A wide-reaching trade agreement between the United States and several Asian nations could have catastrophic repercussions for climate change, including giving corporations the power to sue governments that try to limit polluting industries, environmental groups say.
In order to avoid dangerous climate change, scientists estimate that 80 percent of the world’s fossil fuels need to remain in the ground. But coal, natural gas, and oil left in the ground means profits left on the table for fossil fuel companies. And under the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), corporations will likely be able to sue governments that interfere with their business — even if it’s by enacting carbon reduction goals and passing environmental legislation.
“Creating a corporate bill of rights to protect investors is incredibly undermining to our ability to protect the environment,” Ben Schreiber, the climate and energy program director for Friends of the Earth, told ThinkProgress.
Previous trade deals have, in fact, led to lawsuits over fossil fuels. An American mining company, Lone Pine Resources, sued the Canadian province of Quebec in 2013 for passing a ban on fracking. The company says the ban cost them $250 million and that under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Quebec is liable for the lost revenue. That lawsuit is ongoing.
In another lawsuit, Chevron alleged that Ecuadorian activists had defrauded the company, after it was ordered to pay $18.2 billion in damages for environmental contamination.
Stories like those have not allayed environmentalists’ concerns, and neither has the Obama administration’s approach to the negotiations over the TPP. The administration has been criticized for a lack of transparency — specific details of the TPP remain largely unknown, even to members of Congress, although WikiLeaks has published some chapters, including one dealing with environmental regulations.
The Senate voted Tuesday against fast-tracking the deal, which would have allowed the administration to present the TPP to Congress as a straight up and down vote.
Politics make strange bedfellows. Earlier this week, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace released a television ad rebuking longtime environmental ally Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) for his vote in favor of fast-tracking the TPP. And the issue has split both parties. House and Senate leadership has mostly endorsed fast-tracking the deal, while Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have come down firmly against it.
“When you have Exxon, President Obama, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and John Boehner on one side,” Schreiber said, “that’s a signal that the president is in the wrong place.”
Ironically, the Obama administration has been one of the most active ever in combatting climate change. The proposed Clean Power Plan, for example, would limit emissions from power plants and is considered a key component of Obama’s final years in office.
“[The TPP] just contradicts the president’s climate policy,” Bill Waren, a trade analyst with Friends of the Earth, told ThinkProgress. “One hand takes away from the other.”
And the threat of corporate litigation is not the only climate-related concern the TPP — along with the other massive trade deal being proposed, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would be between the U.S. and European Union — raises, Waren said.
As the United States cuts down on its coal use, coal producers are looking for new markets. The TPP would likely encourage more coal mining in the United States, and new coal ports on the west coast. There are currently export bans on both crude oil and gas from the United States, but with those bans lifted on exports to Asia and Europe, fracking would likely increase across the country.
The trade agreements would “provide huge market incentives for additional coal mining, oil drilling, mining of tar sands oil, and extraction of natural gas for LNG,” Waren said.
Waren also outlined a number of other environmental concerns the TPP and TTIP raise, such as limits on food labels, lessened restriction on chemical companies, restrictions on green procurement policies, and “bio-piracy.”
Already, opponents to the trade agreements say they have seen an impact from the proposed agreements. Some say the European Union changed its proposed fuel directive due to pressure from Canada and the United States. Canada reportedly has tried to convince the EU to treat oil from tar sands no differently than conventional oil, despite the differences in carbon emissions. And others claim the EU amended proposed biofuel regulations get rid of language that included land use considerations, largely because of pressure from the United States.
Still, some trade experts disagree with Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other environmentalists who have come out against the TPP.
“Any sort of general purpose environmental law or regulation that a government wants to enact will not be successfully litigated,” Josh Meltzer, a global development fellow at the Brookings Institute, told ThinkProgress.
He said the laws that end up being challenged are usually protective in nature — or just poorly designed — and that the TPP specifically says that a government cannot reduce its environmental regulations in order to attract business.
“The TPP really, in so many different ways, is trying to take a step forward in building commitments and rules,” Meltzer said. “[It] is going to have rules, for instance, that try to get at over-fishing, which we don’t have anywhere.”
The TPP is likely to be passed by Congress, so we’ll soon find out what its global business and climate change ramifications are. While tens of thousands of Europeans have protested the EU-United States deal, the TPP has not attracted the same vitriol in the United States.
Also see: How the TPP could change what you wear: