OPED: Can zombie-like fossil fuels be killed?

Tribune News Service
Chief Physician Cyrus Rangan director of the county Bureau of Toxicology & Environmental Assessment, left joins other health and county fire officials during a news conference on the Aliso Canyon storage facility gas leak on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016 in Los Angeles. Hundreds of residents near the Porter Ranch gas leak have reported health problems but levels of the carcinogen benzene in the area are still too low to be considered a long-term health risk, county public health officials said,

Even as global warming makes it clear that coal, natural gas and oil are yesterday's energy, two centuries of fossil fuel development means new projects keep emerging in zombie-like fashion.

In fact, the climactic fight at the end of the fossil fuel era is underway. In statehouse hearing rooms and far off farmers' fields, local activists are making desperate stands to stop new fossil fuel projects, while the energy companies are making equally desperate attempts to build while they still can. The outcome of these thousands of fights, as much or more than the paper promises made at the U.N. climate conference in Paris in December, will determine whether we emerge from this century with a habitable planet. They are the battle for the future.

Here's how Diane Leopold, president of Virginia-based Dominion Energy put it last year: "It may be the most challenging" period in fossil fuel history because of "high-intensity opposition" to infrastructure projects that is becoming steadily "louder, better-funded and more sophisticated." Or, in the words of the head of the American Natural Gas Association: "Call it the Keystone-ization of every project that's out there."

I hesitate to even start listing what's "out there" because I'm going to miss dozens. In North America, people are fighting the Sandpiper pipeline in the upper Midwest; the Line 9, Energy East, Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines in Canada; the Pinon pipeline in Navajo country; the Vermont Gas pipeline down the western side of my own state; the Constitution pipeline; the Spectra pipeline; and on and on.

And it's not just pipelines. Activists are on trial for trying to block oil trains in the Pacific Northwest. In the Finger Lakes region in central New York, not a week goes by without mass arrests of locals attempting to prevent old salt mines from being turned into a giant underground gas storage site. In California, its fracking wells in Kern County.

Each of these new infrastructure projects should be stopped because it extends the fossil fuel era a few more disastrous decades.

Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies have the clout to keep politicians saying yes. Just a week after the Paris climate accords were adopted, for instance, the well-paid American "employees" of those companies, otherwise known as senators and representatives, overturned a 40-year-old ban on U.S. oil exports, a gift that an Exxon spokesman had asked for explicitly a few weeks earlier. "The sooner this happens, the better for us," he told the New York Times.

The money, however, is only part of it: The whole process is on autopilot. For many decades the economic health of the nation and access to fossil fuels were more or less synonymous. So it's no wonder that laws and regulations favor business as usual. The advent of the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s introduced a few new rules, but it didn't try to shut down the whole enterprise. Now fossil fuel projects continue to get approved, almost automatically, because there is no legal reason not to do so.

The only way to short-circuit this zombie process is to fight like hell, raising the price, both political and economic, of new fossil fuel infrastructure to the point where politicians begin to balk. That's what happened with Keystone and it's happening elsewhere, too. Other Canadian tar sands pipelines have been blocked. Coal ports planned for the West Coast haven't been built. In May, a coalition across six continents is being organized to engage in mass civil disobedience to "keep it in the ground."

In a few places you can see more than just the opposition; you can see results. Last fall, in Portland, Ore., the city council passed a remarkable resolution: The city will use its powers to keep out new fossil fuel infrastructure.

This business of driving stakes through the heart of one project after another is exhausting. So many petitions, so many demonstrations, so many meetings. But for now, there's really no other way to kill a zombie.

Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and a professor of environmental studies at Middlebury College.