Climate tension dogs trade deal in Senate, on campaign trail

Source: By Geof Koss and Timothy Cama, E&E News reporters • Posted: Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Concerns about climate change are dividing Democrats in the Senate and on the campaign trail ahead of a final vote on what could be President Trump’s most consequential trade deal.

The Senate Finance Committee yesterday easily approved the reworked United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on a 25-3 vote. Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was the lone Democrat to oppose the measure.

Whitehouse applauded what he called “a lot of progress on environmental issues” in the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) but said the deal “does not reflect sense of urgency … about the climate calamities that are unfolding.”

Citing Australia’s raging wildfires and rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet, Whitehouse said during the markup, “The Earth is sending us profound signals that we have knocked things out of whack on our only home.”

He continued: “The USMCA does not even mention climate change. That phrase does not even appear. The question for me is, does this agreement work toward protecting us from us, from warming above 1.5 degrees Centigrade, or does it not? And in my view, it does not.”

Major environmental groups denounced the deal last month, but their opposition failed to have an effect in the House, where the measure sailed through on a wide bipartisan vote before the holiday recess (E&E Daily, Dec. 20, 2019).

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last month that the Trump administration would not allow climate to enter the lengthy negotiations over USMCA.

The Congressional Research Service recently noted that fast-track trade authority used for approving such deals contains limits on addressing climate change.

Pelosi and other Democrats have touted environmental gains in the reworked version of the deal even if climate is not mentioned (E&E Daily, Dec. 17, 2019).

And, like in the House, environmental concerns are not even close to threatening USMCA’s prospects in the Senate. Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said a vote could happen before the end of the week if other committees with jurisdiction sign off.

Still, some Democratic lawmakers, including Brian Schatz, said yesterday that they continue to weigh climate change as they consider the upcoming vote.

The Hawaii Democrat, one of the Senate’s top climate hawks, is still undecided on USMCA and said climate change is a big part of how he’s thinking about the trade deal.

“I think they’ve made moderate improvements, actually. The problem is that moderate improvements are not going to get it,” Schatz said.

“We’re in a crisis, and the status quo is not acceptable,” he said. “If this were 1975, this kind of incremental progress would be sufficient. I’m not sure it is right now.”

Sanders vs. Warren

Lingering tensions over climate and USMCA may have more impact on the Democratic race for the presidency, where the pact has caused a marked rift between Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the candidates vying for support from progressives.

While Sanders has stood by his statement last month that despite “modest improvements” over NAFTA, it is an “outrage” that climate change isn’t discussed in the new agreement, Warren has come out in support of it.

“We really need trade negotiations going forward that make sure anyone who wants access to our markets is actually helping us in the fight against climate change and helping build an economy that works for everybody in the U.S.,” she told Boston television station WBZ last week.

Warren’s flip from her previous denunciation of the deal rankled some environmental groups that see USMCA as a failure.

At the same time, they see Warren as one of the few presidential candidates who are taking the climate change issue seriously.

“Anyone that seeks to call themselves a leader on climate and clean energy really needs to be opposing USMCA, plain and simple,” said Seth Gladstone, spokesman for Food and Water Watch, which has not endorsed a candidate in the race. “We’re disappointed that Senator Warren is failing this particular test.”

Stephen O’Hanlon, spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, which has helped publicize the Green New Deal, said Warren’s support is “deeply concerning.”

“It doesn’t even talk about climate change, is a huge giveaway to fossil fuel billionaires, and undermines her commitment to the Green New Deal,” said O’Hanlon.

“This isn’t the kind of Green New Deal we’re fighting for where multinational corporations profit off low wages and the destruction of the planet,” he said.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune weighed in yesterday, as well. “Trump’s #NAFTA 2.0 must be opposed before it locks in his polluting legacy for decades to come,” Brune tweeted.

“Thank you @SenWhitehouse & @SenSanders for recognizing this and putting people & the planet first by opposing this toxic corporate trade deal,” Brune wrote.

One Senate Democrat running for president who supported the bill in committee — Colorado’s Michael Bennet — said yesterday that he was aware of environmentalists’ concerns with USMCA when he cast his vote.

“No deal is perfect, but I think this is important to support,” Bennet told E&E News.

GOP energy complaints

For months, Republicans and the president have talked about USMCA as a win and have accused Democrats of dragging their feet. But not everyone in the GOP is happy, either.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) opposed the measure in committee, citing concerns with several specific provisions and the fast-track process that produced it, which precluded the offering of amendments to the implementing legislation.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) also voted against the bill in committee, citing changes to the investor-state dispute system that he said would protect large oil and gas companies operating in Mexico but not subcontractors working on energy projects.

“If you buy a lease directly from the federal government in Mexico, you’re protected, but not if you’re the oil field service person helping the lessee to develop the resource for Mexico,” Cassidy told E&E News after the vote. “There’s no fairness there at all.”

Cassidy said he was undecided about whether he would oppose USMCA on the floor, noting that he’s pushing for his concerns to be addressed in a “side letter” agreement between the United States and Mexico, which he noted would not require changes to the underlying trade deal.

“I’m still hopeful that can occur,” he said.

Reporter Nick Sobczyk contributed.