THE North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has presented one of those few times when environmental groups are publicly at odds. Some are comfortable with the assurances of the Clinton administration and its Mexican counterpart that pollution will be prevented and natural resources protected once trade barriers are lowered. Others claim there aren't sufficient protections.
Most of the heavyweight groups are for NAFTA. National Wildlife Federation president Jay Hair told the environmental-information service Greenwire that the trade agreement ``is unprecedented in what it will allow us to do to integrate environmental protection within the context of trade policy, and it is much better than the status quo.'' This is essentially what President Clinton said in his radio address over the weekend.
What opponents have a problem with are other trade agreements that could interfere with environmental protection, plus the practices of countries waiting to come under NAFTA.
Writing in USA Today last week, former California Gov. Jerry Brown warned that ``like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade [GATT], NAFTA would impose a dispute-resolution procedure whereby non-elected specialists, drawn from a short list of insiders, have authority to declare environmental, health and safety standards to be non-tariff or technical barriers to trade and therefore subject to financial sanction.''
Mr. Brown cites a recent example of how this can happen: ``In 1991, a three-person secret GATT dispute panel in Geneva ruled that the US Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 was an illegal barrier to trade because it restricts imports of tuna that are caught using techniques that kill large numbers of dolphins.''
``Under both NAFTA and the proposed revisions to GATT,'' Brown warned, ``Americans would be subjected to a supergovernment of distant and non-elected experts lacking even the rudiments of democratic representation.''
An example of concerns about countries in the NAFTA neighborhood came last week when Chilean fisheries officials met with United States officials to discuss charges that Chilean fishermen kill dolphins for use as bait to catch crabs - something US fishermen are forbidden to do.
According to the group Defenders of Wildlife, Chilean crab fisheries have pushed one species of dolphin closer to extinction and killed several thousand other marine mammals including porpoises, fur seals, sea lions, and penguins. At last week's meetings, Chilean officials acknowledged the problem and promised greater enforcement, according to those in attendance.
``It may have been resolved, but then again it may not have,'' says Christopher Croft, a former US government biologist who now heads Defenders of Wildlife's marine program. ``We presume they'll act in good faith. If not, we'll proceed with litigation'' to ban the import of Chilean crab meat.
Similarly, pressure continues on Mexico to improve fishing practices in the eastern tropical Pacific that (according to a recent US Commerce Department report) have reduced the population of spotted dolphin by 77 percent.
The problem with NAFTA, as Defenders of Wildlife and some other groups see it, is that the trade law does not recognize import restrictions based on how a product is produced. In other words, warns Defenders, whether thousands of dolphins are killed in the process of producing something like crab meat is ``trade-irrelevant.'' Among laws ``threatened by NAFTA,'' according to the organization, are the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Wild Bird Conservation Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the High Seas Driftnet Enforcement Act.
Protecting rare and endangered species far out at sea or deep within jungles is more difficult than publicizing and thereby preventing polluting factories along a border. It's easier to get away with illegal or unethical behavior over the horizon or far from civilization.
It may be, as Mr. Hair of the National Wildlife Federation suggests, that ``there is absolutely nothing in [NAFTA] that in any way undermines environmental laws in the United States.'' But the situation with dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific makes it clear that one cannot assume this would always be the case under an agreement that cannot be fully tested before enacted - which is why environmentalists continue to argue over NAFTA.