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January 19, 2012

NAFTA a way to restart Keystone Pipeline?

The Obama administration made a lot of us environmentalists happy with yesterday's decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

Given that the Canadian government and corporations appear to be steaming mad about this, it's worth all of us reflecting on what their next move could be. A NAFTA case, for one, does not seem out of the question.

(If it seems far-fetched that Canadian entities might pursue these options, think of how much energy they've put into this pipeline. Compare this with how relatively little energy they've put into opposing U.S. financial regulations, yet in that case, they've already threatened to invoke NAFTA to derail the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation.)

On what basis might a Canadian corporation, say, challenge the decision to reject the pipeline? The pending case against the Sultanate of Oman brought by U.S. investor Adel A Hamadi Al Tamimi under the US/Oman FTA is instructive. (That FTA is modeled on NAFTA.)

Mr. Al Tamimi is a UAE native, naturalized U.S. citizen and real estate developer in New England who invested in Oman through two UAE shell companies.  In 2006, his companies concluded ten-year lease agreements with the Oman Mining Company LLC (OMCO, a state-owned enterprise) related to a limestone quarrying/crushing operation.  OMCO committed to “use its best endeavors” to obtain “the necessary environmental and operating permits.”  In August 2007, OMCO told al Tamimi’s companies that the permits had been obtained, and that he was contractually required to commence operations,  which he did in September. Within weeks, officials from the Commerce and Environmental Ministries told al Tamimi that the final permits had not been obtained, and various stop-work orders were issued. 

As al Tamimi states, “OMCO now had to make a choice: it could fulfill its obligations under the Lease Agreements, which would mean disobeying or confronting the Environmental and Commerce Ministries, or it could use whatever leverage it had over the Companies and exert every effort to get them to suspend their operations until a solution could be found to the permitting issues. It chose the latter.”

By April 2008, al Tamimi had ceased operations.  Al Tamimi racked up various environmental fees, which he apparently did not pay.  In April 2009, OMCO told al Tamimi that he was in violation of environmental laws,  and in May 2009, he was arrested.  After being convicted of stealing and breaking environmental laws by a criminal court in November 2009, his conviction was overturned by an appeals court in June 2010.

Tying this back into the FTA rules... In 2011, al Tamimi launched an investor-state case under the Oman-U.S. FTA. He alleges that Oman expropriated his property rights by terminating the leases and bringing “the full force of the police power of the State to ensure cessation of all activities…”  He additionally claims that Oman undermined “his legitimate expectations” that he would be able to conduct quarrying operations and failed to provide “protection and security,” in violation of the U.S.-Oman FTA’s fair and equitable treatment (FET) standard.  He also says that other quarrying operations which he “believes to be owned and controlled by nationals of Oman” have been allowed to operate quarrying operations, in violation of the FTA’s national treatment obligations.

Similar arguments could be constructed in the Keystone case under NAFTA. TransCanada could point to a long string of overtures by the U.S. government that led it to develop "legitimate expectations" (as that is defined under trade law) that it would be able to build the pipeline, going from the private assurances in favor of the pipeline (recently revealed by FOIA documents to Friends of the Earth) and ending in the December 2011 payroll tax cut (which included Keystone-related provisions).

Those "expectations" could be then measured against what could be characterized under the FET standard as an arbitrary decision-making process, as when the Obama administration delayed the pipeline decision in November 2011 until after the presidential election.

TransCanada could point to some domestic pipeline operators that have not confronted similar hurdles as a basis for a National Treatment claim under NAFTA, while they could point to any lost expected future earnings as a basis for an "indirect expropriation" claim.

Stranger cases over much smaller sums of money have been launched before. There's been an outrageous string of cases against El Salvador over mining permitting issues. Over $350 million in compensation has already been paid out to corporations in a series of investor-state cases under NAFTA-style deals. This includes attacks on natural resource policies, environmental protection and health and safety measures, and more. In fact, of the over $12.5 billion in the 17 pending claims under NAFTA-style deals, all relate to environmental, public health and transportation policy – not traditional trade issues. For a full rundown of these NAFTA-style cases up until now, see this link.

If all of this seems like an outrage, it is. And what's worse is that the Obama administration is considering putting similar investor rules in a NAFTA-style deal with nine nations, called the Trans-Pacific FTA. Stay tuned for more on this!

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