The Trans-Pacific Partnership: An environmentalist's nightmare

Environmental and fair trade groups are sounding the alarm on the trade agreement President Obama is pushing.
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President Obama talks in December 2012 with domestic policy advisers (left to right): Rob Nabors, Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs; Jeffrey Zients, Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Chief of Staff Jack Lew.

Environmental and fair trade groups are sounding the alarm on the trade agreement President Obama is pushing.

A cartoon image in the recently leaked ‘Environment Chapter’ of the the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the secretive trade agreement being negotiated by the U.S. and 11 other countries, shows Mickey Mouse expounding to the wildlife that surround him. “Of course the environment is in the TPP," he exclaims.

But, as WikiLeaks revealed when it released the chapter last month, the draft version of the agreement exposes most of its environmental protections as toothless and unenforceable.

“The enforcement provisions effectively result in a report that documents how bad the problem is,” says Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “but doesn’t lead to any financial penalties as would occur in the rest of the trade agreement.”

“It’s like saying it’s illegal to speed, but never having any tickets issued or traffic cops on the beat.”

Trade agreements set the contour for how countries do business. In the case of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, trade regulations between the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam are at stake.

Last fall, 24 environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, the NRDC and the World Wildlife Fund, sent a letter to the TPP's U.S. Trade Representative. The U.S.-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership, the letter explained, could undercut national, state and local environmental laws.

Calling for a strong and legally enforceable environment chapter, the organizations pinpointed several pressure points, including eliminating fisheries subsidies — which ignore the diminishing global supply, banning the illegally harvested timber trade and upholding domestic environmental laws.

“These agreements have a way of slipping in pieces which allow potential regulatory rollbacks for things we take as a fundamental basis for protection, like how much toxins can be in our foods and how much dirty air we have to breathe," Schmidt says. "We clearly don’t want trade agreements which set a minimum standard that rolls back the progress we’ve made in the U.S.” 

Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch has been working for trade agreements with enforceable environmental and labor standards for decades. She says rules in the Trans-Pacific Partnership on energy and climate would subject U.S. climate countering policies to challenge by a corporate tribunal. The tribunals, Wallach says — like those in the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization — allow corporations to challenge and demand cash compensation for domestic laws they believe will undermine future profits.

This is where things get difficult, says Wallach: Policies to reduce carbon often reduce exports or imports of oil. An oil company could challenge these policies by bringing a complaint to a trade tribunal which places a higher value on future profits than on public interest or the environment.

The TPP would also lift the ban on the export of liquid natural gas (LNG), which currently requires a special waiver from the Department of Energy. That would increase hydraulic fracking, the controversial extraction practice that goes with it.

“It would be a huge new pressure,” says Wallach. “More fracking, more potential water contamination and more LNG terminals for export.”

In an attempt to move the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement ahead — negotiations have been underway for three years — the Obama administration is lobbying Congress to grant it trade promotion authority known as “fast track." Fast track turns over Congress’ constitutional trade and legislative writing authority to the president.

As Wallach sees it, the TPP is so unpopular in Congress, “that the administration has basically come to the conclusion that the only way they’ll get it through Congress is if they railroad it through.” 

The largest fight against the bill is in the House, where 151 representatives signed a letter back in November urging Obama to work with Congress on a new Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement — one that could potentially be a model for trade agreements all over the world. The model envisioned in the letter would uphold domestic laws, increase family wage jobs and respect the environment, among other key points.

Three months later though, the TPP remains a touchy subject politically. Representative Jim McDermott is the sole Washington state member of Congress to have signed the letter, but even his office won’t confirm his position.

“He has yet to make a decision," a McDermott representative wrote in an email, “but has raised concerns with the Obama administration."

Reps. Adam Smith, Suzan DelBene, Derek Kilmer and Rick Larsen, also avoided giving a straight answer about whether they supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership or Obama's "fast track" option. Smith's office will, “continue to hear from constituents and study the issue,” Larsen’s had “no position,” Kilmer's "supports increased transparency" and  DelBene’s is "encouraged that a May 2007 bipartisan agreement would implement higher labor and environmental standards.”

TPP opponents, including consumer protection advocates like Public Citizen, labor groups, social justice organizations and the locally-based Washington Fair Trade Coalition, consider the 2007 agreement, introduced by former president George W. Bush, weak and inadequate.

The Washington Fair Trade Coalition, which includes the local chapter of the Sierra Club as well as representatives from Boeing unions, is pro-trade, but advocates for enforceable public interest, environmental and labor protections. The coalition, says board member and former Executive Director Kristen Beifus, has been in contact with most of the state delegation to recommend they ask the U.S. Trade Representative how the TPP will benefit Washington state constituents.

“And what they have literally been told to their face is that after the TPP passes they will do an economic assessment of what jobs and how the environment will benefit," Beifus explains. "How are you going to reach out to your constituents and give them that response?”

Many Democrats are split on the issues, Beifus believes, because the Trans-Pacific Partnership is favored by Obama. In addition, she says, representatives from both parties are being lobbied hard by corporate interests anxious to keep the trade agreement in its current form.

This is true among the party's top brass too. The Washington Post reported this week that Harry Reid met privately with President Obama on Monday. “I’m against fast track,” says Reid. “Everyone would be well advised to not push this right now.” But House Leader Nancy Pelosi, like the Washington state delegation, has stopped short of flatly declaring her opposition, suggesting Dems are still trying to find unity behind a “kind of fast track authority we can support."  

The split is more than just a difference of opinion: It suggests that those opposed to "fast track" trade promotion authority and the current Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement have their work cut for them.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.