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The Fossil Fuels War


1 Some climate scientists saw the peaking of conventional crude oil as a silver-lining opportunity to stabilize the climate—provided that countries did not turn to dirtier forms of energy such as coal and “unconventional fossil fuels.”2

Today all of this has changed radically with the advent of what some are calling a new energy revolution based on the production of unconventional fossil fuels.3 The emergence in North America—but increasingly elsewhere as well—of what is now termed the “Unconventionals Era” has meant that suddenly the world is awash in new and prospective fossil-fuel supplies.4 As journalist and climate activist Bill McKibben warns,

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The new phase of environmental struggle that the Unconventionals Era has engendered is symbolized above all today by the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, extending from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, designed to deliver up to 830,000 barrels of tar-sands oil (diluted bitumen or dilbit) a day. The proposed pipeline has two legs. The northern leg, which has not yet been approved in Washington, is to be 1,179 miles long and will cross the border from Canada to the United States. The southern leg runs 484 miles from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast, and is already largely completed.6 Tar-sands-oil production and processing generates roughly 14 percent more emissions than the average oil consumed in the United States, and leaves large pools of polluted water.7 Failure to halt the burning of tar-sands oil would mean “game over” with respect to climate change, in the words of James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the most renowned U.S. climatologist.8

The Alberta tar sands, which underlie an area roughly the size of Florida, are already generating 1.8 million barrels of oil a day and the current push is to expand this further. The Achilles heel of tar-sands production, however, is transportation. At present there is a “bitumen bubble” as tar-sands oil is more readily produced than transported. The inability to get the tar-sands oil to ports means that it remains dependent on the U.S. market and is unable to command world prices. Tar-sands oil (known on the oil markets as Western Canadian Select) traded at times in 2012 at $35 a barrel less than the price it would have received had transcontinental oil transport been readily available. This represented a loss of about a third of its value when compared to West Texas Intermediate.9 Hence, the tar-sands industry is desperate to secure adequate transcontinental transport to support its current as well as expanded oil production. The big push is for pipelines. Yet, there are serious environmental concerns that diluted bitumen may be more dangerous to transport in pipelines than conventional crude oil, because of increased likelihood of pipeline corrosion, and the resulting leakages. The Keystone XL Pipeline would go right over the Ogallala aquifer, the largest drinking-water aquifer in the United States, which supplies eight states.10

The United States witnessed its biggest climate demonstrations yet in February 2013, with upward of 40,000 people protesting in front of the White House and more than a thousand arrested in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.11 In Canada, meanwhile, the indigenous-led Idle No More has utilized a variety of strategies and tactics in fighting tar-sands production, such as: a hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence; rail blockades; flashmobs in malls; a giant circle dance in a large intersection in Winnipeg; and the legal defense of First Nations sovereignty rights with respect to land, water, and resources. Idle No More protests have targeted oil transport by both rail and pipeline, with the latter including opposition to Keystone XL and to the planned Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Project—designed to extend around 730 miles from the Alberta tar sands to a marine terminal in Kitimat, British Columbia.12

Other unconventionals are also altering the terrain of the struggle. The last few years have witnessed dramatic, new technological developments with respect to hydraulic fracturing coupled with horizontal drilling or “fracking.” Sand, water, and chemicals are injected at high pressures in order to blast open shale rock, releasing the trapped gas inside. After the well has reached a certain depth the drilling occurs horizontally.13 Fracking has led to the rapid exploitation of vast, hitherto inaccessible, reserves of shale gas and tight oil in states across the country from Pennsylvania and Ohio to North Dakota and California, unexpectedly catapulting the United States once again into the position of a major fossil-fuel power. It has already led to substantial increases in natural-gas production, replacing dirtier and more carbon-emitting coal in generating electricity. Together the economic slowdown and the shift from coal to natural gas due to fracking have resulted in a 12 percent drop in U.S. (direct) carbon dioxide emissions between 2005 and 2012, reaching their lowest level since 1994.14

Nevertheless, the negative environmental and health effects of fracking falling on communities throughout the United States are enormous, if still not fully assessed. Toxic pollution from fracking is contaminating water supplies and affecting wastewater treatment not designed to cope with such hazards. Methane leakages from fracking, in the case of shale gas, are threatening to accelerate climate change. If such leakages cannot be contained, fracked natural-gas production could prove more dangerous to the climate than coal.15 Fracking has also engendered earthquakes in the extractive areas.16 In response to such developments, a whole new environmental resistance to fracking has arisen in communities throughout North America, Australia, and elsewhere.

