Potash, Soda, and Borate Minerals

SIC 1474

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in mining, milling, or otherwise preparing natural potassium, sodium, or boron compounds. Establishments primarily engaged in mining common salt are classified in SIC 1479: Chemical and Fertilizer Mineral Mining, Not Elsewhere Classified.

In 2009 the majority of potash production took place in southeastern New Mexico, where three mines were in operation by two companies. Michigan and Utah also had potash production facilities. About 840,000 million metric tons of potash were produced in the United States in 2009, down from 1.1 million metric tons in 2008. The fertilizer industry accounted for about 85 percent of U.S. potash sales, and the chemical industry used the remaining approximate 15 percent. The decline in 2009 production totals was attributed to the global recession that suppressed demand.

Roughly 60 percent of the potash extracted in 2009 was produced as potassium chloride (muriate of chloride), with potassium sulfate and potassium magnesium sulfate, which were produced for fertilizing certain crops and soils, representing the remainder of potash production. The largest percentage of the world's potash reserves was located in Canada and Russia. Canada accounted for roughly 90 percent of U.S. potash imports, which totaled 2.4 million metric tons in 2009, down from 5.8 million metric tons in 2008. The United States exports a nominal amount of potash: 142,000 metric tons in 2009.

As a fertilizer, potash was used for such crops as soybeans, tobacco, potatoes, sugar beets, and corn, leaving the potash mining industry subject to the seasonal fluctuations of the agricultural market. Before the U.S. Civil War, production of potash in the United States involved removing it from wood ashes through a leaching process. In 1916 potash began to be extracted through crystallization from saltwater lake brines in southern California. Later, potash was mined from deposits discovered in New Mexico, which became the primary source of potash in the United States. Demand for potash in developed nations declined following the oil crisis of 1979, but in 1986 began a steady climb of 140,000 short tons a year.

By the 1990s a surplus of potash existed worldwide, which resulted in potash producers operating at reduced capacity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In addition, potash production was affected by economic crises in Asia, as demand from Asia for imported grains declined and consumption in Asia was expected to decline 9 percent in 2003. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. consumption of potash declined from 5.6 million metric tons in 2001 to 5.3 million metric tons in 2003, while exports rose from 366,000 metric tons to 370,000 metric tons, with the majority going to Latin America.

Although U.S. exports of potash had increased from 200 million metric tons in 2005 to 332 million metric tons in 2006, they decreased to 199 million metric tons in 2007. Imports fell 9.1 percent with Canada responsible for 84.6 percent of the total production. However, imports increased from 4.5 million metric tons in 2006 to almost 5 million metric tons in 2007. Top producers in descending order were Canada, Russia, Belarus, Germany, Israel, and the United States. In 2007, mines produced an estimated 1.1 million metric tons of potash, with a value of $185 million. Between 2000 and 2007, potash production hovered between 1.1 and 1.2 million metric tons.

Earlier predictions were realized when China surpassed the United States as the world's leading soda ash producer in 2003, a position it continued to hold through the 2000s. The three world producers of soda ash were Solvay S.A. of Belgium, American Natural Soda Ash Corp.(ANSAC) of the United States (representing four of the five U.S. producers), and China producers. In 2009, domestic soda ash was valued at $686 million.

In 1996, there were ten potash-producing companies in operation in the United States. By 2009, there were only six companies with a total of seven production facilities. Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan Inc., the global leader in the production of potash in the late 2000s, had 20 operations throughout the Americas, but the main supply of potash is in Saskatchewan. The company operated in the United States as PCS Phosphate Company, Inc., commonly known as PotashCorp. During the 2000s, PotashCorp bought up several U.S. potash firms. The firm had sales of $3.98 billion in 2009. U.S-based Intrepid was the twelfth largest potash dealer globally in 2009 but had just a fraction of PotashCorp's production capabilities. Nonetheless, Intrepid supplies roughly 10 percent of U.S. demand for potash and is the largest domestic producer. The Denver-based firm had 2009 sales of $301.7 million.

