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Eating the Fossil Fuel Elephant, One Bite at a Time

If the fossil fuel industry’s costs far exceeded profits, oil, coal and gas would surely be left in the ground.

Hundreds of kayakers and 13 Greenpeace danglers blocked a Shell icebreaker headed for oil drilling in Alaska's Chukchi Sea, July 29, 2015. (Photo: JPL Designs /

During the December 2015 global protests over the feeble results of the Paris climate conference, more than 500 of us Portland environmentalists donned woollies, overcoats and hats, raised our umbrellas and marched across the Tilikum – the newest bridge in Portland. The disheartened were later cheered up by’s successful environmental achievements in 2015, as shared by the organization’s executive director May Boeve. We are eating the fossil fuel “elephant” one bite at a time. As she wrote us:

• We showed that we are greater than tar sands.

• We made fracking a contentious political issue in Brazil.

• We shut down one of the biggest coal mines in Europe.

• We pushed California to divest the United States’ second-largest pension fund from coal.

• We called out one of the richest, most powerful corporationson the planet.

• We mobilized against “free trade” agreements that consolidatecorporate power.

• We raised the bar on fossil fuel divestment commitments – to $3.4 trillion (and counting).

• We stopped the Keystone XL pipeline.

• We helped make the Paris Climate Agreement happen.

We Portlanders also had victories such as the sensational spectacle on the St. Johns Bridge in September: Hundreds of kayakers and 13 Greenpeace danglers blocked a Shell icebreaker headed for Alaska’s Chukchi Sea to help that gargantuan Dutch corporation drill for fossil fuels.

A world audience was just learning about how Shell was destroying the Arctic’s fragile ecosystems and increasing carbon emissions when the company abruptly quit its Arctic operations, claiming little had been found despite $7 billion spent on exploration. Reputational costs were far greater.

Another satisfying victory earning national and international notice came from months of environmental agitation leading to the Portland City Council voting unanimously in November for two of the nation’s first municipal anti-fossil fuel resolutions: 1) banning “any new infrastructure that would transport or store fossil fuels within the city or its adjacent waterways”; and 2) banning any “proposed rail projects that would carry crude oil through Portland or Vancouver [Washington].”

At present, thousands of us activists in Oregon and Washington State are writing or testifying against the industry’s plans to build “North America’s largest oil-by-rail terminal” in Vancouver despite the demonstrated dangers of “bomb train” transit.

True, several of us in Portland’s 350 divestment wing were aware of Mayor Charlie Hales dissembling about Portland’s investment portfolio not containing fossil fuel holdings. The treasurer’s office kept adding midterm notes from Chevron and Exxon, so that by November, they totaled $35 million and $28 million, respectively (average interest earned: 1.11 percent), with the latest additions maturing in March 2018.

Platitudes, Paper Pledges and Inertia

We environmentalists have reason to denounce the results from Paris: world leaders issuing the usual platitudes, paper pledges and inertia from nearly 200 nations with proposed actions by 2035 or 2050. With all the roadblocks from industries and governments, such deadlines might as well be 2135 and a dead planet. Pleas for help from delegates of the Marshall Islands and other small island nations under threat of being swallowed by the Pacific Ocean were ignored. An agenda item about compensation for “climate” refugees was dropped. Not even the attendance of Pope Francis and his recent Laudato Si encyclical letter dented deliberations, perhaps because it scored industry’s extractive greed for driving consumerism.

As Truthout’s Candice Bernd described the Paris conference’s purpose and deeds, especially with some of the worst multinational polluters co-sponsoring it and lobbying delegates at workshops and social events:

The abysmal failure and corporate capture of the [conference’s] process at this juncture in history represents arguably the highest level of governmental and institutional failure. But this failure … also provides the penultimate moral justification for localized action – including traditional organizing and disobedient direct action – to bridge the emissions gap…. [T]he only moral higher ground left is to take back our power and no longer rely on a defunct authority for representation. In this UN failure, [environmentalists] gain the highest ethical justification for shutting down extreme extraction operations, which threaten our health, homes and planet.

Her strong admonition pertains to the world’s ordinary people aching “to do something” about climate change, and yet they are fearful or have little time to become activists.

It’s Always a Whack-a-Mole Situation

For us environmentalists battling such Goliaths day in and out in street actions, at meetings, in hearings and on websites, it’s been an endless whack-a-mole situation. But we’ve always been open to fresh ideas for direct action. For instance, to end wars, Truthout’s William Rivers Pitt just suggested an excellent idea for making a corporation’s costs vastly outweigh its profits. That yardstick determines when to cut losses and/or padlock the doors. That strategy is applicable to ways that we could save the planet.

