US Trade Panel Recommends Varying Solar Panel Import Restrictions

Members of the U.S. International Trade Commission on Tuesday made three different recommendations for restricting solar cell and panel imports on Tuesday, giving President Donald Trump a range of choices to address injury to domestic producers.

The recommendations range from an immediate 35 percent tariff on all imported panels to a four-year quota system that allows the import of up to 8.9 gigawatts of solar cells and modules in the first year. The president’s ultimate decision could have a major impact on the price of U.S. power generated by the sun.

Both supporters and critics of import curbs on solar products were disappointed by the proposals, which were unveiled at a public meeting in Washington.

Trade remedies were requested in a petition earlier this year by two small U.S. manufacturers that said they were unable to compete with cheap panels made overseas, mainly in Asia. The companies, Suniva Inc and the U.S. arm of Germany’s SolarWorld AG, said Tuesday’s recommendations did not go far enough to protect domestic producers.

“The ITC’s remedy simply will not fix the problem the ITC itself identified,” Suniva said in a statement. The company, which is majority owned by Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy, filed the rare Section 201 petition nine days after seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April. It had sought a minimum price on panels of 74 cents a watt, nearly double their current cost.

One analyst said the stiffest remedy recommended, a 35 percent tariff on solar panels, would add about 10 percent to the cost of a utility-scale project but would have a negligible impact on the price of residential systems because panels themselves make up a small portion of their overall cost.

“It’s not nearly the doomsday impact we were potentially expecting,” said Camron Barati, a solar analyst with market research firm IHS Markit Technology.

But the top U.S. solar trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a statement on Tuesday that any tariffs would be “intensely harmful” to the industry. The group has lobbied heavily against import restrictions on the grounds that they would undermine a 70 percent drop in the cost of solar since 2010 that has made the technology competitive with fossil fuels.

Recommendations

The ITC will deliver its report to Trump by Nov. 13. He will have broad leeway to come up with his own alternative or do nothing at all. Since only two members agreed on the same restrictions, there was no majority recommendation from the four-member commission.

“There is still plenty to be worried about,” said MJ Shiao, who follows the U.S. solar market for GTM Research.

Trump has vowed to protect U.S. manufacturers from low-priced imports, and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has talked about tariff-rate quotas as a flexible way to protect some industries, allowing imports in as needed, but only up to a certain level before high tariffs kick in.

Commissioners David Johanson and Irving Williamson urged the president to impose an immediate 30 percent tariff on completed solar modules, to be lowered in subsequent years, and a tariff-rate quota on solar cells. Imports of cells in excess of one gigawatt would be subject to a 30 percent tariff that would decline after the first year.

ITC Chair Rhonda Schmidtlein recommended an immediate 35 percent four-year tariff on imported solar modules, with a four-year tariff rate quota on solar cells. This would impose a 30 percent tariff on imports exceeding 0.5 gigawatts and 10 percent on imports below that level. These tariffs would decline over a four-year period.

In the most lenient recommendation, Commissioner Meredith Broadbent said the president should impose a four-year quota system that allows for imports of up to 8.9 gigawatts of solar cells and modules in the first year.

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Pruitt to Put New Members on EPA Science Panels

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday he intends to replace the outside experts that advise him on science and public health issues with new board members holding more diverse views.

 

In announcing the changes, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt suggested many previously appointed to the panels were potentially biased because they had received federal research grants. The 22 boards advise EPA on a wide range of issues, including drinking water standards and pesticide safety.

 

“Whatever science comes out of EPA shouldn’t be political science,” said Pruitt, a Republican lawyer who previously served as the attorney general of Oklahoma. “From this day forward, EPA advisory committee members will be financially independent from the agency.”

 

Pruitt has expressed skepticism about the consensus of climate scientists that man-made carbon emissions are the primary cause of global warming. He also overruled experts that had recommended pulling a top-selling pesticide from the market after peer-reviewed studies showed it damaged children’s brains.

