NAFTA exec urges public involvement in environmental issues during EENR Speaker Series   

April 9, 2015 - Public participation is a key component in getting governments to address local environmental concerns, the director of a multinational commission that promotes cooperation on environmental issues in North America recently told University of Houston Law Center students and guests.

Dr. Irasema Coronado, executive director of the NAFTA Commission for Environmental Cooperation, spoke March 25 as part of the Environment, Energy & Natural Resources Center’s Spring Speaker Series.

The CEC is part of a “side agreement” made when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed by the leaders of the United States, Canada, and Mexico in 1994, explained UHLC lecturer Tracy Hester, who directs the speaker series.

Its mission, according to its website, is to facilitate “collaboration and public participation to foster conservation, protection, and enhancement of the North American environment for the benefit of present and future generations, in the context of increasing economic, trade, and social links among” the three countries.

Before her appointment to CEC in 2012, Coronado was a professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso and an affiliated faculty member in that campus’ Environmental Science and Engineering Ph.D. program. She told the audience that she developed an early interest in trans-boundary environmental issues growing up in the small border town of Nogales, Arizona.

“For many years, I would say I was an activist working on environmental issues that affected my community,” she said, including the particulate matter emitted by hundreds of produce-laden trucks entering the U.S. from Mexico every day.

After NAFTA was signed, the CEC, headquartered in Montreal, Quebec, was created as part of an effort to ensure the trade pact’s ratification by the U.S. Senate, along with two other agencies – the Border Environment Cooperation Commission, headquartered in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, which focuses on border infrastructure issues; and the North American Development Bank, based in San Antonio, which is the funding mechanism for BECC-approved projects.

Coronado explained that one of the CEC’s primary mandates is to ensure public participation. It does this through several avenues, including a Joint Public Advisory Committee which comprises 15 volunteer citizens (five from each country) selected after a rigorous vetting process. The JPAC provides information to the CEC Council, made up of the environmental ministers of each country (including U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy) on how to better include the public in decision-making. The council meets three times a year, once in each country.

The CEC secretariat’s office in Montreal has a staff of 44 people, most of whom are trilingual. “It’s really exciting to work in that environment,” Coronado said.

She said key components of the CEC’s work are “expert groups,” made up of noted authorities in a variety of technical fields, appointed by the three governments.

“When people come together (who have expertise on a wide range of issues) and they start talking without the politics, the art of the possible is so tangible. They tell you this is what we need to do to really get something positive going here,” she said.

The CEC employs a Cooperative Work Plan in which the three governments agree on areas of common concern (air quality issues, grasslands, etc.) they want to work on.

“It’s a two-year plan. You have to have a tangible outcome in the end, and you want to have a success story,” Coronado said.

“We work on things that are relatively challenging but doable in the time frame. We need to gather data, harmonize standards, compare methodologies, and look at international law. Could we work better?” she said. The CEC examines best practices and pilot programs that have worked in the three countries. Sometimes the group provides information to policy makers on the most current science in a particular environmental topic.

The CEC has studied topics as large as the air pollution problem in Mexico City and as small as air quality in the individual homes of Native Alaskans, Coronado said.

“I think the CEC works because we have a clear mandate. We are given resources, but not much,” she said. When she came aboard in 2012, the CEC’s annual budget was $9 million, split between the three countries. After budget cuts, it’s now $7.5 million.

“It is a challenge, but we’re doing it. We have a very narrow focus. I wish we could do more. Sometimes the public asks me why we don’t do more. We’re trying to show that we can do something small that has an impact and has value, that maybe can be replicated or then maybe be used by governments to make better decisions and improve the environment,” she said.

The EENR 2015 Spring Speaker series began Jan. 28 with Avi Garbow, general counsel of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Click here to watch a video of Coronado’s presentation.

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