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Resisting the Dominant Energy Agenda

An indispensable part of a new, democratic approach is to resist the agenda of large fossil fuel companies and their political allies. Since the dawn of the fossil fuel age, many of these companies have grown into huge entities with a global presence. Their revenue and profit streams, and the critical role that fossil fuels continue to play in almost all aspects of the world economy, lend them substantial political influence and staying power. As of 2012, fossil fuel-producing companies and utilities represented 19 of the world's 50 leading corporations, accounting for 48 percent of the revenues and nearly 46 percent of the profits of this top-50 group. (See Table 20–2.)

Their agenda has several key characteristics. It is marked by the continued expansion of fossil fuel use; by the aggressive development of extreme forms of energy whose extraction puts communities, workers, and the environment at great risk; by the perpetuation of national-level and World Bank

Table 20–2. Revenues and Profits of the World's 50 Largest Corporations, by Industry, 2012

subsidies and support for privatization and marketization of the energy sector; and by either outright opposition or, at best, a weak commitment to effective climate protection policies. Resistance to this agenda can occur in numerous ways: at the level of policy making, in the workplace, by raising public consciousness about the energy emergency confronting humanity, and by building alliances among various groups and social movements.

Opposing individual projects that present serious risks to workers, communities, and the environment, and that do not meet basic energy needs, is crucial. This kind of resistance can educate the public and galvanize the movement. But this cannot be the only approach. A successful energy transition will require a policy shift of major proportions, and it will include bold measures to deal effectively with the wealth, assets, and political leverage of the large energy corporations.

Resisting the fossil fuel agenda does not mean uncritically embracing the agenda of large companies that are developing renewable energy and other low-carbon energy options. Already, the indiscriminate pursuit of biofuels has led to devastating “land grab” practices to secure land for large-scale renewable energy developments. In Oaxaca, Mexico, for example, communities are resisting the plans of large wind companies that seek to profit from the development of mega wind farms with little regard for the needs, land rights, or cultural heritage of local residents.

Rising energy demand is opening up new areas of the world to fossil fuel

A demonstrator objecting to the continued expansion of the tar sands, at the Canadian parliament, Ottawa.

extraction, including the Arctic, the deep oceans, the Alberta tar sands, and shale rock formations in numerous countries. China's insatiable demand for energy is, in the United States alone, leading to increased coal extraction in the Powder River Basin in southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming, as well as to planned coal export terminals in Washington state. If completed, these projects will lead to devastating “carbon lock-in” as well as to serious environmental and social impacts.

The expansion of fossil fuels and related infrastructure comes with the lure of new jobs. But although these projects create jobs initially, the export of these resources in raw form often brings little lasting value to the communities concerned. In Canada, the petroleum industry directly employed 16,500 workers in the decade to 2011, mostly in the Alberta tar sands. But the export of unrefined tar sands oil (diluted bitumen) to the United States and beyond will lead to a loss of jobs in Canadian refineries. Moreover, the demand for tar sands has raised the value of the Canadian dollar, making Canadian manufacturing less competitive and leading to the loss of more than 500,000 jobs nationwide in the past decade, according to the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. Social opposition to the further development of extreme energy—including coal and tar sands exports in North America—is increasing. In Canada, First Nations, coastal communities, and some unions have thus far blocked the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that is intended to bring diluted bitumen from tar sands to the Canadian west coast for export to Asian countries, especially China. Resistance to the west coast coal terminals is growing, led by indigenous peoples who have refused to accept monetary offers from coal companies that wish to use their ancestral lands to transport and store millions of tons of coal. Many Canadian unions and several U.S. unions (in transport, retail, health, and domestic care) also have opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would connect the Alberta tar sands to heavy crude refineries in Texas and to global energy markets.

Many of these movements are reactive and defensive, however. It is important to address broader policy issues, including through more proactive measures. Social movements, unions, and other allies can play an important role in convincing local organizations to take up demands for energy democracy, including advocating more strongly for an energy system that protects workers' rights and builds community power.

Unions and their allies also need to join with other groups to fight for well-paying jobs through the development of low-carbon infrastructure, such as expanding public transport systems that reduce emissions, improve air quality, and promote public health and safety, or by pursuing serious energy conservation. In the United States, the United Auto Workers now supports national fuel efficiency standards (something it was reluctant to do for many years), and many unions support initiatives to reduce the use of heating oil and electricity in buildings. Unions in building services, such as the Service Employees International Union, are training building superintendents in energy efficiency. Large Canadian unions (such as Unifor and the Canadian Union of Public Workers, CUPE) now support a moratorium on fracking for shale gas.

The fi ht for energy democracy needs to engage mainstream environmental groups that typically embrace a more technology-driven “ecological modernization” approach to environmental issues. U.S. environmental groups, for example, have tended to prioritize legislative efforts hammered out in backroom deals rather than bottom-up solutions involving broad alliances. (See Chapter 11.) Many of these groups have been overly confi ent in the power of private markets and the political process to drive the “green economy,” and many environmental leaders have been reluctant to advocate for non-market approaches that might open the door to fundamental change. But the rising political power of fossil fuel companies and the deepening climate crisis is opening up possibilities for new and bolder approaches at the level of policy and organizing. Many smaller renewable energy companies would likely prosper under favorable government procurement agreements that strong public sector involvement would require.

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