 

Pruitt said he will name new leadership and members to three key EPA advisory boards soon — the Science Advisory Board, Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Board of Scientific Counselors.

 

It was not clear from the EPA’s media release if all current board members serving out their appointed terms were immediately dismissed. EPA’s press office did not respond to messages seeking clarification on Tuesday.

 

As part of his directive, Pruitt said he will bar appointees who currently in receipt of EPA grants or who is in a position to benefit such grants. He exempted people who work at state, local or tribal agencies, saying he wants to introduce more “geographic diversity” to the panels.

 

The five-page policy Pruitt issued Tuesday makes no mention of other potential conflicts of interest, such as accepting research funding from corporate interests regulated by EPA.

 

Tuesday announcement comes after Pruitt in May said he would not reappoint nine of the 18 members of the Board of Scientific Counselors to serve a second three-year term, as had been customary.

 

Current board chairwoman Deborah Swackhamer said the members were already required to follow rules intended to prevent conflicts of interests.

 

“It obviously stacks the deck against scientists who do not represent corporate special interests,” said Swackhamer, a retired professor who taught environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota. “It speaks volumes that people funded by special interests are OK to be advisers, but not those who have received federal grants.”

 

Senate Environment Committee Chairman John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who shares Pruitt’s skepticism of mainstream climate science, cheered the move. He said EPA’s science boards would now better reflect the views of rural states like his own.

 

But environmentalists worried that Pruitt will now select board members with financial ties to the fossil fuel and chemical industries.

 

“The Trump EPA’s continued attack on science will likely be one of the most lasting and damaging legacies of this administration,” said Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that approves EPA’s funding. “Pruitt is purging expert scientists from his science boards — and replacing them with mouthpieces for big polluters.”

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House GOP Leaders Delay Tax Plan Release Amid Changes

House Republicans, straining to make last-minute changes to their far-reaching tax proposal, on Tuesday delayed the rollout by a day after they failed to finalize the details.

The plan pushed by President Donald Trump and Republican leaders in Congress is a top legislative priority. The details originally were to be unveiled on Wednesday, but that was delayed until Thursday, a senior GOP aide said Tuesday night. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the individual wasn’t allowed to publicly discuss the schedule.

The tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee had worked throughout the day and evening to produce a plan for the first overhaul of the nation’s tax code in three decades.

 

Although they had settled on some key details — such as a cut in the corporate tax rate to 20 percent and maintaining the top personal income tax rate for the wealthy of 39.6 percent — other elements still had to be resolved.

 

Trump has intensified his lobbying for the nearly $6 trillion tax overhaul plan, seeking a major legislative achievement after the collapse of the health care repeal. The president predicted a grand signing ceremony before Christmas at “the biggest tax event in the history of our country.”

 

The plan originally unveiled by Trump and congressional Republicans called for shrinking the number of tax brackets from seven to three, with respective tax rates of 12 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent. That plan drew immediate criticism from Democrats, who complained it was too favorable to the wealthy and undermined Trump’s rhetoric about it benefiting the middle class.

The head of the House tax-writing committee, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, did not answer directly when he was asked — while leaving House Speaker Paul Ryan’s suite Tuesday — whether the drop in the corporate tax rate would happen immediately. But, he said: “I want as much growth right from Day One as I can.”

 

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Ukraine Official: US Should Demand Access to Yanukovych in Manafort Case

A top Ukrainian official says Russia should provide U.S. investigators with access to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after his rule was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan revolution of 2014.

Dmitry Shymkiv, the deputy head of the administration of President Petro Poroshenko, said access to Yanukovych could prove vital to an understanding of the work done for Ukraine by indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Shymkiv, whose role is similar to that of deputy chief of staff in the United States, spoke to VOA in response to comments made Tuesday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said Washington should further investigate Ukrainian links to Manafort.

Kyiv “has information” about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Lavrov told a news briefing, according to reports by Russian news outlet RIA.

