Facing criticism from green groups, the administration is making the case that a sweeping trade deal that President Obama is working to negotiate with Pacific Rim nations won't hurt the environment. In fact, officials argue, the agreement could go a long way toward protecting the planet.
As part of a push to sell the deal on Capitol Hill and to the American public, the U.S. trade representative and the State Department will unveil a report on Wednesday highlighting what they say are the potential environmental benefits of the international agreement, a pact that the president views as a cornerstone of his economic legacy.
The report arrives as Congress inches closer to passing so-called "fast-track" legislation backed by the White House, granting lawmakers an up-or-down vote on any trade deal.
The White House contends that the deal will bolster trade and help the United States maintain a competitive advantage in the face of China's rapid rise. But Democratic lawmakers, labor unions, and green groups remain wary of the agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, warning that it could undercut worker rights and erase key environmental safeguards.
Now, the administration is pushing back against environmental criticism.
Far from selling out the environment, officials say, the president has used trade as a lever to achieve far-reaching aims that will ultimately leave the environment in far better shape across a wide array of nations. Among those aims are agreements in the deal for countries to curb illegal wildlife-trafficking, fishing, and logging.
"We have the chance to finalize a trade agreement that is truly unlike any other ever negotiated: an agreement where every participant has to comply with core international labor and environmental standards. ... That's not a complicated choice," Secretary of State John Kerry said during a speech delivered in Washington state on Tuesday.
The State Department and the U.S. trade representative promise that every last one of those environmental obligations will be fully enforceable and achievable.
The administration says it plans to provide assistance in the form of grants and technical support to developing nations such as Brunei, Vietnam, and Malaysia to ensure that they have the ability to follow through on environmental commitments.
Officials are also quick to note that nations can be taken to task if they fail to live up to their end of the deal. Any country found in violation could face a formal dispute, which could ultimately result in sanctions.
Obama's trade deal would go well beyond the environmental provisions included in past international agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. And a slate of conservation groups, including the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, have praised the administration for its pledge to create conservation safeguards in the agreement.
The White House hopes its push will win over critics. But it is unlikely to change hearts and minds among environmentalists dead set against the deal. Part of the reason is that many environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, say that their criticism of the agreement applies to provisions much broader than anything contained within the environmental chapter.
Critics from these groups fear that the deal will usher in an onslaught of legal challenges intended to undermine environmental regulations while opening the door for a flood of natural-gas exports to nations such as Japan. This, in turn, the groups say could lead to an uptick in fracking and worsen global warming.
"[The deal] will undermine the work that has been done to stimulate clean energy, to transition away from fossil fuels," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in Washington, D.C., last month.
The administration has pushed back against these claims, saying that the deal will not undermine public health or environmental safeguards. Officials also argue that the idea that natural-gas exports will result in disastrous environmental consequences is overblown.
"Rest assured ... we will retain our ability to protect our clean air and water, regulate our economy, and uphold all of the laws of our nation. I have fought my entire career for many of those things, and I don't intend to start undoing a lifetime of work now and turning my back on all of that overnight," Kerry said.
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