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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Dan Wilson: Historic investments in ‘clean’ aluminum and steel keeping Washington a leader in jobs and climate

UPDATED: Wed., May 4, 2022

Dan Wilson

By Dan Wilson

The industrial sector presents a unique challenge in our quest to preserve a livable climate: Many of the most carbon-intense and difficult to decarbonize industries are also critical to building our low-carbon future. Reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 requires simultaneously transforming and revitalizing domestic manufacturing.

The supplemental capital budget that Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law on March 31 includes a $10 million investment in an aluminum restart project in Whatcom County. This historic state investment in clean materials manufacturing exemplifies the targeted and holistic approach necessary to surmount this challenge.

When Alcoa Intalco Works closed its doors nearly two years ago, it eliminated about 700 union manufacturing jobs – stable, high-wage jobs that are the cornerstone for a fair economy and resilient communities. The legislature’s investment is an important move toward returning those jobs to Whatcom County by helping to modernize the smelter’s potlines.

This will reduce the plant’s annual carbon footprint by at least 750,000 tons of CO2e and reduce fluoride and particulate matter pollution. That’s the equivalent of taking more than 140,000 gasoline-powered passenger cars off the road each year and a major step in decarbonizing Washington’s manufacturing base.

But the win for our climate extends well-beyond Washington’s borders.

There is currently no path to limiting climate change that does not include aluminum. It is an important input for multiple renewable energy technologies and zero-emission vehicles. Unfortunately, a decadeslong decline in the United States aluminum industry has left us increasingly reliant on countries like Russia, India, and China to supply this vital material and vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.

Modernizing and restarting Intalco – the last primary aluminum smelter on the West Coast and the largest by capacity in the United States – will ensure a robust and stable domestic supply of green aluminum and help displace especially carbon-intense aluminum from China and elsewhere produced using coal-fired electricity. Electricity accounts for the majority of the carbon footprint of aluminum. Expanding production on clean electric grids like in Washington is a critical step in decarbonizing the sector.

Retrofitting and restarting Intalco is only the tip of the opportunity.

Demand for materials like aluminum and steel is expected to grow rapidly over the coming decades to meet the needs of the low-carbon transition. With its culture of innovation, skilled manufacturing workforce, and strong climate commitments, Washington – already home to best-in-class facilities for producing materials such as steel rebar and aerospace aluminum products – is extremely well-positioned to meet this growing demand.

Seizing this opportunity is critical to not only our climate but also to building a strong and fair low-carbon economy. Historically, manufacturing jobs have been stable, high-wage jobs that are the cornerstone for resilient communities.

Washington legislators and Gov. Inslee should be commended for their leadership in investing in Intalco – it is truly an investment in our public good. Washington policymakers, climate advocates, labor leaders and manufacturers should build on this momentum and proactively and intentionally work to make the Evergreen State a global leader in clean materials manufacturing.

Recently retired, Dan Wilson has been a union member for 50 years. As former president of the United Steelworkers Local 338 in Spokane, he led the largest steelworker local in Washington state. A majority of the members he represented work for Kaiser Aluminum which is the largest industrial manufacturer in Eastern Washington.

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