The Race to End Fossil Fuel Production

Everyone talks about ending fossil fuel production, but almost no one is doing anything about it. Here are some exceptions.

( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. This quip by the American essayist Charles Dudley Warner applies to fossil fuels as well. Everyone talks about ending fossil fuel production, but almost no one is doing anything about it.

Take the example of the Biden administration. It has launched the most ambitious effort by the United States to leave fossil fuels behind and enter the new era of renewable energy. And yet, in 2023, the United States produced more crude oil than ever before: 12.9 million barrels per day compared to the previous record from 2019 of 12.3 million barrels a day.

Or take the example of Brazil, where the progressive politician Lula da Silva won back the presidency in 2022. His predecessor was a big fan of drilling for fossil fuels. Lula has made it clear that he will take a very different approach. For instance, he wants Brazil to join the club of oil-producing countries in order to lead it into a clean-energy future. And yet, in 2023, Brazil’s production of oil increased by 13 percent and gas by over 8 percent, both new records.

Given all this Green rhetoric and crude (oil) action, it’s hard to find examples around the world where people are actually doing something to end fossil fuel production.

One of those places is Ecuador, which held a referendum last August about keeping oil under the ground of a certain plot of land in the Yasuní national park. “Yasuní is the most important park in Ecuador,” observes Esperanza Martínez, of Acción Ecológica in Ecuador. “It has been recognized as the most biodiverse region in the world, and it’s also home to many indigenous peoples.”

Thanks to the work of several collectives, Ecuadorans voted 54 to 37 percent in the August referendum to stop all operations to explore for and extract oil from Block 43—also known as ITT—within the park. Since the referendum, however, an election brought in a new president who has threatened to ignore the results of the referendum in order to raise funds to address the country’s security crisis.

Another example of effective action, this time at the international level, comes from the organizers of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FFNPT), an effort to roll back fossil fuels at the global level, reports. Currently, 12 countries have endorsed the initiative, including a number of small island states but also, most recently, Colombia.

“Colombia is the first continental country to sign, with more than a century of petroleum extraction,” one of those organizers, Andrés Gómez O, one of the FFNPT organizers, points out. “So, this is a very important game-changer in the battle.”

One of the backers of the this Treaty, the one with the largest economy, is the U.S. state of California, which has been a leader in the United States in terms of expanding the renewable energy sector. There is so much energy generated by solar panels on sunny days in California that sometimes the net cost of that electricity drops below zero.

But as Raphael Hoetmer of Amazon Watch points out, California is also the largest importer of oil from the Amazon. In 2020, the United States imported nearly 70 percent of the oil produced by Amazonian countries, mostly Ecuador but a small amount from Colombia and Peru as well. And California is the state that’s importing by far the largest amount of this oil. So, shutting down the production of fossil fuels in Ecuador and elsewhere also requires addressing the largest consumers of those resources.

These three Latin American experts on the challenge of ending the international addiction to fossil fuels presented their findings at an April 2024 seminar sponsored by the Ecosocial and Intercultural Pact of the South and Global Just Transition. They not only discussed the appalling state of affairs in the world of energy and environment but also explained how some people are actually doing something about it.

The Example of Yasuní

“Rigged,” Digital, Dream/ Dreamworld v. 3, PS Express, By Juan Cole, 2024.

The effort to preserve the biodiversity of Yasuní in the Ecuadoran Amazon and keep out the oil companies has been going on for more than a decade. In 2007, then-president Rafael Correa floated a plan for international investors to essentially pay Ecuador to keep its oil in the ground. When the international community didn’t pony up the $3.5 billion, Correa abandoned his plan and pledged to move forward with drilling.

That’s when Esperanza Martínez and others began to organize the first referendum to keep that oil in the ground. They collected 850,000 signatures, 25 percent more than was necessary to trigger a vote. But the National Electoral Council threw out the petition, arguing that 60 percent of the signatures were fakes.

“We spent ten years fighting in tribunals and legal proceedings,” Martínez relates. “And what the National Electoral Council did was a fraud. We could prove that it was a fraud.”

The August 2023 referendum was a dramatic vindication for the Yasunídos. “Five million Ecuadorans said that it was right to leave the crude oil underground,” she continues. “This was a campaign that had never been seen before in the country to stop oil companies from extracting oil from the ground and preventing the negative impacts on the health and environment. We won!”

In the same referendum, voters also decided to stop mining activities in the “El Chocó” biosphere reserve in the capital city of Quito. The campaign, “Quito sin mineria,” opposed mining projects in the Metropolitan District of Quito and the Chocó Andino region, which comprises 124,000 hectares.

But the referenda on Yasuní and El Chocó were not the only elections that took place on that day in Ecuador. Voters also went to the polls to vote for a new president. In a later second round, businessman Daniel Noboa won. Noboa had supported the Yasuní referendum, pointing out that a ban on extraction actually made economic sense since it would cost $59 a barrel to extract the oil, which would sell for only $58 a barrel on the international market. After his election, he said that he would respect the results.

But then, in January 2024, he reversed himself, calling instead for a year moratorium on the ruling. Ecuador, Noboa argued, needed the money to address its worsening security situation: a surge in narcotrafficking, a skyrocketing murder rate, and a descent into gang warfare.

The Yasunídos argue that even this perilous situation should not affect the results of the referendum. “In Ecuador, nature is the subject of rights,” Martínez says, referring to the fact that Ecuador was the first country in the world in 2008 to include the rights of nature in its constitution. “The discussion is no longer if this part of the park should be closed or not, but how and when.”

