“Something gravely important had gone missing. Something related to reverence—to holding on to the ineffable wonder of what already is, caring for what little remains, being cognizant of how quickly we’re losing it. As we attempt to develop new energy sources and figure out how to feed ourselves and inhabit this warming world, we need to remember what, apart from technological worship, drops us to our knees.”
—Meera Subramanian, “The Age of Loneliness“
In every corner of society, the battle between fossil fuels and renewable energy is reaching a fever pitch.
At the federal level in the U.S., the renewable energy tax credit has been extended, which gives wind and solar a fighting chance in the market. Employment in these sectors has soared, growing by 123% since 2010. Indeed, some states like New York and Massachusetts are competing to one-up each other in their support for green energy technologies.
At the same time, the collapse in oil prices and the recent moratorium on new federal coal leases has meant that oil and gas are competing more stridently than ever before with renewables for market share. Despite wind and solar potential across the country, certain states like Utah continue to extend a generous helping hand in the form of tax exemptions to oil and gas, including extreme energy sources like oil shale and tar sands oil. Unproven and risky technologies are deployed as experiments, tested on the public and the environment.
We know that fossil fuel extraction has to stop to curb climate change. Yet global production exceeds demand by more than 1 million barrels daily. In the U.S. we are currently storing the largest volume of oil since the Great Depression. Proposals for oil and gas projects keep coming—especially domestic power plants, pipelines, and new extraction sites—that displace wind and solar and further entrench communities in fossil fuel dependence.
How do we—as advocates, as neighbors, as collective stewards of our planet—navigate this dynamic? How can we ensure that the struggles against fossil fuels and for renewable energy are strengthening and reinforcing one another?
Two landscapes of struggle
A new narrative is emerging out of the struggle against extreme energy extraction. As more communities are exposed to fossil fuel projects, people are witnessing their health and commons being bartered for corporate profit by government. And they are coming together to stop harmful projects that threaten the places and people they love. In claiming the right to a healthy environment, communities are also claiming their authority to act based in a responsibility to protect this right, and calling on the government to fulfill its own responsibility.
These claims are giving rise to new roles, organizing strategies, research agendas, and legal principles. People are translating their sense of grief and urgency into a new understanding of the role of government and the law: protecting financial capital and private interests is not the primary goal of democracy. This narrative of resistance is growing, even in places like Utah that have deep legacies of extraction, where climate justice battles are playing out in the use of public, trust, and tribal lands. The recent focus on agency-regulated land is because of the role that local government plays in promoting fossil fuel development. The Utah Bureau of Land Management effectively denies climate change is even happening.
Home to part of the Green River Formation, the largest known oil shale deposit in the world, and half of the nation’s bitumen (tar sands) deposits, Utah’s unconventional oil potential is in the billions of barrels, making it an oft-overlooked key player in the global fossil fuel boom-or-bust. Its renowned landscapes are already threatened by the nation’s first tar sands mine, oil shale strip-mines, and a long and continuing history of fracking, mining, and pumping for fossil fuels. When oil prices are high, companies flock to the area with pitches of new, “safer,” and more “environmentally friendly” (but unproven) extraction technologies. Utah agencies grant corporations the right to experiment with their patents with little to no precaution. When prices are low, they close up shop and wait. But often, great damage has already been done. And in the future, these energy rushes could become more enduring, as conventional sources of oil are exhausted or become more expensive to dig up.
In Utah, political and economic interests have distorted otherwise straightforward decisions about how to best protect the commons. The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), created in the 1990s, manages income from state lands with the aim of sustainably funding public education. SITLA is mandated to accomplish this responsibility by giving private corporations the right to make a profit from the lands, with no reciprocal burden on investors to prove they can remediate any damage to the environment. Once the land is strip-mined and the water polluted, they can no longer be considered assets of present or future generations. So in other words, SITLA’s strategy for funding its mission guarantees that it will fail in its mission.
