A rare and exclusive peek into Donald Trump’s Oval Office has renewed fears amidst the US solar industry that the current Section 201 trade case will result in burdensome tariffs, seriously endangering the industry’s growth and thousands of jobs.
I’ve been warning since the Section 201 trade case filed by Suniva and SolarWorld with the US International Trade Commission (ITC) that, despite the overwhelming common-sense case against their claims and requests, the case may be ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, given the current President’s protectionist policies. Specifically, Suniva and SolarWorld are asking the ITC to place a tariff on all imported solar cells and to set a price floor for nearly every imported panel — a move which experts predict could cost up to 88,000 US solar industry jobs and hamstring the growth of the industry by up to two-thirds.
The crux of the issue is not so much whether Suniva and SolarWorld have a leg to stand on — the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) accurately described claims made by the plaintiffs as “preposterous” and explained that the companies brought their own bankruptcies upon themselves.
Rather, the major issue at hand is that Suniva and SolarWorld have brought their trade case at just the right time, to an Administration run by a US President with overwhelmingly protectionist interests. This has most recently been seen in President Trump’s desire to implement tariffs on steel imports from China — despite a Beijing proposal to cut steel overcapacity by 150 million tonnes by 2022 in a deal that was backed by Trump’s advisors, but did not meet with the President’s desire to impose tariffs.
This hell-bent desire to impose tariffs on anything and everything has been recently highlighted in an extraordinary manner, thanks to an exclusive leak/account of an Oval Office meeting in which President Trump demanded from his senior staff, “I want tariffs. Bring me some tariffs.” On Sunday, Axios reported an account of “a small Oval Office meeting” in which Donald Trump vented “at senior staff for sometimes resisting his hawkish trade agenda.” The meeting was apparently held during the first week of newly-minted Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, while Steve Bannon was still stalking the White House. Also at the meeting were U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, senior trade adviser Peter Navarro, and top economic adviser Gary Cohn.
The full account of the meeting is worth reading — if for nothing else than its entertainment value. But the real concern is that Donald Trump’s Administration may look at the Section 201 trade case filed by Suniva and SolarWorld as a perfect means of adhering to their bosses’ wishes — “I want tariffs.”
Nobody in the US solar industry wants tariffs on products coming into the country — except for a few companies who were unable to succeed in a burgeoning and expanding US solar industry. A group of 27 US manufacturers sent a letter (PDF) to the ITC which explained that “The tariffs requested by Suniva would more than double the price of solar panels in the US, undercutting the cost-competitiveness of solar and reversing its high growth trajectory. We would be forced to cut our operations, seriously endangering manufacturing jobs at our factories.”
However, looking at the sides lining up on this particular issue, I find it difficult to see a way in which Donald Trump doesn’t hand the US solar industry a crushing defeat — one that will have immediate and long-term consequences not just for the development of renewable energy in the country, but the livelihoods of thousands.