WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An ambitious trade pact being negotiated among Pacific Rim nations so far fails to properly protect endangered species and could undermine existing safeguards for the environment, environmental groups said on Wednesday.
Documents released by the whistle-blowing group WikiLeaks show countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) did not plan to sanction trading partners who break environmental promises - an issue that has caused a rift between the United States and others in the bloc and is an obstacle to finalizing the deal.
The TPP would cover almost 40 percent of the global economy and create a free trade zone reaching from North America to Japan and New Zealand, and the United States is keen to wrap up talks in the coming months.
But the World Wildlife Fund said a November draft of the environment chapter text, which was among the documents released by WikiLeaks, lacked teeth and showed countries were backsliding on past promises and their responsibility to stamp out trade in endangered species.
"The most glaring omission is the lack of fully enforceable environmental provisions," World Wildlife Fund senior program officer Vanessa Dick said.
"If parties do not meet obligations within the environment chapter, then there is no enforceability, there would be no applicable sanctions."
The United States said it would not back down on making the promises enforceable, while other TPP partners downplayed the stand-off and said the negotiations were a work in progress.
The leaked documents include a report from the chair of the TPP's environment working group urging compromise and describing dispute resolution as a "particularly challenging" issue.
"While the chair sought to accommodate all the concerns and red lines that were identified by parties regarding the issues in the text, many of the red lines for some parties were in direct opposition to the red lines expressed by other parties," the report said.
"It bears emphasizing that it is these differences that have prevented the Environment Working Group from reaching agreement on all aspects of the chapter."
SANCTIONS CAUSE DISSENT
The draft text shows a clash between the United States and other countries - Australia, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Chile, Peru, New Zealand and Singapore - over how to proceed if pledges are not met.
The draft text, dated November 24, 2013, states that at the end of consultations and arbitration, parties should come up with a "mutually satisfactory action plan."
According to the chair's report, all countries were on board with the process except the United States, which wanted environmental breaches to be treated like commercial breaches, including the option of trade sanctions - something environmental groups say is essential to enforce TPP promises.
The United States also wanted to include a list of specific multilateral agreements on environmental issues, such as ozone depletion and whaling, in the text but the move was opposed by most other countries.
In other criticism, the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council said the draft did not contain a ban on shark-finning or oblige countries to act to stop illegal trade in threatened and endangered plants and animals.
Bans on fishing subsidies would apply only to species which are already over-fished, whereas environmental groups want a ban on all subsidies that contribute to over-fishing.
"This draft chapter falls flat on every single one of our issues - oceans, fish, wildlife, and forest protections - and in fact, rolls back on the progress made in past free trade pacts," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a joint release from the three groups.
In a blog post, the U.S. Trade Representative's office said it had reaffirmed its position that environmental pledges should be binding at the last round of TPP talks in December.
"Environmental stewardship is a core American value, and we will insist on a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter in the TPP or we will not come to agreement," the post said.
A representative for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the TPP environment chapter would be extensive, but would not confirm the contents of the draft.
"Negotiating text is a dynamic document, changing regularly, and has no status until all text is agreed," the representative said.
A spokeswoman for New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser said the environment chapter would promote high standards of environmental protection and ministers would meet again soon.
"Momentum is accelerating in the negotiation and the conclusion of a comprehensive, high quality, 21st century agreement is in sight," she said.