By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
The surprise announcement Sunday by the Army Corps of Engineers that they will not permit the Dakota Access Pipeline to go under the Missouri River, thus ending the threat to Standing Rock Sioux land and lives, marked a signal success for the environmental protest movement and for the tribe. The protests began last April and have largely gone uncovered by corporate television. Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! was the major provider of journalism and images from the rallies, which were dealt with brutally by local police (who used tear gas, tear gas canisters, and water cannon in the midst of the frigid winter).
In the age of Trump, such peaceful protests will likely increasingly be branded a form of terrorism. (The British viewed Gandhi’s nonviolent noncooperation in the same light, and Southern white police saw Martin Luther King as a terrorist, too). Such desperate branding will not stop the activists. People care about the air they breathe and the water they and their children drink. Oil pipelines are notorious for dangerous leaks that destroy water quality.
Most analysts of coal, oil and natural gas believe that these fuels will still be being used for decades to come, though the likelihood of the phase-out of coal on a short timescale is beginning to be admitted even by energy companies. This end of coal is coming because it is extremely dirty and obviously damaging to health (causing lung disease, heart attacks and nerve poisoning via mercury). It is also owing to wind and solar now being competitive with it, as well as natural gas. (Natural gas is a less desirable substitute because it is also a toxic gas that causes climate change, and drilling for it releases large amounts of methane.)
But these energy analysts who only look at cost and public health are leaving out an extremely important element, which is protest. The reputational and security costs of continuing to burn fossil fuels are going to rise faster than anyone in government or industry imagines.
There are some Antarctic glaciers so massive that if one of them plops into the ocean, it alone could raise sea levels several feet. If such a catastrophic event happens any time soon, before the transition to renewables is largely complete, it will almost certainly produce massive rioting against Big Carbon corporations and their planet-wrecking ways. The public is already very worried about this issue, and an incident that was conclusive would drive them over the edge.
There are already major protests going on against fossil fuels, about which you will not see reports on CNN or Fox or even NBC or ABC.
Thousands of people marched last week in Bangladesh to protest an idiotic plan to site a coal plant near the Sundarbans mangrove forest. They shouldn’t be building coal plants in Bangladesh! They even have to import the coal, increasing shipping in the delicate marshes. Why not get away from the Sundarbans and build a solar facility instead? Since the fuel is free, it would be cheaper over time.
Then there are the Navajo protests against the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona, which courts say they will allow to go on polluting for decades. (I’d bet against that one).
And there are the German villagers forming a human chain in an effort to protect Hambach Forest from being cut down so coal diggers can get at the coal deposits under it.
These sorts of protests against Big Carbon might not be effectual in themselves, and especially in the absence of an alternative. But what I am arguing is that renewable energy is now so inexpensive that it is actually crazy to burn coal. Where a plant already exists, there might be a temptation to keep running it. But on the whole, considerations other than the purely economic are now driving the coal industry. And if you combine the extra cost with the public anger, then utilities and governments are increasingly going to back down.
Given that President Obama’s plan to use the EPA to close down the remaining coal plants will now be ditched by Trump, environmentalists will have to pick up the mantle. Do you have a coal plant anywhere near you? Pressure the utility to close it. Pressure your congressperson to close it.
After we get rid of coal, it will be time to start in on gas plants, and on the petroleum industry. Otherwise your grandchildren will live in a very hot and very dangerous world.