U.S. official promotes Pacific trade pact in Louisiana

In front of a receptive crowd of local officials and business leaders, an Obama administration trade official made his case Tuesday for a massive regional trade accord between the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim countries that make up 40 percent of the global economy.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would require congressional approval, is a top priority for President Barack Obama, who has described the trade agreement as “helping to write the rules of global trade for the 21st century.”

The pact would eliminate more than 18,000 tariffs that various countries impose on American-made exports. Those countries are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Robert Holleyman, one of Obama’s chief advisers on trade and a Louisiana native, led a roundtable discussion at Greater New Orleans Inc. on the trade pact with business leaders and local officials, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu, as part of the White House’s campaign for the pact.

Holleyman described the accord as “a series of provisions that looks at what trade is like now and anticipates where it’s headed so that we are prepared.”

In 2014, Louisiana exported about $17.5 billion worth of goods to countries covered by the pact, with Japan — where $2.8 billion of exported goods landed — leading the way. That total accounted for about 27 percent of Louisiana’s total exported goods, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The World Trade Center of New Orleans has come out in favor of the trade pact, saying it will benefit Louisiana farmers by providing opportunities for growth in promising Asian markets. Tariffs would be eliminated on rice, cotton, soybeans and poultry.

It’s hard to think of another city or state that could benefit more, Holleyman said, playing to the local crowd.

Since the pact came together, 13 other countries have inquired about it, with some expressing an interest in joining.

Holleyman’s visit to New Orleans came a week after Obama’s final State of the Union address, in which the president said the deal will “open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia.”

Landrieu said New Orleans and Louisiana would benefit from the deal.

“Every major city, in order to function well, has got to create jobs,” Landrieu said. “You’ve got to go and partner with folks who can help you not only create jobs where you are but also bring jobs into the city.”

Holleyman described the deal as critical to ensuring that U.S. exports are made available in global markets. He said it would “raise the standards for how we do trade.”

Tuesday’s crowd of almost two dozen included several maritime industry executives, who took the opportunity to warn Holleyman that regular dredging and ongoing maintenance to the nation’s inland waterways — namely, the lower Mississippi River — would be critical to the U.S. getting the most from the trade pact.

Sean Duffy, executive director of the Big River Coalition, an organization that advocates for funding for dredging operations in the river, said more regular dredging is needed to accommodate deeper-draft vessels. He noted that each additional foot of depth means more cargo that ships can carry — and that means more money.

“We can’t achieve the greatest good if we don’t have better maintained channels,” Duffy said.