By Coral Davenport, January 15, 2014
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is retreating from previous demands of strong international environmental protections in order to reach agreement on a sweeping Pacific trade deal that is a pillar of President Obama’s strategic shift to Asia, according to documents obtained by WikiLeaks, environmentalists and people close to the contentious trade talks.
The negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would be one of the world’s biggest trade agreements, have exposed deep rifts over environmental policy between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations. As it stands now, the documents, viewed by The New York Times, show that the disputes could undo key global environmental protections.
The environmental chapter of the trade deal has been among the most highly disputed elements of negotiations in the pact. Participants in the talks, which have dragged on for three years, had hoped to complete the deal by the end of 2013.
Environmentalists said that the draft appears to signal that the United States will retreat on a variety of environmental protections — including legally binding pollution control requirements and logging regulations and a ban on harvesting sharks’ fins — to advance a trade deal that is a top priority for Mr. Obama.
Ilana Solomon, the director of the Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program, said the draft omits crucial language ensuring that increased trade will not lead to further environmental destruction.
“It rolls back key standards set by Congress to ensure that the environment chapters are legally enforceable, in the same way the commercial parts of free-trade agreements are,” Ms. Solomon said. The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Wildlife Fund have been following the negotiations closely and are expected to release a report on Wednesday criticizing the draft.
American officials countered that they had put forward strong environmental proposals in the pact.
“It is an uphill battle, but we’re pushing hard,” said Michael Froman, the United States trade representative. “We have worked closely with the environmental community from the start and have made our commitment clear.” Mr. Froman said he continued to pursue a robust, enforceable environmental standard that he said would be stronger than those in previous free-trade agreements.
The draft documents are dated Nov. 24 and there has been one meeting since then.
The documents consist of the environmental chapter as well as a “Report from the Chairs,” which offers an unusual behind-the-scenes look into the divisive trade negotiations, until now shrouded in secrecy. The report indicates that the United States has been pushing for tough environmental provisions, particularly legally binding language that would provide for sanctions against participating countries for environmental violations. The United States is also insisting that the nations follow existing global environmental treaties.
But many of those proposals are opposed by most or all of the other Pacific Rim nations working on the deal, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Peru. Developing Asian countries, in particular, have long resisted outside efforts to enforce strong environmental controls, arguing that they could hurt their growing economies.
The report appears to indicate that the United States is losing many of those fights, and bluntly notes the rifts: “While the chair sought to accommodate all the concerns and red lines that were identified by parties regarding the issues in the text, many of the red lines for some parties were in direct opposition to the red lines expressed by other parties.”
As of now, the draft environmental chapter does not require the nations to follow legally binding environmental provisions or other global environmental treaties. The text notes only, for example, that pollution controls could vary depending on a country’s “domestic circumstances and capabilities.”
Earlier pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement included only appendices, which called for cooperation on environmental issues but not legally binding terms or requirements. Environmentalists derided them as “green window dressing.”
But in May 2007, President George W. Bush struck an environmental deal with Democrats in the Senate and the House as he sought to move a free-trade agreement with Peru through Congress. In what became known as the May 10 Agreement, Democrats got Mr. Bush to agree that all American free-trade deals would include a chapter with environmental provisions, phrased in the same legally binding language as chapters on labor, agriculture and intellectual property. The Democrats also insisted that the chapter require nations to recognize existing global environmental treaties.
Since then, every American free-trade deal has included that strong language, although all have been between the United States and only one other country. It appears to be much tougher to negotiate environmental provisions in a 12-nation agreement.
“Bilateral negotiations are a very different thing,” said Jennifer Haverkamp, the former head of the United States trade representative’s environmental office. “Here, if the U.S. is the only one pushing for this, it’s a real uphill battle to get others to agree if they don’t like it.”
But business groups say the deal may need to ease up. “There are some governments with developing economies that will need more time and leeway,” said Cal Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, a group of about 100 executives and trade associations that lobbies the United States trade negotiator on the deal. “When you think about the evolution of labor provisions, you realize how many centuries the development of high standards took.”
Since the trade talks began, lawmakers and advocacy groups have assailed the negotiators for keeping the process secret, and WikiLeaks has been among the most critical voices. The environment chapter is the third in a series of Trans-Pacific Partnership documents released by WikiLeaks. In November, the group posted the draft chapter on intellectual property. In December, the site posted documents detailing disagreements between the negotiating parties on other issues. The site is expected to release more documents as the negotiations unfold.