Far From a 'Progressive' Trade Deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Would Harm our Environment

05/15/2015 01:01 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

Proponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have called the deal "the most progressive trade bill in history." But given the history of U.S. trade deals, that bar is set exceedingly low. Our past trade deals have led to the offshoring of hundreds of thousands of American jobs, have allowed corporations to challenge policies designed to protect our air and water in private trade courts, and have degraded our environment. If you dig in even a little bit to what we know about the TPP and the history of past trade deals, it's clear: The TPP would harm our air, water and climate.

Here's why.

1. The environment chapter will not go far enough.

Proponents of the TPP often talk about the benefits of the pact based exclusively on the environment chapter. However, as House Ways and Means Ranking Democrat Sandy Levin (D-MI) recently wrote, while the environment chapter will cover a broad range of issues, including shark finning and illegal timber trade, the obligations -- what countries are actually required to do -- are often weak.

For example, rather than prohibiting commercial whaling and shark fin trade -- major issues in TPP countries like Japan and Singapore -- the TPP is likely to include vague and toothless language that stops far short of requiring countries to stop these harmful practices. The deal will also likely fall short of prohibiting trade in illegally taken timber and wildlife and will not even mention the words "climate change."

2. The environment chapter is unlikely to be enforced.

Here is another reason to be skeptical that the environment chapter will lead to any meaningful protection of land, air, water, and wildlife. The United States Trade Representative (USTR) has never once brought a trade dispute against another country for failing to live up to its environmental obligations in trade deals, even when there is documented evidence of non-compliance with environmental safeguards.

Let's take Peru, for example. The United States-Peru free trade deal included a section aimed at stopping the illegal timber trade between Peru and the United States. Think it has worked? Think again.

Here's the story. In April 2012, the Environmental Investigation Agency published a multi-year investigative report which documented that at least 112 illegal shipments of cedar and mahogany wood -- laundered with fabricated papers and approved by the Peruvian government -- arrived in the U.S. between 2008 and 2010. As EIA noted, these shipments alone accounted for over 35 percent of all trade in these protected species between the U.S. and Peru.

Just days after the report was released, EIA formally petitioned the USTR to take action under the U.S.-Peru trade deal and investigate and verify the legal origin of shipments from at least two Peruvian companies and to audit dozens more. The Sierra Club and other environmental, labor and industry partners sent a letter to the USTR joining the call for action.

The result? Not much of anything. The USTR never used the tools available in the trade pact to hold Peru accountable for violating the agreement. Instead, it put together a five-point action plan which simply reiterated obligations that Peru undertook in the trade deal -- obligations which Peru consistently failed to implement. In other words, Peru's punishment for violating the trade deal was having the deal they signed read back to them. That's not even a slap on the wrists -- it's a whisper in the ear.

To date, no one has been held accountable for these violations of the U.S.-Peru trade deal and no enforcement action has been taken. As a result, illegal logging and associated trade continues to threaten communities and our environment. As the New York Times reported in late 2013, "But large quantities of timber, including increasingly rare types like mahogany, continue to flow out [of Peru], much of it ultimately heading to the United States for products like hardwood flooring and decking sold by American retailers."

So the story here is clear. Having obligations on paper is one thing, but without enforcement, those obligations are meaningless. It's hard to believe the proponents of the TPP who say the deal will raise up environmental standards if even the clearest of violations of environmental rules in past trade deals continue to go unpunished.

3. New rights to big polluters, more fossil fuel exports.

Here is the last key point. Any potential benefits of the environment chapter would be overwhelmed by other dangerous provisions of the deal. For example, corporations including ExxonMobil, Chevron and Occidental have used rules in the investment chapters of trade pacts and bilateral investment treaties to bring more than 600 investor-state cases against nearly 100 governments.

More and more, these cases are directly challenging policies designed to protect our air, water, and climate including a moratorium on fracking in Quebec, a nuclear energy phase-out and new coal-fired power plant standards in Germany, and requirement for a pollution clean-up in Peru. And corporations are winning. In March 2015, a NAFTA tribunal found that Canada violated NAFTA's investment rules because of an environmental impact assessment that led Canada to reject a U.S. company's controversial mining project from moving forward in an important cultural and ecological area in Nova Scotia.

The TPP would expand this harmful system of corporate privilege, offering broad new rights to thousands of corporations, including major polluters, when we should be reigning in the power of the fossil fuel industry to combat the climate crisis. JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corporation from Japan and BHP Billiton Limited from Australia, both with significant investments in coal, oil, and gas in the United States, are just two of the 9,000 subsidiaries of companies that would be newly empowered to challenge U.S. climate and energy policies as a result of the TPP. (And, more than 19,000 subsidiaries based in the United States would be newly empowered to challenge the laws and policies of the other 11 countries in the pact.)

And there's more. The TPP would also require the U.S. Department of Energy to automatically approve exports of liquefied natural gas to countries in the agreement which includes Japan, the world's biggest natural gas importer. The TPP, therefore, would pave the way to more natural gas exports, more fracking, and more climate-disrupting emissions.

Does this sound like a progressive trade deal? Hardly. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is shaping up to be all risk and no reward for our families, our economy, and our planet. It's time to create a new model of trade that puts communities and the environment above corporate profits.