What role do social movements play in blocking fossil fuel projects?


in Canada, Economics, PhD thesis, Politics, The environment

It’s rare to see an article on a news website speaking so directly to a current question of current scholarly interest. In 2012, Doug McAdam and Hilary Boudet published Putting Social Movements in their Place: Explaining Opposition to Energy Projects in the United States, 2000-2005, which generally encourages scholars of contentious politics and social movements to consider other explanations for political outcomes. I have personally wondered about how to evaluate and feel about climate change activist effectiveness.

A CBC News opinion piece from two days ago: “Social movements played a huge part in derailing Energy East

It expresses the common and convincing activist argument that just delaying projects and adding perceived risk is helping to slow the pace of fossil fuel exploitation:

The pipeline was originally scheduled to be approved by the end of 2014 and in operation by the end of 2018. Instead, delays won by Indigenous communities, grassroots groups, labour unions and NGOs prevented Energy East from being built when it was still economically and politically feasible, back when the price of oil was well north of $80 per barrel.

These delays also created space for Energy East opponents to carve out new expectations of the environmental and social burdens of proof needed for an energy project’s approval, making it even harder to build.

Two events in particular each drove about two years of delay. First, there was the September 2014 grassroots-funded legal challenge on risks to beluga whales at the project’s proposed Cacouna Marine terminal, which triggered a long process of TransCanada trying and failing to find a new Quebec location acceptable to the public.

And second, there was the Charest Affair, where an apparent conflict of interest called into question the overall validity – and legality – of the National Energy Board’s hearing on Energy East, causing delays.

It is this groundswell of opposition that created the political space for policy-oriented opponents to Energy East to successfully advocate for a review of the National Energy Board’s approval process, and for new interim measures to be applied to Energy East. Among them was the consideration of the climate change impacts of the project — something that, ideally, would be a given for an environmental review of a fossil fuel project.

The pipeline’s new review, if it had been restarted, would have been the first to include consideration of greenhouse gas emissions both up- and down-stream from the project. These added requirements, in combination with the dour economic outlook for bitumen export and the risks of direct action during construction, mean Energy East has become impossible to build. So yes, the cancellation of Energy East was a business decision, but it was one made in a landscape that’s been successfully engineered by social movements.

You see a similar argument from fossil fuel divestment activists; even if their target institutions choose not to divest, they are spreading the idea that big new fossil fuel projects may be financially risky within the community of institutional investors, including other schools, municipalities, etc.

The author is also of interest: “Bronwen Tucker is a community organizer and climate policy researcher. She is currently investigating the impacts of anti-pipeline campaigns as a graduate student at the University of Oxford.”

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