U.S. investigators probing Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election — which Moscow denies having made — charged Manafort and a business associate on Monday with conspiracy to launder money and other crimes. The charges, some going back more than a decade, center on Manafort’s work in Ukraine, specifically for Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Party of Regions.

Yanukovych, who fled to Crimea just before it was annexed by Russian forces in February 2014, was not seen again until he held a news conference three weeks later in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.

Ukrainian TV channel TSN has reported that Yanukovych lives in the Rostov region, although Russian officials have never confirmed this.

“We need to understand … how all of the [ties between Manafort and top Ukrainian officials] took place,” said Shymkiv, secretary of the National Reform Council to the president of Ukraine and deputy head of Poroshenko’s administration.

Russia, however, has not cooperated with a Ukrainian government arrest warrant for Yanukovych, who stands accused of the “mass murder of peaceful citizens” during the uprising against his administration. Similarly, Shymkiv suggested in a Skype interview with VOA’s Ukrainian service, Russian officials would be unlikely to accommodate a U.S. request for Yanukovych to testify in the Manafort trial.

“I believe Yanukovych should be interrogated by the U.S. government, but I don’t think the Russians would let the Americans do that,” he said, laughing. “But it is absolutely a valid claim, because Yanukovych was the leader of Ukraine’s oligarchical structure, the leader of the corrupted vertical that was built in Ukraine since his rise to power in 2012 and up to the 2013 revolution of dignity.”

In his remarks Monday, Lavrov suggested that the charges over Manafort’s work for Ukraine indicated that the U.S. investigators had so far been unable to make a case against Russia, which has been the main focus of the probe headed by special counsel Robert Mueller.

“He has been working for several months. Accused two former Trump campaign managers of what they were doing on behalf of Yanukovych. Even though they were looking for a Russian trace,” Lavrov said, according to the Russian news outlet Sputnik International.

Lavrov also hinted at a Ukrainian role in last year’s U.S. presidential election, saying Ukrainian officials “can say a lot about their position toward the candidates during the 2016 presidential campaign.”

Shymkiv said U.S. investigators should explore whether Manafort was connected to the confiscation of revenue from some Ukrainian businesses while he was serving as a consultant to Yanukovych’s party.

“There was very aggressive behavior toward Ukrainian business people, and there was a strong extraction of money from different industries, so [Yanukovych] should be interrogated in this case, or at least be a subject of the case, because Paul Manafort was hired by the Party of Regions, which represented Mr. Yanukovych,” said Shymkiv.

Ukraine focus on lobbying

Asked for his reaction to the Manafort indictment, Shymkiv, who is tasked with overseeing post-Maidan reforms under Poroshenko’s administration, said that while U.S. news coverage has been dominated by the money-laundering and tax-evasion charges, Ukrainians are focused on U.S.-based lobbying groups in the employ of various Ukrainian politicians.

“[The Manafort trial] puts a significant light on a lot of lobbying activities in the U.S. from international governments or some political forces,” he said. “We’ve seen many Ukrainian politicians hiring lobbyists for different activities — creating, for example, fake hearings in the Congress.

“We appreciate American journalists who investigated it and showed how fake it is. But it is important that through the interrogation of Manafort by U.S. law enforcement agencies, we might get some additional insight into corruption practices, or other similar activities, which were happening in Ukraine during the Yanukovych regime,” Shymkiv added. “This can help Ukrainian law enforcement agencies build stronger cases on convicting some Ukrainian individuals.”

Ukrainian prosecutors, he noted, are willing to remain in touch with U.S. Justice Department officials.

“As this Manafort case evolves, there will be more stories and more disclosures taking place,” he said.

Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign manager for about two months in the summer of 2016, was forced to resign after reports surfaced about his financial relationship with Yanukovych.

This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian service.

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Argentina’s Macri Vows to Pursue Tax, Labor, Pension Reforms

Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri vowed to press ahead with reforms to the country’s tax, labor and retirement systems in a speech on Monday, a week after his “Let’s Change” coalition swept to victory at the polls in midterm elections.

