Metalplate Galvanizing expanded into Jennings last year, building an almost $10 million plant just as south Louisiana was experiencing its biggest industrial boom in decades.

The Alabama firm — which specializes in applying a protective coating to steel to prevent rust — saw an opportunity in the billions of dollars worth of construction projects that were underway in the region, a massive wave of investment driven by historically low natural gas prices.

But the opportunity that it anticipated hasn't materialized, according to Paul Gilbert, a principal in the business. In fact, the company has been operating at about 40 percent less than capacity, he said, forcing it to shed half its staff, leaving it with about 35 workers.

Gilbert said he knows why business is slow: cheap imported steel, which is already galvanized when it lands in the U.S., sometimes costing 30 percent less than steel from domestic suppliers.

"It's a totally uneven playing field that we have to deal with," said Gilbert, who said the imports are costing the state's steel industry thousands of jobs and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in work.

Now, Gilbert believes he's found a sympathetic ear in President Donald Trump, whose "America First" mantra has made protectionist trade policy designed to insulate U.S. industries and workers from foreign competition a central tenet of his administration.

During his first months in office, Trump signed an executive order, dubbed "Buy American and Hire American," strengthening requirements that some federal projects use domestically made products. He also has directed the Commerce Department to investigate whether steel imports are hurting U.S. national security.

"Steel is a big problem," Trump told reporters last month. "Steel is — I mean, they're dumping steel. Not only China, but others. We're like a dumping ground, OK? They're dumping steel and destroying our steel industry. They've been doing it for decades, and I'm stopping it."

Trump has often argued that bad trade deals have shifted American jobs overseas, hitting especially hard in the upper Midwest, where hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs have vanished in recent decades.

He has already abandoned one big multilateral trade deal and has talked about renegotiating the longstanding North American Free Trade Agreement and slapping tariffs on companies that move jobs out of the country.

Trump can take steps to limit steel imports, by implementing tariffs that would raise the price of the imports, placing a quota on how much steel can be imported — or both.

Any such action almost certainly would send ripples through Louisiana's economy, where an estimated 13,900 jobs are tied to the steel industry, according to statistics from the American Iron and Steel Institute, a trade group.

Winners and losers

In Louisiana, the obvious winners would include the state's steel makers, who contend that cheap foreign steel has unfairly flooded the market.

On the other hand, imposing tariffs or quotas would drive up costs for manufacturers that would likely be passed along to consumers, as well as opening up the possibility of retaliation from other countries.

Any action to limit the steel trade would also come at a cost to the Port of New Orleans, which handled almost 2.3 million tons of imported iron and steel last year, ranking it No. 3 among U.S. ports.

Such steps could also affect potentially billions of dollars' worth of industrial projects that rely on imported steel, state economic development leaders and economists warn.

Many projects are likely far enough along that their steel has been purchased. But for others still in development, the prospect of higher costs could cause some companies to reconsider moving forward.

"Steel pricing can play a role in how much future construction is expected in Louisiana," said Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson, who estimated that "many billions of dollars" of potential development could be impacted by new tariffs. 

Overall, the U.S. ranks as the world's largest steel importer, bringing in 35.4 million metric tons in 2015, or almost one-fifth of global steel imports, according to data from the International Trade Administration.

Robert Simon, CEO of LaPlace-based Bayou Steel Group, has felt that impact firsthand.

Simon's company, which has about 440 employees in St. John the Baptist Parish and produces long-carbon steel products, is operating at about 35 percent under capacity, he said.

"We're happy to compete with (foreign steel manufacturers) if it was apples and apples," he said, "but when you've got governments subsidizing their companies, then that's not fair."

As the world's largest steel producer, China has drawn perhaps the most criticism for subsidizing its own industry, given massive overcapacity in the global market.

Fear of retaliation

Trump isn't the first U.S. leader in recent memory to take steps to help lift the struggling U.S. steel industry.

After dozens of U.S. steel mills fell into bankruptcy as the industry dealt with decades of low prices, President George W. Bush in 2002 implemented tariffs of up to 30 percent on most steel imports from Europe, Asia and South America.

Bush lifted the tariffs the next year, saying that the U.S. steel industry had used the opportunity to improve productivity and lower its costs. But his decision came after the World Trade Organization ruled the tariffs illegal and the European Union moved to impose more than $2 billion in sanctions on U.S. imports, including citrus from Florida.

Now, any steps to limit steel imports could cause U.S. trade partners to impose similar tariffs of their own, according to LSU economist Jim Richardson.

"In a trading state like Louisiana, we export a lot, and we don't want different countries to start imposing quotas or tariffs on our products," Richardson said, pointing to the potential fallout for the state's biggest exports, including soybeans, petroleum and corn. 

In fact, China is Louisiana’s top export market, taking in more than $8.6 billion in Louisiana exports in 2014 — more than triple the figure in 2007. Louisiana ranked No. 4 among U.S. states in exports to China, with leading commodities including agricultural products ($6.3 billion), copper ($359 million) and ores ($265 million).

Officials at the Port of New Orleans point to Bush's actions more than a decade ago as a cautionary tale. In the year after Bush imposed steel tariffs, the local port experienced a 46 percent drop in steel imports, meaning a loss of more than $1.6 million in revenue.

Last year, steel accounted for 35 percent of the port's cargo-related revenue. 

Whether Trump decides to implement a tariff, a quota or both, "they have the same impact of not only increasing prices but also lowering shipments into the port," said Robert Landry, the port's vice president of commercial operations.

Sending fewer barges laden with steel upriver in turn would raise costs for agricultural and other commodities that need to move downriver on those barges, which would ultimately make U.S. products less competitive globally, he said.

Rather than tear up existing trade deals, Landry would rather see the administration focus on specific areas that need updating.

"There's no harm in going back and tweaking these agreements," he said. "But to just shut them all down or consider them all invalid would throw us in the trade world into a state of chaos."

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.