US mends ties with allies, prepares for trade war with China

WASHINGTON (AP) — Gathering strength for a brutal trade war with China, the United States appears to be trying to patch things up with its friends. U.S. and Mexican negotiators met in Washington Aug. 2-3 to work on a rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement — an effort that looked virtually dead a few months ago. The prior week, President Donald Trump announced a cease-fire in a potentially destructive dispute with the European Union over trade in cars, trucks and auto parts. Meanwhile, the Trump administration ratcheted up the pressure on China by proposing a doubling in tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports. Beijing has vowed to counterpunch with trade sanctions of its own. “If you’re going to take China on, you’d better make sure you’ve shored up your base with your allies and made sure you kept other markets open,” said Michael Camunez, president of Monarch Global Strategies consultancy and a former U.S. Commerce Department official. Trump campaigned on a vow to overhaul the 24-year-old NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, a pact he called a job-killing disaster. NAFTA did away with most barriers, including tariffs, on trade between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Trump and other NAFTA critics say the agreement encouraged U.S. manufacturers to move factories — and jobs — south of the border to take advantage of lower-wage Mexican labor. He vowed to pull out of NAFTA if he couldn’t a deal he liked. Talks on a new NAFTA began almost a year ago but got bogged down over the Trump team’s insistence on measures that would discourage investment in Mexico and shift auto production to the United States. Momentum suddenly resumed after Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador won the Mexican presidential election last month and expressed support for overhauling NAFTA. The Mexican negotiators are hoping to reach an agreement this month with the United States, then bring Canada back into the negotiations. Canada’s absence from this week’s talks raised suspicions that the United States was pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy with its two trading partners, isolating Canada to pressure it into agreeing with whatever the U.S. and Mexico came up with. But David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador in Washington, told the AP it made sense for the U.S. and Mexico to negotiate first: “There are a couple of lingering issues between the U.S. and Mexico” that need to be settled “before we can move on,” he said. The most obvious is Trump’s push to require that autos contain more content made within the NAFTA trade bloc and specifically from countries that pay high wages (that is, not Mexico) to qualify for duty-free status under the agreement. But the two countries are whittling away at their differences. In June, Trump slapped taxes on imported steel and aluminum, hoping in part to pressure Canada and Mexico to agree to a NAFTA rewrite that was to his liking. But the two neighbors — and other U.S. allies and trading partners — have slapped back with tariffs of their own, often aimed at U.S. farmers who supported Trump in the 2016 election. The Mexicans, for example, targeted U.S. pork and cheese. The retaliation is beginning to take a toll. The Trump administration last week announced a $12 billion package to ease the pain on farmers. Daniel Ujczo, a lawyer with Dickinson Wright PLLC in Columbus, Ohio, said the U.S. has a big incentive to smooth over the differences with friendly countries and get the tit-for-tat tariffs removed. “The faster we get a deal with Mexico, the faster that relieves pressure on farm country,” he said. The Trump administration last week pulled back from the brink of a trade war with the European Union, suspending planned tariffs on European autos while it talks with the EU about tearing down trade barriers. As tensions with U.S. allies seem to ease, tensions with China are rising. On Aug. 1, the Trump administration proposed hiking planned tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports to 25 percent from an originally announced 10 percent. The world’s two biggest economies are sparring over what Washington says are Beijing’s predatory tactics to obtain American technology. Deals with allies like the EU, Mexico and Canada could give the administration “some breathing room on China and signal to the world that they aren’t looking to fight with everyone,” said Christine McDaniel, senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

