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

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.”

Elena Cherney and Steve Paiken on pipelines and bitumen sands

They stress the unknown future production levels from U.S. oil fracking as important for determining the future size of Canada’s oil industry.

They mention this Jeff Rubin report: Evaluating the Need for Pipelines: A False Narrative for the Canadian Economy


The claim that additional pipeline capacity to tidewater will unlock significantly higher prices for bitumen is not corroborated by either past or current market conditions. Recent international commitments to reduce global carbon emissions over the next three decades will significantly reduce the size of future oil markets. Only the lowest-cost producers will remain commercially viable while high-cost producers will be forced to exit the market. The National Energy Board should consider a rapidly decarbonizing global economy when assessing the need and commercial viability of further pipelines in the country and use Western Canadian Select as the price benchmark when evaluating the economic viability of any new oil sands projects. Pension plans need to stress test their long-term investments in the oil sands in the context of a decarbonizing global economy.


Open thread: peak oil

Peak oil and climate change

Fracking and peak oil

Fatih Birol on peak oil

Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller

Export industries, shipping, and the price of oil

Is there an alternative to extracting the bitumen sands?

Justin Trudeau’s depressing perspective on the oil sands

‘Shut down the oil sands’ is not an extreme position

Two things Canada’s oil industry needs to understand

Canada should phase-out fossil fuel exports

The oil sands can’t be sustainable

The magnitude of GHG emissions from the oil sands

Blocking in the oil sands

Canada does not have the right to develop the oil sands

Oil sands buyers and sellers

Burning up the planet to stay cool

Sticky with humidity after 9pm, electricity demand in Toronto must be crazy right now.

The Independent Electricity System Operator has data for the whole province:

Back in April 2005, province-wide electricity use was 14,890 megawatts: 62% nuclear, 19.3% hydro, 13.5% wind, 4.6% gas.

This connects to lots of climate change questions. Can we really afford not to build new nuclear infrastructure, if we are at all serious about cutting emissions? Can renewables get big enough fast enough to make a difference, or will we be relying on gas with all of its climate problems?

Will the world stay rich enough and electricity cheap enough to keep using air conditioning to stay comfortable? Will places like Phoenix and Texas remain habitable? Also, remember that all the air conditioned cars and trucks are cooling themselves by burning gasoline, not relying on the electricity grid.

Every kakapo sequenced

New Zealand’s kakapo parrot is equally rare and bizarre: critically endangered, with 154 survivors living on three protected predator-free islands, the birds can’t survive the presence of rats, cats, and other potentially-carniverous mammals, can’t fly, and reproduce slowly and strangely.

The chapter about them is perhaps the most memorable part of Douglas Adams’ excellent non-fiction book Last Chance to See.

Now, the DNA of every living kakapo is being sequenced, with 81 done already.


One way in which the lives of contemporary urban dwellers must differ from those of most people in the 250,000 years of anatomically modern human history is in not knowing our neighbours. In a small settlement in a time before widespread travel and privacy, you would probably know everybody. Now, many of us couldn’t pick out the people who live on our block from a lineup.

I suspect this has several negative effects. Because so many of us duplicate what would once have been shared spaces (living rooms, laundry rooms, kitchens), urban density is lower than it might otherwise be, contributing to sprawl and the time and energy inefficiencies of long commutes. Socially, there is ample evidence that we are atomized and isolated to an unprecedented expense.

Living for three years at Massey College offered one alternative model. The college has the physical layout of a Benedictine monastery, with shared spaces including the common room, libraries, and the dining hall on one end and private rooms looking inward around an enclosed quad. Everybody gets their own small bedroom and attached office, but all other facilities are shared. Meals are taken in common, and cellular phones are prohibited in the dining hall. It’s an attractive approach that combines privacy with communality, and it probably fits more people into a Massey-sized area than private apartments would. If it were more than three stories tall, it could be much more dense than conventional housing, while still not having so many residents that people won’t all know one another.

A commercial take on a similar idea is being tried in London:

The Collective is a pioneer of a new property format known as “co-living”. Instead of self-contained flats, residents live in tiny rooms with 12 square metres of floor space. Most contain just a bed and a bathroom.

It is outside these rooms that the building makes its pitch. It comes with a gym, spa, libraries, a good restaurant and a cinema. Residents get access to all of these amenities, as well as their room, for a rental payment of £800-£1,000 ($1,033-$1,292) a month. That includes all bills and high-speed Wi-Fi; they pay extra for meals in the restaurant. Residents have come up with their own services, too. The Collective houses a “library of things”, or a shared repository of useful objects—hammers, tape measures and even tents.

They do note that this building is too large for close social pressure to prevent bad behaviour:

With too many co-livers to be able to know everyone personally, CCTV is used in these areas as a guarantor of good conduct and cleanliness.

That said, I have experienced problems with chores, shared cooking equipment, and cleanliness in situations with just two or three housemates.

Along with innovations like more laneway housing and policies to discourage low-density urban living, such approaches could contribute to a more sustainable future which also includes stronger communities.

