Local-Level Fossil Fuel Fights Face Violent Retaliation From Industry

Fighting fossil fuel companies can be dangerous business. The people of County Mayo, Ireland, found that out when they rose up against Shell Oil in the early 2000s. The uprising lasted 15 years. Protesters were beaten and jailed. But they delayed the refinery’s opening by 10 years, cost Shell billions of dollars and caused the company a public relations nightmare, as a new book by Fred Wilcox, Shamrocks and Oil Slicks, recounts.

In the fight over the gas pipeline and refinery in County Mayo, Wilcox interviewed local people — farmers, fishers, innkeepers, teachers — about the gas infrastructure and recounts the brutality they endured when they resisted. As farmer Willie Corduff says, “I think that if Shell had known at the beginning that we weren’t after money … they would have taken us out, killed us.”

Corduff was one of the “Rossport 5” — three County Mayo farmers and two teachers jailed for resistance such as telling Shell engineers to get off their property. Shell got an injunction against them, which they violated. “The Irish government refused to help resisters,” Wilcox told Truthout via email. “The church abandoned them. The media maligned them. The police beat them.” The horrible irony is that there was no benefit to Ireland from this refinery. Shell took all the revenues.

Politicians and the clergy were allegedly paid off. Shell’s own Environmental Impact Statement revealed that Shell planned to dump mercury, selenium, cobalt and radioactive elements into the local bay and lake. “The enforcers Shell brought to Ireland were ex-army men, hired to harass and beat the company’s opponents,” according to Wilcox. The Rossport 5, however, had a huge impact. Spontaneous celebrations broke out throughout Ireland the day the injunction was lifted and the Rossport 5 were released.

The “foreshore license” exemplified the many illegalities in the planning process. Wilcox’s book reports that a government minister issued a foreshore license that allowed “the project’s developers to do almost anything they want, up to the foreshore [or seashore]. But in this case the Ministry defines the foreshore as being eight kilometers inland, which … is completely illegal. The foreshore is part of the shore between the high-water mark and the low. That’s it.”

According to local activist Mark Garavan, “even if officials have to change laws, that’s exactly what they are prepared to do.” Or, as journalist Liamy MacNally sums up this shameful episode: “The people of Erris were betrayed by the government, by Mayo County Council and by the oil company. Betrayed. Completely … we heard all these lies being told … even perjury in court. I witnessed it.”

Legal skullduggery is a feature of oil companies’ assaults on local people. From the perjury MacNally says he witnessed in Ireland to the judge-shopping that some accuse Chevron of in its battle against Ecuadorians over its Amazon pollution, the courts are the scene of many fossil fuel corporate abuses.”

Ecuadorians in the Amazon rainforest found out how dangerous fossil fuel companies are following an oil spill by Texaco (later acquired by Chevron) – a dispute that landed in international courts, and a fight that continues today.

Ecuador Fights a Decades-Long Battle

In Ecuador, Chevron continues to push legislation that would undermine the judiciary and make the Ecuadorian government liable for Chevron’s pollution, according to Kevin Koenig of Amazon Watch. To insulate itself from paying for its Amazon damage, Chevron long ago removed all its assets from Ecuador, because when Chevron bought Texaco in 2000, it became liable for “the Amazon Chernobyl” – more than 900 carcinogenic waste pits and the dumping of roughly 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers. Indigenous people in Ecuador sued Texaco, owned by Chevron, in 2003 over their destroyed land, polluted water and subsequent health issues resulting from the oil spill. They suffer from cancers, respiratory ailments, skin lesions and miscarriages in great numbers – all symptoms of hydrocarbons in drinking water and on the skin.

These victims won over $9 billion from the company in Ecuadorian court in 2013. So Chevron went to the New York courts, according to Koenig, to prevent Ecuadorian communities from ever enforcing the award. The company alleged fraud and illegal impropriety in the Ecuadorian court proceedings. According to Greenpeace’s Rex Weyler, Chevron found a friendly New York judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, who “allowed a RICO racketeering case against two Ecuadoreans … and their American lawyer, Steven Donziger.” Koenig described this “attack on a human rights attorney, Donziger, who is currently under house arrest pending appeal” as unprecedented. But on February 25, in a huge blow to Chevron, bar referee John Horan recommended returning Donziger’s law license, which was suspended following his arrest.

Now Ecuadorians must file suits in foreign countries where Chevron has assets to claim recompense. In 2015, they did so in Argentina and Canada. In Argentina, according to Koenig, Chevron pressured the Kirchner government, threatening to leave the country. On appeal, Koenig says Chevron argued that the Ecuadorian award was based on fraud and legal malfeasance, and that Ecuadorians should not get Chevron’s Argentina assets, because Chevron in Argentina is a separate corporation from Chevron. In 2018 Chevron won on appeal. This, Koenig observes, “is the way the corporate structure of the fossil fuel industry is designed to guarantee impunity. They set up subsidiaries to protect themselves from liability.” In Canada, Chevron delayed, denied and stalled, Koenig says. In 2018, the high court sided with the oil company. Chevron did not respond to a request for comment.

This resembles Shell’s tactics in Nigeria, where it has stalled living up to its side of a court-ordered bargain.

