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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Environmentalists Promise Fight on Free Trade

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth's Jon Greenberg reports from Washington on the brewing battle over the environmental impacts of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.


CURWOOD: Ralph Nader’s watchdog group Public Citizen has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the complete text of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Negotiators from the US, Canada and Mexico recently announced the pact had been completed, but the White House says it won’t release the full text until lawyers have reviewed its detailed language.

But Public Citizen and others say the pact could prove costly to both US jobs and the environment. And with only summaries available, the Republicans could use the agreement to boost President Bush’s re-election campaign without having to defend what’s in the fine print.

We have two reports on how the treaty is being received, the first from Living on Earth’s Jon Greenberg in Washington.

GREENBERG: What makes the North American Free Trade Agreement , or NAFTA, exceptional in environmental terms is that it’s the first time such a treaty opens the border between two very different economies. . . one fully industrialized, the other still developing. There’s a big gap between health and pollution controls in Canada and the US and those in Mexico. Back in January, the Bush Administration acknowledged that it would need to break new ground weaving environmental protections into this commercial trade document. During a recent blitz of administration news-briefings touting the NAFTA, EPA administrator William Reilly said negotiators had met the challenge.

REILLY: This is the most environmentally sensitive, the greenest free trade agreement ever negotiated anywhere. It marks a watershed in the history of environmental protection. NAFTA protects states’ rights by allowing regional subdivisions like our states to enact standards that are tougher that national standards.

GREENBERG: Reilly was trying to reassure those who worry that the NAFTA would undermine environmental regulations in the US. Democratic Congressman Gerry Sikorski of Minnesota is part of a group of lawmakers who call themselves pro-trade, pro-environment. He found little comfort in Reilly’s words.

SIKORSKI: For a year the Administration has claimed that there was no place in NAFTA for environmental issues. Then when they recognized that Congress wasn’t going to buy this, Republicans and Democrats both, in the past few weeks the Administration has been back-pedaling, trying to ‘green-wash’ the NAFTA agreement by announcing some new ‘green language’ when in fact no breakthroughs have occurred. The little ‘green language’ that we’ve seen is more window-dressing.

GREENBERG: Among the top environmental concerns: that weak enforcement of Mexico’s environmental laws would turn that country into a haven for industrial polluters. Then, if that happens, plants in Mexico would be able to undercut US producers by avoiding the costs of protecting the environment. This would put pressure on the US to lower its environmental standards. The Administration says it has addressed these concerns, but environmentalists say no, it hasn’t. A major problem at the moment is few people outside the Administration have actually seen the agreement. The Administration has released only a summary that includes none of the precise terms of the deal. That in itself breeds suspicion, primarily that the Administration’s fine rhetoric won’t be reflected in the fine print. And even the broad outlines contained in the summary makes some, like Justin Ward of the Natural Resources Defense Council, believe that the administration has given the environment short shrift.

WARD: I noticed that the agreement appears to contain strong enforcement measures to protect investors, as well as in the area of intellectual property rights, but there is nothing in the agreement that provides for stronger enforcement of environmental laws throughout North America, which we regard as an essential component that will need to be added.

GREENBERG: In the eyes of Ward and his colleagues, the NAFTA needs an environmental overhaul. It must provide money to help the Mexican government enforce its laws. And it must include iron-clad guarantees that American environmental regulations will be protected. The country’s major environmental organizations appear to agree on these points. If that consensus holds, they could turn congressional approval of the treaty into a litmus test of environmental commitment. So far, a majority of lawmakers in both Houses have said clearly they could only support a treaty that protects the environment. But the companies that stand to benefit from the NAFTA are likely to lobby hard for approval of the treaty as it is written now. The Sierra Club’s Larry Williams says that kind of pressure will be tough to overcome.

WILLIAMS: It’s no small thing to take on the industrial interests of the United States. So we’re up against very difficult odds, and it’s going to be a very big struggle for us.

GREENBERG: At this point, the Administration is on the side of the companies. EPA Administrator Reilly has said that the environmental protections in the NAFTA are as strong as they are going to get.

REILLY: I think the readiness of trade officials in all countries to accept criticisms on environmental grounds is going to be very small. I think we ought to work with the treaty that has been agreed to, and ought to be very, um, very pleased with the result.

GREENBERG: President Bush is heralding the NAFTA as proof that he’s doing something to spur the nation’s economy. But the treaty won’t come to a vote until next year, that is, after the fall elections. With record turnover expected in the House and in the Senate, there certainly will be many new faces in Congress. And there could be a new President. One who might not like the deal cut by his predecessor, and could send the negotiators back to the bargaining table. For Living on Earth, this is Jon Greenberg in Washington.



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