A train pulling seventy-two tank cars laden with oil from fracking in North Dakota derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013, killing fifty people. Such accidents are themselves a product of the boom in unconventionals, coupled with “pipeline on rails” methods of shipping the oil (as well as the decrease of labor used in rail transport). In 2009, corporations shipped a mere 500 tank cars of oil by rail in Canada; in 2013 this is projected to be as much as 140,000 tank cars.17 North Dakota tight oil is also shipped by rail to Albany, New York, where it is loaded onto barges for shipment to East Coast refineries.

Only three years ago, on April 20, 2010, an explosion in BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform killed eleven workers and generated a huge underwater oil gusher, which dumped a total of 170 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.18 The Deepwater Horizon disaster has come to stand for the new, environmentally perilous era of ultra-deepwater oil wells—offshore oil drilled at depths of more than a mile as a result of the development of more sophisticated technologies. (Deepwater oil drilling more generally involves drilling at depths of more than a thousand feet.)

Deepwater oil drilling is most advanced in the Gulf of Mexico, but is spreading in other places, such as Canada’s Atlantic Coast, Brazil’s offshore zone, the Gulf of Guinea, and the South China Sea. Still more ominous from an environmental standpoint is the drive by oil companies and the five Arctic powers (the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark) to drill deepwater wells in the Arctic—made increasingly accessible due to global warming. Meanwhile, pressure is mounting to open up the outer continental shelf off the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific coasts to offshore oil drilling.19

In the face of the rush by capital to extract unconventional fossil fuels in ever-greater amounts, climate activists are seeking new means of resistance. The “Do the Math” strategy of 350.org is focused on the necessary divestment in fossil fuels, to be replaced by clean energy sources. Some financial analysts have been sounding the alarm with respect to the carbon budget imposed by the red line of a 2°C increase in global average temperature—referred to as a planetary tipping point or “point of no return” with respect to climate change. Climate scientists fear that once this point is reached processes will be set in motion that will make climate change irreversible and out of human control.20 It will no longer be possible to stop the progression to an ice-free world. Staying within the global carbon budget means that further carbon emissions are limited to considerably less than 500 billion metric tons (of actual carbon), according to Oxford climatologist Myles Allen and scientists associated with trillionthtonne.org. This means that most of the world’s current proven fossil-fuel reserves cannot be exploited without initiating extremely dangerous—even irreversible—levels of climate change. And this limitation in turn threatens trillions of dollars of potential financial losses in what are now accounted as fossil-fuel assets—a phenomenon known as the “carbon bubble.”21

While capital in the last few years has been triumphantly celebrating its increased ability to tap fossil fuels for decades to come, climate change has continued to accelerate—symbolized by the melting of Arctic sea ice to its lowest level ever recorded in summer 2012, with the total ice area receding to less than half the average level of the 1970s. The vanishing Arctic ice, which is melting far faster than scientists had predicted, suggests that the sensitivity of the earth system to small increases in global average temperatures is greater than was previously thought. The ice loss is of particular concern since it represents a positive feedback loop to climate change, accelerating the rate of global warming as the reflectivity of the earth declines—due to the replacement of white ice with dark seawater. The melting of Arctic sea ice, and the resulting “arctic amplification” (temperature increases in the Arctic exceeding that of the earth as a whole) is generating extreme weather events in the Northern hemisphere and worldwide through the “jamming” and redirection of the jet stream. As Walt Meier, a research scientist at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center put it, “the Arctic is the earth’s air conditioner. We’re losing that.”22

The growing incidence of extreme weather events—a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “global weirding”—is symbolized by Superstorm Sandy, which in October 2012 wreaked havoc from the Caribbean to New York and New Jersey. Australia’s “angry summer” of 2012–2013 saw 123 separate extreme weather records broken in a mere ninety days.23 Meanwhile a scientific report in November 2012 revealed that Greenland and west Antarctica had lost more than 4 trillion metric tons of ice over the last two decades, contributing to sea level rise.24

Under these circumstances the increased exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels, made possible by higher oil prices and technological developments, has catastrophic implications for the climate. No less remarkable technological developments, however, have arisen at the same time in relation to renewable energies, such as wind and solar, opening up the possibility of a more ecological path of development. Since 2009 solar (photovoltaic) module “prices have fallen off a cliff.”25 Although still accounting for a tiny percentage of electric-generating capacity in the United States, wind and solar have grown to about 13 percent of total German electricity production in 2012, with total renewables (including hydroelectric and biomass) accounting for about 20 percent.26 As the energy return on energy investment (EROEI) of fossil fuels has declined due to the depletion of cheap crude-oil supplies, wind and solar have become more competitive—with EROEIs above that of tar-sands oil, and in the case of wind even above conventional oil. Wind and solar, however, represent intermittent, location-specific sources of power that cannot easily cover baseload-power needs.27 Worse still, a massive conversion of the world’s energy infrastructure to renewables would take decades to accomplish when time is short.

