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Oil is becoming the new tobacco

Hurricane Sandy from New Jersey Pier. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The 45th US president started 2018 by lifting President Barack Obama's ban on offshore drilling -- allowing oil exploration off California, and in the Arctic, as well as along the Eastern seaboard.

Governors in 10 coastline states immediately expressed alarm and pressed for exemptions, citing potential harm -- North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper called drilling a "critical threat" -- to tourism and recreation industries, not to mention any local fisheries.

A week later, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio started 2018 by announcing that NYC would divest its $5 billion worth of fossil fuel holdings (of its $189 billion investment fund) and also file lawsuits against five major oil companies for Hurricane Sandy damages  -- $5 billion of the $19 billion repair costs.

Within minutes of de Blasio's announcement to the media, wrote Naomi Klein, activists in other great cities, like London, started tweeting their own mayors to follow his lead. City Councillors emailed in from all over, saying they'd present the idea in their own towns.

"Such is the power of an action emanating from a center as symbolically important as New York City," wrote Klein. "What felt politically impossible yesterday suddenly seems possible, and the dominos start instantly falling."

NYC's lawsuit charges that ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Conoco Phillips "...have contributed more than 11 per cent of all the greenhouse gases since the industrial age began." Those emissions led to sea levels rising, and volatile weather such as Hurricane Sandy and other storms.

If you're wondering how NYC can prove causation, the city's case must rely on evidence and methodology developed in Richard Heede's groundbreaking 2014 paper tracing emissions back to the private or state-owned companies that sold the fuel that emitted them. Other such lawsuits are already underway.

Oil is becoming the new tobacco, maturing from grassroots activism for no smoking zones or recycling centres, to high-stakes drama in the courtroom -- in NYC, and in California cities including San Francisco and Oakland, the city of Santa Cruz, and San Marin County.

From the Exxon Valdez to the BP Deep Horizon, oil companies have already paid out tens of billions of dollars in fines and compensation -- $37.5 billion in reparations so far just for the BP Horizon's 2010 catastrophic blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

But that's just the beginning, say advocates for Green Rights, like author and educator Silver Donald Cameron. His book, Warrior Lawyers, and his movie, Green Rights: Your Human Right to a Healthy Planet, offer global examples of successful environmental lawsuits.

For example, in Ecuador, 30,000 Indigenous people ("Los Affectados", the affected ones) and their Indigenous lawyer sued Texaco Oil for environmental damage. The case started in 1993, for damage going back to 1972, and resulted in a 2005 court decision ordering Texaco to pay $18 billion in reparations -- an amount later cut in half on appeal. Even then, Los Affectados had to sue again in other countries, including Canada, in order to collect any part of what the court ordered Texaco to pay.    

Ignoring fines is only one reason that oil companies are losing their power over governments and pre-eminent place in the world economy. The public and financial sectors now question their longterm stability.

Last December, the World Bank announced it will stop lending for most oil and gas projects after 2019, "sending a powerful message to global producers that financial institutions are reassessing the risks of fossil fuel development," said The Globe and Mail

Also last fall, Norway gave a great boost to the global divestment campaign when it announced plans to diversify its own national oil company's $1 trillion portfolio. Bloomberg reported that, "Norway's proposal to sell off $35 billion in [other companies'] oil and natural gas stocks brings sudden and unparalleled heft to a once-grassroots movement to enlist investors in the fight against climate change." 

The effect, Bloomberg reported, is that "The [oil] industry's future is being questioned like never before as electric vehicles and the fight against climate change prompt some forecasters to predict that within a decade demand could peak for gasoline and diesel -- the backbone of the industry in the past century." 

Instead, the world is turning to renewable energy sources, which account for almost half of new energy projects, says Bloomberg. "Global spending on power generation capacity over the next 10 years may reach $4.37 trillion, with investment in new wind and solar capacity amounting to $1.92 trillion (44 per cent of total). "China accounts for a big chunk of spending on renewables, 31 per cent of the overall total. In the US, renewable sources account for 71 per cent of spending on new energy projects."

In Canada, renewable sources provide about one-fifth (18.9 per cent) of our energy sources, according to the National Research Council, with hydro power the main contributor. A recent International Energy Agency report projects that Canada's renewable generation will increase by another nine gigawatts by 2022.

Under the Paris Accord, the world agreed to transition away from burning fuels to 100 per cent renewable energy sources by the year 2050. There's no lack of guidance about what needs to be done or how to do it. For example, last September, a team of researchers published in the journal Joule, a paper titled "100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World."

All it takes is a miracle. All that needs to happen is for the world's economy to spin on its axis, and start giving more weight to renewable energy than to the giant oil companies. That idea seems more feasible when championed by political leaders like France's Emmanuel Macron, Norway, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

"After being outgunned by the power and wealth of this industry for so many years, the balance of power seemed to physically tilt," writes Naomi Klein. "Regular humans may not be more powerful than the fossil fuel companies now -- but we might be soon."  

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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