Obama’s Dizzying Spin on the Environment and Trade

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Obama’s Dizzying Spin on the Environment and Trade

Kayaks protesting Shell Oil's arctic oil drilling platform in the Port of Seattle. (Photo: Alex Garland/Backbone Campaign/flickr/cc)

The Obama Administration claims that the new round of secret trade deals will be the greenest ever. Its latest attempt to sell that story was released earlier this week in a slick new report titled “Standing Up For The Environment: Trade For A Greener World.” As with most of the spin coming from the U.S. Trade Representative these days – there’s a lot of “trust us” bluster in the report, marketed with unattributed numbers and fancy graphics. But, perhaps most notably, it ignores the largest environmental issue of our times –  climate change – and the numerous concerns raised by environmental groups about how these trade deals will damage the climate, not protect it.

While the report touts new provisions on wildlife protection, animal trafficking and illegal logging, we’ll have to take the Administration’s word for it. The environmental chapters for the Trans Pacific Partnership (with 11 Pacific Rim countries) and the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (with Europe) are still secret documents. But there are good reasons for concern. A leaked version of the TPP environmental chapter posted on WikiLeaks last year was ripped open by U.S. green groups for not being “fully enforceable.”

"The Obama administration’s all-out effort to pass fast track, TPP and TTIP threaten to undermine its efforts to address climate change."

The issue of “enforceability” is critical as past trade agreements have routinely failed to effectively enforce environmental and labor-related chapters. The Sierra Club recently pointed out how environmental provisions in the US-Peru trade deal have failed to stop illegal logging. And earlier this week, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) issued a blistering report documenting how past Presidents have repeatedly made false promises about how trade agreements will protect labor standards.

Missing from the USTR environmental report was how special corporate rights provisions in past trade deals have been used to challenge environmental protections. Two recent anti-environment NAFTA rulings show how these corporate rights cases work in practice. In one case, a provincial decision to block a basalt quarry expansion in an important whale-watching area was overturned by a trade tribunal that sided with the U.S. corporation Bilcon. Another NAFTA case awarded $17.3 million in damages to Exxon Mobil Corp and Murphy Oil Corp. because a Newfoundland law required the companies to spend a percentage of their offshore revenues on local research projects.

Also missing from the USTR report is how both TPP and TTIP continue an extractive model of trade that has not only negatively impacted jobs and equality, but has also been devastating for the climate. Earlier this year, some 40 organizations focusing on rural and community-based responses to climate change wrote Congress calling for a full assessment of the climate impacts of these proposed trade deals. The groups wrote, “There is little question that the economic globalization largely driven by trade deals over the last several decades has contributed to the expansion of fossil fuel and other dirty energy production that cause climate change, expanded deforestation and other methods of natural resource extraction, while undermining local and community-level responses to climate change.”

The groups pointed out that past trade deals, also sold as “green,” are hindering community responses to climate change: rules under NAFTA actually require Canada to export an ever-increasing amount of oil to the U.S., driving further production of dirty tar sand oil; a trade tribunal at the World Trade Organization ruled against an Ontario policy designed to support the creation of green jobs to produce locally-sourced renewable energy; trade rules allowed Swedish energy companies to challenge a German ban on nuclear energy production, undermining the country’s ability to set energy policy; and rules under NAFTA were used by a U.S. energy company to challenge a Quebec ban on fracking designed to protect the St. Lawrence River.

Specific climate concerns about TPP and TTIP include a draft requirement to automatically approve all exports of natural gas to countries included in the agreements. Such a requirement would greatly expand fracking in rural communities around the country. Hydraulic fracturing contaminates water and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Both TTIP and TPP grant multinational corporations additional legal rights to sue governments to overturn local regulations against fracking and the mining of sand for use in fracking.

The new USTR report is the latest contradictory signal from the Obama administration on its commitment to address climate change. This week, Obama addressed the Coast Guard Academy to declare that climate change is “an urgent and growing threat to our national security.” But earlier this month, he opened up the Arctic Ocean to further oil drilling by Royal Dutch Shell Oil. Later this summer, the administration will unveil its Clean Power Plant rule designed to place real limits on greenhouse gas pollution, over the objections of the Republican-led Congress.

Conflicting and confused agendas – masked by corporate style greenwashing – characterize the new USTR report. The Obama administration’s all-out effort to pass fast track, TPP and TTIP threaten to undermine its efforts to address climate change. The environment, and the people living in it, deserve better.

Ben Lilliston

Ben Lilliston oversees programmatic work at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and is the co-author of the book Genetically Engineered Foods: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers.

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