The Carbon War

The result of all these historically converging forces, dangers, and opportunities is an emerging fossil-fuels war: between those who want to burn more fossil fuels and those who want to burn less. Jeremy Leggett, a leader in the carbon-divestment movement, concluded his 2001 book, The Carbon War, with the observation that the giant fossil-fuel corporations “may well enjoy minor victories along the way. But they have already lost the pivotal battle in the carbon war. The solar revolution is coming. It is now inevitable. The only question left unanswered is, will it come in time?”28

The main battle lines of the carbon war are clear. On the one side, there are the dominant capitalist interests that have sought to address the decline of conventional crude-oil reserves through the incessant expansion of fossil-fuel resources. This has led to actual wars in the oil-rich Middle East and surrounding regions in an effort to gain control over the world’s chief remaining “cheap oil” supplies. A decade ago, in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, leading to what can only be called a continuous military intervention in the oil-rich regions of the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa by the United States and “global NATO.”29 These military incursions have been primarily related to the geopolitics of oil, and only secondarily to terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and so-called “humanitarian intervention”—the main rationales provided.

Nevertheless, the main response of the capitalist system to the peaking of conventional crude oil has not been geopolitical expansion but rather development of the unconventionals. Not stopping with deepwater drilling, fracking, and the exploitation of tar-sands oil, the fossil-fuel industry, backed by the state, is now looking toward development of oil shale and methane hydrates—offering, if these can be brought online, what seems to be truly unlimited supplies of carbon, coupled with the prospect of unthinkable, catastrophic disruptions to the earth system.30

Today’s business-as-usual interests refuse to accept any limits to continued expansion of fossil-fuel production. Establishment energy policymakers—as witnessed by the Obama administration and Council on Foreign Relations’ senior energy analyst Michael Levi—see shale gas from fracking as a “bridge fuel” that will allow a reduction in carbon emissions until carbon capture and sequestration technologies can be developed sufficiently to be feasible, opening the way to supposedly unlimited exploitation of coal and other fossil fuels with zero carbon emissions. The fact that “clean coal” is a fairy tale never seems to enter the analysis.31 Most establishment energy proponents also favor biofuels as an added option, and support large hydroelectric facilities and nuclear energy, discounting the enormous ecological problems represented by all three—particularly nuclear power. Wind, solar, and biomass, in contrast, are viewed by industry as minor supplements to fossil fuels. Empirical research by environmental sociologist Richard York, published in Nature Climate Change in 2012, has verified that the introduction of low-carbon energy has been used mainly to supplement rather than actually displace fossil fuels within the global economy.32

ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson aptly summed up the overall outlook of today’s fossil-fuel industry when he declared on March 7, 2013, that renewables such as “wind, solar, biofuels” would be supplying only 1 percent of total energy in 2040. He described the struggle against the Keystone XL Pipeline by “environmental groups…concerned about the burning of fossil fuels” as simply “obtuse,” since they “misjudged Canada’s resolve” (and no doubt that of the U.S. government) to exploit the tar sands—whatever the social and environmental cost. “My philosophy,” Tillerson said, “is to make money.”33

In the United States this addiction to fossil fuels is built into the Obama administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy. The current Democratic administration is not only promoting the maximum extraction/production of unconventional fossil fuels in the United States and Canada, it is also actively encouraging other countries, such as China, Poland, the Ukraine, Jordan, Colombia, Chile, and Mexico to develop unconventionals as rapidly as possible. Meanwhile, Washington has used its influence in Iraq to get it to boost its crude oil production.34

The Obama administration has strongly underscored its support for coal, and has given a boost to nuclear power. It is also promoting the production of fracked natural gas globally as a “transition fuel.” In the face of all of this, the administration’s very limited support for the development of renewable energies—mainly via the Defense Department and federal-land-use policies—constitutes little more than governmental greenwashing, hardly discernible from the approach of the leading multinational oil companies themselves.35

To be sure, Obama has declared climate change a serious concern, and has supported modest, phased-in new fuel-economy standards for automobiles to come into effect by 2025. Recently, he has extended such fuel-economy standards to heavy-duty trucks, buses, and vans. He has also directed the Environmental Protection Agency to consider carbon-pollution limits for power plants.36

