Recently, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) will be “the first time ever environmental provisions are the center of a North American Trade Agreement.”
In a teleconference announcing the deal, Wheeler shared that unlike the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, an agreement Trump hoped to renegotiate, the new USMCA will strengthen environmental standards while promoting domestic competition.
The USMCA marked a rare moment in bipartisan cooperation, garnering impressive Democratic support when it passed in the Senate. The pact managed to be tough on labor practices, enforcing strict environmental and labor requirements on Mexican factories. At the same time, the deal reassures farmers, manufacturers, and other businesses that tariff-free trade will continue.
If what Wheeler says is true, the deal finally moves environmental policy center stage. In the conference, he states that the new restrictions on land-based pollution, waste-water, agriculture, and air pollution will improve upon the limitations in the NAFTA and Paris Agreement. Moving forward, the USMCA promises the EPA will play a much larger role in managing trade relations.
After Trump fired former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in 2018, a slim majority approved Wheeler as the new deputy administrator. Wheeler’s appointment stirred up controversy; while some argued he was an improvement from Pruitt, many pointed to his energy lobbyist and coal industry background as reasons why he might not have the environment’s best interests at heart.
With the possible expansion of the EPA, theRising measures a few of Wheeler’s statements at the teleconference we attended—not just in the context of his environmental career, but also in terms of what his tenure as deputy administrator means for future free trade relations.
“The USMCA improves environmental standards, and allows domestic partners to compete on a safe and fair playing field”
Wheeler promises that agricultural and auto industries will benefit greatly under USMCA. With no tariffs and a hardened commitment to free, reciprocal trade, the deal ensures that American-produce like wheat will no longer be downgraded by Canadian and Mexican exports. The U.S. International Trade Commission predicts that the USMCA will increase annual exports by $2.2 billion.
This does seem to be good news since the biggest criticisms toward NAFTA and the Paris Agreement are that the energy and land regulations would destroy American jobs. Also, the EPA will get additional funding from Congress on any waste-water projects surrounding the Mexican border; which is in contrast to previous noncommitment in investing in environmental jobs. And the $300 million increase in funding can add jobs as well as address pressing issues like insufficient waste-water management near the Gulf of Mexico.
However, free trade in the agreement heavily protects fossil fuel companies; the USMCA has special trade provisions renegotiated with Mexico in a separate treaty. The deal claims that any fossil fuel companies who have contracts with the Mexican government can challenge potential threats to state profits.
“The USMCA is proof of Trump’s pro-environment legacy, as putting it in the center of the trade agreement makes it much stronger than just a stand-alone treaty, unlike The Paris Agreement, which disadvantaged U.S. interests.”
Wheeler states that the USMCA, with its environmental protections, can replace what policies are covered under the Paris Agreement. He claims that unlike the Paris Agreement, USMCA is the best of both worlds for the United States; especially as it prioritizes the environment and domestic American workers. However, many criticize that the environmental protections seem surface level. The biggest criticism being USMCA primarily deals with curbing pollution and conservation issues, but ignores climate change.
Unlike the Paris Agreement, the USMCA has no mention of reducing carbon emissions or increasing renewable energy. This omission could reduce the EPA’s role in global clean energy negotiations; leaving Wheeler promising to “create American jobs,” in sectors such as agriculture and auto — who’ve struggled with sustainability in the past.
The commitment to strong “environmental standards” becomes particularly questionable when during the pandemic. A few months before the conference, the EPA declared that it wouldn’t fine companies for violating environmental regulations indefinitely. This addendum allows corporations to skirt on routine compliance monitoring, certification obligations, and pollution lab analyses.
“We have gotten advice from outside panels: indigenous groups, industry, and environmental organizations have given us their feedback. Everyone is very enthused about the agreement.”
The USMCA does enumerate several protections for indigenous groups. It is the first agreement to state Indigenous peoples as “peoples” in the international commercial trade agreement. The agreement articulates the Rights of Indigenous Groups following the UN Declaration of Rights. Meaning it protects the trade of Indigenous Goods and Businesses. However, it’s uncertain if this enumeration will make up for the number of rollbacks Trump made on indigenous protections.
Perry Bellegarde, First Nation Chief, states that the provision titled General Exception for Indigenous Rights breaks new ground in that it cannot hold the rights of Indigenous peoples hostage in trade deals. He believes that the deal ensures both the environmental and commercial protection of the community.
“First Nations are ready to get to work to improve trade opportunities for our people. It should be clear by now that economic and legal certainty cannot be achieved without First Nations at the table as governments and decision-makers,” Bellegarde states.
Jessica is a writer based in NYC, with bylines at Vox and EGMNOW. You can pitch her stories at jessica [at] therising.co