Friday, May 03, 2013 4:17 PM
Some of our best
online-only material from the month of April
While we may have shed our “Best of the Alternative Press”
tagline, Utne.com is still all about envisioning and realizing alternatives—whether
that’s a different kind of politics or a new way to collaborate on a DIY
science project. With that mind, here are some of our favorite blog posts,
articles, and book excerpts from the past month.
For Story of Stuff
filmmaker Annie Leonard, one big alternative begins with liberating ourselves
from overconsumption and recognizing the commons all around us. “We have to learn to
share more and waste less,” she says in an interview with former Utne editor Jay Walljasper. “The good news is that these changes not only will enable us
to continue to live on this planet, but they will result in a happier,
healthier society overall.”
In a similar vein, in “The Ideabook,” author Katie Haegele
explores how repurposing
vintage clothing—you might call it cross-generational sharing—can help us
connect with the struggles, changes, and styles of the past, especially if we
approach that past knowingly.
Sharing is also a big part of Dani Burlison’s post
on California’s Maker Faire, an annual festival of crafts, science
projects, and innovative ideas. With a strong emphasis on collaborative
learning and a DIY ethos, the Faire creates a unique space where experimentation
is encouraged and cooperation is essential.
For those who envision larger changes, Starhawk’s new EmpowermentManual and a new book of Howard Zinn speeches offer inspiring models
for making it happen. While Zinn explores the life
and enduring significance of activist, writer, and all-around awesome
person Emma Goldman, Starhawk’s blueprint
for social change gives us the tools to realize the kind of transformation
Goldman had long fought for. As Starhawk writes, the first thing such struggle
requires is a positive vision for change: “We are most empowered when we know
what we do want, not just what we don’t want.”
That’s certainly true of the teachers’ movement Nancy
Schniedewind and Mara Sapon-Shevin describe in Educational Courage. The
reform agenda may be powerful, they write, but it can’t stop them from envisioning
and working toward a truly democratic education system—one
where social justice and connection to a larger community are front and center.
We can also see some of that hopefulness in Jon Queally’s surprisingly
optimistic update on the climate movement’s anti-Keystone campaign. The
State Department’s official “comment period” may be over, writes Queally, but
the fight sure isn’t.
A little less hopeful, but no less informative, is Suzanne
gif blog on the history of corporate power in Washington—from the Powell Memo to corporate
personhood. “Nearly 80 percent
of the public opposes the Citizens United decision,” Suzanne writes. “That it hasn’t
been reversed goes to show how skewed the current balance of power is.”
Equally sobering are the campaign
finance stats Lawrence Lessig shares with us, from the time Congresspeople
actually spend begging rich folks for money (a lot) to the 132 Americans—that’s
the .000042 percent, if you’re curious—responsible for 60 percent of
Super PAC funding in 2012.
To realize real alternatives, it seems, we’re going to have
to confront the system of institutionalized bribery holding sway over Washington—or,
as insiders call it, politics.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013 2:53 PM
The end of Keystone XL's public comment period won't stop climate activists from fighting the pipeline.
This article originally appeared at Common Dreams and is licensed under Creative Commons.
The 45-day period for public comment on the State Department's draft supplementary environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline comes to end on Monday.
As groups opposed to the project wrapped up campaigns urging their members to write, call and otherwise voice their objections to the State Department's draft, the broader climate movement is also gearing up for the possible next stage in their protracted fight against the project. And with so much believed to be at stake, the movement hopes to leverage its human energy, financial muscle, and political acuity to fight back against the full court press of the fossil fuel industry and their army of lobbyists in Washington.
Despite last month's dramatic tar sands spill in Mayflower, Arkansas—which many activists point to as visual proof of the damage tar sands is capable of—there have been no distinct signals from the White House that President Obama is leaning towards rejection of the pipeline.
As BusinessWeek reports, the anti-Keystone movement has a few deep pockets in addition to the boisterous and committed activism coming from youth-fueled groups like Tar Sands Blockade, the growing and nimble 350.org, and more traditional environmental groups like Sierra Club and NRDC.
Led by Tom Steyer, the founder of hedge fund Farallon Capital Management LLC, a group of wealthy Democratic donors are using their money and status to "draw a line" against the pipeline.
Betsy Taylor, a climate activist who worked for Obama’s election and then was arrested outside the White House protesting the pipeline, said the group of about 100 Democratic contributors and activists, including [Susie Tompkins Buell, who founded clothing maker Esprit], aims to show Obama “if he does the right thing, he is going to get so much love.”
