A split has emerged among Democrats over an investigation by the Biden administration into whether China is subverting U.S. tariffs on solar panels that opponents say are crippling the clean energy industry.
The Department of Commerce is determining if the foreign adversary is funneling crucial solar panel components through neighboring countries to illegally bypass U.S. taxes, a probe that critics have pressured to end in order to lift its stranglehold on solar projects across the U.S.
But a new coalition of Democrats who support the investigation has emerged, highlighting a split in the party. They are urging the Biden administration against succumbing to “overwhelming special interest political pressure” and not to allow Beijing to cheat on tariffs that could hurt American manufacturing.
“To underscore and reiterate the point: these laws are designed to ensure that American manufacturers and producers can compete on a level playing field, free from unfair trade practices,” Democrats who support the probe wrote in a letter to President Biden Thursday. “It is troubling that corporate lobbying against a simple investigation would reach this level of mass hysteria if there was not some concern over what career civil servants at DOC may uncover.”
Those Democrats included Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Tim Ryan of Ohio; Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania; and Terri Sewell of Alabama.
According to the American Clean Power Association, roughly 80% of imported solar panels come from four countries that are alleged to be helping China avoid tariffs: Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Critics say that the Department of Commerce investigation has thrust the solar industry into peril. It’s caused more than 500 projects — both small and utility-scale — to be delayed or canceled and is jeopardizing tens of thousands of jobs because of halted imports, according to a recent survey of businesses by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
The Democrats who praised the investigation acknowledged that it’s impacting the same clean energy that they have promoted to combat climate change. However, they argued it was necessary to protect long-term American interests and businesses.
“The bottom line is that short-term supply disruptions in the solar supply chain are no reason to abandon trade enforcement,” their letter read. “In fact, if trade enforcement is abandoned, these short-term disruptions will almost certainly become long-term issues.”
The Democrats also targeted SEIA, which has been at the forefront of lobbying against the tariff investigation. They suggested the organization has a business interest in ending the probe because SEIA represents several Chinese manufacturers.
In a statement, SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper railed against those who praised the investigation and said accusations SEIA was under Chinese influence “are absurd and patently false, and those who suggest otherwise are being fundamentally dishonest.”
“What we are trying to do is put an end to a meritless trade case that is stalling the fight against climate change and frittering away tens of billions of dollars in American clean energy investment,” Ms. Hopper said. “This case has brought the U.S. solar industry to a screeching halt, stopping critical clean energy development and, ironically, cutting off supply for domestic manufacturers.”
Echoing SEIA’s arguments and concerns have been lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was grilled by senators during a congressional hearing earlier this month. She defended the agency’s role by contending that her hands were essentially tied because current law mandates they investigate. Ms. Raimondo also declined pressure from members of Congress to intervene and expedite the inquiry.
Her testimony did little to assuage the concerns of lawmakers. Democratic opponents have continued their public and vocal campaign against the administration’s inquiry.
Democratic Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Tom Carper of Delaware, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico earlier this week publicly demanded DOC swiftly “end their job-killing investigation,” as Ms. Rosen put it.
More than a dozen House Democrats also tried to ramp up the pressure by outlining their “grave concern about the devastating economic and environmental impacts” in a letter to Mr. Biden.
The political firestorm that’s erupted has been the result of a small California solar-panel manufacturer, Auxin Solar. It triggered the inquiry with a petition earlier this year outlining potential wrongdoing by China.
The industry and lawmakers have directed their frustration squarely at Auxin, prompting CEO Mamun Rashid to recently hit back at his critics who question how a singular company could bring the entire sector screeching to a halt.
Mr. Rashid told The Manufacturing Report, a manufacturing-industry podcast, that the rhetoric from government officials against his company and the probe were “irresponsible” and a “discredit to the offices that they occupy.”
“We have zero fear of competition. I’ll compete all day long with other manufacturers. I welcome other manufacturers to come online in the U.S., so long as it’s a level playing field, we’ll compete all day long,” he said. “And if we lose out, that’s on us. We can compete, that’s all we’re saying, it’s just got to be a level playing field.”