Soda ash, which was one of the largest segments of the industry worldwide, is a form of sodium carbonate that is used in the production of such chemicals as sodium bicarbonate, sodium sulfate, sodium chromate, sodium phosphate, sodium silicate, potassium chloride, potassium sulfate, sodium sulfite, sodium tripolyphosphate, and chemical caustic soda. Soda ash was mined by four U.S. companies in Wyoming and California, which in 2009 produced 10.9 million metric tons of soda ash. Value of soda ash production in 2009 was an estimated $1.4 billion. In 2009 the most common end uses of these soda ash products were glass (48 percent); chemicals (29 percent); soap and detergents (10 percent); distributors (4 percent); miscellaneous uses (3 percent); and flue gas desulfurization, pulp and paper, and water treatment (2 percent each). Other applications of this "non-table salt" group of sodium or saline minerals included the production of photographic darkroom materials, wood fibers for the manufacture of wrapping paper and carton board; and the processing of textile fibers, dye manufacture, and leather tanning. Alum, Glauber's salt, and trona were other forms of sodium salts mined by industry firms. Sodium sulfate was used as a substitute for salt in the dyeing processes of the textiles industry and in the glass, powdered laundry detergent, and pulp and paper industries.

In September of 2006, the U.S. Congress passed legislation intended to reduce the federal royalty on soda ash from 6 percent to 2 percent for a period of five years in an effort to strengthen the U.S. soda ash industry, especially in Wyoming that had been struggling to remain competitive in a global economy.

After facing the challenges created by the economic turmoil in Asia in the late 1990s, global demand for soda ash grew through most of the 2000s. As a result, U.S. production steadily increased, rising from 10.2 million metric tons in 2000 to 10.6 million metric tons in 2003 and reaching 11.3 million metric tons in 2008. U.S. soda ash exports also increased from 3.9 million metric tons in 2000 to nearly 5.4 million metric tons in 2008. Production decreased in 2009 due to the global recession that depressed demand. Production fell to 10.9 million metric tons. As the economy began to rebound in 2010, the soda ash industry was expect to experience overall growth of around 2 to 3 percent over the next several years.

The United States produces almost all the soda ash it consumes. In 2009, imports were only 5,000 metric tons, down from 13,000 metric tons in 2008. Exports, however, are an important component of the U.S. soda ash industry. In 2009, exports totaled 4.9 million metric tons, down from 5.37 million metric tons in 2008.

Foreign investment in the U.S. soda ash industry increased throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In 1981 foreign investment had accounted for 10 percent of soda ash production, but by 1998 foreign investment was 46 percent of capacity. European companies owned about 22 percent of soda ash production operations in Wyoming in 1998. The percentage had been higher--35 percent--in 1995, before Rhône Poulenc SA of France sold its Wyoming plant to Korea's Oriental Chemical Industries. In late 2003 Belgium-based Solvay S.A., the world leader in soda ash production, bought American Soda, a soda ash joint venture that had been formed between Williams Companies Inc. and American Alkali in 2000. The deal gave Solvay soda ash capacity in excess of 9 million tons, roughly 20 percent of worldwide soda ash capacity.

The term borate minerals encompasses such boron-producing minerals as borax and kernite and includes colemanite, ulexite, and probertite. Boron was used in gasoline, jet and rocket fuel, and as an ingredient in industrial plasticizing and dehydrating processes. Borax was used in the production of enamel for bathtubs, stoves, refrigerators, and metal signs, and as an agent for ensuring brilliance and clarity in the manufacture of glass. Other uses for borax included disinfectants, preservatives, starches, lumber treatment, detergents, fertilizers, and weed killers, as well as in metallurgical applications. Borax and other borate compounds were also used as intermediate chemicals in a wide variety of industrial processes. For example, colemanite and ulexite were used in glass manufacturing and in the production of glass wool used for insulation.

Two companies in southern California were responsible for production boron minerals. Searless Valley Minerals, Inc., produced borax and boric acid from brines pumped from Searless Lake in San Bernardino County. U.S. Borax, Inc., was the world leader of refined borate products.

The United States was a major producer of boron compounds globally in 2009, although production amounts were withheld by the U.S. Geology Survey to avoid disclosing company proprietary data and exported roughly 50 percent of its output. However, the largest producer of boron ore worldwide was Turkey. The United States continued to import borates, primarily from Turkey and Chile. The principal end uses of boron compounds in 2009 were glass and ceramic products (76 percent), soaps and detergents (5 percent), agriculture (4 percent), enamels and glazes (3 percent), and other uses (12 percent).

Turkey and the United States were the principal producers of boron minerals. In 2006, U.S. consumption of boron minerals and chemicals declined nearly 10 percent to 400,000 metric tons, while imported boric acid climbed 13 percent to 60,000 metric tons. Boron consumption was affected by the continued slump in the U.S. housing market and a decrease in glass consumption according to Ceramic Industry in January 2009.

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