Scoping starts for ConocoPhillips’ Willow development

ConocoPhillips’ westward push on the North Slope took reached another milestone Aug. 7 when the Bureau of Land Management began asking for public input as it drafts permitting documents for the company’s proposed multibillion-dollar Willow oil development. The remote Willow prospect is west of the existing North Slope oil fields in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Largely a Nanushuk formation-focused play, ConocoPhillips announced its discovery in January 2017 after the company drilled two exploration wells the previous winter. Company leaders said during a July 16 investor presentation that appraisal wells drilled last winter indicate Willow likely holds between 750 million to 1.1 billion barrels of oil and pegged development of the isolated resource at $4 billion to $6 billion. The company has estimated it could produce up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day. With a shallow conventional target zone in the 4,000-foot range, ConocoPhillips also believes it can produce from Willow for less than $40 per barrel, according to a release accompanying the presentation. ConocoPhillips’ initial development plan calls for a central processing facility and pad, up to five drilling pads with up to 50 wells each, access roads, an airstrip and a gravel mine within the NPR-A, according to BLM. The proposal also contemplates a temporary island in state waters to facilitate module deliveries via sealift barges. The company sent BLM a letter in May requesting authorization for the development, a BLM release states. The federal agency will be drafting an environmental impact statement to evaluate the master development plan for the massive project and as such is asking the public what should be studied in the EIS. “Analyzing the proposed Willow prospect in a single (master development plan) EIS will result in a quicker and more efficient process for the approval of applications for permits to drill. Public input on this project is important and we look forward to hosting public meetings and listening to the comments people may have,” Acting BLM Alaska Directory Karen Mouritsen said in a prepared statement. Audubon Alaska issued a statement emphasizing that Willow is near the “globally-important Teshekpuk Lake wetlands complex, one of the most ecologically important habitats in the entire Arctic.” The 2013 NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan — the land-use plan for the entire 23 million-acre reserve — precludes oil and gas leasing and development in much of the northeast portion of the reserve to protect the area surrounding Teshekpuk Lake and the caribou herd and waterfowl that use it and are important subsistence resources for many North Slope residents. Audubon Alaska also notes the master development plan EIS is subject to an Interior Department directive issued by Trump administration officials to limit the review to one year and the EIS to 150 pages. “We urge the agency to go slow, think carefully, and adhere to the Integrated Activity Plan,” Audubon Alaska Policy Directory Susan Culliney said. “Using a hastened (National Environmental Policy Act) timeline for this massive development project will only gloss over the science and lead to a faulty decision. The complex and sensitive Arctic ecosystem deserves more consideration than can possibly be achieved through a quick and dirty fast-tracked analysis.” Public scoping meetings will be held in the North Slope communities of Anaktuvuk Pass, Atqasuk, Nuiqsut and Utqiagvik as well as Fairbanks and Anchorage, but meeting times have not been announced. ConocoPhillips is expected to bring its roughly $1 billion Greater Mooses Tooth-1 project in the reserve online this fall. When it does, it will be the first oil production from the NPR-A with an expected peak rate of 30,000 barrels per day. Its Greater Mooses Tooth-2 project is now in permitting and is also projected at 30,000 barrels per day at peak rate. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

