Shell and high water: Will Seattle take a stand… or a cut of the Arctic drilling action?

February 19, 2015

Not long ago, Seattle’s business, environmental, labor, education, and multicultural leaders, led by the Chamber of Commerce, crafted a “Shared Regional Vision of Sustainable Prosperity”. The Port embraced this vision, branding itself the Green Gateway, and celebrating its “commitment to be a model of sustainable growth, to seek the greatest environmental benefit from our efforts, to see our sustainable practices as a competitive advantage…”

It’s not just green fluff. The community and the Port are working hard to deliver on these commitments, and prospering because of and high water

So why, all of a sudden, are we rolling out the green carpet for an Arctic oil drilling fleet?! What the Shell?

You’d think the Emerald City would be the last to bite when Big Oil offers a cut of the deal on a dangerous, climate-destroying Arctic drilling scheme. But the Port swallowed it hook, line, and drilling rig. Port CEO Ted Fick signed a lease last week that would make Seattle the staging area for the most reckless, extreme oil drilling adventure ever.

But, but….what about the likelihood of devastating impacts on the very Arctic ecosystems that President Obama just protected? Not our problem, said Port CEO Ted Fick in his letter rebuffing citizen groups who called for environmental review; such matters “are outside the Port’s authority.” What about the climate chaos that would be unleashed if we don’t leave Arctic oil in the ground, unburned? How does this jibe with Seattle’s commitment to a science-based carbon budget and an ambitious clean energy agenda? Rest assured, says Fick, “The Port remains committed to full compliance with all applicable environmental regulations.” Climate? Not “applicable,” apparently.  It’s a global thing; let the global people deal with it, right?

Is narrow legalistic compliance with “applicable environmental regulations” all we can expect from the Green Gateway?   Is this “shared vision” that’s so central to our culture, our identity, and our economic strategy so easily expendable? When Big Oil throws a few bucks our way, do we just fold?  “Port of Seattle:  Where a Sustainable World is Headed”Kidding!  We’re into Arctic drilling now.

We stand with our friends in labor to deliver on the promise of sustainable, broadly-shared prosperity. We actively support worker protections, good jobs, greater equity, and a just, gradual transition to a healthy clean energy future. We work closely with Seattle businesses to build a successful clean energy economy. And we’re moving in the right direction, toward our shared vision. So now – before we pull a 180, and before Big Oil gets its hooks any deeper into our community – is the time to ask ourselves: Is this the right thing to do? Is it good for working families, the community, our economy, our kids? Will we let Shell bully us into thinking this is the best we can do?

All five Port Commissioners say they are against Arctic drilling, as well they should be. A new study in Nature makes it clear that there is no decent, livable future (let alone a healthy Arctic) in a world where we use Arctic oil. But a majority of the Commission declined to step in and review the staff’s decision to ink the deal. Several were heard to suggest that the lease would have no effect on the prospects for Arctic drilling. They assumed that if Seattle doesn’t capitulate to this, someone will, so there’s no point in trying to stop it here.

We are not responsible. It’s beyond our authority. There’s nothing we can do. It’s a staff decision. We all need oil, right? Someone else will do it if we don’t. Resistance is futile. Such is the fatalism that keeps us locked in to civilization-threatening-fossil-fuel-dependence-as-usual.

Shell-ArcticThis is precisely Big Oil’s game.   No one would consciously choose the dystopian future we’ll get if we burn all the oil, melt all the ice, and then drill for more where the ice used to be. So their only hope of keeping their grip on our economy is to convince us that we have no choice. And for now, the Port Commissioners seem to have accepted that verdict. Never mind that in the world where we burn Arctic oil, the Port – and coastal cities everywhere – sink under rising, acidified oceans.

You can understand the Port’s reluctance to grapple with climate impacts. We can all relate to the sense that this issue is above our pay grade.   But look: it’s late now, climate-wise. Instead of capitulating, what do you say we find out just how powerless we really are?

We all know this lease decision is not the most effective forum for dealing with climate disruption.  In a rational world – a world free of Big Oil’s stranglehold on our politics – we’d have a strong global climate treaty and a functional US Congress and carbon limits and prices and no one would be talking about drilling in the Arctic. We are fighting for those things and we’d welcome the Port Commissioners’ help.

But the Port doesn’t get to make national climate policy. Their call, right now, is whether we make a NEW commitment, in THIS community, to materially aid and abet an immense human catastrophe. They will decide whether we become financially aligned with the unbridled greed and power that keeps drill-baby-drilling us into a climate crisis. And Seattle will wear that decision on its face – our waterfront.

The Port gets to say yes or no to that.  That’s it. So far, the CEO has said: We’re in. And the Commission majority (over the objection of Commissioners Gregoire and Albro) have said: Sucks, but what can you do?

Where do we draw the line? We can no longer dither abstractly about this question. The only sane, responsible, practical answer under the circumstances is:   Right here, in a community that believes in its values, a community that succeeds by delivering on its “shared vision of sustainable prosperity.” Right here, in front of a plan that has “this is how the world ends” written all over it.

When do we draw the line?  Again, let’s be specific:  Now, for heaven’s sake, before it’s too late.