Young people and political involvement

Howard Dean recently made some interesting comments about young people and U.S. politics:

“They’re very independent-minded. They don’t like politics. And they mistrust institutions,” Dean said in his characteristically matter-of-fact style. “I think our problem as Democrats is, we’re the head of the oldest party in the West, and this party is an institution that looks incredibly unattractive; not because of our ideology, ’cause that is attractive, and that is why they always vote for Democrats. But the Democratic Party means nothing to them because it’s an institution built by people like me who’s 40 years older than them.”

Dean believes the Republican Party blew a chance with these young voters. “The Republicans had a shot at these guys because these young folks are libertarian economically,” he said, “but the Republicans are so cast in racism and anti-feminism and all these other things that these young folks value.” And Dean’s assessment of the leadership of the GOP was withering. “Leadership in the ultimate is telling your own people that they have to do something that they don’t want to do,” he said. “There’s no leadership at all in the Republican Party. None. Zero. They’re all terrified of their monster that they’ve created, which relies on xenophobia and racism and all these other unpleasant-isms.”

I think it’s true that there is a conflict between generations, and that politics generally serves the old and rich. It’s hard to see a way out of that when the functioning of politics as usual makes young people apathetic more often then apoplectic.

If everyone could see 50 years into the future, I think young people would have the highest voter turnout instead of the lowest, and that older people would start making choices that will not so gratuitously burn up the futures of their children and grandchildren.

Will Norway choose to be responsible?

I have written before about Norway’s awkward tension between wanting to be a responsible global citizen and wanting to continue to sell oil.

Their ongoing election demonstrates the tension starkly. The Green Party, which may end up holding the balance of power in a divided legislature, opposes further hydrocarbon development. By contrast, a slogan of the dubiously named Progress Party is: “Trust us, we will bring up every drop”.

Canada’s courts and Indigenous rights

One privilege during my time at U of T was to take Peter Russell’s class on Canada’s history as a series of incomplete conquests in 2013.

He taught the class for several years running to a mixed group of undergrads and grad students, using it partly to help him refine the new history of Canada he was writing.

That book has now been released: Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests.

The paper I wrote for the class was called “The judiciary in the lead: Aboriginal politics in Canada’s post-Charter era“. Russell addresses the subject in the finished book:

The Supreme Court of Canada, as the Powley case demonstrates, continues to be a major player in the resurgence of aboriginal peoples. This is true in other common law countries with colonized native peoples within. The high courts of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States are now playing an important role in shaping the rights of Indigenous peoples in their countries. Indeed the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Calder, which was instrumental in changing Canada’s Aboriginal policy in the 1970s, was the crucial precedent in the Australian High Court’s Mabo decision, which changed Australian policy in the 1990s. For Indigenous peoples, as small minorities within democratic countries, resorting to the courts to vindicate rights and defend interests makes good sense, especially when the courts are rooted in the common law tradition of judicial independence and law development, and their judges are no longer soaked in the racism of earlier settler generations. The courts in all four common law countries, in varying degrees, have been relatively liberal in responding to the legal claims of Aboriginal peoples. Their decisions have often been out front of elected politicians, forcing changes in the policies of their governments. But their agency as instruments of full decolonization is limited. They are still the “white man’s courts,” not only in their composition, but also in the justices’ belief that Indigenous peoples are subject to the overriding sovereignty of the settler state.

The Supreme Court of Canada has made its most important contributions to advancing Aboriginal rights in decisions relating to native title. The Court’s 1997 decision in Delgamuukw confirmed that native title was one of the existing Aboriginal rights recognized in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, and spelled out some of its features. Native title is communal, rather than individual. It confers on the society that it has full ownership of the land and its resources, including subsurface minerals. That was the good news. But much of the Court’s treatment of native or Aboriginal title has dealt with its limitations. First, Aboriginal people cannot sell any part of their lands on the private market; native title land can only be sold to the Crown — that is, the Government of Canada. A second limitation smacks of paternalism: the Aboriginal people that hold native title can develop the land in non-traditional ways, providing a development does not undermine their historical attachment to the land. The Supreme Court gave two examples of what it would not allow a native community to do to its own lands: strip-mine a hunting ground or pave over a burial ground for a parking lot. A third limitation underlines the continuing colonialism in the Court’s thinking. In common law, native title is understood as a “burden” on the Crown’s sovereignty, and in discharging the Crown’s — that is, the federal or provincial government’s — responsibilities to the larger community, there might be compelling and substantial circumstances that could make an infringement of native title justifiable. Chief Justice Lamer, who wrote the principal majority opinion, asserted somewhat casually that “the development of agriculture, forestry, mining, hydroelectric power, and general economic development of the interior of British Columbia, protection of the environment or endangered species, the building of infrastructure and the settlement of foreign populations” — any of these — “can justify the infringement of aboriginal title.” The Court’s purpose in fashioning this new law, the chief justice explained, was “to reconcile the pre-existence of aboriginal society with the sovereignty of the Crown.”

A duty to consult native owners and try to accomodate their interests before pushing through projects on their lands might be better than nothing, but it is still a far cry from affirming Aboriginal peoples’ constitutional right to protect and develop their lands and resources.

Russell, Peter. Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests University of Toronto Press, 2017. p. 434–6