The government will present a tax reform proposal this Tuesday or Wednesday, and an amnesty plan for companies that hired workers informally in the coming days, Macri said. He added that the government would convene a commission to propose changes to the retirement system in coming weeks.

The speech marked a roadmap for the second half of Macri’s four-year term, as he seeks to implement business-friendly reforms to attract investors who avoided the country during more than a decade of populist rule.

“We need lower taxes, more public works, and all this we need to achieve with fiscal balance,” Macri told a gathering of lawmakers, governors, union leaders, judges and others.

Investors have been encouraged by the reforms Macri has implemented since taking office in December 2015, including lifting foreign exchange controls, settling with holdout creditors, and lowering export taxes.

But significant investment has not arrived. Companies have demanded lower costs, while credit agencies are concerned about a deep fiscal deficit.

Macri’s coalition swept the five most populous areas in midterm elections, giving him a broader mandate to pass reforms, though it still lacks majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Macri said his government had reduced the country’s tax burden, and wanted to make the system “simpler, clearer, and fairer.”

He reiterated the government’s aim of slashing Argentina’s fiscal deficit by one percentage point of gross domestic product per year.

And he also vowed to reform the country’s retirement system, a large driver of government spending.

“We need to start a mature and honest conversation about our retirement and pension system,” Macri said. “Our retirement system hides serious inequities, and it is not sustainable.”

While Macri has said he does not plan major changes to the country’s labor code, he has said the government plans to provide incentives to companies to formalize undeclared workers and work with unions in specific sectors to lower costs.

Macri also pledged reforms to the country’s justice system to combat corruption. Cabinet Chief Marcos Pena told journalists that the resignation on Monday of chief prosecutor Alejandra Gils Carbo, appointed during the former administration of President Cristina Fernandez, was a step towards making the judiciary more independent.

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Chile’s Pinera Says Spending Plan Would Cost $14 Billion

Chile’s frontrunning center-right presidential candidate, Sebastian Pinera, on Monday unveiled a $14 billion, four-year spending plan focused on proposed reforms to the country’s tax and pension systems and new investments in infrastructure and hospitals.

The former president, who governed from 2010 to 2014, said he would pay for his proposals by cutting “unnecessary” government spending and simplifying the tax code to encourage investment and boost growth and the country’s coffers.

Recent opinion polls show Pinera, 67, with a wide lead over his seven rivals in the Nov. 19 first-round election. Pinera would also beat his two closest contenders, leftists Alejandro Guillier and Beatriz Sanchez, in a runoff if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote, according to pollster CEP last week.

Guillier, the frontrunner on the left, has yet to put a price tag on his proposals, which track the policies of outgoing center-left President Michelle Bachelet. Sanchez has proposed a $13.4 billion plan of deeper social and economic reforms, paid for in part by a tax on the “super-rich.”

The 67-year-old Pinera, a billionaire who has campaigned on a program of fiscal austerity, is benefiting from disenchantment with Bachelet, whose program of progressive reforms coincided with a downturn in the price of copper, which can account for as much as 15 percent of gross domestic product in Chile, the world’s top producer.

“Half of the financing for my program will come from reallocations drawn from ineffective government programs … and a reduction of unnecessary spending in the public sector,” Pinera said in a 124-page paper detailing his proposals.

Pinera’s plan to reform the pension system would cost about $3 billion and include new subsidies to raise pensions for women and the middle class, as well as incentives to encourage workers to retire later, Pinera said in the document.

The current retirement system, introduced in the 1980s during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, was historically seen as a model by many economists, but it has been criticized in recent years on a number of fronts, including what many see as insufficient payouts.

Pinera, a businessman-turned-politician, has also called for a $2.7 billion overhaul of Bachelet’s tax reform, to provide “more certainty and incentives for saving and investment,” as well as $3 billion of investment in hospitals and infrastructure.

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