Oregon’s U.S. Senate delegation split over Section 201 trade proposals

In the nation’s popular imagination, Oregon is known more for fly fishing than manufacturing, however it is at the center of the debate over proposed trade remedies under the Section 201 case. This is a case that has split the solar industry between much of the cell and module manufacturing sector and the larger industry, including racking, tracking and mounting systems makers. Politically, it also has split Oregon’s delegation to the U.S. Senate.

Today Axios reported that U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) has made comments stating that he opposes the tariffs on imported solar cells and modules that have been requested by Oregon-based SolarWorld and Georgia’s bankrupt Suniva, and which were recommended by three of the four commissioners at the U.S. International Trade Commission.

Instead, Merkley has stated that he feels that subsidies would better serve the U.S. industry. “I would like to see us to take an approach that would assist the American companies so they could lower their prices and compete with industry at lower prices,” Merkley told Axios.

A similar proposal has been championed by Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and was recommended by Commissioner Meredith Broadbent in her final recommendations to President Trump. Broadbent called for a sale of import licenses to foreign firms at a minimum price of one cent per watt, a token amount for companies seeking to sell their products into the United States, but one which could result in $89 million in revenue in the first year, to be provided to domestic manufacturers as “development assistance”.

Broadbent also recommended an import quota of 8.9 GW on both cells and modules, which would increase by 1.4 GW per year. It is not known if Merkley supports such a move or not.

Such a position puts Merkley in sharp contrast with Oregon’s other U.S. senator, Ron Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and a staunch supporter of trade action against the Chinese. In fact, Wyden personally spoke before the U.S. ITC in its remedy hearing as one of three politicians from Oregon supporting SolarWorld and strong trade action.

At the October 3 hearing, Wyden blasted “unfair trade practices that have decimated our solar trade” and warned that the cell and module industry “will not survive without effective relief”, in calling for strong trade action.

“I urge the Commission to recommend a remedy robust enough to repair the serious injury already experienced by the U.S. solar manufacturing sector and to ensure its long-term growth and competitiveness,” stated Wyden.

Under SolarWorld’s proposal, this means quotas on imported cells and modules combined with the steepest tariffs allowed under Section 201 regulations.

Such differences in opinion will likely be echoed in the December 6 hearing in Washington DC before the U.S. Trade Representative, and SEIA in particular has been mobilizing support through a variety of channels.

But whatever the opinions of Senator Merkley, Senator Wyden, the U.S. Trade Representatives and other political players, the final decision will be made by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has shown a strong preference for tariffs and protectionist trade action.