Moreover, a direct linkage between wars and fossil fuel possession has existed since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and is still rooted in today’s wars and conflicts. Billions have been killed, injured or made homeless, and continents have been devastated by “business interests” secretly driving operations and covering it by patriotic lies about enemies of the state. The chief beneficiaries always have been financiers, fossil fuel corporations and weapons makers.

So for fresh tactics to stop them, Pitt emphasized, “Nothing is too stupid to propose because checkmate is too gruesome to contemplate, much less confront.”

In our even more desperate war, we’ve learned not to depend on help from governments, regulators and courts because too many have been corrupted by multinational companies and the continued, unfortunate incompetence and inertia of the United Nations. In too many countries, ordinary people are either afraid to stand up to neocolonial exploiters because of military annihilation or they accept silence as a way of life. We are always inviting and adding new tactics to our armamentarium of slings and arrows to stave off a lifeless planet.

Several are included below and applicable even for “non-activists” who want to “do something” about climate change.

Practice Exercises for Making Corporate Costs Outrun Profits

As a warm-up exercise for those cost-benefit ideas that follow, check out the following six recent events involving fossil fuel incidents. Then, write a sentence about an action that would make the industries or institutions’ costs outweigh profits and thus destroy them.

Example No. 1: In November 2014, residents of Denton, Texas, voted 59 percent in favor of banning fracking inside city limits because of its adverse impact on public health, the environment and property values. Terrified it would set precedents for other fracking-beset US cities, the fossil fuel industry quickly and successfully ordered both the Texas and Oklahoma legislatures to pass laws barring such local control.

Example No. 2: In November 2015, South Dakota’s Public Utilities Commission ruled that Keystone XL owner TransCanada still can request certification of its expired pipeline permit and, thus, get around President Obama’s recent decision to deny it. This keeps the permit perpetually alive.

Example No. 3: For corporations to convince weak or near-bankrupt countries to allow them to extract resources, their bilateral or multilateral treaties for decades have contained a mandatory arbitration provision called the investor-state dispute settlement. It protects parties against cancellations from bankruptcies, mergers, new governments, and new laws and regulations. Only corporations can sue in these secret, final and binding supranational arbitration institutions, as TransCanada has just done in suing US taxpayers for $15 billion for Obama’s alleged violation of NAFTA chapters 11, 19 and 20 in denying the pipeline permit.

The two major international arbitration institutions usually involved are the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes and the United Nations’ Commission on International Trade Law. Each hearing is usually before three arbitrators (commercial law attorneys), one selected by each litigant, but they also may agree on one arbitrator.

If a corporation wins, it also could get projected future-profit losses, but must pay half of mediation costs and perhaps increase its attorneys’ salaries during the average three-year wait between filing and finding. Collection of awards often is problematic, though, as the most-sued defendant Argentina (56 actions) can attest.

Example No. 4: When Ghana was desperate for a $110 million structural adjustment loan from the World Bank, it was equally desperate for potable water for its cities. The World Bank granted it, but with significant strings, one of which was forcing the government to contract with a multinational water company for service to urban users. Even back in 2003, both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were accused of extortionate “strings.” A study by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found: “The performance of these [water] companies in Europe and the developing world has been well documented: huge profits, higher prices for water, cut-offs to customers who cannot pay, little transparency in their dealings, reduced water quality, bribery, and corruption.”

Example No. 5: The governments ofMozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan and Kenya are selling off well-watered, fertile land to global corporations secretly seeking minerals or fossil fuels. Because of bribes and job offers, the result will mean driving residents from their farms and other livelihoods to become migrants suffering violence in other regions, starvation, poor health and early deaths.

Example No. 6: Papua New Guinea officials secretly signed a 20-year agreement in 2011 with Canada’s Nautilus Minerals company for the world’s first deep-seabed mine (gold, copper, zinc and silver) – this one offshore in the Bismarck Sea. A monumentally flawed environmental impact assessment study underpinned it (questionable environmental research and no prior informed consent from citizens). The government also borrowed $118 million to buy 30 percent of Nautilus Minerals shares (expected to earn billions), and 30 percent of exploration costs.

Usually the police and army prevent dissent in Papua New Guinea, but this time, 24,000 petitioners demanded the deal’s cancellation, and global environmentalists poured in because they saw precedent for other companies plowing up and poisoning other ocean-floor ecosystems for unlimited profits.

The upshot looked suspicious. Both parties waited until the uproar died down for Papua New Guinea to cancel on specious grounds: Nautilus’ refusal to share technical data and drilling methods. Nautilus then sued for contractual breech and won a UN Commission on International Trade Law one-arbitrator judgment. Then, both parties went off into the sunset to plan 2018 production.