Would it make any difference? Well… think of what might happen if this community, represented by our elected Port Commissioners, simply said what we know is true and right:

“This is catastrophically wrong. We will have no part of it.”

It would ring like a bell. It would reverberate in the ears of Interior Secretary Jewell, a Seattleite who will decide on future Arctic drilling leases. It would be heard in Paris, where fateful climate negotiations in December might be buoyed by the sense that Americans are finally standing up to Big Oil and getting serious about climate commitments. It would give every other effort to protect the climate and the Arctic a shot in the arm, a reason to hope.  And it might just put the kibosh on Arctic drilling, an extremely shaky business proposition that other oil companies have already abandoned.

And wouldn’t it be worth it no matter what, as a sign of intergenerational good faith?  Our kids will be relieved to hear us say it.


Why bet against ourselves? Divest!

February 10, 2015

“Invest in what helps. Divest from what harms.”  – President Obama, UC Irvine Commencement, 2014

“Invest: to furnish with power, authority; to infuse or belong to”  –

breaking freeThe climate challenge is big, but it’s almost as simple as this: we’re too invested in fossil fuels. We’re giving them too much of our power and authority. And money, so much money. Global Divestment Day on February 13 is a golden opportunity to start turning that around.

Even fossil fuel companies don’t have enough power to get us to consciously choose the only future they offer – a future of concentrated wealth and power, economic and geopolitical insecurity, and devastating climate disruption. But we have a devil of a time choosing otherwise, because they’ve got their hooks so deep into our economy and our politics. They’ve nearly perfected the art of persuading us that we have no choice.

Our retirement savings and university endowments are capital pools for increasingly reckless adventures in fossil fuel extraction. Our ability to go to work, buy food, and educate our kids all depend on motorized transportation, overwhelmingly powered by oil. When I put my credit card in the gas pump, I pay for industry-sponsored climate denial and further exploration for “unburnable” carbon reserves. I can’t even drive to a climate presentation or run the Powerpoint deck without making it worse. Every time we turn around, we feed the beast. So how can we square up and fight it?

Harvard University President Drew Faust generously elucidated the problem in her statement rejecting divestment (BTW, Harvard students have no intention of accepting this answer):

“If we were to sell our shares, those shares would no doubt find other willing buyers.  Divestment is likely to have negligible financial impact on the affected companies…. I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.”

Faust captures the sense of complicity and fatalism that threatens to render us useless in the face of the climate crisis. We let our unavoidable contributions to the causes of climate disruption erode our will, our standing to insist on solutions. As we chase our tails about “troubling inconsistencies,” we retreat into moral numbness. We somehow accept the idea that it’s okay to take a cut of the profit from increasing fossil fuel dependence – averting our eyes from the unthinkable human suffering it causes – on the grounds that someone else will do it if we don’t. We allow our institutions of higher education to invest in industries that oppose climate action by waging a war on truth and reason – a war on the defining purposes of those institutions. It’s like one of those bad dreams where you try to run from danger but your legs just won’t move.

Divestment is an opportunity to wake from that nightmare.  The campaign shines a bright light on our unwitting commitment to empower the forces that block solutions, even as we try to implement solutions ourselves. It presents a specific opportunity to reduce that commitment, to take some of our money back. Will we decline to do that because we are not yet in a position to take ALL of it back immediately?  We’ll never get anywhere that way!

It’s a long road from here to solutions. We’re not going to quit fossil fuels and the jobs that depend on them tomorrow.   We need to do that patiently, incrementally, and with a firm commitment to a just transition that produces more broadly-shared prosperity. We just have to put one foot in front of the other until we do it.

tutu divestAnd we can take one bold, hopeful step forward right now. We can start winding down our investments in companies that block solutions, fund climate denial, and maul our communities in pursuit of ever more extreme fossil fuel extraction. We can stop investing in making it worse. And until we do that, nobody will believe us when we say we’re going to make it better. We won’t really believe it ourselves.

No, divestment won’t immediately, dramatically reduce fossil fuel company share prices (which, by the way, are tanking anyway – the sound of a bubble popping[i]?) And it certainly won’t, by itself, accomplish the necessary policy changes to drive the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. But it will help us clear the biggest obstacle. It will deprive the fossil fuel juggernaut of some part of our complicity, our ambivalence, our license, our money. By putting a little financial daylight between us and the problem we’re trying to solve, it will feed our growing confidence that we can wage and win a clean energy revolution. Why bet against the solutions we’re trying to build?

Today, fossil fuels own us in part because we own them.

So tomorrow, divest.

Find out what’s going on in your community on Divestment Day HERE.

You can divest as an individual too! Find out more HERE. The pledge allows you to wind down your fossil fuel investments over time. Your interest in divesting will make it possible for more and better fossil free investment vehicles to be offered for individuals and retirement plans.

[i] There is a strong financial and fiduciary case for divestment – a growing body of evidence suggesting that the “carbon bubble” may already be popping, as global will for climate solutions grows and the clean energy revolution gains steam. I’m not going to make that case here, because, dammit, we should divest anyway. But check it out, e.g., in this terrific post from a Reagan appointee to the SEC, Bevis Longstreth, and also here.