“People are giving it everything they can,” said Taylor, who is helping to organize the donors. “This is a line-in-the-sand kind of decision.” [...]
“We’ve got to step up our game and make our case -- it’s not going to make itself,” said David desJardins, a philanthropist and former Google Inc. (GOOG) software engineer who attended the fundraiser at Steyer’s house.
One former Obama donor has shifted from insider to activist.
Guy Saperstein, a California venture capitalist and onetime president of the Sierra Club Foundation, said while he gave to Obama’s campaign in 2008, he became disillusioned. Rather than attend the fundraiser at Steyer’s house, Saperstein chose to join Keystone protesters camped out nearby.
“The indications I got back from the people who were inside suggested that he was not very persuadable, but you know politics is a funny thing,” Saperstein said. “If people are in the streets, being loud and making the case, things can change.”
Of course, money has never been the true strength of the climate justice movement. That's why a collection of groups, regardless of Obama's decision, hope to leverage the financial support they do have with continued grassroots mobilizations and a renewed commitment to resistance, civil disobedience and public actions.
Groups including CREDO Action, Bold Nebraska, The Other 98%, Hip Hop Caucus, Rainforest Action Network, 350.org and Oil Change International have launched the 'Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance,' which hopes to galvanize the movement ahead of a final White House decision.
The coalition hopes that, "If tens of thousands of people stand up as President Obama mulls his final decision, and commit to participate in civil disobedience if necessary, we can convince the White House that it will be politically unfeasible to go forward. That is, our goal is not to get arrested. Our goal is to stop the Keystone XL pipeline -- by showing enough opposition to Keystone XL that President Obama will reject it. But if he shows clear signs he that he is preparing to approve it, we will be ready."
The pledge itself reads:
It is time for us to pledge to resist. That is, we are asking you to commit - should it be necessary to stop Keystone XL -- to engage in serious, dignified, peaceful civil disobedience that could get you arrested.
Will you join us in pledging resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline, including - if necessary - pledging to participate in peaceful, dignified civil disobedience?
Acknowledging that since the State Department's release of the draft SEIS there have been two tar sands spills in the United States, including one that poured 84,000 gallons of tar sands into Arkansas backyards, the Sierra Club argues that the stakes are too high and said there "is no excuse for the White House to approve" the project Keystone XL.
"It's impossible to fight climate change while simultaneously investing in one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fossil fuels on the planet," the group said in a message.
As Climate Progress illustrates, making a comment to the State Department is the easy part:
Anyone can submit as many comments as they wish. Some created a compelling video about why Keystone is “all risk, no reward,” but not everyone has to do that. Some protest President Obama to let them know that this decision matters for the climate, but that tactic, while important, is not for everyone.
Once the public has spoken, however, the bigger questions are these: Will the Obama administration cross the clearly marked Keystone XL line? And if he does approve the project, what comes next for those pledged to resist it?
Photo: Flickr / tarsandsaction
Monday, April 08, 2013 4:23 PM
Since the beginning of the gay rights movement, it
took Democratic leaders four decades to “evolve” on marriage equality. But the
climate movement, and the planet, don’t have the kind of time.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
A few weeks ago, Time magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will
bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the
U.S. Gulf Coast the “Selma and Stonewall” of the climate movement.
Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and
bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers
of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for
the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we’re aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the
“environmental review” the State Department is conducting on the feasibility
and advisability of building the pipeline. And there’s good reason to put
pressure on. After all, it’s the same State Department that, as on a previous
round of reviews, hired “experts” who had once worked as consultants for
TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder.
Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took
place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide
if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement
takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks. (I’m not kidding. The
section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this
winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac
River out of downtown DC.)
It was certainly joyful to see marriage
equality being considered by our top judicial body. In some ways, however, the
most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide
that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings.
In one weekend, Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri,
Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay
Rockefeller of West Virginia
figured out that they had “evolved” on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the
greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had
signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate
John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too,
had “evolved,” once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe
Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest
part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to
do about the Democrats.
Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Let’s begin by stipulating that, taken as a whole,
they’re better than the Republicans. About a year ago, in his initial campaign ad of the general election, Mitt Romney
declared that his first act in office would be to approve Keystone and that, if
necessary, he would “build it myself.” (A charming image, it must be said). Every
Republican in the Senate voted on a nonbinding resolution to approve the
pipeline -- every single one. In other words, their unity in subservience to
the fossil fuel industry is complete, and almost compelling. At the least, you
know exactly what you’re getting from them.
