The Extraction Backlash — How Fossil Fuel Companies Are Aiding Their Own Demise

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Waging Nonviolence

The Extraction Backlash — How Fossil Fuel Companies Are Aiding Their Own Demise

In the early 1920s, the Long-Bell Lumber Company planned the city that would become Longview, Wash., plotting individual streets on a map that gave life to the community before the first house was raised. Long-Bell built the town for families of employees at two nearby sawmills, and the timber industry is still a major employer for the community of 36,000.

Longview, which sits on the bank of the Columbia River, retains some of its original industrial feel. It might not be the first place you’d look for a thriving center of climate activism, but that’s just what it has become in recent years.

In 2010, Millennium Bulk Logistics, a subsidiary of Australia’s Ambre Energy, submitted a proposal to the Port of Longview to build a coal export terminal that would send coal to overseas markets like China. The project would involve bringing open-top coal trains through Longview and dozens of other nearby towns, polluting them with coal dust and diesel fumes while cutting communities in half with increased rail traffic.

A grassroots organization of Longview residents called Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community started organizing to oppose the coal terminal. Earlier in 2010, after a four year battle, the group had managed to stop the construction of a liquefied natural gas pipeline through the community — a victory that put them in the environmental spotlight. But the ongoing fight against coal exports has proven to be even bigger.

By the time state and federal agencies held their first public hearing on the coal terminal proposal in September, Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community were ready, and they had the support of other organizations, including Columbia Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. Two thousand people showed up at the hearing, with those who opposed the coal export terminal outnumbering its supporters three to one.

“Millennium has repeatedly lied to our community and deliberately conspired to keep pertinent information from our local decision makers,” said Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community President Gayle Kiser in a news release for Columbia Riverkeeper. “We don’t trust them to tell us the truth about what their project means to Longview.”

All over the nation, fossil fuel companies are creating pockets of localized backlash. The debate over coal exports, preceded by the fight against liquified natural gas, has put the former lumber company town of Longview at the center of a regional movement against fossil fuel projects. But Longview isn’t alone. All over the nation, fossil fuel companies are creating pockets of localized backlash. People who never before had a special reason to dislike them now have very good reasons indeed.

The extreme energy attack

From fracking wells, to tar sands pipelines, to shale oil, to coal exports — a barrage of new fossil fuel projects have hit U.S. communities in recent years, many falling under the heading of extreme energy. Although the reasons for the boom are complex, a few key economic, political and historical factors stand out.

One reason fossil fuel companies are focusing on hard-to-reach, low quality North American energy reserves is that private companies’ access to overseas fossil fuels is shrinking. The trend is exacerbated because much of the world’s oil and gas is controlled not by private entities, but by state-owned companies. The world’s biggest oil company isn’t ExxonMobil, it’s Saudi Aramco.

According to Forbes, Exxon is only the fourth largest, with Russia’s Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company also outranking it.

Because most oil nations have state-owned extraction companies, access to dwindling reserves of crude is seriously limiting for private companies. Add to that the proliferation of technologies like fracking and political pressure to achieve energy independence, and you get major incentives for oil companies to focus on North America.

As for coal, until recently U.S. coal mining focused on high-quality reserves in select places like Appalachia and Wyoming. But Appalachia’s coal is running out, and shifting global markets have caused the industry to focus on exports. This has led companies like Arch Coal to bid on Montana coal reserves which have laid untouched for years because the coal’s high sodium content makes it unattractive to U.S. power stations.

All of these factors have contributed to the extreme energy boom, but they still tell only part of the story. At least some of the focus on North American extreme energy seems attributable to the fact that fossil fuel companies have forgotten — or ignored — a set of historical conditions that helped shape the geography of extraction last century.

Senator Nelson visits an oil spill

On January 28, 1969, a natural gas blowout under an oil rig six miles from the California coast triggered a disaster for the record books. Three hundred million gallons of oil leaked into the ocean, much of it washing up on the shore around Santa Barbara, becoming the largest U.S. oil spill in history at the time.

While citizens poured onto beaches to rescue oil-soaked birds, images of the disaster panned across televisions nationwide. Never before had the social costs of fossil fuel development been highlighted in such stark terms, while reaching so many people. A new environmental movement was stirring and the Santa Barbara oil spill came to symbolize the stakes.

One of the most famous stories from Santa Barbara concerns Sen. Gaylord Nelson — Wisconsin’s former “Conservation Governor” — touring the devastated beach. According to legend, it was while flying out of Santa Barbara that Nelson had the idea for the first Earth Day. Whether or not that particular story is true, Nelson’s visit to Santa Barbara contributed to his growing frustration with environmental degradation. And just over a year after the Santa Barbara spill, millions of people flooded the streets for Earth Day 1970.

Mere months before, the National Environmental Policy Act had been signed into law by President Nixon. In the years that followed, Congress passed modern versions of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act. The story is now enshrined in environmental movement history: In the wake of disaster and rising public pressure, new laws helped clean up the air, water and land.

But of course, that story has a sequel.

Outsourcing pollution

The federal environmental legislation of the early 1970s, passed in the wake of the Santa Barbara oil spill and other environmental disasters, is rightly remembered as a high water moment for U.S. environmentalism. But it didn’t go well for everyone. The industries most responsible for pollution didn’t close up shop, but rather moved their most polluting activities overseas, and to politically marginalized parts of the United States.

