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Ramping up eco resistance

Kait Bolongaro
October 8, 2015

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?

Demonstrationen gegen Shell in der Arktis Kayaktivists
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. M. Mcknight

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: They managed to shut down a fossil fuels project, they claimed.

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

"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, told DW.

Ölbohrinsel in Alaska
Shell had been actively exploring in the Arctic for several years after buying the leaseImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Z. Painter

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.

'Rowing in the same direction'

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."

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 isn't a new phenomenon, Paul Wapner told DW that the protests against Shell "saw solidarity in a fairly powerful way" - which may indicate the tide is turning in the environmental movement's favor.

Alaska Wildnis
Environmentalists say a transition out of fossil fuels is necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate changeImage: picture alliance/chromorange

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 US President George W. Bush.

Barack Obama has proposed designating some 49,695 square kilometers (12.28 million acres) as wilderness there, which would prohibit future drilling.

Cassady Sharp, a media officer at Greenpeace, believes the coordinated effort against Shell provided valuable lessons to the environmental movement, and has lain 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 told DW.

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 unwanteds pipeline or oilrigs.

Demonstrationen gegen Shell Kayaktivists
'Kayaktivist' demonstrations such as this one in Seattle sprung up throughout the summer of 2015Image: Getty Images/K. Ducey

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

Under this law, oil wells are required to be 24 kilometers (15 miles) apart to protect walruses, although the oil company had planned to build two wells within 14.5 kilometers (9 miles) 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 "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 with DW.

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 6.2 billion euros ($7 billion) over the course of several years, without viable results. This represents an unattractive scenario for profit-driven investors.

US Präsident Barack Obama in Alaska
President Barack Obama has sent mixed signals on his position on drilling in AlaskaImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Ngan

Government sending 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 on Twitter.

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