With the Democrats, not so much. Seventeen of their
Senate caucus -- about a third -- joined the GOP in voting to approve Keystone
XL. As the Washington
insider website Politico proclaimed in a headline the next day, “Obama’s Achilles Heel on Climate:
Which actually may have been generous to the president.
It’s not at all clear that he wants to stop the Keystone pipeline (though he
has the power to do so himself, no matter what the Senate may want), or for
that matter do anything else very difficult when it comes to climate change.
His new secretary of state, John Kerry, issued a preliminary environmental
impact statement on the pipeline so fraught with errors that it took scientists
and policy wonks about 20 minutes to shred its math.
Administration insiders keep insisting, ominously enough,
that the president doesn’t think Keystone is a very big deal. Indeed, despite
his amped-up post-election rhetoric on climate change, he continues to insist
on an “all-of-the-above” energy policy which, as renowned climate scientistJames
Hansen pointed out in his valedictory shortly before retiring from NASA last week,
simply can’t be squared with basic climate-change math.
All these men and women have excuses for their climate
conservatism. To name just two: the oil industry has endless resources and
they’re scared about reelection losses. Such excuses are perfectly realistic
and pragmatic, as far as they go: if you can’t get re-elected, you can’t do
even marginal good and you certainly can’t block right-wing craziness. But they
also hide a deep affection for oil industry money, which turns out to be an even better predictor of
voting records than party affiliation.
Anyway, aren’t all those apologias wearing thin as Arctic
sea ice melts with startling, planet-changing speed? It was bad
enough to take four decades simply to warm up to the idea of gay rights.
Innumerable lives were blighted in those in-between years, and given
long-lasting official unconcern about AIDS, innumerable lives were lost. At
least, however, inaction didn’t make the problem harder to solve: if the
Supreme Court decides gay people should be able to marry, then they’ll be able
Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human
justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit. Go past a certain
point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will
prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit and so
the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more
fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for
their positions to “evolve” along with the polling numbers. What we need,
desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public
opinion and public policy.
Instead, at best they insist on fiddling around the
edges, while the planet prepares to burn. The newly formed Organizing for
Action, for instance -- an effort to turn Barack Obama’s fundraising list into
a kind of quasi-official MoveOn.org -- has taken up climate change as one of its goals. Instead of
joining with the actual movement around the Keystone pipeline or turning to
other central organizing issues, however, it evidently plans to devote more
energy to house parties to put solar panels on people’s roofs. That’s great,
but there’s no way such a “movement” will profoundly alter the trajectory of
climate math, a task that instead requires deep structural reform of exactly
the kind that makes the administration and Congressional “moderates” nervous.
Last Century’s Worry
So far, the Democrats are showing some willingness to
face the issues that matter only when it comes to coal. After a decade of
concentrated assault by activists led by the Sierra Club, the coal industry is
now badly weakened: plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants have
disappeared from anyone’s drawing board. So, post-election, the White House
finally seems willing to take on the industry at least in modest ways,
including possibly with new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could
start closing down existing coal-fired plants (though even that approach now seems delayed).
Recently, I had a long talk with an administration
insider who kept telling me that, for the next decade, we should focus all our
energies on “killing coal.” Why? Because it was politically feasible.
And indeed we should, but climate-change science makes it
clear that we need to put the same sort of thought and creative energy into
killing oil and natural gas, too. I mean, the Arctic -- from Greenland to its
seas -- essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen. The frozen Arctic
is like a large physical feature. It’s as if you woke up one morning and your
left arm was missing. You’d panic.
There is, however, no panic in Washington. Instead, the administration and
Democratic moderates are reveling in new oil finds in North
Dakota and in the shale gas now flowing out of Appalachia,
even though exploiting both of these energy supplies is likely to lock us into
more decades of fossil fuel use. They’re pleased as punch that we’re getting
nearer to “energy independence.” Unfortunately, energy independence was last
century’s worry. It dates back to the crises
set off by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in the early
1970s, not long after… Stonewall.
So what to do? The narrow window of opportunity that
physics provides us makes me doubt that a third party will offer a fast enough
answer to come to terms with our changing planet. The Green Party certainly
offered the soundest platform in our last elections, and in Germany and Australia the Greens have been
decisivein nudging coalition governments towards carbon commitments.
But those are parliamentary systems. Here, so far, national third parties have
been more likely to serve as spoilers than as wedges (though it’s been an
enlightening pleasure to engage with New York’s
Working Families Party, or the Progressives in Vermont). It’s not clear to me how that will
effectively lead to changes during the few years we’ve got left to deal with
carbon. Climate science enforces a certain brute realism. It makes it harder to
follow one’s heart.