State, feds agree to revise roadless in Tongass

State and federal officials inked an agreement Aug. 2 that could lead to scaling back the U.S. Forest Service’s long-debated Roadless Rule in Alaska. The memorandum of understanding signed by Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack and Interim Forest Service Chief Victoria Christensen lays the foundation for the agencies to reopen the Roadless Rule on the prospect of working towards an Alaska-specific rule that could allow for more access to large swaths of federal lands that have ostensibly been off-limits to logging or other developments and activities since the early 2000s. Approved in early 2001 by former President Bill Clinton, the Roadless Rule prohibited new road construction on roughly 58 million acres of undisturbed national forest lands across the country. The “no new roads” edict has since been continuously challenged in court, particularly by western states that contend it has arbitrarily curbed logging and other activities on Forest Service territory and conflicts with the agency’s multiple-use land planning mission. In 2015, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Alaska U.S. District Court decision to overturn a 2003 exemption to the Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest put in place by George W. Bush’s administration. Alaska Division of Forestry Director Chris Maisch said the MOU to examine revising the rule was borne out of Gov. Bill Walker’s petition to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue for a full, statewide exemption to the Roadless Rule. The MOU is focused in the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Dru Fenster, which encompasses the vast majority of Southeast Alaska and is by far the largest national forest in the country. At 5.4 million acres, the Chugach National Forest in Southcentral is the second-largest national forest, but its timber is much less suitable for large-scale commercial logging. The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation lauded the MOU in formal statements, insisting it is a big step towards getting “forest management and the economy of Southeast Alaska back on track,” as Sen. Dan Sullivan put it. “As I have said many times before, the Roadless Rule has never made sense in Alaska,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Aug 2. “I welcome today’s announcement, which will help put us on a path to ensure the Tongass is once again a working forest and a multiple-use forest for all who live in Southeast. “I thank Secretary Purdue for recognizing the need for economic relief in these communities and look forward to continuing to work with the administration, state officials, Sen. Sullivan and Congressman Young to see this process through to the finish line.” Murkowski chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that covers the Forest Service budget and has inserted language to exempt Alaska from the Roadless Rule into recent budget bills for the agency. Those provisions have ultimately been stripped from the spending bills the president has signed. Specifically, the MOU directs DNR and the Forest Service to establish a State-Forest Service Executive Steering Committee to carry out the agreement. The Forest Service will lead development of an environmental impact statement to analyze the effects of prospective management changes to the Tongass, while the state will form a public advisory group of representatives from Southeast tribes and Alaska Native corporations as well as conservation groups and the timber, mining, tourism and commercial fishing industries. Colorado and Idaho are the only other states to have their own Roadless rules, but those came only after years of study and court challenges. Forest Service officials said they plan to have the Alaska EIS complete within 18 months, in part to keep stakeholders engaged in the process. Forest and fishing advocates criticized the agreement, claiming it will put some of Southeast’s largest industries at risk. Trout Unlimited, which has pushed for permanent protections for dozens of critical salmon-bearing watersheds in the Tongass — its Tongass 77 campaign — contends the fishing and tourism industries rely on unspoiled wilderness in the region provided by the Roadless Rule and currently support 26 percent of all the jobs in Southeast Alaska in addition to contributing about $2 billion per year to the region’s economy. TU Alaska Policy Director Austin Williams stressed in a formal statement that revising the Roadless Rule in the state would mean throwing out the 2016 Tongass Management Plan, which took more than four years to finalize. The Tongass Plan calls for a transition to strictly young-growth timber harvest in the forest over 16 years, a period Murkowski and timber industry leaders argue is much too short to provide an adequate timber supply for Southeast’s few remaining sawmills. “The current Tongass Forest Plan, which includes protections for roadless areas, was monumental and was perhaps the first time a diverse set of stakeholders successfully came together around a common vision for how to move forward on the Tongass and leave the timber wars behind,” TU Alaska’s Williams said. “The overwhelming majority of Alaskans that participated in that process voiced a desire for increased protections for important fish and wildlife habitat. Rather than flushing that hard work down the drain, we should look for lasting solutions that protect the remaining roadless areas.” Forest Service Associate Deputy Chief of Forest Systems Chris French acknowledged in an interview that any substantive changes in how the Roadless Rule is applied to the Tongass at the end of the EIS process will likely require another EIS to at least amend the Tongass Management Plan accordingly. French said the MOU provides “a wide open space” for forest managers to consider changes in how the rule is used. “It basically allows us a lot more flexibility in how we approach apply the protections of roadless that you see in the 2001 Roadless Rule,” he said. Any rule changes could apply to the 57 percent of the Tongass that was designated as roadless in 2001. About 35 percent of the Tongass has been granted “wilderness” protection by Congress and as such will not be impacted by any changes to the rule. The remaining roughly eight percent is set aside for other opportunities, according to Forest Service officials. “We don’t know what we’re going to propose yet. We don’t know what we’re going to hear at this point. We really want to start from the space of allowing folks to speak their mind; allowing folds to contribute their ideas — come to maybe some solutions — give us some proposals and all that will be considered as we go forward,” French said. Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham said in an interview that the organization had been pleading with the Forest Service to revise the rule, but also lamented the fact that easing the land-use restrictions likely won’t change on-the-ground work for several years. “Just removing the Roadless Rule won’t let us cut one more tree because the Roadless Rule is in the forest plan,” Graham said. He has been critical of the 16-year transition to young-growth-only harvests in the current Tongass Management Plan, insisting most young-growth areas in the forest are at least 30 years from maturity. Graham said prematurely harvesting young-growth stands can necessitate cutting over twice the acreage to achieve similar harvest volumes, as stands of smaller trees simply do not offer the same amount of usable timber as mature or old-growth stands. “You have to have this economy of scale,” he said. Graham also noted that old-growth trees provide opportunities for Alaska mills to produce specialty and value-added products while lower-grade, young-growth logs from the Tongass are almost always exported to Asian markets for processing. State Forester Maisch said he doesn’t foresee old-growth harvests from the Tongass going away anytime soon, but also noted new technologies such as cross-laminated timber could open up new value-added opportunities around young-growth for Southeast mills. Maisch also stressed flexibility in management as a driving interest for the state to revise the Roadless Rule, saying the rule’s impacts go beyond traditional forest uses. “It’s about community access; it’s about energy; it’s about have the ability to be adaptable and flexible so we can make changes as technology changes,” Maisch said. “For example, cell towers and the need for cell towers in locations that are not so easy to do that in around communities right now. Hydro (power) is another good example. It’s difficult to build some of those types of utility infrastructures without having roads to support it for both construction and maintenance.” Additionally, French said Purdue’s vision of the Tongass as “a working forest” — as the USDA secretary said during a July trip to Prince of Wales Island with Murkowski — is not strictly limited to logging. “We also understand that industry is changing and the values that Alaskans hold for these lands is something that is changing as well and we recognize the importance that folks see with roadless. We also recognize the needs that other user groups and industry have for these lands. We want to be able to consider all of that,” French said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Gov, Meyer unfazed by China’s tariff threat on LNG

