The same day TransCanada sued the U.S. government for $15 billion, the Democratic Party's platform drafting committee met in Missouri. Between the two, there is a lesson to be learned about free trade and the climate crisis.
The lawsuit was the anticipated result of President Obama rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline. Using a notorious provision in the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Canadian oil giant is hoping to claim $15 billion in lost future profits by dragging the U.S. before an international tribunal. These sorts of extra-judicial forums, where corporations can sue governments for enforcing their own laws, are a hallmark of established free trade deals like NAFTA and looming ones like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)
The meeting in Missouri was to finalize a draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform, a usually sleepy and symbolic process that this year has exploded into a proxy fight between presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Pipelines like Keystone XL and free trade writ large were both on the agenda--and the votes cast reflect a growing divide between the party establishment and the grassroots.
Within hours of TransCanada filing its lawsuit under NAFTA, the platform committee had the chance to officially oppose the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim trade deal that would allow hundreds of new fossil fuel companies access to provisions similar to those used by TransCanada. The motion was rejected. Despite both candidates being on record opposing the current TPP, the motion was rejected in a 10-5 vote. It was supported by appointees from Sanders and opposed by appointees from Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Compromise language was offered instead, calling for trade deals that protect workers and the environment without mentioning the TPP by name.
Talking about responsible trade but refusing to be clear about the TPP isn't a good look, for the DNC or anyone else. If the TPP and its European counterpart, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, were both enacted, it would radically expand the power of fossil fuel companies to sue the U.S. for laws and regulations that hurt their expected future profits. The power to launch lawsuits like TransCanada's would be put on steroids and everything from local fracking bans to renewable energy mandates could be litigated in trade tribunals run overwhelmingly by corporate lawyers.
Besides missing the boat on trade, the committee managed a few other favors for the TransCanadas of the world. Jane Kleeb, the founder of Bold Nebraska and the newly elected Chair of Nebraska Democrats, supported a motion calling for ending the use of eminent domain in support of fossil fuel projects. It was unceremoniously voted down. Another rejected motion was an endorsement of the so-called "climate test," the principle that infrastructure and other projects shouldn't be approved if they worsen carbon emissions. Applying this standard was what led President Obama to reject Keystone XL in the first place.
In fact, Friday turned out to be a bad night for serious climate policy all around. Motions pushed by Sanders's appointee Bill McKibben supporting a carbon tax and a national fracking ban were both rejected. So too was a motion to keep fossil fuels in the ground by ending new leasing on our public lands and waters.
Even the ambitious energy target supported by both Clinton and Sanders--100 percent clean energy by 2050--wasn't an unqualified success. The language is vague enough that it could include everything from wind and solar to dangerous false solutions like biomass, carbon capture and sequestration and nukes.
The concern about what exactly counts as clean energy isn't unfounded. If Bill McKibben was chosen by Sanders as a progressive voice on climate, his alter ego appointed by Clinton is Carol Browner, a one-time Environmental Protection Agency administrator who splits her time these days between professional lobbying and pro-nuclear advocacy.
The good news is that Missouri isn't the end. The platform still needs to be approved by the full platform committee next month in Orlando and after that by the full convention in Philadelphia. When it comes to pushing back on trade and climate, there are still two more shots.
As philosopher Dr. Cornel West, another Sen. Sanders appointee, said as he abstained from the final vote, "Take it to the next stage."