Along with some way to make a third party truly viable,
we need a genuine movement for fundamental governmental reform -- not just a
change in the Senate’s filibuster rules, but publicly funded elections, an end
to the idea that corporations are citizens, and genuine constraints on
revolving-door lobbyists. These are crucial matters, and it is wonderful to see
broad new campaigns
underway around them. It’s entirely possible that there’s no way to do what
needs doing about climate change in this country without them. But even their
most optimistic proponents talk in terms of several election cycles, when the
scientists tell usthat we have no hope of holding the rise in the
planetary temperature below two degrees unless global emissions peak by 2015.
Of course, climate-change activists can and should
continue to work to make the Democrats better. At the moment, for instance, the
350.org action fund is organizing
college students for the Massachusetts
primary later this month. One senatorial candidate, Steven Lynch, voted to
build the Keystone pipeline, and that’s not okay. Maybe electing his opponent,
Ed Markey, will send at least a small signal. In fact, this strategy got
considerably more promising in the last few days when California hedge fund
manager and big-time Democratic donor Tom Steyer announced that he was not only going to go after Lynch, but
any politician of any party who didn’t take climate change seriously. “The goal
here is not to win. The goal here is to destroy these people,” he said,
demonstrating precisely the level of rhetoric (and spending) that might
actually start to shake things up.
It will take a while, though. According to press reports,
Obama explained to the environmentalists at a fundraiser Steyer
hosted that “the politics of this are tough,” because “if your house is still
underwater,” then global warming is “probably not rising to your number one concern.”
By underwater, he meant: worth less than the mortgage. At
this rate, however, it won’t be long before presidents who use that phrase
actually mean “underwater.” Obama closed his remarks by saying something that
perfectly summed up the problem of our moment. Dealing with climate change, he
said, is “going to take people in Washington
who are willing to speak truth to power, are willing to take some risks
politically, are willing to get a little bit out ahead of the curve -- not two
miles ahead of the curve, but just a little bit ahead of it.”
That pretty much defines the Democrats: just a little bit
ahead, not as bad as Bush, doing what we can.
And so, as I turn this problem over and over in my head,
I keep coming to the same conclusion: we probably need to think, most of the
time, about how to change the country, not the Democrats. If we build a
movement strong enough to transform the national mood, then perhaps the
trembling leaders of the Democrats will eventually follow. I mean, “evolve.” At
which point we’ll get an end to things like the Keystone pipeline, and maybe
even a price on carbon. That seems to be the lesson of Stonewall and of Selma. The movement is
what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the
The closest thing I’ve got to a guru on American politics
is my senator, Bernie Sanders. He deals with the Democrat problem all the time.
He’s an independent, but he caucuses with them, which means he’s locked in the
same weird dance as the rest of us working for real change.
A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at a global
warming summit he convened in Vermont’s
state capital, and afterwards I confessed to him my perplexity. “I can’t think
of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement,” I said. “A
movement vast enough to scare or hearten the weak-kneed.”
“There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it,” he
And so, down to work.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at
Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign
, and the author, most
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check
out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy
Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben
Image of November 2011
climate march at the White House by TarSandsAction.
Image of a 2012 Barack Obama speech by Matt Wansley. Both
are licensed under Creative
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 12:23 PM
From climate science to grassroots organizing, for 350.org founder Bill McKibben, it's all about the numbers.
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
You can’t build a movement without
numbers. If anyone understands that, it’s 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben.
Standing in front of an estimated crowd
of 50,000 people gathered for the Forward on Climate rally yesterday on the
National Mall in Washington,
D.C. he said, “All I ever wanted
to see was a movement of people to stop climate change, and now I’ve seen it.”
Billed as “the largest climate rally in U.S. history,”
the event was intended as one final push to convince President Obama that his
environmental legacy hinges on whether he rejects the Keystone XL pipeline — a
conduit to what has been called by NASA scientist James Hansen “the world’s
largest carbon bomb.” To underscore this point, 350.org has consistently made
an effort to quantify its achievements into superlatives, ready-made for
Yet, had they not put so much effort into
creating the perception of a powerful movement, they might not have ever built
one. According to political scientist Erica Chenoweth, co-author of Why
Civil Resistance Works, “There is power in numbers, and the more people
participate, the more likely the movement is to effect real change.
Interestingly, this may lead more people to participate because they want to
join a movement that will ultimately be successful.”