Gov. Bill Walker and Alaska gasline officials insist China’s immediate threat to slap an import tariff on U.S. liquefied natural gas should not impact the long-term viability of the $43 billion Alaska LNG Project. On Friday, the Chinese government announced a proposal to put a 25 percent tariff on roughly $60 billion of U.S. goods the country imports, including U.S. oil and natural gas. The potential tariffs are the latest move in a tit-for-tat trade dispute initiated by President Donald Trump earlier this year that has slowly been escalating through the summer. The face-off between the economic superpowers is in sharp contrast to the trade-focused trip Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made to Beijing last November. That trip culminated in a ceremony in which some of the largest companies from each country signed trade deals before Trump and China President Xi Jinping. Among those at the Nov. 8 deal-signing event were Walker and Alaska Gasline Development Corp. President Keith Meyer, who signed a nonbinding joint development agreement with Chinese oil and gas giant Sinopec, the Bank of China and China Investment Corp. to advance the prospect of the three state-owned Chinese companies buying from and investing in the Alaska LNG Project. Specifically, the agreement, or JDA, contemplates Sinopec buying up to 75 percent of the LNG produced from the project in exchange for the Bank of China and China Investment Corp. financing up to 75 percent of the project’s development costs. AGDC officials have said the Trump administration’s prior tariffs on Chinese steel would at worst have a nominal effect on the project. Exactly how a 25 percent tariff on U.S. LNG would impact the economics of Alaska LNG is unclear — it certainly wouldn’t be good — but the policy battle of today doesn’t upend the fundamental benefits of the project, according to Walker. “Alaska’s vast reserves of natural gas can satisfy market demand for nearly a century, and short-term trade tensions do not change this long-term value proposition. Alaska LNG would be the largest job-creating infrastructure project in the country, and would generate billions of dollars in revenue,” Walker said in a statement from his office. “My team and I will continue to work with the Trump administration to ensure that Chinese and U.S. officials strike a fair compromise so that Alaska’s natural gas reaches the market.” China is in the midst of a major transition away from coal to cleaner burning natural gas for electric generation. The country is expected to become the world’s largest importer of LNG next year. AGDC officials said in a corporate response to questions from the Journal about the potential impact of the LNG tariff that the project “will continue to present a win-win opportunity for both countries.” Meyer has often noted that exporting LNG to China would be a big step towards resetting the trade imbalance with China that Trump is focused on. “The Alaska Gasline Development Corp. believes the current trade tensions between the United States and China will be resolved well in advance of Alaska LNG exports to China. The Alaska LNG Project represents a multigenerational project that matches China’s 100 years of natural gas demand with Alaska’s 100 years of supply on the North Slope,” the AGDC statement reads. AGDC also notes it is progressing definitive purchase agreements with other prospective LNG buyers across the Asia-Pacific region. Though the Alaska LNG Project and the Prudhoe Bay and Point Thomson gas resources that would fuel it are currently planned for 25 years of exports, it is believed the project will spur subsequent gas exploration and development because there would finally be an avenue to get North Slope gas to market. Walker and Meyer met with Jinping in April 2017 when the Chinese president stopped in Anchorage on his way home from a meeting with Trump in Florida. It was that evening-long dinner and discussion that spurred the eventual framework deal around Alaska LNG, the governor has said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

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