Meanwhile, community funds from oil and gas royalties are spent on infrastructure for more extraction, not to benefit the towns and without any deference to widespread appreciation for the abundant, wild landscape. In Uintah County, the heart of Utah’s fossil fuel boom, this means county-funded mega projects such as the Seep Ridge Road Improvement Project that turned a dirt road into a 45-mile-long superhighway. The idea was rejected 20 years ago, but $86.5 million later ($61 million of which paid for by community funds), the road now provides access for oil and gas companies through one of the last remaining pieces of wilderness in the state. Why, in the face of a dying domestic coal industry, would Utah’s Community Board invest $53 million in a deep-water port in Oakland, CA to export Utah coal, when it could be funding transitions to sustainable energy jobs in the state’s rural communities most heavily impacted by the end of coal?
That the government continues to lease land for extraction during a historic oil glut—while also effectively denying the scientific consensus on climate change—reveals that it is not only corporate interests who see their primary role as maximizing short-term revenue over the long-term trusteeship of the commons. Often, public agencies do too.
In response, organizers in Utah are coming together around a common alternative agenda. Climate justice groups like Utah Tar Sands Resistance, Peaceful Uprising, Canyon Country Rising Tide, and Elders Rising for Intergenerational Justice are leading public protests and nonviolent direct actions. Joining them as allies are concerned environmental and public health groups like Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Moms for Clean Air, Living Rivers, and the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance, which have made the connections between their traditional issues and climate change.
Their nonviolent strategy is to build opposition and delay operations, not to interfere with the livelihoods of workers. Central to the climate justice groups’ organizing is the recognition of environmental racism inherent in these energy projects, many of which are on or adjacent to Indian lands. Organizers are also tying local narratives to national initiatives. The most recent disruptions of Utah’s BLM oil and gas lease auctions was organized by grassroots groups partnering with each other and the broader “Keep It in the Ground” campaign. Partnerships like these give local groups access to resources and a broader media outreach. Conversely, the national campaigns are only effective because of actions that are directly shaped by their local contexts.
In the Northeast, resistance to fracked gas infrastructure is growing in strength. The fight was certainly helped by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to ban fracking in December 2014—the movement as a whole got a shot in the arm, and New York-based organizations that previously had focused on obtaining a drilling ban were freed up to focus more directly on the system of pipelines, compressor stations, and power plants that compose the full ecosystem of fracked gas.
But make no mistake: the grassroots have been opposing fracked gas infrastructure long before any statewide or nationwide organizations were making it a priority. Groups like FANG, We Are Seneca Lake, ResistAIM, Rising Tide Vermont, Stop the West Roxbury Lateral, and Protect Orange County have launched civil disobedience campaigns in which hundreds of people have been arrested to protect their communities, while others such as Stop the Pipeline, SEnRG, CELDF and many others have initiated canny legal and political battles. The momentum against fracked gas infrastructure is undeniable.
And it’s in reaction to a full-scale onslaught by the fracking industry. Beginning in 2006, we witnessed a drilling boom in the Northeast states (most notably in Pennsylvania) thanks to their location above a gas-rich shale formation known as the Marcellus Shale. All of that gas must get to market, be pressurized, and (in many cases) converted into generation power, so the production boom spurred a contemporaneous boom in fracked gas infrastructure. Pipelines and compressor stations are crisscrossing the northeast, cutting through pristine wilderness, small farms, and rural communities (for a map of this infrastructure in New York State, visit YOU ARE HERE).
In both Utah and New York, the specific qualities of the fossil fuel infrastructure threat—its geographic distribution across varied communities, the undemocratic manner in which projects are approved, the utter lack of redress through standard legal and regulatory channels—have shaped the character of its resistance. The groups fighting back tend to follow a common narrative: pockets of neighbors, most of whom were not involved in activism before, learned about a threat to their homes and began to explore the regulatory options available for stopping the project. As they go through the process and reach out to other groups, they go through a terrible learning curve—no one is going to save them (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, whose ostensible purpose is to regulate interstate gas infrastructure projects, has been commandeered by industry, and many commissioners have long histories of working for the very companies they purport to oversee).
This radicalizes many groups and drives them toward escalating forms of resistance. All the preconditions are met for what Francis Fox Piven calls a “poor people’s movement”—spontaneous, nonhierarchical, authentically grassroots action, driven by actors whose lives and communities are directly impacted by the success or failure of the uprising.