Patrick Reinsborough of the Center for Story-Based Strategy (formerly smartMeme),
which trains activists to use narrative as a tool, agrees. “The most important
thing to communicate is that this movement is growing, and that everyday
citizens are willing to step out of their comfort zone in order to be seen and
heard,” he said.
For more than six years, McKibben has
been at the forefront of efforts to create a broad-based movement that can
create the pressure for policies that would bring carbon emissions to a safe
upper limit. According to James Hansen, that limit, which was long ago
surpassed, is 350 parts per million — a number so important to McKibben, he
named his group after it.
While this decision has led some to
criticize 350.org for having a name that’s too ambiguous or scientific for the
average person, McKibben
has long argued, “Arabic numerals are the one thing that cross globally.”
This fact seems to be guiding his broader belief in the power of numbers as
“The hardest thing about climate change
is the sense that one is too small to make a difference,” McKibben told Waging
Nonviolence. “So we’ve helped people to understand that they’re part of
something large, maybe large enough to matter. That helps them feel engaged, I
think, and has the advantage of being the truth.” McKibben’s
feature article for Rolling Stone last summer — one of the most-read
in the magazine’s history — and his recent 21-city
sold-out speaking tour had the word “math” in the title.
Even before the debate over its name,
when 350.org was just six students and a professor at Middlebury
College in Vermont, the focus was on numbers — numbers
that set records, showed the scale of an action or quantified an achievement.
For instance, in 2006, the group
successfully pressured Middlebury to commit to carbon neutrality by 2015. Soon
after that, it organized a five-day march across Vermont to demand action on global warming.
Nearly a thousand people took part, and many newspapers called it the largest
climate change demonstration in America.
Then, in 2007, with a campaign called Step It Up, which sought to visually
depict the concept of an 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050, 350.org organized
a day of action that netted 1,400 demonstrations across all 50 states, calling
it, “the first open source, web-based day of action dedicated to stopping
Since becoming 350.org a year later, the
group has had a string of even more impressive achievements. In 2009, it
organized 5,200 actions in 181 countries for “the most widespread day of
political action in the planet’s history.” The following year saw two other
landmark actions: the Global Work Party and 350 EARTH. The former generated
more than 7,000 climate solutions projects in 188 countries and has been called
the most widespread day of climate action in history. Meanwhile, 350 EARTH,
which took place a month later, managed to gather tens of thousands of people
for several of the biggest
art projects ever seen — so big they could only be seen from space.
If there was any criticism of 350.org at
this point, it was that that the organizers were having too much fun. During
those two years of dramatic actions, Congress and the United Nations failed to
pass binding climate legislation. Many activists were beginning to wonder
whether the impressive showing by 350.org was anything more than just a show.
Leading voices within the climate
movement, such as Tim DeChristopher — who famously disrupted an oil and gas
lease auction in 2008 and spent
the last two years in prison as a result — wanted to see the group leverage
the power of its growing base by engaging in civil disobedience. McKibben
eventually heeded the call and in August and September of 2011, 350.org — under
the guise of Tar Sands Action — held two weeks of sit-ins outside the White
House, calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite
some initial uncertainty about whether arrests would scare people away, the
campaign proved to be yet another historic moment for the climate movement.
Over 1,200 people were arrested and McKibben called it “the largest civil
disobedience action on any issue in 30 years.”
Since then, there has been a boom in
civil disobedience and nonviolent direct actions against the pipeline, from grassroots
activists in Texas and Oklahoma
to mainstream environmentalists like Sierra
Club executive director Michael Brune. McKibben has also recently hinted at
another mass civil disobedience, possibly this summer, telling a crowd of
students in New York City
a couple weeks ago to “keep an eye on 350.org and save up bail money.”
In order to get to this point, 350.org
has had to slowly build upon action after action, finding the right way to
frame its accomplishments for maximum effect. Other successful movements have
done the same, such as the Serbian student movement Otpor!, which started with
just 11 people and used graffiti and small, clever actions that never revealed
their numbers until they had grown enough to topple dictator Slobodan
More recently, in Egypt, says
Erica Chenoweth, “groups of activists would deliberately make their way down
small alleyways to give the impression that there were many more people
participating. It created something of an optical illusion — a small number in
a small space looks bigger than a small number in a big space.”
