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Sierra Club Compass Blog
Brunei is a tiny, remote country in Southeast Asia with a population smaller than that of Washington, D.C. It's also the location of the current round of trade talks between the United States and eleven other Pacific Rim nations.
Who could think of a better place to hold a round of secretive trade talks? And the timing is opportune, too. Held at the end of August, when many - at least in the United States - are away on summer vacation, these trade talks will remain lurking in the shadows, capturing little media or public attention.
Between August 23 and 30, trade negotiators from these 12 nations will meet behind closed doors in Brunei to further hash out the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. Governments are saying that it might be the last official round of these trade talks -- which seems both unacceptable and impossible. It's unacceptable because not a single word of draft text has been released to the public, despite the fact that the agreement has been under negotiation for more than three years and would affect the lives of millions of Americans and others across the globe. It's impossible since there are still numerous critical issues in the pact that remain unresolved going into this "final" round of talks. And, in the context of outspoken citizen opposition, Malaysia has become the first country to say that it will not agree to any timeline for signing the pact.
Some of the most contentious unresolved issues are in the pact's chapter on the environment -- one of many controversial chapters. Here, the United States is pushing a strong conservation proposal that includes specific measures to promote responsible fisheries management, including policies to curb shark-finning, and a ban on trade in illegally harvested timber and illegally taken wildlife and wildlife parts. The U.S. proposal is legally binding and would commit countries not only to enforce domestic environmental laws, but also to enforce commitments made in international environmental agreements.
Unfortunately, however, other countries have thus-far been unwilling to accept the strong U.S. proposal, so U.S. negotiators might be bullied into backing down at this round of trade talks. A number of North American environmental organizations have already weighed in, calling on U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman to oppose efforts to weaken environmental protections. In Brunei, the U.S. must hold its ground and not put critical environmental objectives - like shark fins - on the chopping block.
In addition to the uncertain environment chapter, the Sierra Club is deeply concerned about a number of parts of the trade pact that seem to be closer to completion. In the pact are rules championed by the United States that give corporations virtually unfettered rights. These rules would allow corporations to sue governments over laws and policies that might reduce their profits. Surprisingly, these egregious rules have been less controversial and are further along in negotiations than the environment chapter. Similar rules in other trade pacts have resulted in assaults on policies such as a time-out on fracking in Quebec or a commitment to phase out nuclear energy in Germany. Of course, without full access to the texts, the public has not been able to even have a meaningful conversation about what these rules would mean for fighting climate disruption and protecting communities across the globe.
Given this context, the idea that the 19th round of trade talks in Brunei might be the last official round is particularly unacceptable. It seems very clear that negotiations aren't going to end after Brunei. What might happen, however, is that negotiations go even further underground, hidden deeper from the public. That means that now is the most important time to spread the word about this trade pact and demand transparency in these talks that will affect our food, water, air, jobs, and more.
--Ilana Solomon, Sierra Club Trade Representative. Follow Ilana on Twitter here.
On August 21, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lease sale in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for 149 million tons of publicly-owned coal failed to attract a single bid. It was the first time that a federal coal tract offered for sale in Wyoming failed to attract any bidders -- even the company that originally sought to mine the location determined that it couldn't do so profitably.
In June 2013, the Department of Interior's Inspector General released a report identifying numerous flaws in BLM's coal leasing program. Among them, the report confirmed that over the last 20 years 80 percent of Powder River Basin lease sales attracted only one bidder, and none attracted more than two.
Cloud Peak Energy, which applied for the Maysdorf II North Coal Tract lease in 2006 in order to expand its Cordero Rojo mine, said it had evaluated the coal tract in the Powder River Basin and decided not to submit a bid due to "current market conditions and the uncertain political and regulatory environment of coal and coal-fired electricity."
The Powder River Basin, which straddles the Wyoming-Montana border, is the largest coal mining region in the United States. But with the domestic coal market in steep decline, the economics of extracting its coal are increasingly bleak.
Cloud Peak Energy CEO Colin Marshall said that an economic analysis led the company to conclude that "a significant portion" of the coal up for bid was not economically recoverable. "We are unable to construct an economic bid for this tract at this time," he said. "We will continue to evaluate any possible future lease sales by the BLM of these tons in the North tract as market conditions improve."
But the assumption that market conditions for coal will improve is clearly questionable if not downright delusional. The failure of the lease sale to attract any bidders shows that the federal coal lease program is mired in outdated and inaccurate beliefs about coal's market value.
"It comes down to economics, plain and simple," said Aaron Isherwood, a managing attorney with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program. "The market for coal is incredibly soft, so why would the government sell publicly-owned coal at a time when people are paying rock-bottom prices for it? Federally-owned coal is supposed to be sold at fair market value. Would you try to sell your house right after the housing market craters? The public is getting ripped off. The failure of this lease to attract a single bid is clear evidence that the federal coal-leasing system is badly in need of reform."
Nearly 5 billion tons of federal coal is currently being leased or sold in the Powder River Basin, even as the domestic market for the resource is tanking. As confirmed by the Department of Interior report, the way leases are managed by the BLM is short-changing American taxpayers to the tune of millions of dollars with each successive lease.
Coal market experts who spoke in Wyoming and Montana earlier this week called for a moratorium on new federal coal leases until the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management "get their act together," asserting that the federal leasing program has shortchanged taxpayers by $30 billion over the past three decades.
"The BLM can't give this stuff away," said Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, in reaction to the failure of the Maysdorf II coal tract to attract any bidders. "This is the beginning of the end of coal -- it's officially worthless. This is what happens when community after community replaces their aging coal plants with clean energy."
-- Tom Valtin, Sierra Club
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