Fighting Fossil Fuels in the Era of Trump

Four ways to make progress on clean energy now.

The president of the United States, who neither knows nor cares about climate change, is actively seeking to restore coal, oil, and fracked gas to the top of the national energy pyramid. He has appointed a ghastly assemblage of climate deniers, oil industry insiders, and ethically bankrupt grifters to run energy policy. Their early work has been devastating. Trump walked away from the Paris accords, rolled back the federal Clean Power Plan, and moved to open vast areas of public lands to fossil fuel exploration. Congress is hardly better: Gridlocked at the best of times, the Republican majority refuses even the most sensible measures to hold fossil fuels accountable. While the rest of the globe moves forward to transition away from fossil fuels, the current government of the United States is racing in the opposite direction.

Does this mean that progress on fossil fuels is stalled until the political picture changes? The answer is no. While working towards a shift in Congress and White House will be key, we do not have time to wait. The clean energy revolution is well underway and its momentum is unstoppable. In the meantime, here are a few principles that can guide work keeping fossil fuels from getting back in the way.

1. It’s the Infrastructure, Stupid

Achieving a clean energy economy will require a top-to-bottom transition of our entire energy and transportation sectors. The first critical step is to prevent major infrastructure investments that would “lock in” fossil fuel use—investments like new pipelines, power plants, and export terminals. These projects, if built, would operate for decades and make phasing out fossil fuels even harder to achieve than it already is. We may not be able to phase out fossil fuel use overnight, but we can block multi-billion dollar investments that commit us to these approaches for the next 50 years. And the good news is that many of these projects are decided at the state and local level, where decisions can be influenced by local communities despite a federal government that will aggressively support such projects.

The track record is impressive. Over the last two decades, advocates have blocked hundreds of proposed coal-fired power plants, and are leading the charge to force the closure of the oldest and dirtiest existing ones. They have led the fight to block major drilling investments in the Arctic Ocean, one of the world’s most sensitive environments. And a vibrant coalition of environmental and faith groups, businesses, and Indian Tribes effectively shut down the Pacific Northwest from being transformed into an international hub for coal, oil and liquefied natural gas industries. These are tough, resource intensive battles, but ones that committed communities can bring and win.

2. Correct Market Imbalances

Fossil fuels have historically been the cheapest form of energy for a simple reason: The price of using them does not account for the many costs they impose on people and the environment. Economists call these “externalities,” and the fossil fuel industry has mastered the art of externalizing its costs onto the public while “internalizing” all of the profits. For example, in order to get coal out of the ground, the industry literally has to blow the tops off mountains and bury streams in tons of rock, destroying the ecology of the area, and reducing property values and the quality of life for nearby residents. Transporting fossil fuel has big impacts too, from air pollution to oil spills. For example, moving crude oil via rail has resulted in catastrophic explosions, one of which killed 47 people, while oil pipelines spring leaks with depressing regularity. And of course, the burning of coal, oil, and gas itself represents the mother of all externalities, pumping out millions of tons of climate-altering greenhouse gasses and other pollutants that have major effects across the globe, all of which are dealt with on someone else’s dime. The dollar “price” of coal-fired electricity or a gallon of gas simply doesn’t reflect any of these costs.

Also distorting price signals are the direct and indirect subsidies that benefit fossil fuels, making them appear cheaper to consumers than they should be. Fossil fuel exploration has been subsidized to the tune of over $20 billion a year in taxpayer funds. In between subsidies and unpaid externalities, a 2015 International Monetary Fund study estimated that fossil fuels impose a staggering $5 trillion in costs annually.

Any action that internalizes costs and eliminates subsidies levels the playing field with clean energy. For example, forcing the most effective pollution controls possible on old coal power plants has often resulted in their abandonment in favor of clean energy and conservation. The industry must be held fully accountable for the spills, disasters and mistakes that seem to follow them wherever they go. Toxic wastes like coal ash and water pollution must be dealt with properly. Once the industry has to account for all of these costs, clean energy will virtually always be the economically preferable choice.

3. Diminish Social License

“Social license” refers to the idea that an industry must earn the approval of communities where it operates. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has paid no price for spewing toxic pollution into our towns, degrading wild areas, and fighting life-saving climate policies. It is time to withhold our collective consent from their pollution, their political opposition to sensible environmental controls, and their refusal to take seriously the threat they pose to the world’s climate.

How do we do that? Primarily through storytelling. Throughout the nation, families and communities have been burdened by the industry’s casual disregard for their well-being, in ways that affect them deeply. Even so, they remain mostly invisible to the rest of the world. Advocates like us can tell stories. Stories like the Louisiana crawfisherman whose generations-old way of life has been jeopardized by the industry’s careless disregard for the fragile wetlands of the Atchafalaya basin. Stories like the dozens of people at the Swinomish Indian Reservation rushed to the emergency room after the nearby Shell refinery belched a toxic cloud of emissions into their community. Stories like the hunters and fishers on Western public lands who have watched in dismay as the landscape they’ve loved for generations is wrecked by careless oil and gas development.

Telling stories of how the industry has destroyed peoples’ livelihoods and special places undermines its social license to operate. By highlighting the harmful things that they do, communities can make a choice whether they are welcome to operate in their collective civic space. And as society becomes fully aware of the true costs of fossil fuels, and withdraws its consent for the industry to operate, room is cleared for alternatives.

4. Grow an Equitable Movement

Fossil fuel advocacy must recognize and respect the social justice aspect of fossil fuel development, transportation, and consumption. It should come as no surprise that the most politically and economically marginalized members of our society—especially black and brown communities, from the urban core to Native American reservations—have paid the highest prices for, and received the fewest benefits from a fossil fuel-based economy. Historically, the mainstream environmental movement hasn’t done a good enough job of listening to those communities, elevating their stories, and embracing them as partners and leaders in this fight.

That is changing. The historic gathering at Standing Rock highlighted the egregious history of our government’s approach to Native American treaties. Environmental justice groups and minority communities in places from the rural Gulf Coast to dense California cities are leading the charge against polluting oil refineries. Families in Appalachia are standing up to tell their stories of the coal industry’s abuses. These groups are working hand-in-hand with mainstream environmental groups and elevating issues of equity and social justice within the movement.

Advocates will build power against fossil fuels by broadening the movement to include historically marginalized communities, since environmental advocacy is inherently linked to social justice. This starts with being present in those communities, and listening.

Trump’s efforts to double down on a 19th-century fossil-fuel economy are dangerous and shortsighted. For the next few years at least, the federal government will not lead the transition from fossil to clean, and in many respects will work aggressively to slow it. The collapse of federal leadership raises the stakes for citizens, communities, and organizations that want a different future. By creatively applying these principles, we can help catalyze the transition to a fossil-free culture.

Jan Hasselman is a senior attorney with Earthjustice's Northwest office in Seattle, WA, which he joined in 1998. Since that time, he has successfully litigated a number of regional and national issues including listings of salmon under the Endangered Species Act, stormwater pollution, coal fired power plants, and coal and crude oil terminals.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.

Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman
Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman (Matt Roth / Earthjustice)