Should Arctic drilling opponents take on Shell, or our own craving for crude?

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The floating protest against Shell's presence at the Port of Seattle made headlines. Would activists have more impact if they stormed Olympia instead?

Ok, admit it — you’re a little queasy about the recent “Paddle in Seattle” protests against Shell. It’s not that you questioned their cause: the Arctic is highly sensitive, the risks of an accident are high and Shell’s record in the Arctic is hardly inspiring. Nor did you doubt the effectiveness of a flotilla of tiny Davids standing up — okay, sitting down — against an oily Goliath: Shell’s operational window in the Chukchi Sea is so narrow that any delay in the port permitting process could cause Shell to rethink the whole project.

Rather, what bothered you was the small-picture feel to the campaign. Even if Greenpeace and others involved do stop Shell from wintering its Arctic fleet in Seattle, the victory will be short-lived. As soon as oil prices rise, Shell or a rival will be back for the billions of barrels under the Chukchi. Why? Because, what is actually driving this drama isn’t oil-industry greed, or even the wimpiness of the Obama administration. It is our own insatiable appetite for crude.

Put another way, unless the zeal we saw on Elliott Bay can somehow be channeled toward the more complicated, and less glamorous, task of curbing that demand, the “Paddle for Seattle” will ultimately be less political action than performance art.

This isn’t a dig at the protestors, exactly. Groups like Greenpeace, for all their emphasis on immediacy and real-time spectacle, recognize that these “events” must be part of a larger campaign to shift the global economy away from fossil fuels. The problem, really, is the way that larger story is being articulated and received — by activists, but also by journalists, politicians, citizens and the larger culture. And cynical as it may sound, when it comes to stories about social change, ours is a culture that increasingly insists on, not only obvious conflict and identifiable heroes and villains, but plot lines that move swiftly and uncomplicatedly toward concrete resolution, whether it’s a success or failure. “Reducing oil demand” just doesn’t fit that criteria.

Which isn’t surprising. For many of us, oil demand is a concept we’d rather not think about — not because it’s too abstract, but because it’s too depressingly personal. We understand the link between our driving habits and distant events like Arctic drilling. It's just that, as a group, we’re not very good at acting on that knowledge, especially when gasoline is so darn cheap.

It’s not Shell’s fault that Americans are driving more now than ever before, that SUVs and pickups again account for more than half of all new car sales, that 55 percent of hybrid and electric vehicle owners are now “upgrading” to conventional gas-powered models, or that one in five of those buyers is opting for a sport utility vehicle. All in all, we'd rather not think about the “let’s use less oil” story, and thus there's little incentive for activists to bring it up.

By contrast, narratives centered on oil supply and, in particular, on actions to interrupt that supply, offer us all the story elements we crave. Campaigns to ban fracking, for example, provide instantly recognizable heroes and victims and opportunities for dramatic, concrete results — fracking bans have been enacted by local governments across the nation. Protests to stop oil trains, which are rapidly emerging as the most powerful environmental narrative in the state, have also racked up some real wins for environmentalists and locals.

And these aren't just symbolic victories. Any time you can prevent an expansion of the supply infrastructure, whether it's a new oil field in the Arctic or a new oil train terminal in Washington State, you’re not only reducing the risk of an accident; you’re also slowing the growth of the oil infrastructure and thus allowing for a future that is not quite so locked in to oil.

But again, such supply-side campaigns are often simply holding actions. As long as demand for the crude remains high, oil companies, railroads and other transportation firms, and their political allies, have every incentive to keep pushing for new and creative ways to get around activists and blockages and kayak protests and keep the crude moving to consumers. Case in point: state legislators in Texas and Oklahoma recently enacted laws that make it illegal for local governments to ban fracking — a ban on bans. After more than a century and a half of steady growth, Big Oil has a lot of momentum.

As Travis Nichols, an Arctic expert at Greenpeace points out, even if Shell is thwarted this time around, next time might end differently. If “a Republican president or a Republican Congress comes in and says, ‘go for it!’, we haven created the long-term cultural change that will keep fossil fuel projects like this from going forward.” The challenge, Nichols argues, is, “how can we make this into something that is lasting and permanent and that institutionalizes the passion that we’re seeing now, so we don’t have to do this every three years."

In other words, how do we make this "a turning point, and not just something like, ‘Oh, remember when everyone got in those kayaks? What was that about?’”