Such positions, however, have not prevented his administration from attempting to accelerate the production of the dirtiest fossil fuels. The administration’s meager proposal to reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by a mere 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 strongly belies any claims that it has to addressing the climate problem on the scale required. Congress’s record in this area is even worse. Washington thus remains little more than a water carrier for the oil corporations and capital in general where climate policy is concerned, reflecting what Curtis White has called capitalism’s “barbaric heart.”37

On the other side is the burgeoning climate movement, propelled into massive direct action by the new threats from the unconventionals. Hansen’s dire warning that it is “game over” if the Alberta tar-sands oil is exploited fully—with the tar sands themselves generating potentially enough carbon dioxide emissions to break the world’s carbon budget, while also symbolizing the pressing need to draw a line in the sand in relation to unconventional fossil fuels—has had an electrifying effect on the movement on the ground. Over 50,000 people have pledged to put their bodies on the line to block Keystone XL Pipeline construction, thereby facing arrest if the Obama administration gives the northern leg of the pipeline a green light.38 Idle No More is fighting oil pipelines in Canada extending south, west, and east. This on-the-ground mobilization is combined with the growing fossil-fuels-divestment movement. Organized resistance to fracking meanwhile has been mounting as well. The main thrust of the climate movement has therefore shifted from demand-side initiatives aimed at reducing consumer-market demand for carbon fuels to supply-side strategies aimed at corporations and designed to keep the fossil fuels in the ground.

The shift to a supply-side struggle targeting corporations represents a maturing of the movement and a growing radicalization. Still, the more elite-technocratic and pro-capitalist elements, which appear to be in the driver’s seat within the climate movement in the United States, remain wedded to the continuation of today’s capitalist commodity society. The prevailing strategic outlook of the U.S. climate movement is largely predicated on the technologically optimistic assumption that there are currently available concrete alternatives to fossil fuels, particularly wind and solar, which, when combined with other renewable sources such as biomass, biofuels, and limited-scale hydroelectric power, will allow society to substitute renewable energies for fossil fuels in the near term without altering society’s social relations. The solar revolution, it is often declared, is here.39

This outlook has allowed the movement to narrow its opposition to the fossil-fuel industry alone, confining its demands to keeping fossil fuels in the ground, blocking the transport of fossil fuels, and divesting in fossil-fuels corporations. As McKibben has stated, “movements need enemies” and the strategy has been to focus not on capitalism but on the fossil-fuel industry as a “rogue industry…. Public Enemy Number One.”40 This has been highly successful in sparking the growth of the movement. Yet, there are serious questions with regard to where all of this is headed. Will the current struggle metamorphose into the necessary full-scale revolt against capitalist environmental destruction? Or will it be confined to very limited, short-term gains of the kind compatible with the system? Will the movement radicalize, leading to the full mobilization of its popular base? Or will the more elite-technocratic and pro-capitalist elements within the movement leadership in the United States ultimately determine its direction, betraying the grassroots resistance?

These are questions for which there are no answers at present. In the current historical moment the struggle against the fossil-fuel industry is paramount—the basis of today’s ecological popular front. Yet, a realistic outlook indicates that nothing short of a full-scale ecological and social revolution will suffice to create a sustainable society out of the planetary rift generated by the present-day capitalist order. The break with the relentless logic of the system cannot be long delayed.

The Revolution Against the System

A realistic historical assessment tells us that there is no purely technological path to a sustainable society. Although a rapid shift to renewables is a crucial component of any conceivable path to a carbon-free, ecological world, the technical obstacles to such a transition are much greater than is usually assumed. The biggest barrier is the up-front cost of building an entirely new energy infrastructure geared to renewables rather than relying on the existing fossil-fuel infrastructure. Construction of a new energy infrastructure requires vast amounts of energy consumption, and would lead—if current consumption and economic growth were not to be reduced—to further demands on existing fossil-fuel resources. This would mean, as ecological economist Eric Zencey has explained, “an aggressive expansion of the economy’s footprint in paradoxical service to the goal of achieving sustainability.” Assuming the average EROEI of fossil fuels keeps falling, the difficulty only becomes worse. Ecological economists and peak-oil theorists have dubbed this the “energy trap.” In Zencey’s words, “The problem is rooted in the sunken energy costs of the petroleum infrastructure (which makes the continued use of petroleum energetically cheap)” even when the EROEI of such fossil fuels in the case of unconventionals is lower than wind and solar.41 It follows that building an alternative energy infrastructure—without breaking the carbon budget—would require a tectonic shift in the direction of energy conservation and energy efficiency.

Kevin Anderson, a leading British climate scientist and the deputy director of the Tyndall Institute for Climate Research, explained in a 2012 interview with Transition Culture that while it is imperative that we drastically cut fossil fuel use,