10 Times Activists Defeated the Fossil Fuel Industry

Large fossil fuel corporations are under fire more than ever before for attempting to shape how governments respond—or don’t—to climate change. Last year, oil and gas companies sent over 600 representatives to a major UN climate conference, and there’s no doubt the industry has formidable resources it can channel into trying to sway decisions in its favor. Yet, climate activists who oppose building oil pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure can and sometimes do win important victories that stop projects worth billions. The list below focuses on instances from the past fifteen years when North American climate groups pushed back against the fossil fuel industry—and won.

  1. ExxonMobil’s “megaloads”

Beneath the forests of northern Alberta lie the Canadian tar sands, a massive deposit of low-grade petroleum known as bitumen. Estimates place the recoverable oil in the tar sands at almost 175 billion barrels, but separating that petroleum from sand and silt is no easy feat. It requires seriously massive pieces of equipment, some of it made from modules over 20 feet wide, 200 feet long, and weighing 250 tons.

In 2010, ExxonMobil subsidiary Imperial Oil announced plans to import 200 of these modules from Korea, hauling them across the Pacific, up the Columbia River, and down US Highway 12 through Idaho and Montana en route to Canada. The plan sparked backlash from environmental groups and small communities who opposed using the rural scenic highway to transport the traffic-disrupting “megaloads.”

In the face of this opposition, Exxon abandoned attempts to move the megaloads via Highway 12 in 2012. This didn’t necessarily prevent them from reaching Alberta some other way. However, the need to find a new route posed one more logistical obstacle to developing the tar sands.

2. Fracking in New York

In the 2010s, the US energy landscape underwent one of its most significant shifts in a generation as the “fracking” boom unleashed a flood of domestic oil and natural gas. Fracking involves injecting sand, water, and chemicals underground to dislodge pockets of oil or gas. The practice was controversial from the start, as fracking companies faced concerns about toxic contamination of nearby water and leaks of the climate-warming gas methane. None of this stopped the seemingly unstoppable fracking juggernaut taking off.

The tide finally began to turn against fracking in 2014, when New York became the first state with significant gas reserves to prohibit the practice within its borders. It was a climate victory a long time in the making, with implications that reverberated nationwide. In 2017, Maryland emulated New York by passing its own fracking ban. And in 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a phaseout of new fracking projects within three years.

3. Shell’s Arctic drilling plans

In 2015, Shell Oil drilling vessels sailed north to seek a bonanza in deep Alaskan waters believed to be home to some of the world’s largest untapped oil reserves. Environmental groups warned of catastrophic spills and quickly began organizing protests in Pacific Northwest port cities where parts of Shell’s fleet would stop on their way to the Arctic Ocean.

In Seattle, “kayaktivists” paddled into the path of Shell’s Polar Pioneer drilling rig, slowing its departure for Alaska. In Portland, Oregon, Greenpeace activists rappelled off a bridge to prevent the Fennica icebreaker from leaving. And in Washington’s Bellingham Bay, college student Chiara D’Angelo chained herself to another Shell vessel for days. The resulting media coverage can be best described as a fiasco for the company.

Shell finally reached Alaska only to abruptly pull the plug on its deepwater drilling plans there, ostensibly because it found disappointingly small oil reserves. Is that really what caused the company to give up so quickly on a project in which it invested $7 billion? We may never know for sure, but it looks at least plausible that Shell backed away partly over fears of more protests.

4. Northwest fossil fuel exports

In the early 2010s, coal, oil, and gas companies were all looking to access markets in fast-growing East Asia economies by building a slate of new export terminals on the Washington and Oregon coasts. Soon, Northwest climate activists were turning out by the thousands to oppose fossil fuel exports projects at public hearings. Tribes argued the projects violated their fishing rights, and some Northwesterners even got arrested sitting in the paths of trains carrying fossil fuels to the coast.

Regional media and activists began referring to a “thin green line” holding back fossil fuel development in the Northwest. To date, more than 20 of the export projects have been cancelled—and while individual projects suffered a variety of headwinds, some economic, the trend of fossil fuel exporters succumbing in the face of environmental opposition seems clear.

5. Otter Creek Mine

When Arch Coal announced plans to build a massive strip mine in Southeast Montana capable of extracting 20 million tons of coal per year, supporters saw a chance to tap massive underground carbon deposits. The pushback against Arch’s proposed Otter Creek Mine and an associated railroad spur came from the nearby Northern Cheyenne Tribe, farmers and ranchers worried about the impact on local agriculture, and climate groups who fought back with protests, lawsuits, and civil disobedience.