While the climate movement may be close
to toppling a pipeline, it’s far from toppling the dictatorship of the
fossil-fuels industry. Chenoweth has a number of her own for what major
systemic change requires. “If you buy the
5 percent rule — that if 5 percent of the population mobilizes, it’s
impossible for the government to ignore them — then in the U.S. context it
would mean mobilizing well over 15 million people in a sustained way,” she
When asked what he thought winning would
require, McKibben said, “I’ve got no idea. It will take more than any of us can
imagine.” That might be surprising coming from a man so concerned with numbers
and so good at making them compelling. But right now, the only math that seems
to matter to him is how long it has taken to get to this point. And for that
reason, he’s savoring the moment.
“I waited a quarter century since I wrote
the first book about all this stuff to see if we were going to fight,” McKibben
told yesterday’s crowd. “And today, I know we are going to fight. The most
fateful battle in human history is finally joined, and we will fight it
Image of Bill McKibben at Sunday's Forward on Climate rally in Washington, DC by Josh Lopez, 350.org.
Friday, October 05, 2012 4:41 PM
fossil-fuel enthusiasts began trumpeting the dawn of a new “golden age of oil”
that would kick-start the American economy, generate millions of new jobs, and
free this country from its dependence on imported petroleum. Ed Morse, head
commodities analyst at Citibank, was typical. In the Wall Street Journal
he crowed, “The United States has become the fastest-growing
oil and gas producer in the world, and is likely to remain so for the rest of this
decade and into the 2020s.”
Once this surge
in U.S. energy production
was linked to a predicted boom in energy from Canada’s tar sands reserves, the
results seemed obvious and uncontestable. “North America,” he announced, “is
becoming the new Middle East.” Many other
analysts have elaborated similarly on this rosy scenario, which now provides
the foundation for Mitt Romney’s plan to achieve “energy independence” by 2020.
By employing impressive new technologies -- notably deepwater drilling and
hydraulic fracturing (or hydro-fracking) -- energy companies were said to be on
the verge of unlocking vast new stores of oil in Alaska,
the Gulf of Mexico, and shale formations across the United States. “A ‘Great Revival’
oil production is taking shape -- a major break from the near 40-year trend of
falling output,” James Burkhard of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates
(CERA) told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
in January 2012.
output was also predicted elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, especially Canada and Brazil. “The outline of a new world
oil map is emerging, and it is centered not on the Middle East but on the Western Hemisphere,” Daniel Yergin, chairman of CERA, wrote in the Washington Post. “The new energy axis
runs from Alberta, Canada,
down through North Dakota and South Texas...
to huge offshore oil deposits found near Brazil.”
It turns out,
however, that the future may prove far more recalcitrant than these prophets of
an American energy cornucopia imagine. To reach their ambitious targets, energy
firms will have to overcome severe geological and environmental barriers -- and
recent developments suggest that they are going to have a tough time doing so.
while many analysts and pundits joined in the premature celebration of the new
“golden age,” few emphasized that it would rest almost entirely on the
exploitation of “unconventional” petroleum resources -- shale oil, oil shale,
Arctic oil, deep offshore oil, and tar sands (bitumen). As for conventional oil
(petroleum substances that emerge from the ground in liquid form and can be
extracted using familiar, standardized technology), no one doubts that it will
continue its historic decline in North America.
“unconventional” oil that is to liberate the U.S. and its neighbors from the
unreliable producers of the Middle East involves substances too hard or viscous
to be extracted using standard technology or embedded in forbidding locations
that require highly specialized equipment for extraction. Think of it as “tough oil.”
Shale oil, for
instance, is oil trapped in shale rock. It can only be liberated through the
application of concentrated force in a process known as hydraulic
fracturing that requires millions of gallons of chemically laced water per
“frack,” plus the subsequent disposal of vast quantities of toxic wastewater
once the fracking has been completed. Oil
shale, or kerogen, is a primitive form of petroleum that must be melted to
be useful, a process that itself consumes vast amounts of energy. Tar
sands (or “oil sands,” as the industry prefers to call them) must be gouged
from the earth using open-pit mining technology or pumped up after first being
melted in place by underground steam jets, then treated with various chemicals.