Looking at the Amazon

The Amazon rainforest is a powerful symbol of biodiversity all around the world, even for people who can’t identify the countries through which the Amazon river flows.

“It’s the world’s largest tropical rainforest,” reports Raphael Hoetmer of Amazon Watch in Peru. “It houses up to 30 percent of the world species and contains one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. It is home to 410 indigenous nationalities, 82 of them living in isolation by choice, all of them helping in global climate regulation.”

But the Amazon region also contains an abundance of natural resources: timber, gold, and fossil fuels. “Any just transition requires ending the extraction of oil—and not only oil—from the Amazon,” Hoetmer continues. “It also requires ending the system that is behind this extraction.”

The degradation of the Amazon rainforest is reaching a tipping point. The estimate is that when deforestation reaches 20-25 percent of the biome, the area can’t recover. Hoetmer reports that deforestation is now approaching 26 percent.

Fossil fuel extraction is contributing to that deforestation is several ways. Millions of hectares are currently slated for oil and gas extraction. The drilling itself requires deforestation, but so do the new roads established to reach those sites. Those roads in turn open the region up to other forms of exploitation such as logging and agribusiness.

Then there are the oil spills that contaminate vast stretches of land. Several major pipeline breaks have dumped oil into the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the Ecuadorian environmental ministry estimates that there have been over a thousand “environmental liabilities” and over 3,000 sites “sources of contamination.” Between 1971 and 2000, Occidental Petroleum dumped 9 billion gallons of untreated waste containing heavy metals into Peru’s rivers and streams, leading to a lawsuit against the company by indigenous Peruvians that resulted in an out-of-court settlement. Colombia’s oil industry has been involved in over 2,000 episodes of environmental contamination between 2015 and 2022.

Shutting down oil and gas production in the Amazon requires looking beyond the producers to the investors and the consumers. California, since it absorbs nearly half of all Amazon oil exports, is a major potential target. On the financing side, Amazon Watch’s End Amazon Crude campaign is working to stop new financial flows into, for instance, Petroperú, the country’s state-run oil company. Campaigners are targeting major banking institutions in the Global North, including JPMorgan Chase, Citi, and Bank of America. Community-led protests have taken place in the United States, Chile, and Germany. By raising the costs of investment into Amazonian extraction, campaigners are pushing lenders to remove Amazonian oil from their portfolios.

Another strategy is strengthening territorial sovereignty in indigenous lands. “One of the processes that gives us hope is this proposed proposal to reconstruct the Amazon based on strengthening the self-governance of Amazonian people,” Hoetmer notes. “The notion of Autonomous Territorial Governments started with the Wampis peoples but has now expanded to over 10 indigenous nations. The Autonomous Territorial Governments defend their territories  against illegal mining as well as land invasions and fossil fuel extraction, demand and build intercultural education, and negotiate public services with the Peruvian state.”

The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty

Frontline communities particularly those from the Global South are paying the highest price of fossil fuel exploitation and climate change, yet they are the least responsible. All over the world and for decades, frontline struggles have shown leadership in resisting the plundering of their territories. Today, for many communities around the world—and for some whole countries—continued fossil fuel extraction and climate change represent an existential crisis.

In response to this crisis, an early proposal came from officials and civil society leaders in the Pacific for a moratorium and binding international mechanisms specifically dedicated to phasing out fossil fuels in the Pacific. In 2015, in the Suva Declaration on Climate Change issued from the Pacific Islands Development Forum Third Annual Summit held in Suva, Fiji, decision-makers called for: “a new global dialogue on the implementation of an international moratorium on the development and expansion of fossil fuel extracting industries, particularly the construction of new coal mines, as an urgent step towards decarbonising the global economy.”

In 2016, following a summit in the Solomon Islands, 14 Pacific Island nations discussed the world’s first treaty that would ban new coal mining and embrace the 1.5C goal set at the Paris climate talks.

Initiated by island countries most at risk from rising waters, the movement for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty has now been endorsed by a dozen countries and more than 2,000 civil society organizations as well as a number of cities and states like California and more than 100 Nobel laureates.

“Our treaty is based on other treaties that have talked about nuclear weapons, mines, and gasses like the Montreal Protocol on phasing out ozone-depleting substances,” relates Andrés Gómez O.

“What’s clear is that we don’t have time for business as usual,” the FFNPT organizers argue. “The International Energy Agency determined that there needs to be a decline of fossil fuel use from four-fifths of the world’s energy supply today to one-fifth by 2050. The fossil fuels that remain will be embedded in some products such as plastics and in processes where emissions are scarce.”Critical to this process is action by richer countries. “Countries that are better off economically can support other countries to step away from the fossil fuel system,” Gómez continues.

A key strategy, he adds, would be “the Yasunization of territories.” He explains that “this means, first, making this park a utopia for the country. Then we localize this approach in different provinces in Ecuador where we say, okay, in this province we have our own Yasuní.” This local approach has had some precedents. The Ecuadoran city of Cuenca, for instance, held a referendum in 2021 banning future mining project.

The treaty appeals not only to the environmental movement. By connecting the struggle to the experiences of local communities—the violence associated with extraction, the cancer cases, the oil spills—“we are not just interested in convincing the already existing movements,” he says, “We also have to move the whole society.”

He concludes succinctly: “We are not just about saying no—to fossil fuels, to extractivism. We are about saying a very big yes: to life!”

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

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John Feffer