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Annals of a Warming Planet
Everyone Wants to Sell the Last Barrel of Oil
The Keystone XL win—and the Line 3 battle—make clear that cutting off the supply of oil is a key part of the climate fight.
June 16, 2021
Although the Keystone XL pipeline is dead, there are plenty of other places around the world that are still trying to increase their oil output.Photograph by Jason Franson / Bloomberg / Getty
final victory last week over the Keystone XL pipeline is a reminder that fighting particular fossil-fuel projects is a necessary strategy if the climate is to be saved. The defeat of Keystone XL doesn’t mean that Canada’s vast tar-sands project, which is generally regarded as the largest industrial
project in the world, is over, but the fight has been a gut punch to the fossil-fuel industry. In 2011, when protests began outside the White House, Canada’s National Energy Board was confidently predicting
that tar-sands-oil production would triple by 2035—which led the climate scientist James Hansen to explain that pumping Alberta dry would be “game over” for the climate. A decade later, as Karin Kirk reported in Yale Climate Connections
, fifty-seven major financial institutions
have “pledged to stop funding or insuring oil sands ventures. Exxon Mobil has declared a loss on the original value of its oil sands assets, and Chevron has pulled out of Canadian oil and gas entirely. Other oil majors, like Shell and BP, are selling off their oil sands assets, leaving it largely to Canadian oil companies and the Canadian government to forge ahead.” Kirk’s piece appeared in March; the number of such institutions is now seventy-seven.
The situation will get even harder for tar-sands investors if protests led by indigenous groups in Minnesota succeed in halting an expansion of the Line 3 pipeline—which is being built by the Canadian company Enbridge Energy, and will carry tar-sands oil and regular crude—or if protesters north of the border are able to block a huge expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, from Alberta to Canada’s Pacific Coast. Still, as a truly useful Twitter thread
from the Cambridge, England, chapter of the Extinction Rebellion movement pointed out last week, there are plenty of other places around the world that are still trying to increase their oil output by developing new projects or enlarging existing fields. Examples ranged from projects in Norway and Russia to those in Uganda and Nigeria, from Mexico and Brazil to Japan and Guyana, from Vietnam and South Africa to Pakistan and Papua New Guinea—and the United States. The governments and companies involved surely know that electric vehicles will soon replace conventional cars, and that solar and wind power are growing cheaper every day. But rather than joining in the effort to speed that transition—and speed is the only thing that gives us a hope of solving the climate equation—they have decided to pump and sell what they can while there is still some market left for it.
In the process, they are undercutting other efforts of theirs, designed theoretically to deal with the climate peril. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for instance, announced over the weekend that Canada would double its commitment regarding “climate finance” for developing nations around the world, giving more than five billion dollars to the United Nations to support mitigation and adaptation efforts. But that amount is nearly equal to what the country is spending to buy and build the newly nationalized Trans Mountain pipeline, after its former, corporate owner decided to stop throwing good money after bad. Politicians would far rather make promises about the future than shut down existing projects; that means shutting down jobs, some of them good ones. But the math is dauntingly clear.
So the effort to stop these projects will continue, even in the face of adverse court rulings, such as one, on Monday, that upheld Minnesota’s right to proceed
with Line 3. And protesters are steadily growing more sophisticated: one coalition has compiled a list
of the banks that fund Enbridge, so the campaign can carry on in the canyons of Wall Street as well as in the marshes of Minnesota. There are a great many fronts in the battle for the climate, and this is a crucially important flank.
Passing the Mic
Last Monday, a group of protesters led by rise (Resilient Indigenous Sisters Engaging) occupied a wooden road over a marsh in northern Minnesota where Enbridge is planning to build part of the Line-3 extension. Nancy Beaulieu, a founding member of the group, delivered a talk while standing in a narrow, knee-deep stretch of the Mississippi headwaters. This Monday, I relayed a series of questions to her through the Minnesota activist Kevin Whelan, which she answered as the group was preparing to end the occupation. An enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe, Beaulieu emphasized that, for Native protesters, treaty rights are a key part of the pipeline fight. (Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
What was going through your mind when you talked to people about occupying the boardwalk?
That, if we remain in peace and stay in prayer, we can have this moment to stand together as treaty partners. And that non-Native people can be out there to uplift our voices and amplify our story, because too often—all the time, really—our words fall on deaf ears. So we called on our non-Native treaty allies to come hold the space and show the world that this is how we do peace talks with our local law enforcement. And this is how we can show the local and the state and the federal government that treaties do matter. Eight days later, I think our story is out there. We are going to continue to show up and assert our rights—this is Chapter 1 of a new beginning.
How has it gone?
We are feeling really positive. We had a lot of small wins coming out of this. Our exit will be done with the sheriff’s department here in Clearwater County. The sheriff did a good job of protecting our ceremonies, and we feel that we’ve built a relationship with him, in a good way. This is not a surrender—this is just opening up the door to a legal process. Too often, the police come in with riot gear, and our story is: this is what it can look like—it can be done in peace, in a powerful, prayerful kind of way. We feel good about being here all week—lots of teachings and lots of ceremony were shared. We want to tell the world this is what honoring treaties look like.
Do you have a message for the world?
We have a shared history under those treaties. They’re as alive today as the day they were signed. And they weren’t just signed to protect our way of life but to live in peace, and to leave the earth in a better way than we found it. That we have a reserved, inherent right to protect our sacred water, our sacred elements, and to hold space in our ceded title. We may have surrendered territory, but we never surrendered our right to hunt, fish, gather, and travel.
