Environmentalists Deter Big Oil Adventure

Environmentalists Deter Big Oil AdventureEnvironmentalists Deter Big Oil Adventure

Environmental groups have become emboldened by their perceived triumph over Shell in the Arctic, in which they refined new tactics. What impact might this have on the future green movement in the United States?

Environmental organizations celebrated when Royal Dutch Shell announced it was halting oil and gas explorations in Alaska's Chukchi Sea "for the foreseeable future". Activists heralded the move as an unprecedented victory for their campaign to stop drilling, as they claimed to have shut down a fossil fuel project.

However, the oil giant is adamant that environmental groups played no role in its decision to leave the Arctic. A spokesperson confirmed the company withdrew for economic and legislative reasons, stating that the so-called Burger J well did not contain enough oil to develop a viable commercial project, DW reported.

"You could see a signature of environmental activists, but it would be an overstatement to say environmental activism forced Shell to pull out," explained Paul Wapner, an expert on green movements.

Regardless of whether or not environmental groups were decisive in the oil company's announcement, such developments have emboldened green activists' resolve and will certainly have ramifications for the movement's future.

From environmentalists to indigenous rights groups to labor organizations, the protests against Shell brought diverse people together. By coordinating their efforts, the demonstrations were larger and attracted more attention to the issue.

"It takes all of us rowing in the same direction to get these results," said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club's land protection program. "Many groups have made the Arctic a priority and focused the attention worldwide on Shell's actions."

  Opposing Interests, Common Purpose

The cooperation strategy has been adopted in opposition to oil and gas projects across North America, including the Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway pipelines. Protests have united ranchers and indigenous peoples, which traditionally have opposing interests, toward a common purpose.

Although collaboration between green groups is not new, Wapner said the protests against Shell "saw solidarity in a fairly powerful way" which may indicate the tide is turning in the environmental movement's favor.

US President Barack Obama has proposed designating some 49,695 square kilometers as wilderness there, which would prohibit future drilling.

Organizations working together had an impact in the Arctic in the past. In 2005, they were able to exert enough political pressure to prevent exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge under former US president George W. Bush.

Cassady Sharp, a media officer at Greenpeace, believes the coordinated effort against Shell provided valuable lessons to the environmental movement and has laid the foundations for powerful activism in the future.

"I think the future of environmentalism in the US will be a diverse coalition of people coming together, with one goal in mind," she said.

  Tricks of the Trade

Opponents use existing laws to block proposed oil projects in court, often delaying them for years. Environmental legislation and indigenous people's treaty rights in North America have proven effective in staving off unwanted pipeline or oilrigs.

In its press release, Shell cited "the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska". Both Greenpeace and the Sierra Club said the Marine Wildlife Act was instrumental to Shell's Arctic exit.

Under this law, oil wells are required to be 24 kilometers apart to protect walruses, although the oil company had planned to build two wells within 14.5 kilometers of each other.

The modern environmental movement is using technology and media to target a company's reputation. Online petitions and social media campaigns backed by strategic protests drew negative attention to Shell.

Several so-called "kayaktivist" demonstrations, activists paddling in kayaks and small boats, saw hundreds of participants protest Shell as its rig left the Seattle Harbor for the Arctic.

"We made them realize this could also really damage their brand if they continued to drill in an area like the Arctic Ocean," said Athan Manuel in an interview.

Shell's failed exploration is likely to dissuade other companies from developing projects in the Arctic, for the time being.

Toward drilling efforts, the company spent $7 billion over the course of several years, without viable results. This represents an unattractive scenario for profit-driven investors.

  Mixed Messages

While the Obama administration introduced legislation to curb carbon emissions from power plants, drilling for oil and gas in US waters remains part of the president's plan for energy independence.

The government plans to sell more leases to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in Alaska, in 2016 and 2017.

"It is better to put our time and energy as a country into clean and renewable energy, and getting ourselves off of fossil fuels," said Athan Manuel.

Hours after Obama approved Shell's Arctic drilling in August, Democratic nominee hopeful Hillary Clinton expressed her disagreement of Obama's plan.

"The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it's not worth the risk of drilling," she said on Twitter.

The US Geological Survey estimates there are 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil in US Arctic waters alone, with the US government estimating the region is home to 20% of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.