By Ilana Solomon, Director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program.
President Obama's environmental trade legacy is in deep trouble and in large part will hinge on a trade deal that his administration is discussing in Vietnam the week of May 12.
This trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - essentially an expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - stands to erode our laws, further empower multinational corporations, and take away protections for our air, water, and climate. If agreed upon by the 12 negotiating countries, including the U.S., Japan, and Vietnam, the TPP could spell out environmental disaster.
We know all of this no thanks to the trade negotiators themselves - they're keeping these discussions close to the vest - but because we’ve studied the costs of NAFTA and other similar trade pacts on the environment, and because of WikiLeaks, which has published three chapters of the pact. Most recently, WikiLeaks revealed a draft of the trade pact's chapter devoted to the environment.
It was clear from my first reading of this draft text that we were in trouble. The leaked text revealed weak suggestions for environmental protection instead of binding obligations. Since a May 2007 bipartisan consensus on trade by the Bush administration and Congress, the environment chapters of all U.S. free trade agreements have at least been legally enforceable. Not this one - at least not yet. This text fell flat, ignoring existing environmental treaties and enforceability.
The Pacific Rim is an area of rich biodiversity that must be preserved. But the natural resources in the region, such as the forests, wildlife, and fish, are threatened by illegal and unsustainable commercial exploitation. Already, the Asia-Pacific region accounts for about one-third of all the threatened species in the world. Populations of several species of oceanic sharks, including reef sharks, are declining rapidly. And illegal logging is a serious problem in many TPP countries, destroying not only natural forests but the communities who live in and rely on the forests.
With so many conservation challenges in the Pacific Rim, a trade deal in this region must include strong and binding rules to avoid more environmental destruction. But the leaked chapter was completely unenforceable and did not include provisions that would, for example, ban shark finning or ban trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife, and fish. The office of the U.S. Trade Representative seems to be pushing for a stronger chapter, but all of the other countries - including Vietnam - seem to oppose strong and binding provisions to protect our trees, fish, and wildlife.
As U.S. trade representatives head to Vietnam, they must not make any compromises on the environment chapter -- there's too much at risk. The TPP environment chapter must include strong, binding language including the elimination of harmful subsidies that lead to overfishing; a ban on shark finning and commercial whaling; and ban on trade in illegally taken timber, fish and wildlife.
Of course, the environment chapter isn’t the only part of the trade deal that could bring harm to our natural resources. This pact would also require the U.S. government to automatically approve all exports of U.S. liquified natural gas to countries in the agreement. The resulting increase in natural gas exports would open the floodgates for dangerous fracking in our country, sacrificing our air and water quality. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the dangerous process of drilling deep into the ground, cracking shale rock, and injecting chemically laced water into the ground to release natural gas.
Similarly, the TPP could erode environmental safeguards by giving corporations the right to challenge laws - in closed-door trade tribunals - that protect our air and water. These investment rules would empower foreign corporations to sue governments over laws and policies that allegedly affect the company's profits -- and they often win.
It's time that trade pacts put communities and the environment before the interests of big business. As the U.S. negotiators head to Vietnam, they must keep in mind that that there can be no compromises when it comes to the health of our environment.