For most people involved in climate activism, mentioning the name of my city of birth leaves a somewhat sour taste in the mouth. Since Copenhagen was the stage for the infamous COP15 failure, it has become an emblem not only of disillusionment with international climate politics but also of illegal police repression of popular action against the political deadlock.
With all eyes now set on Paris and the promise of COP21 to deliver a non-binding agreement of insufficient emission reduction targets infested with corporate-friendly offset mechanisms, a piece of positive climate news recently ticked in from Denmark: after years of facing escalating popular protest, in August this year the French energy giant Total finally gave up on their only standing shale gas exploration site in Vendsyssel in the north of the country. The corporation retains the license to explore for shale gas in the area until June 2016, but with no further operations announced as yet, their initial defeat is a milestone in the fight against fracking in Denmark.
More than just abandoning one specific drilling rig, Total is also effectively calling off what they have described as an intent to set a precedent for future fracking operations by pushing the extreme energy agenda in a country known for its solid environmental regulation. In the words of Total’s Project Manager for the exploration in Denmark, Henrik Nicolaisen: “if it is possible to establish an economically feasible project here, it will be possible anywhere.” Now that the corporation is putting fracking project and prophecies alike on hold, it’s worth asking: what made it impossible?
A bottom-up victory
It was definitely not due enforcement of Denmark’s strict environmental regulations that stopped Total in its path. As I have written about earlier, despite the country’s fame for its democratic institutions, from start to finish the Danish authorities in fact put the facilitation of the corporate fracking venture above democratic and environmental concerns. To give just two examples: in 2010 the Minister of Environment at the time abstained from disclosing the unconventional nature of the extraction project to the Energy Committee when asking for its approval. Then, shortly after test drilling had begun in the spring of 2015, a State agency chose to rubber-stamp Total’s illegal use of drilling chemicals instead of shutting down the operation on the grounds of failure to comply with the Environmental Impact Assessment.
In official statements Total cites a technicality - “the shale layer encountered by the well was too thin for economically feasible gas production” - as their reason for pulling out of Vendsyssel. Earlier this year, the corporation gave similar reasons for abandoning another entire concession area covering the Northern part of the country’s main isle of Sealand, after having only carried out so-called AGG (Airborne Gravity Gradiometry) surveys. Given the proximity of this concession area to the political nexus of Copenhagen and the houses of the country’s elites north of the city however, it seems likely that other, more pragmatic, considerations weighed in on Total’s decision to withdraw to more remote hunting grounds. There, in the country’s northernmost region of Vendsyssel, the face-off was direct.
Ever since it became known publicly that the exploration project in Vendsyssel would allow the first ever hydraulic fracture to happen onshore in Denmark, people have organized to halt the project. Under the umbrella organization Skifergas Nej Tak! (“Shale Gas, No Thanks!”, reminiscent of the 1970’s and 80's anti-nuclear emblem which originated in Denmark), grassroots opposition has been breeding nationwide. For over a year neighbors-turned-activists have run the protest camp, Total Protest, down the road from the drilling site. They frequently mobilized for picket lines at the drilling site, blockades of Total’s trucks, protests at city council meetings, and more. In April 2015 Greenpeace activists climbed the drilling rig itself, helping not only to shut down the operation for a day but also to reach mainstream media and spread awareness about the precarious project. Over time opposition found its way into city councils, several of whom ended up denouncing the exploration to the central government.
Simply put: it was popular resistance that forced Total to scrap its fracking plans in Denmark. Whilst Total in official statements never so much as mention the fact that activists have followed the corporation in its every move, a few lines slipped from the CEO of State owned oil and gas company, Nordsøfonden, which holds a 20% share in the fracking project: “If you knew the costs of all those protests and extra allowances. I promise you that this year-long delay has cost a lot of money… There is no doubt that Total has also taken this into consideration.”
As always with corporations, the maximization of profits is at the core of decision-making. Falling commodity prices are obviously part of the background to Total’s decision to retreat from Denmark, as has recently been the case with Poland's shale gas industry. In the Polish scenario however, corporations were willing to bid their money on over 60 exploratory wells before starting to call off the action. In Denmark, Total found that the drilling of only one well provoked enough popular resistance to hit the corporation hard on the pocket and force it to give up almost before having started. Still, globally there remains plenty to resist...
