Vice President Gore, with an eye to environmental protests planned at World Trade Organization talks here later this month, announced today that the United States will require environmental impact reviews before it signs new trade agreements.
Concluding a four-day West Coast swing, Gore said an executive order being signed by President Clinton today will "revolutionize the way the environment is dealt with in all future trade talks."
"In this debate about trade and the environment, some folks have kind of taken the idea they're necessarily in conflict," Gore said in a brief statement here before flying home. "I've never believed that."
The order calls for a team of experts from government and the private sector to produce written assessments of how any future trade deals would affect air, land, water and wildlife. "From day one, we will be considering environmental issues and integrating them throughout" the negotiation process, Susan Esserman, deputy U.S. trade representative, said in an interview.
Officials declined to comment on how often such concerns would carry the day but promised they would get a fair hearing.
Among the administration's other goals, Gore said, is eventually ending subsidies that it says promote over-fishing, eliminating trade barriers to environmentally friendly technologies and giving citizens a voice in the process.
Some environmental groups welcomed the order, but only as a first step. "It could help environmentalists get to the table on trade agreements in the future," said Daniel Seligman, who follows trade issues for the Sierra Club. But "it does nothing to address the problems we have with current trade agreements."
Public Citizen, part of the Ralph Nader organization, had a more critical view. Federal law already requires environmental reviews, said Lori Wallach, director of the group's Global Trade Watch. The government is instead going to substitute "a meaningless insider review," she added.
The WTO, formed five years ago, polices international commerce from its Geneva headquarters. Opponents say the 134-nation body favors corporate interests over labor and environmental concerns. When delegations from the member states meet here Nov. 30 to plan a new round of global negotiations on reducing trade barriers, environmental and labor groups plan large street protests.
Events leading up to the talks are already drawing demonstrators. On Monday, a speech at the University of Washington by Martin Baily, chairman of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, was canceled due to security concerns. Protesters had announced plans to show up at the speech.
Gore, meanwhile, is trying to walk the fine line between pro-growth, free-trade policies and his fealty to core Democratic constituencies such as unions and environmental activists. "America can and should use its trade policy to strengthen environmental protection both at home and abroad," he said.
As a boost to his political campaign, White House officials let Gore make the announcement today, virtually ensuring extensive television coverage in a city that is both heavily dependent on trade and sensitive to quality-of-life issues.
In a private meeting last night with 15 leaders of area environmental groups and Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D), Gore pleaded with the activists to look beyond disappointments of the past seven years, according to two participants.
"They are not happy with the pace with which the administration has addressed environmental issues, but he promised as president he'll be out there fighting for the environment," said one Gore aide.
After talking for 60 minutes about salmon protection, coal mining, the WTO and oil spills, Gore concluded with an impassioned political pitch, said the two sources. If recent cutbacks at some environmental agencies have seemed discouraging, just imagine how terrible life would be under a second President George Bush, Gore warned.
Staff writer John Burgess contributed to this report from Washington.
CAPTION: Vice President Gore says the reviews by teams of experts will "revolutionize the way the environment is dealt with in all future trade talks."