Oil CEO to Trump: Tariffs will help OPEC, hurt U.S. jobs

Why this oil CEO is worried about steel tariffs
Why this oil CEO is worried about steel tariffs

The oil industry is warning President Trump that steel tariffs could threaten America's energy boom.

Trump's proposed tariffs will jack up costs on the foreign steel that oil companies rely on for everything from drilling and production to pipelines and refineries.

"This is going to make us less competitive against OPEC," Dan Eberhart, CEO of oilfield services company Canary LLC, told CNNMoney.

Eberhart is a big Republican donor and a vocal Trump supporter who applauds the administration's energy policy, tax law and economic agenda. However, the oil exec is getting nervous about Trump's efforts to revive the beleaguered steel industry with a 25% tariff on imports.

"The administration is asking us to fight with one hand behind our back. It runs contrary to the push for energy dominance," he said.

Eberhart warned that higher costs will force his company to lay off up to 17% of his U.S. workers.

US oil production hit an all-time high of just over 10 million barrels a day in November, marking an incredible rebound from the crash of two years ago.

Trump has vowed to make America less reliant on foreign oil. Even as the trade controversy swirled, Trump sent out a tweet on Tuesday cheering projections for the United States to soon become the world's largest oil producer. "We are getting it done -- jobs and security!" he tweeted.

But Eberhart believes Trump's tariffs will hurt the domestic oil industry and make energy prices more expensive . "It's a bad idea. I don't like it," he said.

Related: 'Trade wars are good'? Two words: Great. Depression.

The comments echoed criticism from the American Petroleum Institute, a powerful oil industry lobby. The API warned Trump last week that his tariffs "could create confusion in supply chains, unnecessary costs" and "threaten high-paying industry jobs."

The White House declined to comment, but a spokeswoman pointed to comments made by Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro over the weekend downplaying the threat of higher prices. Navarro told CNN's Jake Tapper that the tariffs will have "no downstream effects," but will help with "defending our steel and aluminum industries."

Trump shocked Wall Street and even some of his own advisers last week when he announced plans to impose a 25% tariff on steel imports and a 10% tariff on aluminum imports. The surprise tariff plans prompted an outcry from Corporate America and centrists inside the White House. Hoping to change Trump's mind, some White House aides are trying to organize a meeting between the president and opponents of the tariffs from the auto and bottling industries, a source told CNN.

"The economy is in a good place. Why throw a wet blanket on it?" said Eberhart, who is seeking to join the potential White House meeting.

Denver-based Canary employs about 300 people and provides technology and drilling services to major oil companies, including ExxonMobil (XOM), Chevron (CVX) and Hess (HES).

But Eberhart said Canary is already paying 20% more for the steel it uses because of the looming tariffs. Canary spends about $10 million a year on steel imports, which it uses to make pressure control equipment, valves, wellheads and other apparatus.

Related: A Trump trade war would hit red states hard

If Trump carries out his tariff threat, Eberhart said he will likely lay off at least 25 to 50 U.S. workers. That's because Canary will be forced to manufacture less in the United States and instead purchase more finished goods from China.

"This policy is misguided. It's like the president woke up and decided he wanted to give the steelworkers a Christmas president," said Eberhart, who wrote a letter to Trump on Monday.

The letter noted that Canary uses as much American-made raw materials as possible. However, there often isn't enough high-grade steel made domestically to meet demand.

The API said the US oil and natural gas industry relies on global steel imports for the "majority" of its operations. That includes drilling, production facilities, pipelines, liquefied natural gas terminals, refineries and petrochemical plants.

Beyond the direct impact of tariffs, many have warned of the risk of retaliation from other countries that sets off a trade war. The European Union has already threatened to take action against Harley-Davidson (HOG) motorcycles, Levi's jeans and Kentucky bourbon.

Contrary to what economists and historians say, Trump has argued that "trade wars are good, and easy to win."

"I disagree with that," said Eberhart. "Everyone loses."

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