Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Environmental groups facing the petroleum industry: global perspectives

A short talk given to the "Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa" event on 10 November 2016, the 21st anniversary of the execution of the Ogoni Nine.

On Wednesday last week a Brussels-based anti-fracking campaigner wrote 

“things have been quiet on the fracking front. In England, faced with a fractured democracy, campaign groups are becoming increasingly creative and well organised. In Ireland, the Parliament has backed a Bill calling for an outright ban, meaning it progresses to the next legislative stage. Aside from having had to assist with a Twitterstorm, write to elected representatives and keep others updated with developments, there has been little else to do. Elsewhere in Europe, there has only been positive news to share of late: Poland’s last frackers pulling out and BNK Petroleum relinquishing another licence in Spain.”[1]

This Wednesday, of course, Trump won the US election, which casts a huge shadow over Native resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock and perhaps also to Keystone XL. We could say: what a difference a week makes. Or we could say: what a difference politics makes.  

This is often not how we talk about energy, where decisions on petroleum are treated either as a technical issue (by its supporters) or as a grim structural inevitability (by its opponents). But in practice the very uncertainty of petroleum extraction projects points to how far they are political decisions in the last instance.

This can be seen particularly in relation to tar sands, where in the boom years 2010 – 2013 producers lost $30.9 billion, of which 55% “can credibly be attributed to the impact of public accountability campaigns”[2]. It is also, of course, visible on a wider scale, in decisions such as that of the UK government to remove subsidies for renewable energy while passing legislation to facilitate the fracking industry and deciding to proceed with the 3rd Heathrow runway – or on the widest scale around the Paris agreement and the question of what it will actually mean in practice.

Politics, or more broadly social movements, is also an outcome of struggles over petroleum production. Anna Szolucha, who completed her PhD here, is now a Marie Curie research fellow working on energy democracy and popular resistance to fracking. She writes

“In places where the protesters managed to make the energy corporations abandon the drilling sites, the communities are organising in egalitarian ways and forming new renewable energy co-operatives. The aim is to take responsibility for meeting their own energy needs in a way that is local and mitigates climate change. May new local energy co-operatives and grassroots mobilisations against hydraulic fracturing reveal the potential for a repowering of democracy?”[3]

In other words, if we want to think about the future of petroleum we are talking not simply about inevitable technical or structural factors, but about politics: about how people organise on both sides to push or resist particular projects and alternatives. This matters to all of us, or at least to those who will live long enough to be personally affected by global warming or who have children and grandchildren.  This is why Ken Saro-Wiwa’s commitment to the struggle against Shell in Ogoniland, or the struggle against Shell in Mayo, matter far beyond the people involved: they are among the places where the future of the planet has been fought out.

In terms then of assessing the politics of environmental groups facing the oil industry:

·        The period of low oil prices since 2014, in large part a result of OPEC hostility to the new petroleum sources (fracking, tar sands, deep water drilling), has had the desired effect of making such projects much less likely to be profitable, and thus much less likely to be pursued, at least at present. However once a project has been signalled, this gives local opposition advance warning for the long process of organisation and education that is needed to win.
·        The shift towards “midge” firms, particularly in fields like fracking, is an added weakness. As we have seen, it is far harder to resist a major oil company like Shell, with massive reserves and a need to maintain a political image of strength, than it is to resist a small and in part speculative exploration company which cannot easily cope with declining prices and the costs of popular resistance. (For a reminder: Shell to Sea raised the cost of the Corrib Gas project from c. €800m to c. €3.5bn, quite separate from the costs involved in taking 15 years to build a pipeline). So the chances for effective resistance vary considerably in terms of the size of the company involved – bear in mind that the oil majors have bigger economies than many small countries.
·        With the Paris agreement in particular, we have started to see some light at the end of a long historical tunnel. If Graham Kay’s research explores the moment when a strategic commitment to secure petroleum reserves became a central motivation for great power politics, we are now entering a period where this can no longer be taken for granted, and where it is conceivable that major states can face the industry (and its associated industries, like the car and aviation industries) down. This does not mean, of course, that they always will: rather that other economic actors and considerations (rising sea levels, comparative costs, renewable energy) start to become thinkable alternative options for states. Indeed some petroleum companies themselves are investing increasingly in renewables, while divestment campaigns are having a surprisingly easy ride of it.
·        Lastly, as in Ogoniland a substantial proportion of new oil projects are in areas with significant indigenous populations, not least in the USA and Canada. Such populations are often fighting for their economic and cultural survival, and have less to lose in that they have fewer ties to national power structures than others. This is of course one reason for the often spectacular involvement and frequent success of indigenous resistance to the industry.

So these are broadly speaking background conditions. Environmental groups are, I think, winning more battles against the petroleum industry now than perhaps ever before. It is also important to remember that some defeats (like Rossport) represent Pyrrhic victories for the industry: the Irish state will think twice and three times before signing up to another project that might bring on the same kinds of conflict. This was, after all, the experience both of the nuclear power projects of the 1980s and of the UK government’s roads projects in the 1990s.

However the question of whether the light at the end of the tunnel is just a mirage is ultimately one of politics. On the dark side, as we can see with Trump and May, states are entirely capable of orienting towards petroleum for non-strategic reasons. Conversely, if Putin’s petroleum strategy has a logical geopolitical orientation, China’s relative openness to a gear shift shows an alternative kind of state strategy from a surprising direction.

On the light side, much depends on alliances. This is very obvious in relation to indigenous resistance, from the international alliance-building of Saro-Wiwa’s MOSOP to Standing Rock. However it is equally important elsewhere: between the “Lancashire Nanas” and eco-warriors in Britain, or between unions, churches and environmentalists in Norway. There are no guarantees here; and events like the Green Party’s presence in government here when the Navy was used against Rossport protestors show just how bad things can be.

So it really is up to us.

Laurence Cox