The day after Total announced their abandonment of the drilling site in Vendsyssel they appeared on the UK government’s list of takers of 27 fresh fracking licenses (as a partner to IGas in several Yorkshire blocks). From the corporation’s point of view, compared to Denmark the UK might seem like the soft option in terms of government regulation, with recent legislative moves to fast track fracking applications and exempt fracking operations from the trespass law to allow drilling under people’s homes contributing to a very pro-fracking political climate institutionally. But there is nothing to suggest fracking companies will encounter any less of an anti-fracking movement at the grassroots in the UK, which has seen widespread support and several wins over the last few years. And the lesson from Denmark is that even when regulations are in place on paper, we cannot rely on our governments to hold corporations to account — instead, what ultimately keeps extreme energy projects at bay is people organizing and resisting.
Despite its so far happy ending, the Danish anti-fracking story is no fairy tale. But it is worth noting that activists in Denmark are not subject to nearly the same levels of repression or criminalization as many of their counterparts in countries with less protected civil societies and even more fossil fuel-friendly governments. My colleagues have recently been writing about these very dynamics in Argentina – and they can be traced across all continents, including Europe.
When activists successfully reject corporations in the North we need to remember that our peers in the fight against extractivist and extreme energy projects in the global South are left all the more exposed, and in much more threatening circumstances, as corporations turn their attention to more marginalized places. When negotiators at COP21 argue over including this or that bracketed sentence as if either could save the planet, grassroots activists could meaningfully take advantage of parallel spaces to find more effective ways of working in genuine solidarity to shut the fossil fuel industry down wherever it sneaks to next.
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Resistance is not only about saying “no!” to this or that project or policy, or even to deeper issues of systemic violence and oppression. The act of resisting also forces us to imagine and enact the alternatives we dream of. As such, this process is dialectic; in order to go against a corporate aggression like Total’s in Denmark it takes organizing, which in itself calls for different structures of decision-making and communality. This sense of creating alternative structures as we fight the old ones has been put in poetic terms by anthropologist David Graeber, when he talks about direct action as “the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.”
The success of the Total Protest camp relied on people voluntarily putting their time and effort into building a communal space from which organizing could take place. This also meant putting traditional political differences aside, so long as everyone found common ground in resisting the fracking project. To many, the camp thus came to mean an opportunity for seeking both company and cause. As an antidote to alienation (to borrow again from Graeber) and a contrast to consumerist society, the anti-fracking insurrection in Denmark helped open not just a local space for genuine participation but also new horizons of possibility for the people involved. Tellingly, some participants were voicing their concern over what to spend their time doing once the fight was over.
Sometimes, these moments of insurrection can spark a very concrete, constructive process: in Balcombe, which in 2013 came to be the frontline of British anti-fracking struggles, the community have recently gone on to equip local buildings like farms and schools with solar panels. As people from REPOWERBalcombe, a co-op founded to bring about the change in local energy production, remark:
“Balcombe’s recent close encounters with hydrocarbon energy production have certainly been an important factor in making us all think about the energy we use and where it comes from – and helped to give us the idea to start our community power company as a positive way to engage with these issues … We are not anti- anything: we are pro-community and pro-renewables. We recognise that Cuadrilla’s drilling back in 2013 divided opinion in our community, and our aspiration for REPOWERBalcombe is to move on from that debate to unite around something positive instead.”
Or look to the banks of Colombia’s principal river system, Río Magdalena, where communities are resisting hydroelectric megadams that threaten to flood their ancestral territories and destroy their livelihoods. According to Juan Pablo Soler from the grassroots movement Ríos Vivos, the notion of relationship to the rivers is not only their principal motivation to fight back against the corporate-governmental alliance pushing for hydroelectric development, but is also being reinvigorated by the very act of resistance. “We are living cultures. […] The primary emotion that […] gives us the impulse to keep going is the possibility to transform and awaken our consciousness.”
From negotiation to action
The fight for climate justice is not the diplomatic, politically correct negotiation being staged at annual COPs — it is a dirty, high-risk struggle that takes place year round across the globe at the frontlines of extractivism and extreme energy. And while the activists who are making Total drop their fracking project in Denmark will not be anywhere near the negotiating tables at COP21, with Total’s headquarters symbolically looming over the Parisian business district and the usual corporate lobbying and financial influence looming over the negotiating tables themselves, the conference is set to follow the trend of allowing substantial interference from the fossil fuel industry. These political constraints of international climate negotiations makes an all the stronger case for connecting with our peers everywhere, both to effectively resist that industry where the confrontation is direct — but also to collectively reimagine our ideas and revitalise our practices for better societies, as implicit in any act of resistance.