Protests against Fossil Fuel Industry Extend across U.S.

Sunday, March 20, 2016
(photo: Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images)

 

By John Schwartz, New York Times

 

READING, N.Y. — They came here to get arrested.

 

Nearly 60 protesters blocked the driveway of a storage plant for natural gas on March 7. Its owners want to expand the facility, which the opponents say would endanger nearby Seneca Lake. But their concerns were global, as well.

 

“There’s a climate emergency happening,” one of the protesters, Coby Schultz, said. “It’s a life-or-death struggle.”

 

The demonstration here was part of a wave of actions across the nation that combines traditional not-in-my-backyard protests against fossil-fuel projects with an overarching concern about climate change.

 

Activists have been energized by successes on several fronts, including the decision last week by President Barack Obama to block offshore drilling along the Eastern Seaboard; his decision in November to reject the Keystone XL pipeline; and the Paris climate agreement.

 

Bound together through social media, networks of far-flung activists are opposing virtually all new oil, gas and coal infrastructure projects — a process that has been called “Keystone-ization.”

 

As the climate evangelist Bill McKibben put it in a Twitter post after Paris negotiators agreed on a goal of limiting global temperature increases: “We’re damn well going to hold them to it. Every pipeline, every mine.”

 

Regulators almost always approve such projects, though often with modifications, said Donald F. Santa Jr., chief executive of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. Still, the protests are having some impact. The engineering consultants Black and Veatch recently published a report that said the most significant barrier to building new pipeline capacity was “delay from opposition groups.”

 

Activists regularly protest at the headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, but there have also been sizable protests in places like St. Paul, Minnesota, and across the Northeast.

 

In Portland, Oregon, where protesters conducted a “kayaktivist” blockade in July to keep Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs from leaving port, the City Council passed a resolution opposing the expansion of facilities for the storage and transportation of fossil fuels.

 

Greg Yost, a math teacher in North Carolina who works with the group NC PowerForward, said the activists embolden one another.

 

“When we pick up the ball and run with it here in North Carolina, we’re well aware of what’s going on in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island,” he said. “The fight we’re doing here, it bears on what happens elsewhere — we’re all in this together, we feel like.”

 

The movement extends well beyond the United States. In May, a wave of protests and acts of civil disobedience, under an umbrella campaign called Break Free 2016, is scheduled around the world to urge governments and fossil fuel companies to “keep coal, oil and gas in the ground.”

 

This approach — think globally, protest locally — is captured in the words of Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and a scholar in residence at Ithaca College who helped organize the demonstration at the storage plant near Seneca Lake: “This driveway is a battleground, and there are driveways like this all over the world.”

 

The idea driving the protests is that climate change can be blunted only by moving to renewable energy and capping any growth of fossil fuels.

 

Speaking to the crowd at Seneca Lake, McKibben, who had come from his home in Vermont, said, “Our job on behalf of the planet is to slow them down.”

 

He added, “If we can hold them off for two or three years, there’s no way any of this stuff can be built again.”

 

But the issues are not so clear cut. The protests aimed at natural gas pipelines, for example, may conflict with policies intended to fight climate change and pollution by reducing reliance on dirtier fossil fuels.

 

“The irony is this,” said Phil West, a spokesman for Spectra Energy, whose pipeline projects, including those in New York state, have come under attack. “The shift to additional natural gas use is a key contributor to helping the U.S. reduce energy-related emissions and improve air quality.”

 

Those who oppose natural gas pipelines say the science is on their side.

 

They note that methane, the chief component of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas in the short term, with more than 80 times the effect of carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

 

The Obama administration is issuing regulations to reduce leaks, but environmental opposition to fracking, and events like the massive methane plume released at a storage facility in the Porter Ranch neighborhood near Los Angeles, have helped embolden the movement.

 

Once new natural gas pipelines and plants are in place, opponents argue, they will operate for decades, blocking the shift to solar and wind power.

 

“It’s not a bridge to renewable energy — it’s a competitor,” said Patrick Robbins, co-director of the Sane Energy Project, which protests pipeline development and is based in New York.

 

Such logic does not persuade Michael A. Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

 

“Saying no to gas doesn’t miraculously lead to the substitution of wind and solar — it may lead to the continued operation of coal-fired plants,” he said, noting that when the price of natural gas is not competitive, owners take the plants, which are relatively cheap to build, out of service.

 

“There is enormous uncertainty about how quickly you can build out renewable energy systems, about what the cost will be and what the consequences will be for the electricity network,” Levi said.

 

Even some who believe that natural gas has a continuing role to play say that not every gas project makes sense.

 

N. Jonathan Peress, an expert on electricity and natural gas markets at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that while companies push to add capacity, the long-term need might not materialize.

 

“There is a disconnect between the perception of the need for massive amounts of new pipeline capacity and the reality,” he said.

 

Market forces, regulatory assumptions and business habits favor the building of new pipelines even though an evolving electrical grid and patterns of power use suggest that the demand for gas will, in many cases, decrease.

 

Even now, only 6 percent of gas-fired plants run at greater than 80 percent of their capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and nearly half of such plants run at an average load factor of just 17 percent.

 

“The electricity grid is evolving in a way that strongly suggests what’s necessary today won’t be necessary in another 20 years, let alone 10 or 15,” Peress said.

 

Back at Seneca Lake, the protesters cheered when Schuyler County sheriff’s vans showed up. The group had protested before, and so the arrests had the friendly familiarity of a contra dance. As one deputy, A.W. Yessman, placed zip-tie cuffs on Catherine Rossiter, he asked jovially, “Is this three, or four?”

 

She beamed. “You remember me!”

 

Brad Bacon, a spokesman for the owner of the plant at Seneca Lake, Crestwood Equity Partners, acknowledged that it had become more burdensome to get approval to build energy infrastructure in the Northeast even though regulatory experts have tended not to be persuaded by the protesters’ environmental arguments.

 

The protesters, in turn, disagree with the regulators, and forcefully. As he was being handcuffed, McKibben called the morning “a good scene.”

 

The actions against fossil fuels, he said, will continue. “There’s 15 places like this around the world today,” he said. “There will be 15 more tomorrow, and the day after that.”

 

To Learn More:

Environmentalists Rejoice as UC Sells Off 2% of Its Fossil Fuel Investments (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Coast Guard Protects Oil Drilling Ships from Environmentalists (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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