Book Review: ‘Public Responses to Fossil Fuel Export: Exporting Energy and Emissions in a Time of Transition’
In this book review, Ted Auch, PhD, reviews the first three chapters of Public Responses to Fossil Fuel Export. Published in January 2022, this work explores the social dimensions of the global fossil fuel export system, with a focus on public perceptions and responses to new infrastructures. What do members of the public think about exporting fossil fuels in places where it is happening? What do they see as its main risks and benefits? What connections are being made to climate change and the impending energy transition? How have affected communities responded to proposals related to fossil fuel export, broadly defined to include transport by rail, pipeline, and ship?
Contributions to the work are presented in three parts. The first part summarizes the background of the project, outlines major social science theories and relevant previous research, and identifies global trends in energy production. Regional and national case studies related to public opinion on fossil fuel export are included in part two of the manuscript. Part three highlights community-based case studies. Implications for research and practice feature in the concluding chapter.
In general, the advocacy, media coverage, and academic literature rarely delves into any aspect — or machinations — of the Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) production, transport, and export ecosystem across time and space. This is primarily due to a lack of resources, space, or the increasingly limited attention spans of the public. However, a group of researchers lead by Hilary Boudet at Oregon State University and Shawn Hazboun at The Evergreen State College recently published a book titled “Public Responses to Fossil Fuel Export: Exporting Energy and Emissions in a Time of Transition” where they attempted to fill this gap with a collection of their studies and those of their colleagues that lays out the resistance, community resilience and tensions, cultural desecration, and LNG industry responses in places as far afield as Australia and New Zealand, Russia, the North American Pacific Northwest, and Norway to name a few. In Chapter 2 of this book, Khazar University in Azerbaijan professor of Political Science and Philosophy Farid Guliyev invokes turn of the century Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s term “morbid symptoms” to describe how our current energy transition is accompanied by “…all sorts of crises, ruptures or disruptions…characteristic of any large-scale social change.”
What was most helpful about this collection of studies is that it allowed one to see the connective tissue that bound these disparate analyses and geographies in the face of relentless pressure from industry aided and abetted by local, state, and federal agencies. Each geography and ecosystem being asked to shoulder the burden of LNG infrastructure in this book was unique but there were also several commonalities that I would have expected having looked at these topics for a decade here at FracTracker. Yet, there were also quite a few throughlines that I was not expecting and would like to bring to the attention of our audience as tools in their respective fights and/or hurdles they may avoid as they weigh the costs and benefits of further propping up the petrochemical industry and the unconventional oil and gas industry broadly defined.
Locally Unwanted Land Uses and Global Energy Markets
Drs. Boudet and Hazboun begin the book with a Chapter 1 that lays out how shock and uncertainty in the depths — and eventual aftermath — of the COVID pandemic impacted the global energy markets, where growth is expected in the foreseeable future (Hint: China!), and they quite quickly begin to layout the framework of their book by defining a term I had heard of but never really thought about in the terms that they laid out and that term is Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULU) with their examples including “…incinerators, landfills, hazard waste sites, prisons, highways, etc…[which] create benefits to the larger society but result in a set of risks to the local host community” or what economists call externalities which tend to be foisted on distant or “other” communities to allow the perpetrating or consuming community to continue along with business as usual leaving the LULU receiving community more often than not worse off and resentful fomenting the kinds of divisions and fissures we’ve seen amplified as a result of the COVID pandemic and the Trump administration.
When I think of LULUs and fracking, I think of every aspect of the Production, Transport, Processing, and Export (PTPE) supply chain from the headwaters of these systems and the millions of well pads all over rural America, to the LNG export facilities that were the focus of this book. In my own work, and the work of many others, these regions where LULUs tend to be concentrated have been equated to internal resource colonies or “energy sacrifice zones,” with the academic world realizing that they need to move away from a focus on publications, tenure, and “educating an uninformed public” towards a “…more inclusive, participatory decision-making around the siting of unwanted facilities…” that puts the needs of frontline communities at the forefront rather than as an afterthought. As a Gulf Coast frontline activist recently said, “Nothing about us, without us is for us!”1 One common theme that I’ve seen in my work is that Drs. Boudet and Hazboun spoke to was the fact that most people don’t have the luxury of time or resources to fully weigh the cost/benefit calculations associated with any one energy development proposal and are forced instead to rely on what the authors call “mental shortcuts” which they defined as the “…opinions of trusted individuals or elites, media, values, ideological predispositions, etc.” This has most assuredly been the case in the states that I know well like Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, where the same small group of committed and informed activists attempt, with very few resources, to get the attention of their friends and neighbors only to encounter constant benign neglect or a level of resignation that borders on surrender.