Shell Poisons Land and People in Nigeria

What Shell and the Nigerian junta did to Ogoniland and its people in the Niger Delta in the 1990s is orders of magnitude worse than what happened anywhere else. The 1956 discovery of oil there led to environmental catastrophe and crimes against humanity.

Several human rights cases, beginning in 1966, sought to hold Shell accountable for crimes such as summary execution, crimes against humanity, torture, inhumane treatment and arbitrary arrest and detention.

Back in the 1990s, environmental protesters were killed. Toyin Falola and Roy Doron’s book, Ken Saro-Wiwa, focused on activist, novelist and television writer, Saro-Wiwa, who was framed and falsely accused of murder, along with eight other environmental activists, and hanged by the Nigerian military government in 1995. Saro-Wiwa was world-renowned for leading the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a group the military intended to crush. “Although Ogoniland is only a small part of the Niger Delta,” according to Amnesty International, “MOSOP’s protest had potentially wide ramifications. The government’s finances relied upon oil … [which] in 1995 … made up 95.7% of Nigeria’s total exports.” Saro-Wiwa’s execution led to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations, whose 54 members are mostly former territories of the British Empire, for over three years. Suspension is the most serious punishment the commonwealth imposes.

In 2009, Shell settled the Saro-Wiwa case, paying $15.5 million to his family without admitting liability. According to Amnesty International, the Niger Delta is “one of the most polluted places on earth,” damaged for decades by oil spills.

“Little did the … Ogoni communities … know that their culture, traditions, practices and livelihood were about to be flushed into the septic tank of horror,” Falola said about Shell’s arrival in the Delta in an email to Truthout. “The Ogoni have been treated by the company, with the keen collaboration of the Nigerian government, with disdain and as a nonentity, whose survival or death means nothing and affects none.” Falola cited a United Nations Environment Programme report that Shell’s activities “heavily contaminated air, up to five feet of dead soil and poisoned waters.” In spite of Shell’s withdrawal, there are no longer any fish in the water. “The air remains cancerous,” Falola wrote, “as they battle with acidic rains, no farmlands to yield bountiful harvest … nothing but hell on earth.”

Currently, the situation is stalemated. A British court ruled in 2011 that Shell must admit liability for the damage caused in Ogoniland. Shell agreed to cleanup and compensation — paying damages to affected communities, but as of today, none of this has happened. According Falola, “although the oil company had moved its operations away from this area, its major pipelines still cut across their lands … [and] pose danger to the Ogoni people, as the leaks exacerbate their already worsening condition.” Shell did not respond to a request for comment.

Though Shell has stalled on fulfilling a court order, in the U.S., fossil fuel companies use the courts to attack protesters. Several states have adopted critical infrastructure laws, making it a felony to “interfere” with pipelines.

Criminalizing Pipeline Protest in the U.S.

In the U.S., recent years saw the huge struggle against fossil fuel extraction and transport centered on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). On March 26 of this year, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ordered an environmental review by the Army Corps of Engineers. He has not yet decided if the pipeline can continue to transport oil. But either way, this is a victory for all those who opposed and protested DAPL.

The last leg of the DAPL system is the Bayou Bridge Pipeline (BBP) in Louisiana, completed in March 2019, but two lawsuits continue. The BBP runs about 162 miles across the entire state from Lake Charles to the Mississippi River. It “brings fracked crude oil from … North Dakota to the Gulf,” reported Yessenia Funes last year. Locals opposed it at least since 2017. It is owned by Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66.

One lawsuit against the BBP involves local landowners, who charge that the pipeline traversed their property without their permission. In January, their attorneys argued this in appellate court. The trial court had already found that the BBP unlawfully trespassed onto private property, but, according to the anti-pipeline group Louisiana Bucket Brigade, “allowed the company to take the land after the fact under the power of eminent domain.”

A second suit in Louisiana state court was brought by plaintiffs including Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, Sierra Club and Earth Justice. The suit challenges the permit itself. According to the Basinkeeper’s executive director, Dean Wilson, environmental damage is his group’s issue, specifically that the corps of engineers doesn’t enforce permits and the damage to wetlands is astronomical. “It looks good on paper,” Wilson says, “but they don’t enforce it. And that’s what they did with the Bayou Bridge.” Neither Energy Transfer Partners nor Phillips 66 responded to requests for comment.

Wilson’s group preferred the legal route to protests, which legislators used as an excuse to pass a “critical infrastructure” law, and for Energy Transfer Partners to militarize local police. As reported by Truthout, the critical infrastructure law made it a felony to trespass on the pipeline. Protesters argue that the law violates their First Amendment rights and are suing. Protester Anne White Hat faces “up to 10 years in prison” after being arrested near a Bayou Bridge construction site, as she wrote in Truthout.

The message of Shamrocks and Oil Slicks and indeed of all these struggles against fossil fuel extraction is that oil companies are lethally flexible: if they can’t sway the government, they’ll try with the courts, the media, the clergy, anything to extract their profits. But resistance, of the sort in County Mayo, can hurt those profits. That is the one thing these corporations cannot tolerate, and the one thing that might drive them away.