The Logic of Failed Climate Policies vs. the Logic of Direct Action: Oregon As a Case Study
by Scott Schroder
Portland Rising Tide has focused much of its fight against climate change on fossil fuel transport and infrastructure. Protests and direct actions have targeted gas pipelines, coal terminals, oil trains, and tar sands trucks. We are not unique in this regard. From Texas to British Columbia, Vermont to California, combating individual fossil fuel projects has emerged as a dominant theme in combating the overarching social and ecological crisis we face.
One might ask: do these individual fights form any part of a larger strategy for combating climate chaos? Does their logic in any way extend beyond their immediate targets? Or, if they succeed, are they limited to a “victory” of shutting down a few refineries or pipelines while the overall trend of fossil fuel use continues unabated? And if they do possess a greater purpose, does it solely relate to greenhouse gases and fossil fuels, or to the underlying political and economic conditions that imperil life on earth?
In order to evaluate the logic of the direct action movement with respect to climate change, it is necessary to assess the contrasting logic of mainstream climate policy. First, however, it is necessary to establish that grassroots campaigns are, in fact, producing results.
Transportation and Infrastructure are the Primary Constraints on New Fossil Fuel Developments in North America
Throughout Canada and the United States, the hydrocarbon industry is reconfiguring and, in many cases, expanding. As recently as 2008, it was common sense amongst energy analysts that US oil and gas production would remain fairly stable and then begin a gradual decline. (1) Since that time, fracking has made accessible vast new reserves of oil and gas. US oil production went from five million barrels per day in 2008 to seven million bpd in 2013. (2) Gas production has likewise increased by trillions of cubic feet. (3) The bitumen underlying Canada’s boreal forests, long considered economically unfeasible to access, has in the recent years been extracted at a frenzied pace, leaving a wake of devastation almost inconceivable in scale. (4)
Neither Canada nor the United States has anything remotely resembling an overarching climate policy that places statutory or regulatory limits on the amount of fossil fuels that can be extracted, transmitted, refined, or burned. Such a breathtakingly simple approach is well outside the scope of the mainstream political dialogue, which favors instead elaborate and speculative technological and market-based approaches. Thus, a lack of storage, transport, and refining infrastructure remains the primary constraint on the fossil fuel boom currently underway.
Grassroots pressure has had a tremendous effect on the extent of new infrastructure that the coal, oil, and gas industries have been able to build, and thus on the scale of extraction they’ve been able to achieve.
In Canada, every single pipeline proposed to run to BC’s West Coast—the Pacific Trails gas pipeline, the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain tar sands pipelines, to name a few—are subject to indefinite delays. A Kinder Morgan crew surveying the Trans Mountain pipeline’s route on BC’s Burnaby Mountain was unable to finish its work owing to massive protests in which more than 100 people were arrested, (5) and the city of Burnaby, which is opposed to the project, is now trying to recover the $100,000 per day it spent arresting people from the company. (6) After a prolonged regulatory processes, Enbridge and Chevron still face a First Nations blockade of the routes of the Northern Gateway and Pacific Trails pipelines—blockaders have evicted pipeline surveyors who have entered traditional Unist’ot’en territory. (7)
Nor have pipelines south or east fared any better. Owing to unprecedented public opposition, Keystone XL has been subject to a more than five year long regulatory process; should it receive approval, Lakota land defenders have vowed to be “dead or in prison” before allowing it to be built. (8)
Indeed, a 2014 report by Oil Change International estimates that the cumulative effect of transportation constraints created by grassroots pressure on Alberta’s tar sands has been the cancellation of at least three mining projects, preventing the emission of 2.8 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, as well as reducing the price of bitumen from existing operations at a cost to the industry of $17.1 billion. (9)
Grassroots efforts are having similar effects in the US. The glut of natural gas on the market, increasing regulatory constraints, and activist pressure have conspired to diminish the market for coal in the United States. Coal companies as a result have undertaken numerous efforts to build marine terminals for the export of coal to foreign markets. All but four of 15 projects proposed throughout the US in the last two years have been defeated by grassroots pressure and legal challenges at some stage of the pre-construction regulatory process. (10) These victories are beginning to translate into tangible results at the sites of extraction: in 2013, for the first time ever, the BLM held an auction for 148.6 million tons of Powder River Basin coal, and no one bid. Coal companies stated that the market simply didn’t justify investments in new mining operations. (11)
The expansion of fracking in the Bakken shale—a region not historically associated with intensive oil production and thus lacking crucial infrastructure—is also limited by transportation capacity. Because of these transportation constraints, Bakken crude has sold at a discount relative to oil from other regions (12), diminishing the profit motive and thus keeping oil in the ground.