In Chapter 2, the aforementioned Dr. Guliyev pointed out something I had forgotten, which is that, for the first time in recent history, former President Trump pressured OPEC leaders Saudi Arabia and Russia to cut production during the depths of COVID in May and June of 2020 which Guliyev correctly attributed to the overwhelming force and insider access of the fossil fuel lobby, which dwarfs that of “environmental organizations and renewable energy companies,”2 as well as the fracking revolution that had emboldened administrations of both parties to be more forceful in global energy talks but the cuts that Trump was advocating for revealed that the interests of the public were subservient to that of the fossil fuel lobby.
Environmental Justice and the Global Energy Transition
When asked if he could make a decision that would not benefit General Motors (GM) during his confirmation hearings, former President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense the erstwhile head of GM Charles Wilson once said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”3 While this level of honesty is rarely uttered in public or in polite company, Trump came close with his advocacy for a cut in global oil and gas production from OPEC. Guliyev pointed to the growing belief that a global transition to a diversified, decentralized, and more democratic renewable energy portfolio will “eliminate…concerns with oil price volatility, geopolitical competition, and fossil fuel supply-chain disruptions…these issues will lose relevance and become obsolete.” I am not as sanguine as Dr. Guliyev and find myself more concerned with the interim itself and what constitutes a just transition because as we know capital markets have no empathy or sympathy and look to crush all resistance leaving the same communities suffering the chronic and acute effects of our unquenchable need for cheap and reliable forms of energy. My worries tend to center around degrees of pain, tumult, and potential violence associated with a global energy transition and how all three will be distributed across demographic and geographic boundaries.3 The response of International Oil Companies (IOCs) and National Oil Companies (NOCs) will undoubtedly differ, especially since the latter control 77% of all oil and gas assets “…compared to the pre-1970s nationalizations when the Seven Sisters controlled 88% of global oil trade”. One look no further than the current war in Ukraine and the supply chain issues that has created for European economies, namely Eastern European and Baltic members, so disproportionately dependent on Russian NOC giant Gazprom or the biggest elephant in the room, Saudi O&G giant ARAMCO, which is the largest producer of oil and also has the second largest reserve of the world’s proven crude oil. What seems to worry Guliyev the most is the phenomenon known as the “paradox of plenty” that is preventing petrostates like the Russia, Gulf States, and the other members of OPEC as well as the United States from taking more radical actions preferring instead to hew towards incrementalism for fear of the short-term political disruptions that would ensue.
University of Auckland’s Georgia Piggot and Stockholm Environment Institute US’ Peter Erickson waste no time in defining the point of their contribution to this book by pointing out in the opening paragraph the paradox that has allowed many developed nations to simultaneously reduce domestic fossil fuel consumption on the one hand, and on the other, continuing to export fossil fuels that damage the environment “…as they move throughout the supply chain worldwide,”4,5 specifically citing the Norwegian state-owned giant Equinor (Formerly Statoil), a company we are quite familiar with in the Ohio River Valley stemming from the notorious Eisenbarth pad explosion in Monroe County, Ohio in 2014 and their recent interest in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) schemes across the region. Piggot and Erickson are quick and correct to point out that because of policy design and political machinations, fossil fuel production, transport, processing, and export has been “…treated as distinct from the climate policy challenge” resulting in a focus on reducing emissions rather than preventing fossil fuels from being extracted in the first place,6 and a system whereby countries are “territorial” in their emissions calculations and only counting those that occur “within their borders.” According to the authors, this causes export facilities to be ignored when making climate change related decisions and they point to specific communities like Portland, Oregon and Oakland, California that have fought the citing of such infrastructure in their communities only to see their authority challenged.7
The alternatives pointed out by the authors include “supply-side” policies that put a governor on Exploration & Extraction (E&E) with countries like “Costa Rica, Belize, France, Denmark, New Zealand, Spain, and Ireland” having banned E&E, while not exactly a who’s who of global energy players, these are the kinds of steps that will be necessary to insure that a renewable energy transition is a just and manageable transition. Piggot and Erickson point out that there are tools in the quiver of national and sub-national governments including taxation of exports, revoking permits, or the use of zoning laws to prevent what they termed “carbon lock-in” or what has historically been referred to at the large scale as the Resource Curse. This level of reliance on single industries or companies manifests itself at the local level as “Company Towns” so familiar to anyone that has traveled to or through the post-Industrial Midwest or Appalachian coal communities, both of which struggle to lift themselves out of the conditions they’ve been forced to endure and pay for as a result of being nearly entirely beholden to single industries or even single companies.
