U.S. setting stage for solar trade war with China

Solar panels are pictured. | Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The document says that depending on foreign countries for energy technology imports also jeopardizes U.S. energy independence and dominance. | Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The White House is preparing to argue that trade barriers are needed to foster solar manufacturing inside the United States.

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An unreleased White House document offers the strongest hint yet that the Trump administration is laying the groundwork for punitive tariffs on Chinese-made solar power equipment — a step that would promote the president’s “America First” trade agenda while sharply increasing the costs of solar power in the U.S.

The prospect of such tariffs, which President Donald Trump could announce in January, has deeply alarmed the U.S. solar installation industry. It warns that it could lose tens of thousands of jobs if the cost of solar spikes, slowing the booming growth that sun-powered energy enjoyed during the Obama administration.

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But the White House is preparing to argue that trade barriers are needed to foster solar manufacturing inside the United States, something it calls important to both national security and the economy, according to a document draft obtained by POLITICO. The paper argues that cheap solar imports allow China to unfairly profit from Americans’ use of renewable power and gain influence in the developing world’s energy infrastructure.

“While solar energy is forecast to play a larger role in the world’s energy mix, other countries stand to benefit significantly more than U.S. workers,” says the four-page paper, which is circulating within executive branch agencies for comment.

Trump has not said whether he intends to initiate the trade barriers on solar equipment imports, but he has accused China of “ripping off” the U.S. in international trade and called for the U.S. to become energy dominant by hiking production of oil, natural gas and coal. The new paper is likely to inspire a debate about whether the White House’s rhetoric about creating U.S.-based solar manufacturing masks an effort to kneecap a growing, green alternative to fossil fuels such as coal — an energy source that Trump has repeatedly championed on the stump.

While the administration has touted an “all of the above” energy approach, it has instead taken significant steps to bolster fossil fuels, proposing measures to give financial support to coal-fired power plants even as it works to repeal the Obama administration’s climate rules for the power industry. It has also pushed to grow U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas, and sent EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to Morocco this week to promote U.S. gas shipments.

Trump must decide by Jan. 26 whether to institute the tariffs that the U.S. International Trade Commission recommended last month, after two U.S. solar manufacturers, Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, filed complaints accusing Chinese competitors of undercutting them.

Suniva, which is majority owned by a Chinese investor and is in bankruptcy, and SolarWorld, whose German parent in also in bankruptcy, say the flood of solar cells and panels from factories across Asia that are owned by Chinese companies has driven prices too low for them to compete.

Suniva spokesman Mark Paustenbach welcomed the White House’s approach.

“Suniva applauds the Trump Administration for championing American manufacturing in the face of cheating by China and its proxies who want to kill American jobs and make America dependent on China for its energy and security needs,” he said in a statement Friday.

But the U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association has said the drop in solar panel prices has triggered a boom in sales across the U.S., and establishing high tariffs could eliminate more than a third of the 240,000 solar jobs in the United States. Solar energy prices have tumbled dramatically over the past decade, and large, utility-scale plants in the Southwest are cost-competitive with natural gas and coal-fired power plants now. The industry fears that tariffs would reverse those cost declines, dealing a blow to project developers just as federal incentives for solar power phase out over the next four years.

The companies suing have countered that they believe tariffs could result in a net increase in jobs across the solar industry.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative heard from both sides at a hearing earlier this month and will soon send its own report to the White House.

The White House also opposes incentives for renewable energy. The paper advises against the federal and state tax incentives and mandates that have helped fuel the growth of renewable power, saying they are “subsidized by U.S. taxpayers,” and “become overseas job creation programs.”

The new White House paper says the international solar sector, “including its supply chain and critical minerals requirements, will grow in importance from an economic and energy security perspective,” and it cites estimates that the global solar market will expand to $140 billion in 2023 from $65 billion in 2015. Chinese companies hold about 80 percent of the solar manufacturing capacity, although the U.S. is the second-largest market for solar energy, the paper says. The U.S. has about 38,000 solar manufacturing jobs, and China has 1.5 million, it notes.

The document says that depending on foreign countries for energy technology imports also jeopardizes U.S. energy independence and dominance.

It suggests the U.S. could focus on advanced solar technologies, rather than current ones already dominated by other countries, but it doesn’t offer any potential policies. Trump has announced a review of the nuclear power sector, and the White House document says that might be necessary for solar and other energy sectors.

The White House document claims China has used its “monopoly” to punish U.S. industries that are part of the global supply chain, including by imposing its own tariffs.

U.S. producers “could benefit from moves designed to undermine China’s monopoly over much of the sector and generate competition, including steps to revitalize U.S. manufacturing,” it says. “Yet questions remain about the scope and extent of those potential benefits, especially in the context of various policy options that, depending on the course chosen could backfire on the U.S. supply chain, while imposing minimal harm on Chinese state-owned enterprises.”

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Judge clears path for Manafort release from house arrest, move to South Florida

Paul Manafort is pictured. | AP Photo

Once he’s in Florida, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort will still face several restrictions on his movements. | Susan Walsh/AP Photo

Former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has moved one step closer to being released from house arrest and allowed to relocate to another property in South Florida.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued a four-page order Friday approving a $10 million bail agreement Manafort’s attorneys struck with special counsel Robert Mueller that will end his home confinement in Alexandria, Virginia.

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Manafort has been at his condominium there since late October, when he pleaded not guilty after being indicted on a dozen charges including money laundering, income tax evasion and failing to register as a foreign lobbyist.

Under the bail deal, Manafort has pledged four of his properties: the Alexandria condo; the Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, home where he’ll be relocating; a condo in Manhattan; and another property in Bridgehampton, New York.