Only then can the material be transported to refineries via, for example, the
highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Similarly, deepwater and Arctic
drilling requires the deployment of specialized multimillion-dollar rigs along
with enormously costly backup safety systems under the most dangerous of
All these processes have at least one thing in common: each
pushes the envelope of what is technically possible in extracting oil (or
natural gas) from geologically and geographically forbidding environments. They
are all, that is, versions of “extreme energy.” To produce them, energy companies will
have to drill in extreme temperatures or extreme weather, or use extreme
pressures, or operate under extreme danger -- or some combination of all of
these. In each, accidents, mishaps, and setbacks are guaranteed to be more
frequent and their consequences more serious than in conventional drilling
operations. The apocalyptic poster child for these processes already played out
in 2010 with BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf
of Mexico, and this summer we saw intimations of how it will
happen again as a range of major unconventional drilling initiatives -- all
promising that “golden age” -- ran into serious trouble.
most notable example of this was Shell Oil’s costly failure to commence test
drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. After investing $4.5 billion and years of preparation, Shell was
poised to drill five test wells this summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas
northern and northwestern coasts. However, on September 17th, a series of
accidents and mishaps forced the company to announce that it would suspend operations until next summer
-- the only time when those waters are largely free of pack ice and so it is
safer to drill.
problems began early and picked up pace as the summer wore on. On September
10th, its Noble Discoverer drill ship was forced to abandon operations at the Burger Prospect, about 70 miles
offshore in the Chukchi
Sea, when floating sea
ice threatened the safety of the ship. A more serious setback occurred later in
the month when a containment dome designed to cover any leak that developed at
an undersea well malfunctioned during tests in Puget Sound in Washington State.
As Clifford Krauss noted in the New York Times, “Shell’s inability to
control its containment equipment in calm waters under predictable test
conditions suggested that the company would not be able to effectively stop a
sudden leak in treacherous Arctic waters, where powerful ice floes and gusty
winds would complicate any spill response.”
was also impeded by persistent opposition from environmentalists and native
groups. They have repeatedly brought suit to block its operations on the
grounds that Arctic drilling will threaten the survival of marine life
essential to native livelihoods and culture. Only after promising to take
immensely costly protective measures and winning the support of the Obama administration -- fearful of appearing
to block “job creation” or “energy independence” during a presidential campaign
-- did the company obtain the necessary permits to proceed. But some lawsuits
remain in play and, with this latest delay, Shell’s opponents will have added
time and ammunition.
Shell insist that the company will overcome all these hurdles and be ready to
drill next summer. But many observers view its experience as a deterrent to
future drilling in the Arctic. “As long as
Shell has not been able to show that they can get the permits and start to
drill, we’re a bit skeptical about moving forward,” said Tim Dodson of Norway’s Statoil. That company also
owns licenses for drilling in the Chukchi
Sea, but has now decided
to postpone operations until 2015 at the earliest.
unexpected impediment to the arrival of energy’s next “golden age” in North
America emerged even more unexpectedly from this summer’s record-breaking
drought, which still has 80 percent of U.S. agricultural land in its grip. The energy angle
on all this was, however, a surprise.
Any increase in
hydrocarbon output will require greater extraction of oil and gas from shale
rock, which can only be accomplished via hydro-fracking. More fracking, in
turn, means more water consumption. With the planet warming thanks to climate
change, such intensive droughts are expected to intensify in many regions, which means rising agricultural
demand for less water, including potentially in prime fracking locations like
the Bakken formation of North Dakota, the
Eagle Ford area of West Texas, and the Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania.
impact on hydro-fracking became strikingly evident when, in June and July,
wells and streams started drying up in many drought-stricken areas and drillers
suddenly found themselves competing with hard-pressed food-producers for whatever
water was available. “The amount of water needed for drilling is a double
whammy,” Chris Faulkner, the president and chief executive officer of Breitling Oil &
Gas, told Oil & Gas Journal in July. “We’re getting pushback
from farmers, and my fear is that it’s going to get worse.” In July, in fact,
the situation became so dire in Pennsylvania
that the Susquehanna River Basin Commission suspended permits for water withdrawals from the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, forcing some
drillers to suspend operations.
If this year’s
“endless summer” of unrelenting drought were just a fluke,
and we could expect abundant water in the future, the golden age scenario might
still be viable. But most climate scientists suggest that severe drought is
likely to become the “new normal” in many parts of the United States, putting the fracking
boom very much into question. “Bakken and Eagle Ford are our big keys to energy
independence,” Faulkner noted. “Without water, drilling shale gas and oil wells
is not possible. A continuing drought could cause our domestic production to
decline and derail our road to energy independence in a hurry.”
And then there
are those Canadian tar sands. Turning them into “oil” also requires vast amounts
of water, and climate-change-related shortages of that vital commodity are also
likely in Alberta, Canada, their heartland. In
addition, tar sands production releases far more greenhouse gas emissions than
conventional oil production, which has sparked its own fiercely determined
opposition in Canada, the United States, and Europe.
