PORTLAND, Maine – Gov. Paul LePage is calling for a suspension of tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber to ease prices as families and businesses prepare to rebuild after hurricanes Harvey and Irma — and with two more months of hurricane season to go.
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The Republican governor blames "corporate greed" for driving up costs and says large lumber companies are in the position to price gouge.
"It is unconscionable that a coalition of businesses is in the position to potentially price-gouge distressed Americans who are in dire need of those products to rebuild their lives," LePage wrote in an op-ed piece published in the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, New Brunswick.
LePage's comments drew criticism from Jason Brochu, co-owner of Pleasant River Lumber in Maine, who said the governor shouldn't be using hurricanes "as a political ploy."
LePage is especially frustrated over tariffs on softwood lumber that apply for the first time the Canadian province of New Brunswick, which has been exempt for decades.
The Canadian government is accused of unfairly subsidizing lumber exports. LePage said that's true in western Canada but it's different in the eastern provinces. The lumber trade, he said, "flows almost seamlessly back and forth between Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick."
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Indeed, Maine's largest landowner is a Canadian company, Irving Woodlands, and it supplies lumber from Maine to its mills in Canada. Many smaller companies also operate on both sides of the border.
The Maine Forest Products Council, which represents paper mills, sawmills, wood pellet plants, biomass energy plants and loggers, is staying out of the rift because Maine mill owners have different views on the tariffs.
"We've tried to stay neutral. We have members on all sides. In general, what we're in favor of is negotiating some sort of settlement quickly that's equitable to all sides," said Patrick Strauch, executive director.
Some Canadian lumber companies believe demand for lumber after the hurricanes could put pressure on U.S. and Canadian negotiators to ease the tariffs, possibly through a quota or something else.
Negotiations on whether to reduce or ditch the tariffs that are being accrued on Canadian lumber have been taking place for months.
It's complicated. Brochu, for example, said the tariffs have leveled the playing field, and that he's hired new workers.
"The enforcement of our U.S. trade laws protects jobs in Maine, and we continue to support our U.S. government as they work to enforce these laws and fight for workers across the U.S.," Brochu said.