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Slight opportunity to negotiate new softwood lumber deal with U.S.: B.C. envoy

Premier Christy Clark looks on as British Columbia's Trade Envoy to the United States David Emerson speaks to media following a special cabinet meeting to discuss the softwood lumber dispute at Legislature on Thursday, February 16, 2017 in Victoria, B.C.

Chad Hipolito/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia's softwood trade envoy says there's a slight opportunity to quickly negotiate a new lumber agreement between Canada and the United States, but if a deal can't be reached by the summer or fall it could mean a lengthy fight.

David Emerson said Wednesday he sensed a chance at a deal but also saw continued turbulence in the administration of President Donald Trump and strong protectionist sentiments in the U.S. Congress after visiting Washington, D.C., last week.

"My own guess is there is a window of opportunity, late summer or early fall, and if that doesn't initiate something meaningful in terms of negotiations then I think we're probably into next year," he said.

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Emerson said there has not been a formal start to talks, but Canadian officials in Washington and Ottawa are preparing for negotiations. He said he met with David MacNaughton, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., last week as well as officials at Canada's embassy and Global Affairs Canada.

He said he would rather see the softwood deal, which expired in October 2015, negotiated separately than folded in with talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"We would be much better off to have a negotiation early rather than later and in that sense, having softwood lumber wrapped up in a big NAFTA negotiation, I think, would cause it to be dragged out for multiple years," said Emerson.

B.C. Forests Minister Steve Thomson said he was in Toronto recently for strategy meetings with federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr.

Thomson said those talks included plans to help B.C. communities that would face severe economic consequences if the U.S. imposes lumber tariffs on Canadian products.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark appointed Emerson earlier this year to represent the province's interests in the trade issue. Emerson, a former federal cabinet minister and forest company executive, was a major player in the 10-year softwood deal between Canada and the U.S. signed in 2006.

Clark has said about 40 per cent of B.C.'s rural communities are dependent on forestry and the industry provides more than 60,000 direct jobs in the province.

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The value of lumber exports from B.C. to the U.S. last year was $4.6 billion. B.C. is Canada's largest producer of softwood lumber, accounting for about half of the country's production.

The U.S. Lumber Coalition, which represents lumber producers, filed a petition last November asking the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission to limit Canadian lumber shipments. The group claimed Canada unfairly subsidizes its lumber industry, harming American workers who are experiencing mounting unemployment.

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