How to Eat an Elephant Through a Corporation’s Costs and Benefits

Given that environmental activists are coping somewhat successfully with a colossally rich and powerful fossil fuel industry, Boeve’s list of achievements proves the adage that an elephant is being eaten one bite at a time. Fracking’s ruinous production costs outweigh plummeting profits.

For instance, a barrel of Bakken oil costs $24. Additional expenses include taxes, permit and refining costs and marketing expenses. Sales prices rose to $115 per barrel by July 2014. But then came today’s global oil glut, thanks to the near-bankrupt Saudi government leading its fellow OPEC states to open spigots wide to earn even $29 per barrel to cover its $98 billion budget deficit. The drain stems from its Yemen war, protecting Egypt from ISIS and preserving royal family power and prodigality. If Iran’s sanctions are lifted and renewable energy power spikes, sales prices are expected to fall even lower.

So while fracking production costs rose, not even drilling shutdowns nor “payroll savings” (35,000 lost jobs in Alberta alone by October) could keep overhead costs below the $33.27 per barrel sales price of early January.

Meanwhile, the international coal industry is breathing its last breath in most countries, leaving geographical, environmental and economical wastelands. As for natural gas being a “bridge” to renewables, the public is learning it’s a carbon pollutant.

In short, the fossil fuel “elephant” is on its knees. It’s time for environmentalists to urge some public actions to help put it out of its misery. Below are some outside-the-box actions – practical or seemingly preposterous – toward that purpose, which anyone can do without fearing jail or being put on the no-fly list. If thousands take up even two of these actions, industry’s costs will indeed exceed profits and force companies to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Remember that most utility plants are powered by coal or natural gas. Cuts in use mean sales cuts for the coal and natural gas industries.

Ten Small Ways to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint

1. Write Pope Francis. Point out that if Pope Clement VII excommunicated England’s King Henry VIII for divorcing his wife for lack of an heir, surely it must provide precedent for excommunicating all Catholic decision-makers in the fossil fuel industry, their vendors and financiers for killing millions and destroying the earth. Add Catholic consumers buying their goods and services cited in Laudato Si [42].

2. If your house has mostly rooftop solar power and your state’s utility commission approves rate increases to cut your savings on the grid – as Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission just did – just use solar for everything except a 40-watt student lamp.

3. Calculate your personal carbon emissions – lifestyle, household, transportation, shopping – by taking a free “carbon-footprint” test from Nature Conservancy.

4. If your electric heating system is baseboard or centralized, shut it off and substitute space heaters. They will cut fuel bills – and the utility’s profits.

5. Turn off household utilities for four hours on Fridays during peak hours (6 am to 10 pm) when providers make the most money. (Fridays are easy to remember because of many cultures’ traditional day of sacrifice.)

6. Cut by half the number of times spent recharging electronic devices or hybrid vehicles, beginning on a Friday morning.

7. Take public transportation or walk or bike on Fridays to save gas and lower your carbon-footprint score.

8. Don’t use the stove, microwave or hair dryers on Fridays.

9. If you fly on a Boeing 747, you personally are using 0.01 gallons of gas per mile – and earning significant profits for the oil industry. But if you and thousands stop flying on Fridays, the astronomical costs to oil corporations and airlines will far exceed their earnings.

10. Get a copy of your school district’s line-item budget (as a taxpayer, you’re entitled) and see how much is spent on electricity. Then, write the school board chair an email citing the total and suggest as a taxpayer that the district lower thermostats by 2 degrees for heat – and promote sweaters. If the high schools have Friday night football, point out the stratospheric costs of field lights, and suggest Saturday afternoon games.

Hopefully, these ideas may trigger even more from you. Efforts may seem minuscule, but if billions take a “bite” of that elephant, they hasten conversion to low-carbon-fed energy renewables instead of fossil fuel power irreparably wrecking land, waterways, air – and our common home, the earth.

As the Paris climate conference showed once again, making fossil fuels a nonexistent power source never will be done by governments, controlled as they are by the fossil fuel industry. It must come from ideas for direct action – simple, serious, perhaps mischievous and highly visual to attract media coverage – and their implementation.

If the industry’s costs far exceed profits from imaginative deeds, fossil fuel resources indeed will be left in the ground and rapidly replaced by the fast-growing, widespread use of the newer, cleaner and cheaper energy sources of solar, wind and the tides. We activists have proved that even a herd of the world’s biggest elephants can be eaten one bite at a time. And we are hungry.

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