To alleviate these constraints, rail terminals have been proposed throughout the Pacific Northwest to transfer Bakken crude from trains to refinery bound ships, (13) but many of these projects are languishing in regulatory processes, subject to tremendous public opposition. For instance, the largest proposed crude oil project in the region, the 380,000 barrel per day Tesoro Savage terminal in Vancouver, WA, has been in some phase of a state review process since mid-2013. (14) In June of 2014, the Vancouver City Council passed a resolution opposing the Tesoro terminal and any other project that would facilitate more fracking of the Bakken shale. (15)
Where Bakken crude has made it into the Pacific Northwest, it has faced direct opposition, in both Oregon and Washington, in the form of train blockades. (16)
A Comprehensive Climate Policy Almost Certainly Will Not Save Us
Policymakers, editorial boards, and other professional opinion holders have typically made a point of deriding these campaigns against individual fossil fuel projects, arguing that activists should instead focus their efforts on broad policies to address greenhouse gas emissions nationally or globally.
It is worth at least briefly noting that such policies at the moment appear to have little hope of being implemented. In the United States an astonishing number of federal lawmakers continue to doubt the very existence of the climate crisis, a doubt which every tsunami, drought, and massive wildfire has the curious effect of reinforcing. At the international level, it is perhaps even more appalling that consensus exists that the crisis is dire and still nothing is done. As the world descends into ever-greater catastrophe, the UN talks likewise deteriorate into ever-more appalling displays of childish small-mindedness—one commentator described them as “absurdist theater” (17)—appearing to have virtually no hope of generating a meaningful strategy. (18)
But even if an overarching climate policy did appear to be a political reality, such a policy would almost certainly fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One only need look at the woeful legacy of other climate policies which take for granted the logic of industrial capitalism—logic neither the federal government nor the UN appears capable of questioning.
One could look, for instance, at the European Union’s emissions trading scheme, which not only failed to reduce emissions, but may have ultimately increased them, putting more money into the pockets of major polluters in the process. (19) Such emissions trading is a central feature of the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy signed by California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in 2013. (20)
The flaw is not simply with carbon trading per se. Oregon’s climate plan involves no such mechanism and appears truly and utterly helpless to achieve its statutory goal of reducing emissions 75% below 1990 levels by 2050. (21) This is certainly not for a lack of documentation, elaborate terminology, and lengthy planning processes. Oregon’s climate policy is not a singular and cohesive one, but rather a labyrinthine configuration of documents, sub-documents, supporting documents, and appendices produced by a multitude of agencies.
Transportation emissions, the largest source of emissions in the state, provide a case in point. The Oregon Department of Transportation’s Statewide Transportation Strategy is the central policy for reducing transportation-related greenhouse gases. A cursory glance reveals that ODOT simply could not come up with a strategy for meeting the mandated emissions reduction targets. It is important to take a step back here and acknowledge that it is not simply the case that they conceived of a policy which ultimately failed. They were incapable even on paper, totally unconstrained by corporeal reality, of imagining a plausible-sounding lie that achieved their legislative mandate.
But if one takes a more than cursory glance at the STS—if one, for instance, is so masochistic as to read all 130 pages of it—it becomes clear that a great deal of the emissions reductions that ODOT is capable of imagining are predicated either on technologies that don’t yet exist or on cars being plugged into a grid which is virtually carbon-free. (22) Forgiving momentarily the optimistic sci-fi futurism and instead focusing on the cars plugged into the carbon-free electrical grid, yet another document becomes relevant: Governor Kitzhaber’s 10-Year Energy Action Plan, which contains no clear mechanism for decarbonizing the electrical grid. (23)
Somewhere around this point, it becomes clear the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon has deteriorated into utter and unremitting chaos.
The problem is not that lawmakers and agencies aren’t aware of the magnitude of the climate crisis. The problem isn’t even necessarily that they’re not trying to do anything about it. The problem is that they are trapped in the very logic which has brought us into this era of global catastrophe.
Targeting Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Expresses a Fundamentally Different Logic than that of Failed Climate Policies
When those in power at any scale—from the city of Portland to the state of Oregon to the European Union—craft strategies for addressing the climate crisis, they do so in a framework which reveals its fatal flaws at the very outset. They do not ask: what must we do to prevent social chaos and mass extinction? They ask: how can we maintain the status quo while preventing the social chaos and mass extinction that status quo is causing? They ask: how can the economy keep growing, corporate profits continue to expand, new technologies continue to proliferate indiscriminately, while somehow averting the consequent horrors?
As a result, the ostensible solutions to climate change presented to us by those in power are inevitably scenarios in which our existing economic, political, and social structures are fundamentally unchanged. And when there is a conflict in their calculations between preserving the existing socioeconomic order and preserving life on earth, they inevitably choose the socioeconomic order. Strategies in which we simply stop burning fossil fuels, acknowledging that whatever logistical or economic duress this causes us is nothing compared to the suffering caused by continuing to burn them, are simply never considered.
Oregon’s climate plan is as good a case in point as any of this overt acquiescence to imagined social and political necessities over real, physical ones. The various documents that comprise it manage somehow to be simultaneously hyper-technical and hopelessly vague, with no clear path away from catastrophic emissions levels but with many new market manipulations and technologies, not to mention their cumbersome acronyms—AARA smart meters, MOSAIC lest-cost transportation planing tools, MACC supply curve analyses—described in excruciating detail. But there are moments when the rosy and hyper-technical facade crumbles, and the authors of these documents starkly confess that they simply can not conceive of a future in which we do not further undermine the planet’s life support systems with carbon pollution.
