Although we are less than 100 days into the new year, activists in California are already seeing an escalation in the high stakes struggle to protect the environment.
The Trump administration began the year aggressively by announcing a planned roll back of prohibitions on offshore coastal drilling. As Trump’s Department of the Interior released their five year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Lease plan, it was surprisingly met with a fairly broad, bipartisan backlash. Fifteen governors of coastal states, 1/3 of them Republican, oppose the drilling expansion, saying it threatens fisheries and tourism. Additionally,150 members of Congress sent a letter to Interior Secretary Zinke opposing the increased coastal drilling and actually saying, “Where we drill, we eventually spill.”
For those of us who have faced the frustration of making similar arguments in our appeals to decision makers, this was a remarkable acknowledgement of truth by officials who usually seem indifferent to these matters. Unanticipated allies against expanded drilling aside, we have grown to expect this sort of bald-faced assault on environmental protections from the Trump administration based on its demonstrated penchant for propping up an energy paradigm that is unsustainable and increasingly economically untenable as well.
While it’s true that the petroleum industry continues to rake in colossal profits, the margins are narrowing and the price of oil remains far from historic highs. Now, with an especially regressive regime in power in the United States, the fossil fuel industry and their minions in the government are focusing efforts on deregulation and expanding extraction as much as possible. This appears to be a final flailing attempt to wring every last barrel of oil from the earth and thereby every last bit of profit from an industry that knows that it’s in its twilight, even if it would never publicly concede that to be the case. As always, they try to frame the matter in terms of “energy independence” and security with patriotic undertones that are aimed at triggering nationalistic tendencies. The capitalist class hopes the appeal to jingoistic nationalism will override the people’s concerns about climate change, which are based on broad scientific consensus.
Nonetheless, it seems Deep Water Horizon and other disasters left an impression after all, and for those of us in California, the lingering stigma of the 1969 Santa Barbara spill that devastated beaches and wildlife remains a memorable enough tragedy that state officials all the way up to Gov. Jerry Brown insist that they will oppose the new drilling proposed by the current administration. Interestingly, despite vociferous opposition and posturing against this particular offshore drilling endeavor, a range of other local petroleum extraction initiatives throughout California don’t seem to garner the same opposition by officials.
For example, the battle against new drilling in the Los Cerritos Wetlands in Long Beach, California – an issue spotlighted by Liberation News in December 2016, appears to be plodding along the regulatory path to approval with relatively little trouble. In late January, wetlands protectors in Long Beach returned to City Hall to let council members know that they wanted their city to be a national leader, blazing a trail into a sustainable future, not merely following the oil soaked status quo and meeting the low bar of inadequate environmental protections and mitigation strategies.
In particular, environmentalists find inadequate market-based remediation schemes like carbon credits and purchasing pollution allowances, or wetlands mitigation banks that allow for destruction of wetlands in one location by paying for “restoration” in other locations. Essentially, these are processes that allow for the pursuit of profit under the pretense of environmental vigilance. While there is little doubt that “someone” benefits by these market based schemes, as the alarming climate data continues to pour in, it is evident that such “pay to pollute” schemes don’t adequately address what is a genuine crisis for the earth in terms of the planet continuing to be a suitable habitat for humanity. We want a moratorium on all new drilling and other extraction modalities.
To that end, concerned citizens came at the Long Beach wetlands issue from every perspective including: environmental impact, seismic risk, Na- tive rights and so on. Previously in Long Beach the public comment period of the city Planning Commission meeting was characterized by an overwhelming anti-oil company backlash. This time oil company hacks had clearly gone to some effort to mobilize people who supported their project. However, the reasons cited by supporters of the scheme were superficial and lacking in detailed understanding. The project proponents focused on the fact that the city is trading about 10 acres in return for over 100 acres, and those 100-plus acres including large tracts of ravaged wetlands will be subject to “restoration” financed by developers through a mitigation bank. Apparently proponents don’t really grasp the downside to market-based environmental mitigation strategies.
Delve into the details however, and you will see that the swap is all about gaining access to 200 million barrels of oil that can’t currently be tapped. It should also be noted that while the so-called petroleum extraction “footprint” comprised of active and inactive wells and infrastructure that can be seen on the surface of the subject property will decrease to about 10 percent of what is currently visible, that decrease will only take place slowly over 40 years! Meanwhile, actual oil production will dramatically spike beginning in the first phases of the proposed project. As one opponent of the shortsighted scheme pointed out during his public comment, current production levels are about 300 barrels a day and will increase to 24,000 barrels a day. In other words, while it may appear like less is going on in the wetlands, the truth is extraction will exponentially increase, as will the green house gases that extraction and consumption of fossil fuel inherently entail.
In the end, the Long Beach City Council voted seven in favor and two against to accept the Planning Commission’s approval of the oil company’s wetlands scheme. It’s disappointing to be sure, but the fact that two council members did in fact acknowledge that this endeavor should be subject to much more detailed scrutiny prior to approval was heartening since this process has typically been characterized by a broad indifference by those with regulatory say toward dissenting voices in the community. The fact is that the vast majority of Long Beach residents have no idea that this project is imminent, and fewer still understand the threat it poses to the local and global environment. That’s likely how project proponents like it, since to truly understand the plan is much more likely to result in opposition.
The dependence on fossil fuel is literally destroying the environment. Nothing short of a total transformation of our current economic and social paradigm provides us with any hope of averting a scenario that is already triggering extinctions at an unparalleled pace and disrupting natural systems that in turn impact agriculture, migration and access to critical resources in general.
Worldwide, more capital is invested in oil and gas than in any other industry. Capitalism existed prior to petroleum becoming the default basis for production modalities and processes. However, as Andreas Malm stated in his book, Fossil Capital, petroleum is “the general lever for surplus value production.” The degree to which fossil fuels and capitalism are intertwined and the accordant toll it is taking on the environment are starkly evident in the scientific record. Levels of green house gas emissions, ocean acidification, extinction rates, and so on rise in tandem with the spread of capitalist industrialization and the ensuing era of imperialism and monopoly capitalism.
Capitalism is contingent on ever-expanding growth and the development of new “markets,” which is unsustainable in the long run. Humanity’s continued well being, if not our very existence, is dependent upon developing a cooperative and sustainable paradigm. Only socialism acknowledges and seeks to establish a system based on “use value” rather than “exchange value,” immediately shifting from competitive exploitation of labor and natural resources to one of cooperation and sustainability. Only socialism strives to meet human needs, rather than cultivating unabated consumption with profit as the priority. The bottom line is that capitalism is incompatible with ecologically sound living. Future generations depend on those of us living now in this pivotal moment to safeguard the earth by by embracing socialism, the only type of political economy with long term viability.