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North American transborder environmental influences and their impacts

Rick Van Schoik

While media coverage of environmental issues tends to focus on future challenges, many long-standing issues remain unresolved right here in North America. Those following the December 2010 Cancún meeting on climate change may have hoped for a regional agreement on greenhouse gas exchange between Canada, Mexico and the U.S., but the three nations remain far apart on basic environmental principles. The environmental impacts of transborder projects illustrate the existing gap. Some analysts have detailed the regional impacts of pollution, invasive species, habitat bisection, and other environmental consequences —assessments that could remind policy-makers of the need to collaborate more on environmental policy in border regions.

North America is a unique region in that two of its three countries are well endowed and well developed, while the third is still developing, though rich in biodiversity, natural resources and human capital. The transfer of fuels in the form of uranium, petroleum, natural gas, hydroelectricity and renewable energy is extensive, but it primarily flows into the U.S. from the North and South. The value of a transboundary environmental impact assessment (TEIA) and communication may be more important among North America’s three asymmetric economies, especially across the southern U.S.-Mexican border, than in more homogenous regions of the world.

While the U.S. and Canada have communicated some transboundary environmental impacts, there has been less collaboration across the southern border. One reason for the more extensive consultation on the northern border is the century-old International Joint Commission (IJC) mandated to communicate such environmental information. On the southern border, the International Boundary and Water Commission —although older— has a mission confined to its name. The La Paz Environmental Cooperation Agreement, signed between the U.S. and Mexico just over 25 years ago, was to provide a mechanism similar to the IJC but so far has not been fully implemented. Additionally, a side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) created the Commission for Environmental Co-operation, which lists facilitating TEIA among its missions, but it has also been hampered by politics in its ability to adopt TEIA.

TEIA are important to initiate the monitoring process on both sides of the border, minimize impact, mitigate where it is most cost-effective, and jointly manage the system. In other words TEIA enable the four keystones of environmental stewardship to occur concurrently and in all parts of the ecosystem.

Successes and failures

Numerous examples exist where an environmental impact was conducted and communicated to another country with beneficial results; unfortunately more examples exist where it was not so.

On the positive side, in the mid-2000s before California began restoration of the Salton Sea it mandated an environmental assessment that considered negative impacts to and from Mexico. California recognized that one of the sea’s sources was the New River, flowing from Mexico, and one of the options could have included some flows back to Mexico potentially impacting the Gulf of California.

Another positive and more recent example is the manner in which the threat posed by the Asian carp —which could be introduced into the Great Lakes system from the Mississippi River system, specifically the Chicago River— has been handled. If this ravenous, invasive species reaches the Great Lakes, perhaps the world’s largest body of transboundary water, the effects to the fisheries will be significant and systemic. So far, many of the meetings and decisions on the U.S. side have been communicated to the Canadians and the IJC has been consulted as early as 2008, alleviating a potential conflict.

There are other examples that demonstrate how notification of TEIA was not conducted but could have solved an environmental conflict and ultimately maintained better relations between the parties.

The first example is the lining of the All-American Canal, which travels along the northern edge of the California-Baja California border. This water supply canal flows West from the Colorado River to agricultural lands in the Imperial Valley. It was built in an era when such canals were earthen, allowing some seepage into the groundwater. This seepage maintained groundwater levels on both sides of the border, allowing farmers in the Mexicali Valley to continue to draw from their wells and for natural habitats to support endangered species. When the U.S. decided to line the canal with cement to save water —to transfer it to the thirsty populations on the coast— Mexico quickly realized there would be a potential groundwater supply and salinity issue impacting people and wildlife alike. Had the United States conducted and shared an extensive transboundary environmental impact assessment, it could have recognized and communicated the impact early enough in the process to arrange mutually beneficial, least-cost alternatives.

During the California energy crisis, a private electricity provider recognized that building another power plant on the American side would have exceeded ambient air quality standards. The provider requested and received permission from Mexico to build the power plant there but close enough to the border to export all its electricity to the U.S. The natural gas for the plant was to be provided by a pipeline leading from the American side. In essence, pollution was exported to Mexico while the benefits accrued to the U.S. Had the United States conducted a TEIA to consider the health effects when assessing the other impacts of the natural gas line, a collaborative environmental health-protecting solution could have been reached.

The final chapter in this evolving story concerns security. Along the southern border and at selected places along the northern border, the U.S. has constructed extensive infrastructure and implemented complementary activities aimed at stemming flows of contraband across the border. In places where actual walls, fences and barricades are not constructed, a virtual fence —whose lights, roads, generators and towers have comparable impacts— is being deployed. Not only were TEIA not conducted but also many federal, state and local environmental reviews were waived. Many scientists are tabulating ecological, hydrological and other impacts the border construction is having.

All the downsides of these mostly unilateral, and in many cases federal, actions can be minimized and mitigated through the better flow of information across borders before projects are built. The first step, however, is for each jurisdiction to view itself as part of an inter-jurisdictional and, in some cases, international system.

Dr. Rick Van Schoik is Director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies (NACTS) at Arizona State University. He is currently working on promoting development and exchange of renewable energy across North American borders.

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