In the U.S.,
opposition to tar sands has until now largely focused on the construction of
XL pipeline, a $7 billion, 2,000-mile conduit that would carry diluted tar
sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast,
thousands of miles away. Parts of the Keystone system are already in place. If
completed, the pipeline is designed to carry 1.1 million barrels a day of
unrefined liquid across the United
opponents charge that the project will contribute to the acceleration
of climate change. It also exposes crucial underground water supplies in the Midwest to severe risk of contamination by the highly
corrosive tar-sands fluid (and pipeline leaks are commonplace). Citing the
closeness of its proposed route to the critical Ogallala
Aquifer, President Obama denied permission for its construction last January.
(Because it will cross an international boundary, the president gets to make
the call.) He is, however, expected to grant post-election approval to a new,
less aquifer-threatening route; Mitt Romney has vowed to give it his approval
on his first day in office.
Keystone XL were in place, the golden age of Canada’s tar sands won’t be in
sight -- not without yet more pipelines as the bitumen producers face mounting
opposition to their extreme operations. As a result of fierce resistance to
Keystone XL, led in large part by Bill McKibben, -- the public has become far more aware of
the perils of tar sands production. Resistance to it, for example, could stymie
plans to deliver tar sands oil to Portland, Maine (for transshipment by ship to refineries
elsewhere), via an existing pipeline that runs from Montreal
through Vermont and New
Hampshire to the Maine
coast. Environmentalists in New England are
already gearing up to oppose the plan.
If the U.S. proves too tough a nut to crack, Alberta has a backup plan: construction of the Northern
Gateway, a proposed pipeline through British Columbia
for the export of tar sands oil to Asia.
However, it, too, is running into trouble. Environmentalists and native
communities in that province are implacably opposed and have threatened civil disobedience to prevent its construction (with major
protests already set for October 22nd outside the Parliament
Building in Victoria).
sands oil across the Atlantic is likely to
have its own set of problems. The European Union is considering adopting rules that would label it a dirtier
form of energy, subjecting it to various penalties when imported into the European
Union. All of this is, in turn, has forced Albertan authorities to consider tough new environmental regulations that would make it more
difficult and costly to extract bitumen, potentially dampening the enthusiasm
of investors and so diminishing the future output of tar sands.
In a sense,
while the dreams of the boosters of these new forms of energy may thrill
journalists and pundits, their reality could be expressed this way: extreme
energy = extreme methods = extreme disasters = extreme opposition.
already many indications that the new “golden age” of North American oil is
unlikely to materialize as publicized, including an unusually rapid decline in oil output at existing shale oil drilling
operations in Montana.
is not a major producer, the decline there is significant because it is
occurring in part of the Bakken field, widely considered a major source of new
oil.) As for the rest of the Western Hemisphere,
there is little room for optimism there either when it comes to the “promise”
of extreme energy. Typically, for instance, a Brazilian court has ordered Chevron to cease production at its multibillion-dollar
Frade field in the Campos basin of Brazil’s
deep and dangerous Atlantic waters because of
repeated oil leaks. Doubts have meanwhile arisen over the ability of Petrobras, Brazil’s
state-controlled oil company, to develop the immensely challenging Atlantic
“pre-salt” fields on its own.
from unconventional oil operations in the U.S.
is likely to show some growth in the years ahead, there is no “golden age” on
the horizon, only various kinds of potentially disastrous scenarios. Those like
Mitt Romney who claim that the United
States can achieve energy “independence” by
2020 or any other near-term date are only fooling themselves, and perhaps some
elements of the American public. They may indeed employ such claims to gain
support for the rollback of what environmental protections exist against the
exploitation of extreme energy, but the United States will remain dependent
on Middle Eastern and African oil for the foreseeable future.
Of course, were
such a publicized golden age to come about, we would be burning vast quantities
of the dirtiest energy on the planet with truly disastrous consequences. The
truth is this: there is just one possible golden age for U.S. (or any other
kind of) energy and it would be based on a major push to produce breakthroughs
in climate-friendly renewables, especially wind, solar, geothermal, wave, and
only “golden” sight around is likely to be the sun on an ever hotter, ever
dirtier, ever more extreme planet.
Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College,
, and the author, most
The Race for What’s Left
. A movie based on one of his
earlier books, Blood and Oil, can be ordered at http://www.bloodandoilmovie.com.
Klare’s other books and articles are described at his website.
You can follow Klare’s work on Facebook.
Michael T. Klare
Image by Ray Bodden,
licensed under Creative
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