Is This Land Really Our Land? Impacts of Free Trade Agreements on U.S. Environmental Protection

By Hofgard, Jurt C. | Environmental Law, April 1993 | Go to article overview

Is This Land Really Our Land? Impacts of Free Trade Agreements on U.S. Environmental Protection


Hofgard, Jurt C., Environmental Law


I. Introduction

A new economic order of liberalized trade for the North American continent is imminent, but it might usher in a bleak new environmental, order. Negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) concluded on October 9, 1992, when the trade ministers of the United States, Canada, and Mexico initiated the agreement.(1) Now, then national legislatures of the three countries must ratify NAFTA, in order to implement the agreement as viable international law. Congress must balance the United States sovereign right to protect it's citizen health and environmental integrity, with Canada's and Mexico's rights to be free from unfair U.S. trade practices disguised as environmental or health protection measures. Will Congress accept the position set forth in the NAFTA before it?

Consider the potential economic benefits of NAFTA for North America: 360 millicn potential consumers,, a gross continental product of over six trillion dollars,(2) numerous new markets as tariffs drop, abundant investment opportunities, and the stability and vitality to compete with European, and possibly Asian, trading blocks. Advocates of a general free trade agreement between the three nations optimistically view such an agreement as a "win-win" scenario for everyone involved. They hold forth the United States-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) as proof that bilateral trade agreements between the United States and its neighbors soon either will complement or replace multilateral agreements such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In 1990, two-way, trade between the United States and Canada totalled $175 billion, up from $167 billion in 1989.(3) The FTA effectively reduced tariffs on approximately 400 products for a combined savings of six billion dollars.(4)

NAFTA advocates claim that extending more-favorable-than-most-favored-nation status to Mexico will fan Mexican development efforts into full-scale industrialization. New capital investment from the United States will infuse Mexico's infrastructure with strength and vitality. Mexican goods will find a highly lucrative, duty-free market in its northern neighbors, and capital from the United States and Canada will create new jobs for Mexican workers. Conversely, Mexico, with a rapidly growing population of over eighty-eight million, presents a favorable market for U.S. goods and services, as well as a fertile source of labor and natural resources. Advocates tout NAFTA as a "foundation for expanded trade, expanded Prosperity, [and] expanded jobs into the next century,"(5) NAFTA might lead to other free trade agreements with other Western Hemisphere countries in line with the Bush Administration's "Enterprise for the Americas" initiative.(6)

But general free trade agreements do not necessarily make everyone a winner, especially where the environment is concerned.(7) In particular, legitimate environmental policies and regulations became the endangered prey of the FTA's vague nontariff barrier provisions because the agreement did not address specific environmental issues adequately. In Canada, conservationist energy policies were largely abandoned, subsidies for pollution abatement have been challenged as unfair nontariff barriers and stringent pesticide Policies are threatened by harmonization clauses under the FTA. Adverse Impacts for the United State include challenges by the Canadian government of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for phasing out the use of asbestos and temporary lower border inspection standards for meat. Indirectly, the FTA is also hampering efforts to get U.S. citizens to conserve energy by offering them cheap nonrenewable resources, such as oil and natural gas, from Canada.

Congress, before exercising all-or-nothing power over a final NAFTA under the fast-track process,(8) should take these lessons to heart when looking at U.S.-Mexican trade and environmental links. …

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Is This Land Really Our Land? Impacts of Free Trade Agreements on U.S. Environmental Protection
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