollutant control agent.
An evolving industry
To meet the need to remain
environmentally and socially conscious, while preserving the
value of US soda ash, the US industry continues to successfully
evolve. As long as investment continues to ensure evolution in
terms of safe, reliable production, the industry’s
trajectory promises to be a productive one.
In the US, soda ash is produced in
one of two ways: from naturally occurring trona ore, a mineral
primarily containing sodium sesquicarbonate, which is mined and
processed into sodium carbonate, commonly known as soda ash;
or, by mixing a trona-bearing brine with carbon dioxide to
crystallise it into sodium bicarbonate, commonly known as
Further processing and
recrystallisation converts that sodium bicarbonate into soda
With five US companies operating in
just two locations, the US is fortunate to have two of the best
natural soda ash deposits in the world. FMC, OCI Chemical, Tata
Chemicals and Solvay, all operate in Green River, Wyoming,
which is home to the world’s largest underground
deposit of natural trona ore. The fifth US company, Searles
Valley Minerals, uses a solution mining technique to extract
the minerals from beneath a dry desert lakebed in Trona,
California, to form soda ash and other minerals.
An important US
Soda ash is the US’s
largest inorganic chemical export, and is the second largest
export commodity overall out of the Port of Portland, Oregon.
The total value of production for the US industry was nearly
$1.8bn in 2013, according to the US Geological Survey. The soda
ash mined in Wyoming and California is shipped on rail and
truck to customers in most of the lower 48 states.
The US soda ash industry has
continued to see tremendous growth across the globe and
currently supplies approximately one-fifth of the global demand
for soda ash. It is this increase in global demand that leaves
US producers confident that they will continue to see growth.
In fact, global demand for US soda ash is projected to grow at
a rate of 4-5% over the next five years, according to
Industrial Minerals Association North America (IMA-NA)
IMA-NA reports that the industry
exported approximately 3.9m tonnes of soda ash in 2000, which
at the time was approximately 40% of total production. By 2013,
those numbers had jumped to 6.7m tonnes of soda ash exported,
which is approximately 56 % of total production.
The soda ash is shipped primarily
from three areas, the Port of Long Beach, California, Port
Arthur, Texas and the Port of Portland, Oregon. Due to the
massive growth of the export business, these ports have become
increasingly reliant on the business the soda ash industry
provides. In the past year, the Port of Portland completed
renovations of their terminal to help boost efficiencies and
allow for the anticipated further growth of the industry.
Even during the economic recession
in 2008-2009, when businesses and industries were suffering and
forced into making unwanted layoffs, the soda ash industry was
able to remain strong due to the continued increase in global
Overall, the US soda ash industry
is responsible for about 3,000 jobs at its own facilities and
at least 200 jobs at ports, according to IMA-NA statistics. In
addition, more than 20,000 jobs are either directly or
indirectly tied to this growing industry.
While the average 12-month per
capita income in Wyoming is $28,858, the jobs at soda ash
facilities, which are in rural areas, are typically high paying
jobs at an average of about $90,000 annually. These jobs are
the backbone of the communities in which the companies
Not only are these jobs high
paying, but they are also highly skilled. A large number of
positions in the soda ash industry are technology-centric,
requiring workers to operate highly sophisticated,
multi-million dollar machinery on a daily basis. Accordingly,
many soda ash producers in Wyoming rely heavily on their
employees earning a technical education at institutions like
Western Wyoming Community College, to provide potential
industry workers with skills in welding, electrical work and
other expertise they will need on the job every day.
The US soda ash industry is one of
the best success stories within the US in terms of global
trade. As an industry, it contributes nearly $1bn annually to
the US’ balance of trade, as well as considerable
funds to the federal and state government via royalties. Even
with its tremendous growth potential and positive outlook, the
US soda ash industry is not without threat from
Chinese companies are the largest
competitors to the US industry. As a country, China has gone
from a net importer of more than 1m tpa soda ash during the
1990s, to a net exporter of about 1.7m tpa soda ash.
While the US industry is fortunate
to have two of the best natural soda ash deposits in the world,
the Chinese produce their soda ash synthetically. Of all the
soda ash produced worldwide, IMA-NA figures state that only 25%
is produced naturally, and of that 25%, more than 90% of
production comes from the five US companies.