Manafort can’t leave Virginia just yet, though. Manafort’s wife Kathleen must provide the court with bank or investment account records verifying she has cash or other securities worth $5 million in a separate account where she has sole authority. Manafort’s daughter Andrea Manafort Shand must meet the same criteria in an account worth $2 million.

After the documents are supplied, Jackson said she’d issue another order releasing Manafort from his permanent home confinement in Virginia to travel to his South Florida home, which is located about 15 miles from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach.

Once he’s in Florida, Manafort will still face several restrictions on his movements. He’ll be subject to electronic GPS monitoring. There will be a nighttime curfew from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. He can only travel between Palm Beach and adjoining Broward counties.

Manafort will be allowed to return to Washington for court appearances and meetings with his lawyers without court approval so long as he notifies pretrial services of his travel plans three days in advance. Any other domestic travel beyond Florida or Washington will require giving the court a one-week notice before he gets a green light. Manafort also can’t leave the U.S. and he can’t apply for additional passports or visas.

Manafort’s lawyers had wanted him to travel freely between his three homes without advance approval.

A Manafort spokesman declined comment on the bail agreement.

Jackson also ordered the longtime GOP operative to “stay away from transportation facilities, including airports, train stations, bus stations, and private airports” other than for any pre-approved travel.

Kathleen Manafort also must surrender her passports.

Jackson has yet to set a trial date in the criminal case for Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, though she indicated at a hearing earlier this week that she might set a date at the next hearing, currently scheduled for Jan. 16.

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Rep. Scott denies sexual misconduct allegation

Rep. Bobby Scott is pictured.

M. Reese Everson, a former Congressional Black Caucus Foundation fellow, alleged that Rep. Bobby Scott touched her inappropriately, propositioned her for sex and wrongfully terminated her. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo | Evan Vucci | AP Photo

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) on Friday denied an allegation that he sexually harassed a staffer in 2013.

M. Reese Everson, a former Congressional Black Caucus Foundation fellow, alleged earlier Friday that Scott touched her inappropriately, propositioned her for sex and wrongfully terminated her in 2013.

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“I absolutely deny this allegation of misconduct,” Scott said in a statement. “I have never sexually harassed anyone.”

Everson and her lawyer, Jack Burkman, held a news conference in Arlington, Virginia. The pair originally scheduled a news conference in late November. At the time, Burkman told reporters the event was canceled because Everson got cold feet, and he had added in a Nov. 29 statement that he would no longer represent her.

Everson explained Friday that her body wouldn’t allow her to leave her home that day. It wasn’t immediately clear why Burkman continued to represent her, but Scott’s statement described him as “a Republican operative known for dabbling in outlandish conspiracy theories.”

Burkman urged Scott to resign and called for an immediate ethics investigation. He repeatedly spoke up for Everson throughout the news conference, often imploring reporters to put themselves not only in her shoes but also in the environment in which she alleged she endured harassment — years before the #MeToo movement created a space for women to feel more comfortable speaking out against workplace misconduct.

Scott, however, accused Everson of squandering this new opportunity for women with a false allegation.

“The recent national discussion about sexual harassment is valued and important to our work to continue to make the workplace free from harassment and discrimination,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “False allegations will squander this momentous opportunity for dialogue on meaningful change in the workplace. I am confident that this false allegation will be seen for what it is when the facts are adequately reviewed.”

Everson claimed Scott touched her knee and back and later asked her to flirt with him. “At that moment, I realized that I had to get the heck out of there,” she told reporters.

She said she was “blackballed” and “blacklisted” by lobbying firms, law firms and other congressional offices after the CBC refused to provide a recommendation letter.

Everson, who appeared in The New York Times and on Fox News with Laura Ingraham last month, told reporters that although there are political implications, “this has nothing to do with politics for me, personally.”

“My only decision for coming out was so that women — so that my daughters, when I have them, can go work on Capitol Hill if they so choose, and the predators who I knew about when I was there aren’t still there to harass my daughters,” she continued. “That’s why I came out.”

Everson is the first woman to accuse Scott of harassment. She suggested emails exist that would corroborate elements of her story and said she knew of one intern who left “unhappy” and was also denied a recommendation. She conceded that she never went into “the details” of the woman’s experience, however.

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Judge blocks Trump rollback of Obamacare contraception mandate

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 27: Yasemin Ayarci (C) of Levittown, Pennsylvania, counter protests a Tea Party rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court March 27, 2012 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court continued to hear oral arguments on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A federal judge in Pennsylvania on Friday blocked the Trump administration from enforcing new rules that would allow virtually any employer to claim a religious or moral objection to Obamacare’s birth control coverage mandate.

Judge Wendy Beetlestone granted Pennsylvania’s request for a preliminary injunction, saying the commonwealth could suffer “serious and irreparable harm” from the rules. The long-anticipated policies, imposed Oct. 6, greatly expand the exemptions to the health law’s requirement to provide FDA-approved contraception at no cost.

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“The Commonwealth’s concern is absent available cost-effective contraception, women will either forgo contraception entirely or choose cheaper but less effective methods — individual choices which will result in an increase in unintended pregnancies,” Beetlestone wrote in her 44-page opinion. “That in turn will inflict economic harm on the Commonwealth because unintended pregnancies are more likely to impose additional costs on Pennsylvania’s state-funded health programs.”

The Trump administration has said it was acting to protect individuals and groups from being forced to violate their religious beliefs while downplaying concerns that more women would struggle to afford birth control.

A federal judge in California heard arguments over the same issue earlier this week and is expected issue a ruling soon. Four other states — Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia — have joined California in the motion.

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