March 26, 2023

Everyone Wants to Sell the Last Barrel of Oil

A final victory last week over the Keystone XL pipeline is a reminder that fighting particular fossil-fuel projects is a necessary strategy if the climate is to be saved. The defeat of Keystone XL doesn’t mean that Canada’s vast tar-sands project, which is generally regarded as the largest industrial project in the world, is over, but the fight has been a gut punch to the fossil-fuel industry. In 2011, when protests began outside the White House, Canada’s National Energy Board was confidently predicting that tar-sands-oil production would triple by 2035—which led the climate scientist James Hansen to explain that pumping Alberta dry would be “game over” for the climate. A decade later, as Karin Kirk reported in Yale Climate Connections, fifty-seven major financial institutions have “pledged to stop funding or insuring oil sands ventures. Exxon Mobil has declared a loss on the original value of its oil sands assets, and Chevron has pulled out of Canadian oil and gas entirely. Other oil majors, like Shell and BP, are selling off their oil sands assets, leaving it largely to Canadian oil companies and the Canadian government to forge ahead.” Kirk’s piece appeared in March; the number of such institutions is now seventy-seven.

The situation will get even harder for tar-sands investors if protests led by indigenous groups in Minnesota succeed in halting an expansion of the Line 3 pipeline—which is being built by the Canadian company Enbridge Energy, and will carry tar-sands oil and regular crude—or if protesters north of the border are able to block a huge expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, from Alberta to Canada’s Pacific Coast. Still, as a truly useful Twitter thread from the Cambridge, England, chapter of the Extinction Rebellion movement pointed out last week, there are plenty of other places around the world that are still trying to increase their oil output by developing new projects or enlarging existing fields. Examples ranged from projects in Norway and Russia to those in Uganda and Nigeria, from Mexico and Brazil to Japan and Guyana, from Vietnam and South Africa to Pakistan and Papua New Guinea—and the United States. The governments and companies involved surely know that electric vehicles will soon replace conventional cars, and that solar and wind power are growing cheaper every day. But rather than joining in the effort to speed that transition—and speed is the only thing that gives us a hope of solving the climate equation—they have decided to pump and sell what they can while there is still some market left for it.

In the process, they are undercutting other efforts of theirs, designed theoretically to deal with the climate peril. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for instance, announced over the weekend that Canada would double its commitment regarding “climate finance” for developing nations around the world, giving more than five billion dollars to the United Nations to support mitigation and adaptation efforts. But that amount is nearly equal to what the country is spending to buy and build the newly nationalized Trans Mountain pipeline, after its former, corporate owner decided to stop throwing good money after bad. Politicians would far rather make promises about the future than shut down existing projects; that means shutting down jobs, some of them good ones. But the math is dauntingly clear.

So the effort to stop these projects will continue, even in the face of adverse court rulings, such as one, on Monday, that upheld Minnesota’s right to proceed with Line 3. And protesters are steadily growing more sophisticated: one coalition has compiled a list of the banks that fund Enbridge, so the campaign can carry on in the canyons of Wall Street as well as in the marshes of Minnesota. There are a great many fronts in the battle for the climate, and this is a crucially important flank.

Passing the Mic

Last Monday, a group of protesters led by RISE (Resilient Indigenous Sisters Engaging) occupied a wooden road over a marsh in northern Minnesota where Enbridge is planning to build part of the Line-3 extension. Nancy Beaulieu, a founding member of the group, delivered a talk while standing in a narrow, knee-deep stretch of the Mississippi headwaters. This Monday, I relayed a series of questions to her through the Minnesota activist Kevin Whelan, which she answered as the group was preparing to end the occupation. An enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe, Beaulieu emphasized that, for Native protesters, treaty rights are a key part of the pipeline fight. (Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

What was going through your mind when you talked to people about occupying the boardwalk?

That, if we remain in peace and stay in prayer, we can have this moment to stand together as treaty partners. And that non-Native people can be out there to uplift our voices and amplify our story, because too often—all the time, really—our words fall on deaf ears. So we called on our non-Native treaty allies to come hold the space and show the world that this is how we do peace talks with our local law enforcement. And this is how we can show the local and the state and the federal government that treaties do matter. Eight days later, I think our story is out there. We are going to continue to show up and assert our rights—this is Chapter 1 of a new beginning.

How has it gone?

We are feeling really positive. We had a lot of small wins coming out of this. Our exit will be done with the sheriff’s department here in Clearwater County. The sheriff did a good job of protecting our ceremonies, and we feel that we’ve built a relationship with him, in a good way. This is not a surrender—this is just opening up the door to a legal process. Too often, the police come in with riot gear, and our story is: this is what it can look like—it can be done in peace, in a powerful, prayerful kind of way. We feel good about being here all week—lots of teachings and lots of ceremony were shared. We want to tell the world this is what honoring treaties look like.

Do you have a message for the world?

We have a shared history under those treaties. They’re as alive today as the day they were signed. And they weren’t just signed to protect our way of life but to live in peace, and to leave the earth in a better way than we found it. That we have a reserved, inherent right to protect our sacred water, our sacred elements, and to hold space in our ceded title. We may have surrendered territory, but we never surrendered our right to hunt, fish, gather, and travel.

Climate School

A little Vermont pride: my state came through the pandemic better than any other, largely because of high levels of social trust. A little of that was formed around the Intervale, a unique incubator for young farmers that, each week, draws many residents of the state’s largest city, Burlington, to a parcel of farmland on the edge of downtown, to pick up their fruits and vegetables. The man behind that project, Will Raap—who also founded a gardening-supply company called, straightforwardly enough, Gardener’s Supply—is now developing a big new project about a dozen miles to the south. Nordic Farm will be converted from a big dairy farm into a grain-growing demonstration school and agricultural-innovation station, with a particular focus on farming practices that help sequester more carbon in the soil. As Raap wrote in an e-mail, “The time of combining emissions reduction with terrestrial sequestration as an integrated strategy is finally here!”

An important caution from John Mulliken, the founder of the financial consultancy Carbonware, writing in the Boston Globe: it won’t help much if the Shells and BPs of the world simply sell their oil-and-gas reserves to private companies that are less vulnerable to activist pressure. (Reuters reported over the weekend that Shell may be planning to sell its tracts in the Permian Basin of Texas.) Mulliken argues for coupling that pressure with a sizable carbon tax. (He expands his point with a fascinating essay on how most investors are effectively shorting carbon at the moment, because they’re not figuring in the possibility of a tax on CO2 in their asset calculations.) An interesting straw in the wind: twenty-five current and former Republican state legislators in Utah joined in calling for a carbon-fee-and-dividend plan.

As the level of Lake Mead, in Nevada, falls to historic lows, the drought in the West is getting deeper and scarier—and the authorities charged with getting water to the cities and farms of the Colorado River basin are cautioning that, in an overheating world, we should think of drought as a permanent feature of the region. To adapt, cities must acknowledge that it “is not a temporary condition we can expect to go away, but rather something we have to deal with,” John Berggren, the water-policy adviser for Western Resource Advocates, based in Boulder, told NBC News.

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