An employee works at a furnace in United Co. Rusal’s Khakassia factory in Sayanogorsk, Russia. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Dubai: Aluminum production is tilting towards the Gulf-and industry giants Rio Tinto, Alcoa Inc. and Norsk Hydro ASA are betting heavily that the region can produce aluminium more cheaply and can grab global market share.

The rush to lower production costs is intense. The aluminium market currently is so oversupplied that market participants say half of the world’s production is unprofitable at current prices.

Producers and state-owned companies hope Gulf production can take advantage of low energy costs locally and lower shipping rates globally. Such a shift comes at the cost of more costly aluminium smelters in Europe and America.

Mideast output is expected to grow from 3.6 million metric tons in 2011 to 5 million metric tons by 2015 once new projects in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia are completed, said Mahmoud Daylami, general-secretary of the Gulf Aluminium Council, a trade group.

“We see the central gravity shifting towards the Gulf,” Daylami added. He sees the region’s share of world production rising to 10 per cent from 8 per cent.

Since 2007, global production has exceeded demand by 9.31 million tons, according to Morgan Stanley. Benchmark aluminium on the London Metal Exchange closed at $1,942 a metric ton Wednesday, after hitting a two-year low last week. Due to the low prices, only about 50 per cent of aluminium smelters are making a profit, said Jean Simon, president and CEO of primary metal for Rio Tinto Alcan.

Rio Tinto, Alcoa and Norsk Hydro have all closed smelters this year as prices fell below the cost of production.

Gulf nations, hoping to diversify energy-dominated economies, are positioning themselves as a solution. Not surprisingly energy costs, which account for one-third of aluminium production expenses, are lower in the region.

National electricity costs average $22 per kilowatt hour in the Middle East, compared to $25 per kilowatt hour in North America and $34 in Europe, according to a January 2011 Alcoa presentation. Such rates don’t always apply to aluminium smelters, as producers seek to negotiate energy contracts directly with utilities rather than paying market rates. Others produce their own electricity on-site.

“Given how high energy costs have gotten, it makes a lot of sense for aluminium companies-especially Alcoa and Rio Tinto-to build new plants in areas where they can access low-cost electricity,” said Bridget Freas, senior analyst for Morningstar.

Meanwhile, rapid ship-building in China in recent years has pushed shipping costs lower, said Ryan Derouin, an executive for General Electric Co. (GE), which builds turbines that produce about 80 per cent of the power used by smelters in the Middle East.

The Baltic Dry Index, which tracks shipping rates for dry commodities, has dropped 37 per cent so far this year. Aluminium makers used to be compelled to set up shop close to their customers to ease transportation costs, but “that’s not necessarily the case anymore,” Derouin said.

Construction is underway on a $10.8 billion joint venture between Saudi Arabian Mining Company and Alcoa. The project intends to integrate the entire aluminium production chain, from mining to recycling. Production is slated to begin in 2013 and produce 740,000 metric tons per year by 2014.

A joint venture between Norsk Hydro and Qatar Petroleum reached full capacity of 585,000 metric tons per year last year.

Rio Tinto was the first to open a joint-venture project in the region. Sohar Aluminium, which Rio Tinto owns with Oman Oil and Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, reached full capacity of 360,000 metric tons per year in 2009.

The Abu Dhabi government, meanwhile, is seeking industry partners to set up shop in the $7.2 billion Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi. The zone is leasing land around the state-owned Emirates Aluminium smelter to manufacturers. The smelter is currently producing 750,000 metric tons per year of aluminium, with plans to increase output to 800,000 metric tons per year by the end of 2012. The smelter will eventually achieve capacity of 1.3 million metric tons a year, according to the Emirates Aluminium website.

Expanded output in the Middle East isn’t expected to sway global prices. Increased aluminium supply from the region should be offset by the shuttering of less-efficient smelters in North America and Europe, Freas said.

Other producers may be holding back from investing in the Mideast due to current low aluminium prices, Freas said. “Whether others will follow suit really just kind of depends on what market conditions look like a few years from now,” she said.