The coal from Otter Creek was widely assumed to be intended for overseas export, so the failure of West Coast coal export terminals cast a shadow on the economics of the project even as activists in Montana worked to stop it. In 2016, after years of setbacks, Arch withdrew its application to build Otter Creek and walked away from what would have been one of the biggest new coal mines in North America.

6. Energy East Pipeline

Perhaps you’ve heard of the famous Keystone XL Pipeline, discussed later in this list. However, Keystone XL was just one of several pipelines energy companies proposed building to connect Canada’s tar sands to international markets. The lesser-known Energy East Pipeline would have transported one million barrels of oil daily to Atlantic ports in Quebec and New Brunswick, and climate activists protested its construction during a five-year battle that ended with the project being cancelled in 2017.

Compared to the fight over Keystone XL, the Energy East controversy was relatively short lived. Yet, the consequences for the climate were similarly significant. Energy East’s cancellation put an end to arguably the most ambitious effort to bring tar sands oil to Atlantic markets.

7. Frontier Mine

It’s fair to ask, if a pipeline like Energy East is cancelled, will a similar project simply be built elsewhere, with no net benefit for the climate? Evidence suggests that at least in some cases, efforts to disrupt the transportation of fossil fuels really do contribute to less carbon coming out of the ground—for better or worse. An illustrative case is that of the Frontier tar sands mine, abandoned after almost a decade of work.

First proposed by British Columbia-based Teck Resources in 2011, Frontier was expected to unearth 260,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day. But in 2020, Teck withdrew its application to build the mine, citing concerns about the uncertain state of Canadian energy policy. Tar sands producers were struggling to get their desired volumes of oil to the US, partly because pipelines like Energy East and Keystone XL had been delayed or cancelled. The possibility that they might never be built seemingly cast doubt on Frontier’s viability.

Teck’s decision to abandon the Frontier mine certainly looks like a sign that oil companies have begun viewing the tar sands as a risky investment because of opposition from the climate movement. If so, activists are indeed having their intended impact.

8. Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The 600-mile long Atlantic Coast gas pipeline was always bound to stir up controversy. In addition to any concerns about the climate impacts of burning gas, it would have cut beneath the hugely popular Appalachian Trail. But while opposition from environmental groups was to be expected, it proved much more sophisticated than would likely have been the case a few years earlier.

By the time Atlantic Coast’s developers announced plans for the project in 2014, climate activists had learned valuable lessons from campaigning to defeat other pipelines. They deployed similar tactics to stop this one, including both protests and legal challenges. Atlantic Coast was cancelled in 2020, and its backers cited environmental group litigation as an important factor in the decision.

9. US coal plants

In October 2020, Oregon’s Boardman Plant burned its final load of coal before shutting down per the terms of a 2010 agreement between environmental groups and state regulators. Its closure made Oregon one of the first states to eliminate burning coal for electricity in its borders. It was also part of a much larger trend of plant closures and planned retirements all over the country.

The reasons for US coal’s ill fortunes are multifaceted and include the declining price of other forms of energy. Efforts like the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign also targeted hundreds of individual plants for closure by advocating through state and local regulatory channels. Over a hundred thousand megawatts of US coal capacity retired between 2011 and 2022. Of the 200,500 megawatts that remain, 23% is slated to come offline before 2030.

10. Keystone XL pipeline

The 2021 rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline represented something of a culmination of more than ten years of pushback against fossil fuel projects by the climate movement. Back in the early Obama years, the State Department seemed poised to approve this massive pipeline capable of transporting 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day to US refineries. Keystone XL’s perceived status as a lynchpin in the larger expansion of the tar sands made it a lightning rod for criticism from activists.

Every fossil fuel project in this list drew opposition from a diversity of groups—but Keystone XL attracted a particularly varied coalition of detractors. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe opposed its construction on their traditional territory in South Dakota. Midwestern farmers whose land would be condemned to build it called the pipeline an attack on rural agriculture. Health professionals released statements opposing Keystone XL, and climate activists fought it with large protests. After years of postponing a decision, the Obama administration finally nixed Keystone XL’s permit in 2015, only for it to be resurrected under President Trump. Legal challenges kept the project in limbo another few years, until President Biden halted it with an executive order on his first day in office.

While the controversy over Keystone XL regularly grabbed national headlines, the fate of this one project is in many ways indicative of a much larger trend evident in all of the climate activist wins discussed on this list. Fossil fuel companies are still formidable and still have far too much influence over our politics. But, they are are increasingly vulnerable to being outwitted by a sophisticated, well-organized climate movement.

Banner photo credit: Josh Lopez

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