New Guidelines Integrate Environmental Assessments into U.S. Trade Policy

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - The Clinton administration this week unveiled a set of guidelines designed to ensure that all "reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts" are assessed when drafting future trade agreements.

The 19 pages of guidelines were compiled by the Office of the United States Trade Representative, headed up by Charlene Barshefsky, and the Council on Environmental Quality, which is directed by George Frampton, Jr.


U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky was instrumental in drafting a new set of guidelines designed to ensure that trade agreements consider environmental impacts. (Photo courtesy Office of the U.S. Trade Representative)

The guidelines came about as a result of an Executive Order issued by President Bill Clinton last November, which committed the nation to analyzing the potential positive and negative environmental effects of certain major trade agreements.

Clinton, in a statement issued while traveling in Northern Ireland, said that bringing environmental issues into the mainstream of the nation's trade policy has been a "top priority" for his administration.


President Bill Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin at a state banquet honoring President Clinton's 1998 visit to China. Many environmentalists opposed Clinton's efforts to establish permanent normal trade relations with China. (Photo by Barbara Kinney, courtesy The White House)

"America's experience has proven that a strong economy and a healthy environment go hand in hand, and these new guidelines will help protect the global environment as we work with other nations to build prosperity worldwide," Clinton said.

Clinton said that the new guidelines will provide "unparalleled opportunities for public involvement" in the formulation of the nation's trade policy.

Clinton last year acknowledged that the environmental and labor rights effects of trade agreements should be better assessed. These were the primary issues that sparked massive street protests directed against the 1999 summit of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, Washington.

Clinton said during the tumultuous WTO conference that he disagreed with the tens of thousands of environmental and labor rights activists who took to the rain slicked streets of Seattle to protest the liberalization of trade policies. Still, citing the principles of free speech and democracy, the President emphasized that he was "glad they came" to Seattle to voice their concerns.


Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Seattle last year to protest the policies advocated by the World Trade Organization. (Photo courtesy Richard Lewis)

Clinton's point was echoed this week by Barshefsky, who last year was unable to get to some of the WTO sessions last year because of the throng of protesters in the streets of Seattle.

"The final guidelines will help us negotiate trade agreements that are both good for trade and good for the environment," Barshefsky said. "The key is public involvement to ensure that pertinent environmental issues are identifies and explored as trade agreement negotiations move forward."


Sea turtles can get caught in shrimp nets and drown, unless shrimpers install turtle exclusion devices. Environmentalists were outraged when a World Trade Organization tribunal ruled that such devices constituted barriers to free trade. (Photo courtesy Tropical Divers, Maui, Hawai'i)

The new guidelines were viewed with suspicion by Kevin Danaher, co-founder of a San Francisco based human rights and environmental advocacy group known as Global Exchange. Danaher was among the key organizers of the so-called "Battle of Seattle." He was arrested when he and another activist attempted to address a group of WTO ministers on the first day of the ill-fated trade conference.

"They see their role as not protecting all the American people in trade negotiations, but only U.S. commerce," Danaher said of Barshefsky and other free trade advocates. "They've stated as much, and that leaves a bit to be desired in terms of protecting the environment."


Global Exchange co-founder Kevin Danaher is led away by police after delivering an unscheduled address to a group of WTO trade ministers in Seattle last year. (Photo courtesy Richard Lewis)

The U.S. Trade Representative's Office (USTR) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) developed the new guidelines in consultation with a host of federal agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Interior, and Justice. Also consulted were the Departments of State, Treasury, and Transportation, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The USTR and the CEQ maintain that the final guidelines provide for the "integration" of environmental considerations into the development of U.S. trade policy objectives. The guidelines provide a framework for the drafting of Environmental Reviews (ERs), written reports designed to analyze the environmental impacts of major trade agreements.

Under the Executive Order issued by Clinton, ERs will be required for three categories of trade agreements: (1) comprehensive multilateral trade rounds; (2) bilateral or plurilateral free trade agreements; and (3) major new trade liberalization agreements in natural resource sectors.

Other types of trade agreements may require ERs if they are determined to have "reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts" that can be identified by using criteria established in the guidelines.

Under the Executive Order and the guidelines, Environmental Reviews are designed to examine the extent to which proposed trade agreements will affect U.S. environmental regulations, statutes and other legal obligations. The documents are intended to analyze how trade agreements might affect the abilities of states, local governments or tribal authorities to regulate with respect to environmental matters.

Trade agreements can potentially weaken or circumvent many environmental protections, including hazardous waste laws, pollution standards, endangered species protections, food safety measures, and land use regulations.

Under the new guidelines, potential environmental impacts such as these will be analyzed in comparison to a "baseline scenario," which will take into account changes likely to occur if a proposed trade agreement is not enacted. In cases where proposed trade agreements are likely to give rise to significant environmental impacts, an "analysis of options" will be prepared to explore strategies for mitigating the detrimental effects.

George Frampton, Jr., chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the final guidelines represent a "major milestone" in the Clinton administration's effort to bring environmental issues into the "mainstream of trade policy."

"Future trade agreements will be stronger for this effort," Frampton said.

Frampton and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said that they will move quickly to begin the process of proposing the environmental review guidelines to the WTO. Barshefsky said she was confident that the WTO would adopt the guidelines.


WTO Director-General Mike Moore (Photo courtesy WTO)

"Our clear expectation is that the WTO built-in agenda will be subject to an environmental review once the scope of the negotiation crystallizes," Barshefsky said.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Trade Representative's Office sought to involve interested members of the public in developing the new environmental trade policy guidelines. The agencies received 22 sets of written comments on the proposed guidelines, which were posted on the Federal Register. The public comments reflected many different perspectives, including those of environmental organizations, industry, and agriculture.

Many of the public comments supported the goals embodied in the Executive Order signed by Clinton last year. But a number of commenters expressed concern that the proposed guidelines were insufficiently specific regarding how environmental considerations would be integrated into the formulation of U.S. trade negotiation objectives. Some of these commenters said that the guidelines did not go far enough, and that they did not give the public a meaningful role in shaping overall U.S. trade policy.

It is unclear what steps President-elect Bush might take with respect to the environmental trade agreement guidelines put forth this week by the Clinton administration. Some observers on Capitol Hill expect that Bush will support an effort already underway to abolish the White House Council on Environmental Quality.