Renewable energy is part of a set of alternative visions that tangibly help anti-fossil fuel campaigns. In New York, being able to push for wind power in the same location helped the campaign against the Port Ambrose LNG project. This indicates one productive way that struggles against fossil fuels and for renewables can interact with one another—a relationship of maintaining communication with policy makers for that visionary piece, while staying firmly rooted in communities that are being targeted as sacrifice zones.
In practice, this can mean working with networks that were built during anti-fossil-fuel infrastructure campaigns to push for renewables, as in the case of the Port Ambrose fight. Staying rooted in and accountable to frontline communities also means changing who has authority over energy decisions in the first place—and indeed, many activists have learned that rearranging and localizing authority over power may actually be the most important step in moving toward green energy.
Utah offers a good case study in how a shift away from state-level authority could tangibly assist the transition away from fossil fuels: campaigns against Utah’s BLM and SITLA agencies for mismanaging public and trust land were strengthened by arguing that the government has a mandated responsibility to pass on the land unimpaired to future generations on behalf of local residents. Utah has vast and diverse renewable energy potential. However, unlike many other states in the region, it does not have a mandatory renewable portfolio standard, meaning green energy goals are voluntary. Utah’s recent 2016 legislative session made it clear that the state intends to continue to incentivize fossil fuels and curtail investment in renewables. While groups like Utah Clean Energy and HEAL Utah continue to advocate for alternatives at the legislative level, grassroots groups are showing up at lease auctions and public hearings to demand that government stop bidding on the planet’s future.
And individual, small-scale victories are being leveraged toward something bigger in concrete ways. Bottom-up resistance groups are connecting the climate crisis to local injustices, not just in one town but across multiple borders. The theory is: if we can stop the permitting of a multi-state pipeline in one jurisdiction, we can possibly stop the whole pipeline; if we can stop a pipeline permit, we are more likely to shut down a tar sands mine; if we can shut down a mine, then we challenge the usefulness of another port or processing plant, and we are one step closer to avoiding climate catastrophe, and one step closer to a time when fossil fuel infrastructure projects are never proposed in the first place.
This fight is understood by more and more people to be a contest of ideologies—a battle between an emerging renewable energy industry whose strength lies in its accountability to and support from everyday people, versus a fossil fuel industry whose contempt for those impacted by its day-to-day operations has never been clearer. The law has been stolen from everyday people trying to determine how we live together on this land. The old narrative would suggest that government is failing to act on the climate crisis; radicalizing many communities is the new understanding that government is in fact actively participating in exacerbating it. And so upwelling out of this harsh, often overwhelming reality are principles rooted in relationships and accountability. People are stepping into a new understanding of agency and power: we have the authority to act.
Consider for instance, the recent exchange between Spectra Energy and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in which the midstream energy firm explicitly declared that it would ignore the order of the elected representative of the people of New York to cease construction on a dangerous high-pressure gas pipeline—or the fact that Tim DeChristopher served nearly two years in federal detention for “disrupting” what was later deemed an illegal auction of Utah public land (a fact that DeChristopher’s attorneys were prevented from telling the jury).
More than ever before, we must keep both the future and the past in clear sight—a past of borders and laws that were designed to favor industry, and a future of communities that have full agency over their energy choices and land. And the work is happening all over, led in large part by Indigenous people, and especially women (last fall the first ever treaty was signed by Indigenous women leaders of North and South America declaring solidarity in the movement to protect Mother Earth from extraction).
The simultaneous peril and potential of this moment is asking all of us to reconsider old narratives and arrangements of power. Organizers are going back to some of the foundational principles of democracy and traditional knowledge to frame their resistance strategies, as well as the pathways forward. They are challenging assumptions about civil disobedience and criminality. Youth are suing the federal government for failing to do their job. Make no mistake: radical inclusion is hard and often painful, but as more people are radicalized by what they are witnessing, they are also seeing that they are not alone. We, the people, are working together, because it is our responsibility to meet this global moment with everything we have.