Is trade free?

Environmentalists and other opponents of free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have long howled about their potential to weaken environmental laws in California and elsewhere.

Such fears seemed to be borne out when the Canadian company Methanex used NAFTA to file a $970 million claim against California, claiming the state’s ordered phaseout of the gasoline additive MTBE, a water pollutant, violates free trade rules.

The outcome of that claim is still pending, but state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, has set out to analyze how international trade agreements could impact California’s labor and environmental laws.

Senate Bill 1044 would require state officials to prepare a report on how the agreements would impact labor law, while Senate Bill 1111 would require a similar report on environmental laws.

The Senate Select Committee on International Trade Policy and State Legislation, which is chaired by Kuehl, will also hold hearings on the issue this year, with the goal of helping the California Legislature identify and address points of conflict.

Last week, Kuehl sought to focus attention on the issue with a media event in Sacramento that included testimony from Sierra Club president Robert Cox, Victor Menotti of the International Forum on Globalization and Robert Stumberg of Georgetown University.

They testified as to the potential for diminished environmental standards from trade tools like NAFTA, presidential fast track authority and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which is expected to get a big push during next month’s Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, unless the thousands of protesters expected to show up have anything to say about it.

On a related note, Sacramentans can learn more about the free trade agenda next week when Sacramento Activists for Democratic Trade and other progressive groups host two “Speak Outs” on April 5. The first is at Mariposa Hall on the Sac State campus from 3 to 5 p.m., and the second is from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Oak Park Community Center at 3425 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. For more information call 456-9425 or visit