After increased competition from
China in the early 2000s slowed the growth of US soda ash
significantly, the industry requested that Congress consider
lowering the federal royalty rate back down to 2%, as was
called for originally in the Minerals Leasing Act of 1921; the
rate had ballooned up to 6% at this stage.
Congress approved the lowered
royalty rate in 2006, leading to a revitalisation of the
industry during the last eight years. The rate was not extended
in 2011, however, when it was set to expire, and the industry
saw its royalty rate increase back up to 6%.
Because of this dramatic increase,
the industry was forced to go back to Congress to request that
the royalty rate be lowered again, and Congress did lower the
rate in 2013, this time to 4%, for a period of two years.
Chinese companies receive a 9%
Value Added Tax (VAT) rebate on export shipments, which equates
to an approximately $35m annual subsidy to the Chinese soda ash
industry. The US industry, meanwhile, paid approximately $47m
in royalty fees in 2013 alone. The industry remains hopeful
that Congress will extend and lower this rate back to 2% in its
sustainability, safety and stewardship
Despite this tax imbalance, the
US’s natural soda ash industry has a significant
advantage over their Chinese competitors in terms of
environmental impact, energy efficiency, supply reliability and
According to IMA-NA estimates,
synthetic soda ash is almost twice as energy intensive as
naturally produced soda ash. Synthetic soda ash production also
results in significantly greater greenhouse gas emissions than
natural soda ash production.
US soda ash producers are doing
their part to make the extraction and production of their
minerals safer and more efficient. Producers are constantly
working to develop new solutions in mining and processing,
hoping that these will lead to more efficient extraction
Using the secondary recovery
process technology of solution mining, FMC injects recycled
water into the old mine workings and then pumps that water back
to the surface. This process substantially improves the
recovery of trona ore that remained after traditional dry
mining, ensuring that virtually no usable product is left
behind in the mines.
Driven by demand from end users,
more and more companies are requiring that their raw materials
be produced both in an eco-friendly way and in a manner that
ensures the safety of all employees. Combined with a more
reliable supply and respective cost stability, the US soda ash
industry should be preferable to all synthetic sources,
especially to the more environmentally aware customers.
Producers are currently working individually with their
customers to help them understand and make use of the
sustainability advantages of natural soda ash versus
synthetically produced material.
US soda ash companies have been
dedicated to fostering a culture of safety at their facilities.
During the past six years, at least one of the US soda ash
companies has won the safety award from the IMA-NA for the best
overall safety record for a large company; FMC has won the past
two years and OCI Chemical won the award for the four years
prior. All of the US companies typically rank near the top of
the list each year.
Each of the US soda ash producers
understands the importance of community involvement and
regularly gives back to local communities. In Wyoming, Solvay,
Tata Chemicals, OCI Chemical and FMC are all involved in local
community activities and continue to stress the importance of
supporting the regions in which they operate by making
financial contributions to the environment and conservation,
education and science, health care organisations and arts and
culture initiatives as well as ongoing volunteer projects.
In Trona, California, for example,
Searles Valley manages the maintenance, electrical and air
conditioning for the local senior centre. As part of its
corporate initiative, it has also placed tremendous importance
on being a positive force in the communities where employees
live and work.
In Wyoming, both FMC and Solvay
support STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)
education with mentoring, internships, college scholarships and
curriculum development in order to foster a workforce with
skills that can be applied to soda ash production and other
technical and science led fields.
FMC also contributes to 'Cowboys
Against Cancer’, the University of Wyoming Art
Museum, Trout Unlimited and Green River, Rock Springs High
School’s 'Make-A-Wish’ programmes and
the United Way of Southwest Wyoming, which includes monetary
contributions as well as employee volunteer efforts, like
participation in the annual 'Helping Hands
Combining all these environmental
and sustainability factors, the US natural soda ash industry is
poised for extended growth, especially in the international
Chris Greissing is the vice
president, government affairs of the Industrial Minerals
Association, North America (IMA-NA) and the National Industrial
Sand Association (NISA). Chris brings an extensive knowledge of
Capitol Hill to IMA-NA.
Before coming to IMA-NA, Chris
worked within the health care and food service industries
lobbying and providing counsel to clients on a wide variety of
federal legislative and regulatory issues impacting the
industry. Prior to that, Chris began his career by working on
Capitol Hill for Congressman Fred Upton.
Chris holds a BA from Georgetown University and a JD
from California Western School of Law in San Diego, California.
He has also been admitted to the DC Bar.