Pipeline Companies Are Feuding With The Steel Industry Over Upcoming Commerce Department Report

President Donald Trump will soon have to pick a side in a dispute between two of his favorite industries.

Pipeline companies and the U.S. steel industry are facing off ahead of a report due this weekend from the Department of Commerce that could lead to limits on pipelines' ability to import steel, a proposition pipeline companies say could spell doom for upcoming projects and the steel industry believes will bolster the country's economy.

The report follows a presidential memorandum signed January 24 ordering the department to sketch out a plan for maximizing the use of domestic materials in pipelines built in the United States, and is due Sunday, July 23.

Trump has in the past promoted policies that favored both industries, speeding regulatory approval for major pipeline projects early in his presidency, and recently mulling import tariffs on steel that are expected to be announced in the coming weeks. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is a former steel executive whose policy papers advising the Trump campaign cited unfair trade practices as a drag on American steel companies.

The pipeline decision pits the two industries in a zero-sum effort to win over the administration, while also putting into conflict the president's twin goals of supporting infrastructure development and promoting domestic manufacturing.

Pipeline companies have said that an import restriction could increase prices. A study funded by industry groups said a requirement to source American steel could drive up pipe costs 25%, an amount that could add $76 million to the construction costs of most pipelines and up to $300 million for mega-projects like the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline.

Roger Schagrin, general counsel for the Committee on Pipe and Tube Imports, called the study "one of the worst pieces of garbage" he has seen during his career, saying in an email that there is more than enough domestic steel capacity for pipeline construction and that piping accounts for 10% of the cost of a pipeline.

A 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service examining the Department of Transportation's "Buy America" policy said that evidence of increasing costs and delays was largely anecdotal. The Department of Transportation's policy allows for waivers if inclusion of domestically sourced materials could raise the price of a project by more than 25%.

Pipeline companies also say that U.S. steel manufacturers do not produce enough steel for a domestic sourcing requirement to make sense. Energy Transfer Equity (ETE) , which built almost 2,000 miles of pipeline last year, said in comments to the Department of Commerce that the company consumed almost the entire U.S. steel market by itself, possibly limiting the supply for other pipeline companies.

Steel makers, on the other hand, are hoping Trump will force pipelines to buy American-made steel - saying the capacity is there, and that the move could bolster the economy as a whole.

"With capacity utilization rates hovering around 70 percent, the domestic steel industry has ample existing capacity to supply materials for pipeline projects," Steel Manufacturers Association President Philip K. Bell wrote in a letter to the Department of Commerce.

The Department of Commerce report comes as both industries are facing declining sales growth. Growth for domestic steel producers such as U.S. Steel (X) has been declining over the past few years, with the sector contracting 6.7% last year and almost 21% in 2015, according to FactSet data. Meanwhile, pipeline companies such as Enterprise Products Partners L.P. (EPD)  have been on the downswing, with the sector seeing sales decline almost 10% last year and more than 30% in 2015.

A specific point of contention revolves around larger-diameter, thicker-walled steel plating, which pipeline companies say they are unable to purchase domestically.

"It represents a niche segment of the overall market and the cyclical nature of the pipeline construction industry means U.S. producers have moved away from this market segment in recent decades," Association of Oil Pipelines spokesman John Stoody said in an email.

Dominion Energy (D) , which has proposed a 600 mile, $5.1 billion natural gas pipeline that would run through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, sourced half its steel plate from manufacturers in South Korea because they could not find the large plating the project required in the United States, a spokesman said.

"I don't believe there are any capability restrictions in the United States that limit large diameter heavier section pipe production," Quaker City Castings president Geoff Korff said in an email. "If it can be made in China, it can be made in the US."

According to Schagrin, from the Committee on Pipe and Tube Imports, extra-thick walled piping has made up a declining portion of pipeline construction in recent decades.

"[E]xtra thick walled pipe is primarily used in Gulf of Mexico," he wrote. "Was about 10% of consumption 20 years ago. About 2% now post Deepwater Horizon. Can be excluded from any program."

Rusty Braziel, president of RBN Energy, said an increasing number of mega-projects could increase the demand for larger, thicker steel -- but that the demand likely would not be felt until 2019, giving the industry some time to adjust to any new rules. 

Most of the pipe and tube products imported into the United States come from South Korea, including almost a million metric tons last year, according to the International Trade Administration. Canada, Mexico, Turkey and Japan are the other major suppliers.

Regardless of the details of the report Sunday, any trade restriction could face significant legal hurdles, experts have said. The United States is part of the World Trade Organization's Government Procurement Agreement, which would prohibit directly telling U.S. companies to purchase American goods. Nonetheless, there are a number of caveats the administration could pursue to work around the law.

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