How Effective Are Anti-Oil Protests?

By Daniel Graeber:

A Russian court granted bail Monday to two of the 30 people arrested when activists with Greenpeace tried to climb the Arctic-class ice-resistant Prirazlomnaya oil rig deployed in the Pechora Sea earlier this year. The remaining detainees, charged initially with piracy, could face up to seven years in prison for hooliganism. Greenpeace said it launched the protest to highlight the risks of oil campaigns in the pristine arctic environment. Last weekend, more than 100 protests were staged across Canada in opposition to oil sands developments in the country and last month, President Obama himself was heckled by protesters upset by plans to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline. With hot-button energy issues like fracking leading to public frenzy, the protests beg the question: does loud equal influential?

Greenpeace said the legal campaign against its now 28 activists detained in a Russian jail is a mockery of justice. In October, the advocacy group used its Arctic Sunrise protest vessel to send campaigners to the Pechora Sea to try to scale the Prirazlomnaya oil rig. The campaign group, no stranger to political conflict, said its protest was peaceful despite initial claims from Russian authorities.  Last year, actress Lucy Lawless was arrested after her and six other Greenpeace activists scaled the 174-foot drilling tower of the Noble Discovery drillship as it sat in a New Zealand port before heading to the arctic waters off the coast of Alaska. The drillship left anyway. Groups like Greenpeace have expressed concern that an event like the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010 would cause irreversible harm to the arctic environment. But has interest in emerging arctic reserves waned? Not really.

Last weekend, more than 130 protests took place across Canada to oppose plans by Enbridge Energy to build its Northern Gateway oil pipeline to the west coast.  That project could carry about 525,000 barrels of oil per day from oil fields in Alberta to British Columbia for exports if approved.  Canadian protest groups expressed similar frustration with Enbridge over plans to reverse its Line 9B to eastern Canada and with Kinder Morgan’s plans to triple the capacity of its TransMountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver.  Canadian oil received black eyes from the Enbridge spill in Michigan in 2010 and the March pipeline spill in Arkansas. Canada’s economy, however, is growing on the back of oil and natural gas extraction so what happens without it?

Does pointing out a wrong equate to advocacy for correction? Rather than opposing existing policies through protest, a more effective campaign may be to advocate for more wind farms, solar panels or battery-powered vehicles but most of those alternatives come with their fair share of criticism too. The International Energy Agency said last week global demand for oil is on the rise, a sentiment backed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in its marketreport for November. Critics of the oil opposition said groups like Greenpeace may be restricting themselves legally with their high-profile campaigns, yet the more audacious the stunt, the more sensational the coverage.  Fear and anger in the environmental debate may be mobilizing but without a viable critique on the table, protests may go the way of the loon.