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The Importance of Sourcing Safe Building Materials

The Importance of Sourcing Safe Building Materials

By Dale Crawford

The rising cost of building materials has many contractors shopping around for lower prices, but opting for cheaper materials may cost builders and property owners more in the long run, particularly when it comes to steel and steel conduit. While American-made steel products are held to strict standards with regards to strength, safety, durability, and environmental impact, the same rules may not apply to steel imports. The vast majority of American-made steel and steel conduit is manufactured using processes that are more environmentally friendly than methods used in other countries, particularly China. Furthermore, many American steel manufacturers hold themselves to even higher standards than those required by law.

Despite tariff agreements to the contrary, steel suppliers from Mexico and Asia continue to import unregulated steel and steel conduit to use in construction of new buildings in the US Because steel conduit is used in electrical raceways to protect wires from physical damage due to impact, chemical vapors, and fire, the use of unregulated or subpar steel puts buildings at risk.  

Lastly, American-made steel supports the US steel economy and American jobs across manufacturing, construction, transportation, and other industries. Steel imports thus impact American steel manufacturers and their employees. Organizations like the Steel Tube Institute are working to uphold the integrity of American infrastructure, keep jobs in the US and promote sustainable manufacturing processes. 

History of North American steel regulations

In 2019, the United States announced an agreement with Canada and Mexico to remove the Section 232 tariffs, lifting retaliatory fees and opening up trade between the US, Canada, and Mexico. In this action, the three countries pledged to prevent steel import surges beyond historical levels. The agreement states that if surges in imports of specific steel products occur, the US may re-impose tariffs on those products or create another remedy agreed upon by both countries. 

Nevertheless, Mexican steel suppliers have continued to import steel products in larger than historical quantities, without any repercussions from the US Trade Ambassador’s office. During the July 2023 annual meeting of the US-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Commission (USMCA), US Trade Representative Katherine Tai pushed for steel monitoring. Unfortunately, monitoring is not enough and must be coupled with penalties to those who violate the trade agreement.

When it comes to quality, it matters where your steel is sourced

According to the US Census Bureau, 77 percent of improperly labeled, imported Mexican steel conduit was commingled with American-made steel in 2021. The infiltration of lower quality steel could put US infrastructure–including electrical conduit systems, buildings, and bridges–at high risk for degradation, corrosion, and even collapse, endangering lives. American safety standards are in place to ensure a solid infrastructure. The consequences of allowing construction with unregulated steel imports can be dire.

Chinese-produced steel presents another set of problems. Unlike American steel produced using electric arc furnaces (EAFs, discussed later in this article), China’s steel is primarily produced using a process called blast furnace-basic oxygen furnace (BF-BOF). BF-BOF emits significantly higher amounts of CO2 when compared to the EAF process, causing extreme negative environmental effects. Yet, these products continue to be imported into the US, in direct violation of The White House’s Buy Clean policy, which encourages low-carbon manufacturing of construction materials while protecting American jobs. 

American steel supports American jobs

The US steel industry is a vital component of the American economy, bringing in $21.065B in 2022 alone. Prior to the implementation of the USMCA Free Trade Agreement, the US steel industry supported nearly two million jobs that paid, on average, 27 percent more than the median earnings for men and 58 percent more than the median for women, but if the US continues to knowingly import off-shore products, steel mill capacity utilization will continue to drop and US manufacturers will face the threat of plant closures

Enforcing import and tariff laws is the only way to support US steel mills and the American jobs they provide. This includes implementing a strict screening process of materials with specified attributes to raise red flags, forbidding products from specific offshore companies who are known to misrepresent their products or ignore the anti-surge clause and implement incentives for buying confirmed American-made steel products. Without this support, US manufacturers will continue to be at a huge disadvantage, ultimately affecting the future of manufacturers, jobs and the economy, as well as the safety of US infrastructure and sustainability of the planet. 

Take advantage of green manufacturing to decrease carbon footprints

Steel can be endlessly recycled without losing its strength and is the only construction material that can make that claim. The use of Electric Arc Furnaces (EAFs) significantly lowers the carbon dioxide emissions intensity of the steel manufacturing process, compared to traditional blast furnaces and basic oxygen furnaces (BOF). It is the process most commonly used in the US Whereas 70.6 percent of US steel is produced using EAFs, only 26.3 percent of global steel production is produced this way.

When the US allows imported products from countries like China, the environment suffers on a global level. China alone accounts for about half of the entire world’s steel supply. At the very least, these products should not be imported until Global Warming Potential (GWP) figures are met and a chain of custody for the steel can be proven and adhered to. 

Several domestic steel manufacturers have made, and are continuing to make, substantial investments into green steel manufacturing. These US manufacturers are fighting the notorious and inaccurate reputation of the old steel mill’s effect on the environment with innovative processes to ensure they are decreasing their carbon footprints. Significant improvements have been made, though the US steel industry has received little credit or attention for these efforts. 

Policies, like the Biden administration’s announcement to advance a cleaner industrial sector and reduce emissions, are necessary to combat climate change. US-based steel suppliers welcome the opportunity to participate in these programs, however, these policies will not have a significant impact until China, especially, is held accountable for its carbon emissions by the US decreasing the amount of imported steel it receives.

American-based steel manufacturers play a key role in the economic and environmental health of the country, as well as the strength of its buildings. By upholding tariffs–and pushing for stronger controls and penalties for those who do not comply–America’s steel mills can continue to operate cleanly and efficiently, provide millions of Americans jobs, and continue to be a pillar of strength for both the nation’s economy and its infrastructure. 

Dale L. Crawford is the Executive Director and Director of Conduit for the Steel Tube Institute. Dale is responsible for the organization’s activities to promote the growth and competitiveness of steel pipe and tubular products throughout North America. In addition to these responsibilities, he is in charge of activities, strategies, and programs of the Steel Tube Institute’s Conduit Section, which consists of North America’s leading steel conduit manufacturers.  Dale is a Certified LEED Green Associate (LEED GA) by the US Green Building Council.

sidebar page one: Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), federally funded projects must use American-made iron, steel and other construction materials. To remain in compliance, it is imperative that imported steel be properly labeled.