Shell's Arctic exit energizes environmental activists

WASHINGTON -- Environmentalists who battled Arctic oil drilling by paddling kayaks, dangling from bridges and climbing onto rigs at sea have claimed a high-profile success against Shell and aim to funnel the resulting enthusiasm into other fights against fossil fuels.

Shell is abandoning its long crusade to find crude in the waters north of Alaska after disappointing results at a critical test well in the Chukchi Sea. While the company cited financial reasons for the pullout last week, the move nonetheless has emboldened environmental activists to fight against everything from Atlantic drilling to oil exports to additional activity in the Arctic.

"This is a victory that becomes a springboard for a lot of potential change," said Franz Matzner, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Beyond Oil Initiative. "It is an encouraging sign to everyone who is concerned about the drilling, transporting and burning of fossil fuels that are putting our communities and climate at risk."

Asked if the protests factored into its thinking, Royal Dutch Shell, which has its North American operations based in Houston, referred to a statement last week that cited the well results, high costs and challenging regulations. There was no mention of environmentalists.

"The activists are congratulating themselves for a decision that was more driven by economics of the oil market than political pressure," said Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University who studies environmental activism.

But those who fought against Arctic drilling for years say the spirited protests against Shell's work were inevitably part of the company's calculus in deciding to leave the region after spending $7 billion searching for crude.

'Company in retreat'

The activism, both on the ground and in the courts, slowed Shell's Arctic campaign, sometimes sidelining it for years at a time, and hiked costs, as the company paid for rigs, staff and other assets that couldn't always be deployed. Conservation groups and Alaska Natives led legal challenges to the 2008 government auction of Chukchi Sea drilling rights to Shell and other companies, prompting a judge to twice invalidate the sale and forcing the firm to delay work.

They pushed the Obama administration to hold firm on walrus protections that required a 15-mile buffer between simultaneous drilling in the Arctic, thwarting Shell's plans to use two rigs to bore wells 9 miles apart this summer.

And environmentalists lobbied political leaders to make bold statements against Arctic drilling. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton announced her opposition in an Aug. 18 tweet, signaling to Shell that even if the company found a big cache of crude in the Chukchi Sea, it might not be allowed to develop it should she win.

"Shell's decision has energized the environmental community and provided a real-world example of a major oil company in retreat," said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A similar crusade against TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline has yielded years of uncertainty about the project but no final Obama administration decision on whether to permit it.

"Things like the Clean Power Plan are obviously really important, but they are incremental and subject to lobbying and court challenges," said Travis Nichols, a Greenpeace spokesman from the group's Arctic campaign. "By stopping Shell cold, the climate movement has helped take Arctic drilling efforts off the table for a decade. We're already on borrowed time, but it gives a little breathing room for the incontrovertible evidence of climate change to fully sink in."

For environmentalists, Shell's Arctic quest served as a potent rallying cry, Brulle said. Shell's Arctic drilling project was easy to understand and highly visible, conjuring images of walruses and polar bears in the oft-frozen north.

"Shell presented a unique, high-visibility event around which to mobilize," he said. With the biggest Arctic drilling fight over, or at least indefinitely paused, the growing climate movement will use other symbols "to galvanize opposition to offshore drilling," he predicted.

Blocking another attempt

To be sure, environmentalists will keep battling Arctic drilling, even though it is unlikely any oil producers with unexplored U.S. leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas will seek to drill on them before they expire in about five years. Critics' main Arctic aim now is persuading President Barack Obama's administration to call off scheduled sales of Arctic drilling leases in 2016 and 2017 and similar auctions tentatively planned for 2020 and 2022.

"We have our eyes pretty clear on the long-term challenge," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in an interview. "We fully expect there will be some oil company at some day that will want to make another run at this, and we know the administration still has a final decision about whether it will expand leasing in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas."

The Sierra Club described a continued Arctic threat in a fundraising pitch emailed to supporters within hours of Shell's announcement. Shell's move is "huge, huge, huge news," it said, but stressed that Houston-based oil company Hilcorp has submitted a plan to produce oil from an existing, much older lease in the Beaufort Sea using a man-made gravel island. "We absolutely cannot sit back and let another reckless oil company put the entire Arctic at risk."

Environmental organizations and activists also will push a broader green agenda. "Most of the activism on climate change for the last couple of decades has been on the demand side -- to make cars more fuel efficient or clean up smokestacks from power plants," Brune said. "This is part of a new wave of activism that focuses on supply."

Energy industry leaders say the campaign is misguided, because new sources of oil and gas will be needed to fuel the United States and the world for decades to come.

"Their approach is anti-poverty, anti-consumer, and it ignores the facts," said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute. "When consumers stop and ponder what no fossil fuel means in their lives ... it will be abundantly clear that this vision of no fossil fuels is not only harmful to America but irresponsible as a policy."

Shell's decision to abandon Arctic drilling "might be a great rallying cry for that small shrill group who thinks no fossil fuels is the right agenda, but I don't think it's persuasive to the public," Gerard added.

But Drexel University's Brulle said the campaign against fossil fuels is here to stay, as groups focus on leaving oil and gas in the ground as a way to prevent climate change.

"The mantra of 'leave it in the ground' and a focus on limiting extraction of fossil fuels has now become a central focus of the climate movement," he said. "The days of unprotested expansion of the fossil fuel infrastructure have now passed."

Blueprint for the future

The message of the anti-Shell campaign didn't focus just on the potential of spills to harm marine life, Matzner noted. Much of it was inspired by trying to preserve the planet by preventing more fossil fuels from coming to market.

Protests kicked off before the Transocean Polar Pioneer drilling rig made it into U.S. waters this year. Greenpeace activists scaled the rig as it was towed across the Pacific Ocean and camped out for days. In May, self-proclaimed "kayaktavists" took to Seattle waters to protest Shell's quest, heaving signs saying "ShellNo" and "Save the Arctic" while the rig towered over them.

And in July, as Shell tried to move a newly repaired icebreaker, the MSV Fennica, away from a Portland shipyard and toward its Chukchi Sea drilling site, Greenpeace protesters rappelled off the St. John's bridge to block its passage.

"It was deeply empowering to see the scale, breadth and diversity of the movement emerging, especially in Seattle," Nichols said. "What's happening in the Pacific Northwest is the blueprint for what can happen in the future."