Dems lament climate a no-show in North American pact

By Geof Koss, Nick Sobczyk | 12/11/2019 06:59 AM EST

Progressive lawmakers are still figuring out whether to support the latest version of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which is backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) with members of her caucus yesterday discussing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade deal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) with members of her caucus yesterday discussing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade deal. Francis Chung/E&E News

The lack of provisions addressing climate change in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is sparking criticism from some Democrats and environmentalists but appears unlikely to sink the landmark deal, lawmakers said yesterday.

Appearing with dozens of House Democrats yesterday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) touted new environmental enforcement provisions in the USMCA as Democratic wins in the yearlong negotiations for the agreement, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (Greenwire, Dec. 10).

"There is no question, of course, this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA," Pelosi told reporters.


But at least one major environmental group questioned whether any of the environmental provisions included in the deal address climate change.

"Trade has important climate implications, but it doesn’t appear as if the reworked NAFTA addresses our climate crisis," Jake Schmidt, managing director for the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

"The greatest environmental concern of the 21st Century — climate change — cannot be ignored by a 21st Century trade agreement. While Democrats claim this deal improves on some environmental provisions, they have yet to explain how it meaningfully addresses climate change."

NRDC was one of three major environmental groups to issue a warning to lawmakers that they should oppose a reworked NAFTA "that fails to correct the fundamental environmental failures of the Trump administration’s USMCA."

That letter linked to an earlier missive sent by more than 100 Democrats to President Trump in September calling for "binding climate standards" and a commitment to the Paris climate agreement to be included in the USMCA.

But Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), who led a working group focused on environmental matters, described the resulting deal as "the best trade deal for the environment."

She told E&E News yesterday she was aware of the most recent letter environmentalists sent to Congress and that she has consulted with the community "throughout the process."

The Oregon Democrat said, however, she didn’t know if greens would support the deal. "I sure hope so because we worked really hard to strengthen the provisions," she said.

Asked if she was satisfied with how the agreement addresses climate, she responded, "The agreement is good for the environment."

"We got a lot of provisions in there that are helpful in addressing the environment and environmental issues," Bonamici added.

Progressive Dems ponder choices

With Republicans largely in support of the USMCA — a top Trump priority — passage in both chambers seems assured even in the face of possible Democratic defections.

Several climate-friendly Democrats said yesterday they want to see the final product before deciding whether to support the deal.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who chairs the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, said he had not reviewed the agreement but added that "climate is my highest priority, and I’ll look at it with that lens."

In an ideal world for progressives, the trade deal would "have some standards on the Paris Agreement or CO2 standards that the countries are committing to," said Rep. Ro Khanna.

The California Democrat added he has concerns about how the USMCA addresses climate and labor issues from what few details have been released publicly, but said he would not know how to vote until he sees the full text.

Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) sounded a note of optimism that unions, including the AFL-CIO, have already come out in support of the deal, though she said she was still considering whether she would support it.

"I am troubled that we’re not addressing climate in there," Jayapal said.

Asked about climate, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) said he was concerned about "environmental standards" but hadn’t reviewed the materials released on the USMCA yesterday.

"We need a response to the climate crisis," he said. "It should be incorporated across the board. And so if we’re going to have environmental standards that get us to decarbonization, the rest of the world should operate that way."

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, pivoted when asked about climate and the USMCA. In meetings with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Carper said the focus was on "labor provisions, environmental protections and the resources to enforce. That’s it."

‘Collateral benefit’

Speaking at a Politico event yesterday, Pelosi said the USMCA will be "substantially better" than NAFTA and "removed all doubt that trade and the environment are linked."

"We are very pleased with the environment [provisions]," Pelosi continued. "We want more, but we don’t have to do it all in that bill. … But we have talked about the environment in a very strong way."

Aside from NRDC, other major environmental groups declined to comment or said they were awaiting further details before deciding whether to oppose the USMCA. Pelosi is hoping to pass the measure through the House before the Christmas recess.

One sustainable agriculture advocacy group, however, did come out against the deal, saying it "exacerbates the climate crisis."

"New NAFTA does not fix the problems created by decades of unfair trade and increasing corporate concentration in our food system under its predecessor," said Karen Hansen-Kuhn, program director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

"Rather, it will increase agribusiness exports in a race to the bottom, further limit regulation of food safety and intensify environmental impacts of industrial agriculture — policies that will worsen both farmers’ economic straits and the safety of our food."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the Senate would likely follow early next year, after the expected impeachment trial of Trump is finished.

Pelosi is facing questions from Democrats wary of handing Trump a victory on a top priority ahead of next year’s presidential election.

Echoing the point, Lighthizer released a statement yesterday praising Trump’s "leadership" for striking the deal.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said that while she understands why Democrats in swing districts want to show voters they’re making deals on trade, the idea of giving Trump a victory will be a "concern" for Democratic presidential candidates.

"There’s always the dynamic of ‘I’m in a deep-blue district, so what do I know about winning over swing voters?’" she told reporters. "I can see that that is a reality.

"But I do also represent a working-class district, and I certainly believe that a Democratic president would negotiate a better deal," Ocasio-Cortez added. Like other progressives, Ocasio-Cortez said she was undecided but "leaning no" on the USMCA.

Pelosi dismissed the argument that Democrats were handing Trump political ammunition ahead of the election.

"If someone gets a collateral benefit from something, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the benefit that was for our country, pass up that opportunity," she said. "If he has a collateral benefit, so be it."