So, how do we create long-term cultural change? What would it take to ensure that the narrative opened on Elliott Bay IS a turning point?

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Paradoxically, the challenge may be more about attention than action. For years now, local policy-minded environmental groups such as Climate Solutions have been dutifully working on the supply-side issue in Olympia and other legislative arenas. And while they don’t get even a fraction of the public or media attention enjoyed by  “Paddle for Seattle”, their quiet efforts have advanced initiatives that, with enough political support, could permanently reduce Big Oil’s momentum.

Take the Clean Fuels Standard (CFS), a proposed state law that would encourage drivers to shift to low-carbon fuels (such as electricity), by imposing an escalating carbon tax on gasoline and diesel. State studies show that by 2026, the CFS would cut Washington’s gasoline and diesel demand by 25 percent and 15 percent, respectively. That in itself isn’t enough to topple big oil. But because similar clean fuel standards are on the books in California, Oregon and British Columbia, Washington would be joining a large regional effort with serious implications for oil demand.

By 2030, according to a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation, this cross-border Ecotopia could cut oil demand by 400,000 barrels a day. That's roughly four-fifths of what oil companies hope to be pumping out of the Chukchi Sea every day by then.

Oil, of course, is a global commodity, and critics argue that any oil we don’t use here in Ecotopia will just be guzzled in Texas or India. But that’s not entirely true. If the whole West Coast was legislatively committed to displacing oil, that would create serious incentives for developers of cost-effective green fuels and technologies that could then displace oil not only the West Coast, but everywhere.

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Take the example of batteries for electric cars. Today, they are still so expensive that electric cars account for less than one percent of total U.S. car sales. Yet demand for new electric cars is already strong enough that battery makers will soon have the volumes they need to bring costs down — so much so that some experts predict electric cars will be cheaper than gas-powered cars within a decade. How much sooner might that threshold be reached if the entire West Coast were to declare itself a serious, permanent market for cleaner fuels?

A cheap electric car won’t end our demand for oil overnight, or even in a decade — getting off oil will be a long, long process. But cheap electric cars and other renewable fuels would make Shell or anyone else think twice before drilling in a high-cost, high-risk place like the Chukchi Sea.

To be fair, such a green outcome is hardly certain. Big Oil, predictably displeased by the prospect of falling demand, has pushed back hard against clean fuel standards all long the Pacific Coast — and nowhere more effectively than in Washington State. Urged on by oil industry lobbyists, senate Republicans have not only blocked the clean fuel standard from becoming law, they have prevented Gov. Jay Inslee from enacting CFS standards via executive order: If the governor acts on his own, Republican senators have threatened to retaliate by killing proposed public transit projects and using the funds to build new roads instead.

Policy veterans like Ben Serrurier, with Climate Solutions, think this impasse could be broken if the momentum of the Shell protests were extended into the legislative arena. Big Oil has succeeded thus far largely because the fight over the Clean Fuels Standard doesn’t make the evening news or trend on Twitter. “Frankly, the oil industry would love to keep the attention on Elliott Bay versus what they are doing behind closed doors in Olympia,” he says. But the moment may be ripe to change that.

Greens are lobbying Inslee to push ahead with the CFS, in part because doing so will require public hearings and thus open a venue for activists — including those who ordinarily think of protests as an outdoor sport — to confront the oil industry in a more permanent way. “If you want to take on Big Oil, there is no better way to do it than by implementing a clean fuels standard,” Serrurier says. “But that is going to require the same sort of energy and the same sort of turnout that we’ve seen in Elliott Bay.”

Bringing that energy to Olympia isn’t easy, as activists of all stripes know quite well. The emotional, visceral and photogenic appeal that drew so many citizens (and press photographers) to Elliott Bay won’t be easy to duplicate in a dreary legislative hearing room. But if the activist community can figure out how to tell the story right, how to connect the narrative about standing up to a drilling rig to a narrative about standing up to oil industry lobbyists, the effect could be electrifying.

Legislators in Olympia have seen how the “Shell No!” campaign caused headaches for Seattle politicians and the world’s second largest publicly traded oil company. Imagine how cooperative they might become if the activists who paddled out to the Polar Pioneer in May  started showing up on the steps of the Capitol.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Harper's, the Washington Post, Newsweek, the New Republic, and more. He covers energy, technology, and consumer culture. His latest book, "The Impulse Society: American in the Age of Instant Gratification," was published by Bloomsbury USA last year.