A little Vermont pride: my state came through the pandemic
better than any other, largely because of high levels of social trust. A little of that was formed around the Intervale, a unique incubator for young farmers that, each week, draws many residents of the state’s largest city, Burlington, to a parcel of farmland on the edge of downtown, to pick up their fruits and vegetables. The man behind that project, Will Raap—who also founded a gardening-supply company called, straightforwardly enough, Gardener’s Supply—is now developing a big new project about a dozen miles to the south. Nordic Farm will be converted from a big dairy farm into a grain-growing demonstration school and agricultural-innovation station, with a particular focus on farming practices that help sequester more carbon in the soil. As Raap wrote in an e-mail, “The time of combining emissions reduction with terrestrial sequestration as an integrated strategy is finally here!”
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An important caution
from John Mulliken, the founder of the financial consultancy Carbonware, writing in the Boston Globe
: it won’t help much if the Shells and BPs of the world simply sell their oil-and-gas reserves to private companies that are less vulnerable to activist pressure. (Reuters reported over the weekend that Shell may be planning to sell
its tracts in the Permian Basin of Texas.) Mulliken argues for coupling that pressure with a sizable carbon tax. (He expands his point with a fascinating essay on how most investors are effectively shorting
carbon at the moment, because they’re not figuring in the possibility of a tax on CO2
in their asset calculations.) An interesting straw in the wind: twenty-five current and former Republican state legislators in Utah joined in calling for a carbon-fee-and-dividend plan.
As the level of Lake Mead, in Nevada, falls to historic lows, the drought in the West is getting deeper and scarier—and the authorities charged with getting water to the cities and farms of the Colorado River basin are cautioning
that, in an overheating world, we should think of drought as a permanent feature of the region. To adapt, cities must acknowledge that it “is not a temporary condition we can expect to go away, but rather something we have to deal with,” John Berggren, the water-policy adviser for Western Resource Advocates, based in Boulder, told NBC News.
The Onion did a particularly good job
of dealing with the final demise of the Keystone XL pipeline. As one of their “interviewees” mused, “Wow, imagine wasting all those years fighting against something that never ended up getting made.”
An invaluable tool kit for climate activists comes from the people at the Years Project, a nonprofit, which now has a Web site
called Inside the Movement. Every week, it has new photos, profiles, and action items.
Tracey Lewis, a senior climate-policy analyst for 350.org, argues
in The American Prospect
that it’s time for a new Federal Reserve chair. “Waiting for Chair Powell to morph into a climate champion is like Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot—it’s probably not going to happen. It’s clear President Biden needs to appoint a new Fed chair who will be committed to addressing the ways that climate change creates systemic risk, and be committed to the Fed’s mandate to mitigate that risk.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is investigating the actions
of a helicopter at a Line 3 protest in Minnesota last week. An initial statement said that the helicopter had been sent just to tell the protesters to leave, but video taken by an MPR News reporter
appears to show the helicopter “rotor washing” demonstrators, performing the low-flying maneuver multiple times and kicking up dust and debris. Meanwhile, Grace Nosek has an article
in the Pace Environmental Law Review
on the tactics used by fossil-fuel companies to target protesters.
Yessenia Funes, a climate journalist whose parents grew up in El Salvador, has a gripping piece
on what the advent of hurricane season looks like in Central America. A quote from an indigenous leader in Nicaragua captures the point: “Every time a hurricane comes, we become poorer.”
In a column on Euractiv, a news site focussed on policy in the European Union, a group of N.G.O.s points out that the E.U. could (and should) replace a directive that somehow counts burning trees for electricity as “carbon neutral.” “Policymakers are considering possible reforms to the EU’s biomass policy,” the group writes
, “but so far the options are pretty much business as usual
Writing in the business magazine Fast Company
, Jamie Beck Alexander, a leader of Project Drawdown’s effort to reduce emissions, makes
what should be an obvious point but is routinely missed: we’ll know that corporations are serious about climate change not when they make a bunch of splashy promises about 2050 but when they deploy their lobbying muscle to get serious legislation through Washington now.
The National Geographic Society, which I suppose has as much claim as anyone to make such a call, has officially declared the “Southern Ocean,” surrounding the Antarctic, to be the fifth of the planet’s great bodies of water, joining the Arctic, Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Enric Sala, National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence, described the Southern Ocean to the Washington Post as a distinct water body, characterized by the powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current that flows eastward through it, “perpetually chasing itself around Antarctica.”
Justin Rowlatt, the chief environment correspondent for the BBC, has a long and useful explanation
of why electric vehicles will take over the car market much sooner than most people think. The E.V. market, he says, is about where the Internet was in the early two-thousands: “Its growth was explosive and disruptive, crushing existing businesses and changing the way we do almost everything. And it followed a familiar pattern, known to technologists as an S-curve.” Last year, global sales rose by forty-three per cent, he reports—which means that “we’re already entering the steep part of the S.” Nathaniel Bullard makes much the same argument in Bloomberg Green, writing
that “peak internal combustion” may already be in the rearview mirror, and not just because of cars: last year, electrics were forty-four per cent of two- and three-wheeler sales, and thirty-nine per cent of bus sales.
The Line 3 fight is generating some top-notch art and music. Check out this video
, directed by Keri Pickett, with music composed by the veteran Minnesota activist Larry Long, whom Studs Terkel once called “a true American troubadour.”
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is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis
, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.
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