Shell Shocker?

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Sierra Club

Shell Shocker?

In April, Seattle 'kayaktivists' paddled out to block Shell's drilling rig from reaching Arctic waters. (Photo: Backbone Campaign/cc/flickr)

Nothing brightens a Monday morning like this kind of news: "Shell pulls the plug on Arctic exploration." With a single headline, the fight to protect the Arctic from a major offshore oil spill has reached the best kind of ending.  

With hindsight, though, maybe the news isn't really that surprising. Shell's decision to push forward with exploratory drilling in the Arctic was so unpopular that even another oil executive criticized it. And that's nothing compared with the outrage it sparked around the nation. Who could forget the sight of hundreds of activists in Portland and Seattle swarming Shell's drilling ship with kayaks and dangling from the St. Johns Bridge to block the departure of its icebreaking ship?

Although the Obama administration chose to allow Shell to pursue its leases, the writing was on the wall. Shell acknowledged as much when it said that a "challenging and unpredictable" regulatory environment was part of the basis for its decision. Translation: With each passing year (and Shell's timetable for Arctic development was measured in decades) resistance was only going to increase, and Shell was going to face even greater losses than the $7 billion it had already sunk into the project. All along, the real question was how long it would take for someone to wake up and pull the plug. Today, we got our answer.

This is a big victory, but I'm ready to predict that it won't be an anomaly. Yes, oil corporations are some of the richest and most powerful in the world. Yes, they have virtually unlimited resources for launching lies, rejecting reality, and fully funding fear. And yes, there will likely be future foolhardy attempts to drill in the Arctic, whether it's by Shell or other companies. But over the long haul, we are going to keep winning victories like this one. That's because, as Shell just demonstrated, Big Oil often acts like its own worst enemy.

Here's another recent example: In California, the oil lobby managed to kill a proposed legislative goal of reducing oil consumption 50 percent by 2030. As a columnist for the Sacramento Bee wrote: "Using millions of dollars, the [oil industry] consultants warned people in misleading television ads and mailers that there would be rationing and that minivans could be banned." He also noted: "The oil industry spent no less than $17.2 million on California state campaigns in the 2013-14 election cycle. That kind of money guarantees a great deal."

But in its desperation to preserve its near monopoly on transportation, what the oil industry really did was light a fire under Governor Jerry Brown. "This is one skirmish," he said, "but I'll tell you it's increasing the intensity of my commitment to do everything I can to make sure we reduce oil consumption in California. My zeal has been intensified to a maximum degree."

Can there be any doubt that California will continue setting the standard for climate action in the U.S. -- while outperforming the nation in job and gross domestic product growth at the same time? My money is on the governor's zeal, and the movement behind that will make sure no politician’s zeal ever wavers.

Then there is what's happening up north in Canada. The rush to cash in on dirty tar sands is a case study in reckless greed on a scale so monumental that it becomes impossible to ignore. Yet, this year, voters in Alberta, which is ground zero for tar sands, ended 44 years of Conservative party rule, bringing in a new premier who has pledged to strengthen environmental regulations and take action to curb the province's rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, the outrage over tar sands began reaching critical mass more than a year ago, when opposition to the KXL tar sands pipeline helped inspire the largest climate rally in history. And just last week, Hillary Clinton announced that she, like her fellow contenders for the Democratic nomination, is opposed to Keystone XL. Once again, we can see the tide turning.

Still, notwithstanding victories like today's, the challenge of going up against Big Oil remains daunting. But when you combine the growing promise of clean energy and clean vehicles with the growing power of a diverse, multi-generational movement with the propensity for oil corporations to trip over their own greed, the playing field begins to look a lot more level and the future beyond oil starts to look a lot nearer.

Michael Brune

Michael Brune is the executive director of The Sierra Club. His book Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal was published by Sierra Club Books in September 2008.

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