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Much ado about nothing? Canada signs new NAFTA environmental side-agreement

by Mark Sabourin
EcoLog, 1/4/2019 1:25:00 PM

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna has signed the new Agreement on Environmental Cooperation among the Governments of Canada, the United States of America, and the United Mexican States, a side agreement to the new Canada-US-Mexico free trade pact that continues the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) established under NAFTA. To Dale Marshall, national program manager at Environmental Defence, it’s an opportunity forgone.

When the original NAFTA was being negotiated, environmentalists pressed for a side agreement that would “lift all boats,” Marshall told EcoLog News, something that would prevent one NAFTA party from using lower environmental standards to gain a competitive advantage. Instead, they got a body that can only investigate whether a country is enforcing its own environmental laws.

“I don’t think it led to improved environmental protection,” says Marshall. “I don’t think it worsened environmental protection.” Many cases were brought to the CEC, and documentary records were produced, but he’s not aware of any significant change that occurred as a result.

Like its predecessor, the new agreement makes no mention of climate change. That was an understandable omission under NAFTA. That agreement pre-dated the first United Nations Conference of the Parties on climate change. But it’s a startling omission today.

Environmental Defence has used the CEC process to cast a harsh light on tailings management in Alberta’s oil sands. Its efforts have brought attention to the issue, and the CEC has agreed to undertake a limited investigation of the issue, but it has no authority to recommend change, let alone compel it.

Under the new agreement, there is a modest change that will make it slightly more difficult for a country to prevent disclosure of the results of a CEC investigation. Under the new agreement, those results will be public documents unless two of the three countries vote to withhold them.

“Maybe we’ll get a bit more transparency through that? It remains to be seen,” Marshall says cautiously.

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