September 2004: Filling Our Tanks (And Brains) With The Wrong Fuel

Lament for an election in which the crucial issue was ignored
September 1, 2004

Anyone who has recently bought or leased a new car in Canada may find this warning in its Driver’s Manual: “In order to maintain good performance, fuel economy and emissions control, we strongly recommend the use of gasoline that does NOT contain manganese-based additives such as MMT. Use of gasoline with these additives may adversely affect performance and cause the malfunction indicator light on your instrument panel to come on.”

This wording is taken from the instruction booklet of the car I leased a few months ago. You may recall that MMT (methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl) is the additive whose importation our federal government tried to ban six years ago when MMT was implicated as a threat to the environment, to human health, and to car emission control devices. The Chrétien government rescinded the ban in 1998 after the U.S. manufacturer of MMT, the Ethyl Corporation, filed a NAFTA complaint, and so this toxic additive continued to be mixed in the gasoline in almost all the gas pumps across Canada for the next six years. It was finally removed by most of the big gas companies earlier this year—but only because of pressure by car makers concerned about its clogging up their catalytic converters, not by a federal government concerned about the health of Canadians and the environment.

Afraid that Ethyl’s suit for $347 million in damages would be upheld by a NAFTA tribunal (which it almost certainly would have been), Ottawa cravenly backed down, withdrew its ban on MMT, paid Ethyl $20 million in an out-of-court settlement, and publicly apologized for trying to put people’s health ahead of the company’s profits.

Although manganese has not been conclusively proved to be a health hazard, neuroscientists are concerned about its potential effects on the human nervous system. When inhaled as an emission from motor vehicles, it passes directly into the brain, where it can cause damage to nerve cells.

Jean Chrétien was himself concerned about the possible harmful effects of MMT, which was first added to gasoline in Canada as an octane-booster in 1978. As leader of the opposition in 1991, he sent a letter to the Tory minister of health: “Some of our leading neuroscientists,” he wrote, “as well as studies and documents from medical schools and universities, outline in detail the truly horrific effects that allowing the continued use of this neurotoxin could have on the Canadian people.”

He apparently continued to hold this view after he became Prime Minister, and acted on it by passing legislation prohibiting MMT’s importation into Canada from the U.S. What had changed in the interim, however, was not Chrétien’s concern about MMT. It was the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which gave corporations like Ethyl the power to override government actions that curtail (or even threaten) their profits. Those profits became sacrosanct, superseding the right—and responsibility—of elected governments to protect the health of their citizens.

Ironically, under NAFTA’s infamous Chapter 11, Ethyl could only file a complaint against the Canadian or Mexican governments. It couldn’t stop California and many other American states when they decided to ban MMT, which is why my driver’s manual was obviously written mainly for the benefit of U.S. motorists. MMT has also been banned in Europe for many years.

Ethyl’s suit against the Canadian ban, seeking $347 million in damages, never went to the hearing stage. If it had, it would have been ruled upon, in secret, by a three-person panel of arbitrators whose judgment, under the terms of NAFTA, would be final and binding. No appeals of such rulings are allowed. Considering that almost all tribunals in previous such cases had ruled in favour of the corporate complainant, the Chrétien government prudently decided to capitulate.

As a consequence of this NAFTA-driven surrender, Canadians have been exposed to MMT-laced gasoline for six more years. If the car companies hadn’t objected so strenuously to it (because of the millions of dollars they were losing from having to repair or replace MMT-clogged catalytic converters under warranties), Shell, Esso, and Petro-Canada would still be adding MMT to their gasoline. Sunoco is still using it in all but its top-premium blends, and Petro-Can says it has only “suspended” the use of MMT and may resume its use in a year or so. Esso also doesn’t rule out going back to MMT eventually.

NAFTA, of course, like its 1988 precursor, the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, was initiated by the Mulroney Tories, but the Chrétien Liberals warmly embraced it as well. They gave a high priority to strengthening and expanding corporate rights even further under the various trade deals of the WTO, such as the GATS and TRIPS.

More disturbing is NAFTA’s “chilling” effect. Fearing successful corporate suits against them, governments are refraining from even considering laws, regulations or policies to which corporations might object. U.S. tobacco giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, for example, had only to show mild displeasure to cause Ottawa to back away from a proposal to legislate the plain-packaging of their cigarettes.

Stephen McBride, director of the Centre for Global Political Economy at Simon Fraser University, says that “the ability of governments to legislate on health, safety and the environment, to structure a desired mix of public and private provisions in the service sector, and to pursue a national economic strategy have all been limited by these trade agreements. Canadian courts, too, have lost jurisdiction as NAFTA and the WTO place many important matters beyond their reach.”

Political economist Stephen Clarkson goes so far as to call NAFTA and other trade deals “a new business-first external constitution that supersedes Canadian laws—nothing less than a charter of rights and freedoms for corporations.”

Given this sweeping transfer of political power from our elected politicians to unelected CEOs (most of them foreigners), the consequent loss of Canadian sovereignty should have been one of the major issues debated in the recent federal election. Instead, NAFTA was virtually ignored during the campaign, barely mentioned in the TV debates when Harper jeeringly asked Layton if he would scrap it, and otherwise excluded from media coverage.

This neglect of what should have been the overriding issue in a federal election shows how appallingly unaware Canadian voters are of the extent to which they have lost their rights as voters and citizens. Does it really matter what party’s candidates we elect if the only policies or actions they can take are those that won’t offend the corporations? In that kind of regime, the public interest rarely prevails, elections simply rearrange the seating order of the corporate underlings in Parliament, and our “democratic” system becomes a farce.

The only hope that remains is that the consequences of the June 28 vote, as they sink home to Canadians in the months and years ahead, will jolt them out of their unenlightened state—and that this new awareness of the destructive nature of NAFTA and other “free” trade deals will—better late than never—finally manifest itself the next time they go to the polls.

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In the meantime—thanks to the car-makers, not the law-makers—we’ll at least (and at last) be able to fill our tanks with gasoline that we can be confident won’t make us sick. We got the lead out 20 years ago because NAFTA wasn’t yet in place to empower the gas companies to keep it in. Getting the MMT out—completely and permanently—calls for a popular revolt against NAFTA, which in turn requires an informed electorate. CCPA members, who are already well-informed, can help by spreading the word about NAFTA to all their relatives, friends and neighbours.