The B.C. Liberals put up a brave front last week when the Americans issued a preliminary finding of guilt against Canadian lumber imports for harming U.S. producers.
“These are allegations that, time after time, have been proven false,” declared the statement Friday from Forests Minister Steve Thomson in response to the unfavourable ruling from the U.S. International Trade Commission.
“B.C.’s forest policies are trade compliant,” he continued, citing multiple previous rulings by international trade tribunals. Never mind that those have not stopped the Americans from imposing punishing duties on Canadian softwood time and again.
“With the forecast for continued increase in U.S. housing starts, the U.S. needs our lumber and penalties only hurt housing affordability for middle-class Americans by raising building costs,” continued Thomson, appealing to the interests of U.S. consumers over industry.
He then reiterated the B.C. call for “a fair, negotiated trade agreement,” to replace the 10-year deal to manage the cross-border lumber trade which expired last October.
“It is in the best interest of both sides to quickly come to terms on a deal and get back to focusing on growing our respective economies rather than wasting time, energy and resources in costly litigation,” said Thomson.
“That said, B.C. is prepared to fight, alongside Canada, on behalf of British Columbians and the 140 communities that rely on the forest sector. We are confident we will win yet again.”
Not much else he could say at this point in the struggle. B.C. echoes the bargaining position of the national government and other Canadian provinces.
Still, there’s every reason to think the trade winds are blowing in the opposite direction in North America these days.
The latest complaint against Canadian lumber was filed by a baker’s dozen worth of American interests, led by the U.S. Lumber Coalition, the industry-funded entity that has long spearheaded the fight against imports from Canada.
Joining it are four forest companies from Oregon, two from Washington (including Weyerhaeuser), one in California and four in the southern states. Balancing those company interests is the industrial council of the carpenter’s union.
Together they are calling themselves the Committee Overseeing Action for Lumber International Trade Investigations or Negotiations, or COALITION — get it?
And they were not long in getting results. Friday’s preliminary ruling came just six weeks after their initial filing.
“The commission today determined that there is a reasonable indication that a U.S. industry is materially injured by reason of imports of softwood lumber products from Canada that are allegedly subsidized and sold in the United States at less than fair value,” said the statement.
“As a result of the commission’s affirmative determinations, the U.S. Department of Commerce will continue to conduct its anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigations on imports of these products from Canada.”
Dumping being the claim that Canadian lumber is being sold in the U.S. at less than its fair market value. Countervail relates to the accusation that the product is subsidized by the government. Both can result in punishing duties on imports and have done so in the past.
The latest findings could potentially apply to a broader range of Canadian products than previous iterations of the long-running trade war over softwood lumber.
The latter concern was noted in an advisory missive that a Blaine, Wash.-based customs broker, Mike Jones, sent out late last year to his Canadian clients and interested parties.
He noted how the Americans were specifically targeting framing, packaging and other manufactured lumber products that were “never before captured” in previous investigations of Canadian imports, which focused mainly on 2×4’s.
“We feel it imperative that the wood pallet and packaging, door and window frame and fencing material industries petition for the exclusion of such articles, assembled or unassembled,” wrote Jones in the letter published Dec. 16 in Madison’s Lumber, an industry newsletter.
“If the COALITION is allowed to continue to increase the scope, pretty soon all lumber ‘products’ from Canada, will be captured.”
Note, too, that the trade commission’s finding against Canada, a 5-0 vote by three Republicans and two Democrats, was a product of the outgoing U.S. administration.
Incoming president Donald Trump, in marked contrast to earlier Republican leaders, is strongly protectionist, and has named like-minded folks to key positions on the trade and commerce file.
His nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, veteran trade lawyer Robert Lighthizer, is widely regarded as a protectionist “hawk.” In which regard, his Washington, D.C.-based firm recently published this authoritative estimate of where the new president-elect will be headed on the trade file:
“The president-elect has made clear that the U.S. will take action against unfair trade that is harming U.S. companies and workers, using all available remedies under U.S. and international law. This would include more aggressive enforcement of the anti-dumping and countervailing duty laws against unfairly traded imports into the United States.”
As for senior partner turned-Trump nominee Lighthizer himself, the firm’s website says: “He has been lead counsel in scores of anti-dumping and countervailing duty cases during the past three decades.” That expertise could come in handy judging the complaints against Canadian lumber.
Meanwhile, the case is scheduled to play out through the spring, with awkward timing for the B.C. Liberals.
The next finding in the countervailing complaint is scheduled for Feb. 20, just in time for the provincial budget. The anti-dumping verdict is due on or about May 4, the week before the provincial election.