Obama Trades the Environment for a Trade Deal

Today, Wikileaks made public the Environment Chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a bilateral trade deal that has been in the works since 2010 - confirming critics' fears that the plan will be bad for the planet. 

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The Obama administration could be selling out environmental protections in order to cement a complex international trade deal, according to new documents revealed on Wednesday by WikiLeaks. Today, the whistle-blowing organization published the Environment Chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a bilateral agreement that has been in the works since 2010 — confirming critics' fears that the plan will be bad news for the planet. 

The TPP would establish a trade agreement between 12 countries — the U.S., Japan and a number of other Pacific Rim nations. An expansion of the 2005 Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement between Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, the TPP aims to promote free trade between more nations in a move that would ideally boost each country's economy. The trade negotiations were cloaked in secrecy, however, until WikiLeaks published the deal's Intellectual Property chapter back in November. At the time, IT specialists voiced concern that the provisions would boost corporate interests over individual rights, much like the disputed anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA that were ultimately shut down.

Now, WikiLeaks has unveiled the proposed environmental chapter, and says the Obama Administration's environmental demands are weak:

When compared against other TPP chapters, the Environment Chapter is noteworthy for its absence of mandated clauses or meaningful enforcement measures. The dispute settlement mechanisms it creates are cooperative instead of binding; there are no required penalties and no proposed criminal sanctions. With the exception of fisheries, trade in 'environmental' goods and the disputed inclusion of other multilateral agreements, the Chapter appears to function as a public relations exercise.

The Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program director Ilana Solomon told The New York Times that the draft deal, if confirmed, would undo environmental protections enacted by the U.S. Solomon said, "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."

According to the Times, the draft agreement is different from other recent international trade deals because the language used in the environmental section is not legally binding. Since 2007's "May 10 Agreement" between Senate Democrats and George W. Bush, free-trade deals have included strict environmental provisions. Regulators say this round is different because because a bilateral trade among 12 countries is, naturally, more complicated than a two-way deal. The Times reports:

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. 

Environmental groups had suspected that the chapter would be problematic. The Sierra Club warned on its website that the fact that the TPP had been developing under wraps was a red flag, noting that the public has been shut out of important decisions: "600 corporate advisors have access to the negotiating text while the public — even Members of Congress — are being kept in the dark." Specifically, the Sierra Club feared the TPP would give "unfettered rights to corporations" and promote fracking:

The TPP may allow for significantly increased exports of liquefied natural gas without the careful study or adequate protections necessary to safeguard the American public. This would mean an increase of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the dirty and violent process that dislodges gas deposits from shale rock formations. It would also likely cause an increase in natural gas and electricity prices, impacting consumers, manufacturers, workers, and increasing the use of dirty coal power.

The WikiLeaks document shows that the U.S. is easing up on pollution and logging regulations, and walking back opposition to the controversial shark-finning practice, in which poachers mine sharks for their fins and leave them in the ocean to die. The weakened environmental standards may be pushed through as Obama scrambles to close the deal, which officials had hoped would be completed by 2013, as part of an Asia pivot designed to show America's commitment to the continent.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.