Trading Away Health And The Environment: Why We Need To Stop Fast Track And The Trade Deals


This post is by Shorey Myers, Program Manager for the Jenifer Altman Foundation. This article first appeared on HEFN's Blog.

You may have heard post-election predictions that trade agreements are one of the only topics on which the President and the Republicans think they can find common ground. In fact, the proposed trade deals are about a lot more than “trade,” and they would be a disaster for public health and the environment.

A coalition of foundations are working with advocates monitoring this fast-moving train and defending the public interest from deals heading down the wrong track. We welcome other partners in learning & action! Our first of a series of informational calls for funders will take place January 21, 2015; contact me for more information.

Here’s a brief rundown of concerns about these trade deals – and what can be done.

  • No transparency or public accountability. Two trade deals are being negotiated in parallel with an unprecedented level of secrecy and no mechanism for public input. One is being negotiated between the US and the European Union (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a.k.a. TTIP or TAFTA) and the other between the US and Pacific Rim nations (Trans-Pacific Partnership, a.k.a TPP). Who has access to these negotiations? Only three negotiators per nation and over 600 corporate ‘trade advisors’. The only method by which the public and NGOs have been able to assess the potential damage of the trade deals have been through multiple leaks.
     
  • Corporate legal overreach. One provision of the proposed deals (Investor State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS) would expand the ability of multinational corporations to sue nations in private courts for claimed ‘loss of future profits’ due to regulatory action, including policies intended to protect the health, safety, environment, labor or democratic rights of the citizens. Nations – and taxpayers -- are frequently the losers in these costly court battles, even if the case is dismissed. Read real cases of corporations winning millions of dollars from nations for undermining investors’ “expected future profits.” Expanding ISDS would interfere with current environmental and health regulations and discourage new legislation.
     
  • Regulations “harmonized” downward or nullified. A “Regulatory Cooperation” chapter of the proposed trade deals seeks to set up an official body, comprised of regulators and advised by industry, which would ‘harmonize’ national regulations that differ in approach, likely to the lowest possible level. The harmonized policies approved by this official body could set a ceiling on the level of protection that is allowable in legislation and abrogate regulation, from the local to the federal level, that exceeds the harmonized standard. Chemical regulations, particularly the European Union (EU) REACH chemicals policies and progressive US State chemical regulations, are prime targets of this provision; chemical manufacturers are projected to be the second biggest financial beneficiaries of the lowered standards. Pilot projects addressing prioritization and classification of chemicals based on this chapter are already underway.
     
  • From “buy local” to “buy multinational.” A major EU objective is to force the US to open public procurement programs to transatlantic competitors. Public procurement programs allow criteria such as environmental sustainability or living wages to be included in broader economic programs. Currently, such programs support local farmers and locally sourced renewable energy, construction and supplies, benefiting local producers, businesses, workers and consumers, including school and hospital systems. Opening these contracts to multinational corporations could help drive local producers out of the market and inhibit the growth of small-scale sustainable food systems. In a 2014 EU-Canada trade deal the EU achieved ‘unconditional access’ to procurement contracts at all levels of Canadian government, a result the EU would like to replicate in the EU-US agreement.
  • More gas exports, less renewable energy. Renewable and clean energy policies are in danger of roll-back as a result of trade deal provisions. Measures intended to support energy efficiency, including labeling standards, fuel efficiency standards, and emission standards for cars, appliances and airlines, as well as tax credits for climate-friendly fuels may all be eliminated through the trade deals. Additionally, the US Department of Energy may lose the authority to determine whether natural gas exports to Europe are in the public interest. This could green-light a significant increase in drilling and open an LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) superhighway to the world’s largest importer of natural gas. The ISDS provision mentioned above is another avenue by which petrochemical corporations hope to force open the market.

Solution Strategy: Stop Fast Track. This threat to democracy and government in the public interest is made possible in the US by a procedure known as “Fast Track.” Fast Track is designed to allow the executive branch to accelerate trade agreements and insulate them from scrutiny, “fast tracking” them through Congress with severely limited debate, allowing no amendments and only a straight up or down vote.

While Congress has constitutional authority over international trade, Fast Track shifts that authority to the executive branch, virtually ensuing that the public and Congress will have no real voice in trade deals. The time has come to stop Fast Track, to bring some sunlight into an otherwise deeply opaque process, and returning basic democratic process to a critical area of public policy.

Shorey Myers is Program Manager for the Jenifer Altman Foundation. Shorey has been with the Foundation since 2010. Her work over the past decade includes a strong focus on global environmental health and justice issues, as well as philanthropic support of critical social services. Her email address is smyers@jaf.org.