Piggot and Erickson are insistent that a “just transition” not dismiss or ignore the communities that have “…borne the brunt of pollution from neighboring fossil fuel facilities over the years.”8 I would just add that a failure to address the needs of these communities might seem like just desserts for the “other,” but it is important to point out that all the creature comforts we have in the developed world have come by way of cheap and unfettered access to polluting energy sources and the men and women that have pulled it out of the ground for us. Leaving them behind would result in social unrest that should frighten even the most agnostic citizen into immediate action.
Ameliorating community tensions while eschewing cultural desecration by way of a just transition requires a range of social interventions to secure workers’ rights and livelihoods as economies shift to sustainable production, and a long-term commitment from all of society to safeguard the well being of the geographies and ecosystems that shoulder the burden of energy infrastructure.
The Take Away
“Public Responses to Fossil Fuel Export: Exporting Energy and Emissions in a Time of Transition” edited by Hilary Boudet at Oregon State University and Shawn Hazboun at The Evergreen State College fills the gap in public knowledge relating to fossil fuel export. This review focuses on parts one and two of the manuscript, which is presented in three parts. The first part of the book synopsizes the background of the project, outlines major social science theories and relevant previous research, and identifies global trends in energy production. Regional and national case studies related to public opinion on fossil fuel export are included in part two of the manuscript. Part three of the manuscript will be reviewed in a separate installment.
References & Where to Learn More
- The phrase “nothing about us without” (Latin: Nihil de nobis, sine nobis) “has been used by many marginalized groups in various parts of the world to push for their rights to self-determination, and for their inclusion at the discussion table right from the start of any program or project that benefits them. The slogan evokes a powerful message that no policy or development intervention should be conceptualized and decided without the full and direct participation of members of the group that would be affected by such policy.” The phrase was popularized in the 1990s in part by James Charlton who authored a book by the same title and became the rallying call for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
- Brulle, R. J. The Climate Lobby: A Sectoral Analysis of Lobbying Spending on Climate Change in the USA, 2000 to 2016. Clim. Change 149, 289–303 (2018).
- Bridge, G., Bouzarovski, S., Bradshaw, M. & Eyre, N. Geographies of Energy Transition: Space, Place, and the Low-Carbon Economy. Energy Policy 53, 331–340 (2013).
- Lee, M. Extracted Carbon and Canada’s International Trade in Fossil Fuels. 99, 114–129 (2018).
- Bang, G. & Lahn, B. From Oil as Welfare to Oil as Risk? Norwegian Petroleum Resource Governance and Climate Policy. Clim. Policy 20, 997–1009 (2020).
- Lazarus, M. & van Asselt, M. Fossil Fuel Supply and Climate Policy: Exploring the Road Less Taken. Clim. Change 150, 1–13 (2018).
- Perron, K. ‘Zoning Out’ Climate Change: Local Land Use Power, Fossil Fuel Infrastructure, and the Fight Against Climate Change. Columbia J. Environ. Law 45, 573–630 (2020).
- Healy, N., Stephens, J. C. & Malin, S. A. Embodied Energy Injustices: Unveiling and Politicizing the Transboundary Harms of Fossil Fuel Extractivism and Fossil Fuel Supply Chains. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 48, 219–234.
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