This occurs when the fanfare around meeting the legislative goal of arresting the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2010 is disposed of in the Oregon Global Warming Commission’s 2013 Report to the Legislature, and the commission finally acknowledges the halt was a result of the 2008 economic crisis. Since few in power seem eager to recreate the global economic downturn, the report admits that emissions are likely to begin trending back upward. (24) And with respect to electricity, all the talk of ARRA meters and MACC curves ultimately culminates in this frank admission of defeat:
“One option the Legislature and Governor have to acknowledge the difficulties coal combustion presents for meeting the State’s GHG reduction goals is choosing to modify those goals. This has the virtue of candor, and the downside of disregarding the general findings of climate science.” (25)
In other words, tasked with reducing greenhouse gases, those we have entrusted with our survival tell us: “We can’t, because we can’t imagine a world in which the status quo does not prevail. But we could stop telling you were going to try, in which case we’d be complicit in global catastrophe, but honest about our complicity.”
When direct action groups intervene in the fossil fuel economy, they acknowledge a truth which those in power are incapable of perceiving: we don’t need to establish every detail of a post-carbon world in order to stop the suicidal course we are on. They acknowledge the moral imperative to immediately and decisively stop destroying the world, a moral imperative that supersedes any concerns we may have for how difficult it might be or how much it might upset the existing social order.
It is hard to imagine two value systems more at odds. The power holder’s value system says: we must have Facebook and immersion blenders, and not just have them but, crucially, have more and more Facebook users and immersion blenders every year. How can we meet these essential needs and achieve the optional, but desirable, outcome of not unleashing an epoch of mass extinction and human suffering? The direct actionist’s value system says: we can imagine any number of worlds in which we stop undermining the foundations of our existence, maybe some of them have Facebook and immersion blenders and maybe some of them don’t. Maybe we don’t know every detail of which world would be best. But what’s important is that we do what is necessary to survive.
To be certain, some of the post-fossil fuel worlds we could create would be more or less similar to the one we live in now. Some of them could even resemble the worlds policymakers imagine in their troves of elaborate documentation. Completely decarbonizing the electrical grid, for instance, appears technically feasible. (26) On the other hand, even if climate change did not exist, our current levels of technologically-intensive consumption are destroying the planet’s life-support systems in a number of other ways. The point is simply that we must begin to find the right path to a post-carbon world now, in the context of a rapid and radical decline in fossil fuel use, rather than requiring that the perfect path be clear before we begin that decline.
Radical movements targeting fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure projects are subject to the critique that they aren’t focusing on a big picture approach to fighting climate change, when in reality shutting down the fossil fuel economy is the big picture. The rest is just the details. If policymakers could emerge from their self-created labyrinths of technical obscurities and market speculations for a moment to grasp this simple truth, they could lead us away from a path of unprecedented destruction and misery. Since they cannot, we must lead ourselves.
A Blockade Is Not Just a Blockade
What does it mean to say that our leaders are helpless and we must lead ourselves? Apart from being simply, manifestly true, on some level it acknowledges that the climate crisis is merely a particularly urgent permutation of an ongoing crisis inherent within the dominant political and economic order. It is telling that climate change ascended as an imminent and all-encompassing threat in the late 1980s, just as the decades-long prospect of nuclear annihilation declined in immediacy with the end of the Cold War. The clear implication is that reducing greenhouse gas emissions on its own will not suffice to preserve life: the system that created climate change is incapable of doing anything other than chronically threatening the planet and the people who live on it with destruction.
Blockading an oil train or locking down to a tar sands truck is not simply an act of protest aimed at convincing policymakers to take the novel approach of behaving in a morally defensible fashion. Successful or unsuccessful at achieving its immediate goal, it has an inherent, broader meaning. Direct action is a discipline by which we, and hopefully those who are exposed to us, can step outside the prevailing model of relations. It is a step toward dismantling the underlying value system which facilitates the climate crisis—a value system which loves money more than life—rather than simply advocating for change within that system. Even when an act of resistance does not achieve the desired material change, it is always useful to disobey.
Of course, as much as replacing the CO2-emitting apparatus of death and slavery with a solar-powered apparatus of death and slavery, and thus waiting for the next crisis, is useless, a resistance that achieves no material victories while imagining a better world is equally useless. It must be acknowledged that, while clearly bent on destruction, government is also the entity possessing the capacity to significantly diminish emissions in a rapid manner. It must be acknowledged that, if mobilizing the public and generating social tumult is to have any effect on the material world, influencing policymakers is a likely mechanism by which it will do so.
Thus, our fight—the fight of any grassroots movement—is a dual one, always possessing a complex tension. We must seek immediate gains on behalf of a liveable world, while also seeking fundamental change. We must seek to influence the dominant political machine while striving to do away with it. It is no easy task, but to do anything less would be, to use a phrase popular when dismissing our relevance, missing the big picture.
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