In the decades following the 1970s, new regulations and public frustration with pollution caused extractive industries to physically distance themselves from upper and middle class communities. U.S. oil production peaked in 1970, the year after Santa Barbara, then began a decline that lasted almost 40 years. Oil extraction moved to places like Ecuador, Nigeria and the Middle East.

The results were disastrous for affected communities: The steady stream of oil spills in the Niger Delta make what happened to Santa Barbara look innocuous. But it worked wonderfully for Big Oil. The industry outsourced extraction to countries where weak or corrupt governments could be counted on not to cause trouble — and if trouble did arise, the U.S. military was ready to assist, as in the case of Desert Storm. For most middle class Americans, the problem was out of sight and out of mind.

The coal industry used a different strategy. Rather than exiting the United States, coal mining became concentrated in some of the most politically marginalized parts of the country — places like Appalachia and the Navajo Nation. Like Big Oil, Big Coal kept its most visibly destructive activities safely out of sight of most middle class citizens.

But there was one thing the industries didn’t count on: A new wave of citizen activism in places as far apart as Longview, Wash., and upstate New York. During the 1980s and 1990s, environmental groups struggled to make the middle class care about destruction happening elsewhere. International campaigns — for instance, the one Rainforest Action Network launched against Burger King in the 1980s — were usually targeted at specific practices of one or a few companies, and relied on rallying relatively small groups of people to put maximum pressure on a corporation. While often effective, these highly targeted campaigns were quite different from the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Then came the late days of the George W. Bush administration, and almost everything changed.

Extreme energy rising

During the Bush administration, the fossil industries found a better ally than they had known for decades. But it wasn’t until the final months of Bush’s last term that the rightward shift of the Republican Party, combined with the economic downturn and waning access to overseas fossil fuels, combined to bring fossil extraction back to much of the United States.

Although the party that chanted “Drill baby, drill” didn’t keep the White House, its rightward shift prompted a similar realignment in the Democratic Party. As a result, Barack Obama largely adopted the pro-drilling policies of his opponents.

High oil prices were making consumers nervous, and the mass movements of the previous century had receded into distant memory. The time seemed ripe for a U.S. extraction boom. In 2008, for the first time in years, North American oil production began a steady climb.

By then, Alberta was pumping tar sands oil into the Midwest. Fracking spread through the Northeast, Colorado and Wyoming. Coal companies bid on Montana state lands and made plans to transport coal to the coast. Parts of North Dakota became one big oil field.

But there was one thing the industries didn’t count on: A new wave of citizen activism in places as far apart as Longview, Wash., and upstate New York. This movement — a patchwork of movements, really — has kept fracking out of New York, and delayed (perhaps indefinitely) the construction of coal ports on the West Coast. It’s rallied Nebraskans against the Keystone XL pipeline, and complicated the gas industry’s attempt to take over California.

What should really be worrying fossil fuel companies is that some of the strongest resistance comes from towns like Longview. Places that few people would have predicted would become hotbeds of environmental activism are now some of the best organized and most vocal communities fighting fossil fuels anywhere in the country. Every fracking well placed near a city’s water supply and every coal train rolling through a small town gives some community a reason to hate fossil industries. And by failing to notice this, oil, gas and coal companies may be digging their political graves.

The backlash spreads

This current situation is not so different than the one that gave rise to the first Earth Day. In the tide of post-war industrial growth, people across the country found themselves fighting local battles to stop pollution and save natural areas. By the time Gaylord Nelson came up with the idea of organizing Earth Day, polluters had already done most of the work.

As Nelson described it, Earth Day wasn’t a top-down initiative organized by a central committee, but a coming together of diverse groups of people, who — with a little prompting from national organizers — realized their struggles had something in common. Nelson went so far as to claim that Earth Day “organized itself.”

Could the same kind of movement spring up around extraction, in the second decade of the 21st century? There’s no guarantee, and it’s perhaps equally possible that by staying too localized, individual fights over fracking wells and pipelines could inhibit a broader movement. But there are encouraging signs.

Many organizers fighting specific fossil fuel projects already see their work as part of a larger united movement. For example, when President Obama toured New York last August, he encountered unified anti-fracking and anti-tar sands protests in four different cities. Local battles over extraction can alert people to the fact that other communities share their struggles, even though the details might vary.

Extraction has always created community backlash. But as long as it happened in Nigeria and Ecuador, oil companies could be confident that the people they hurt most had no real power to influence U.S. politics. By targeting some of the nation’s most marginalized communities, coal companies managed to avoid a mainstream resistance.

The new wave of extreme energy still targets the marginalized. Rail line neighborhoods affected by coal trains are mainly working class. Refineries for tar sands oil disproportionately impact people of color, and fracking targets rural communities. What has changed, however, is the sheer number of Americans directly affected by extraction, and the resulting localized backlash in places where it didn’t exist before. As the predation of the fossil industries continues to spread, the backlash may reach a critical mass.

Back in Longview, local organizations are already connecting their struggles to a wider national and global movement. “Opposition to the coal export terminal continues to grow,” Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community President Gayle Kiser. “Global as well as local issues are coming to the forefront. We have tried to emphasize the local concerns, including health and train traffic, but we realize that if we want our grandchildren to grow up in a safe and natural world, our work has to broaden.”

Nick Engelfried

Nick Engelfried is an environmental writer and activist. He is currently an organizer for the Blue Skies Campaign in Missoula, Montana.

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