It’s not so easy being a giant oil company these days. First, you have half the world angry at you for keeping us all hooked on petroleum products. Yes, it’s true that most people were all so high on the collective buzz that they hardly paid attention to those who warned that the hangover could last for a hundred years or more – and the oil companies didn’t help. It turns out the warning was right the hangover will be nasty.
Now, it seems that we’ve used so much of the stuff that it’s getting harder and harder to find. Tricky sources, that 30 years ago were deemed “unconventional” have now become the center of attention. These include deep-sea drilling, tar sands, methane hydrates, and of course, shale gas and oil. All of these are extremely difficult to access and involve enormous environmental risks.
But before we start feeling too sorry for them, let us recall that last quarter, Exxon-Mobil saw profits of close to ten billion dollars, while number two, Royal Dutch Shell, saw profits of little more than seven billion, for the quarter. Not unlike drug dealers, their business is very profitable.
We have run several stories about Shell lately. It seems they are not oblivious to what is going on, and may, unlike some of their counterparts, even be showing some traces of conscience. Their latest scenario planning exercise acknowledges many of the pressures being exerted on our eco-sphere by the use of fossil fuels. They depict two paths to a carbon-free future, though they both depend heavily on the use of fossil fuels mitigated by carbon sequestration. Neither is aggressive enough to reduce carbon to what most scientists agree would be a safe level, by mid-century, which is considered to be the critical juncture. Still, it does indicate a certain level of awareness and effort.
We also ran a story about Shell pulling out of the Arctic, at least for the time being. This was in response to the costly loss of two ships, but it least it shows that the company is not so hard-headed as to persist in the face of dangerous circumstances, as others have done.
The latest news also takes place in the far North. It involves a piece of land in British Columbia called the Sacred Headwaters. It’s an absolutely pristine place, where three of Canada’s greatest wild salmon and steelhead rivers, the Skeena, Stikine and Nass, originate. John Muir described the area as “Yosemite…a hundred miles long.” Shell had been planning to drill anywhere from 1,500 to 10,000 coal bed methane (i.e. fracking) wells there, until they ran into some very stiff resistance.
An environmental organization, self-described as “small, but fierce,” known as Forest Ethics Advocacy, collaborated with a number of community groups as well as the Tahlton First Nation, and the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition in a monumental grassroots effort. The group circulated numerous petitions, collected tens of thousands of signatures that eventually led to discussions with the government of British Columbia and representatives from Shell. In the end, after nearly a decade of activism, an agreement was reached which ultimately protects the Sacred Headwaters, an area of more than a million acres, from all future oil and gas activity.
According to Shannon McPhail, Executive Director of the Skeena Coalition, here is the recipe that led to their ultimate success.
In a watershed-sized bowl add:
• Generous helping of redneck bravado (rodeo stock works best)
• 1 cup of well-aged, proud and freshly stirred First Nations culture
• Dash of hippie passion
• 1/2 cup of educated, inspired and engaged youth
• Splash of guide-outfitter sensibilities
• 2 lumps of a logger’s work ethic
• Infuse with outrageous wilderness expeditions
• Add a layer of live music, campfire smoke, storytelling and photography
• Top with sprinkling of authentic ceremony and prayer
For best results: Mix ingredients repeatedly until a uniform liquid begins to coalesce. Generously share the results with residents at every level of regional society. Serve with wild Skeena salmon, garden veggies and homebrew.
A certain amount of credit is also due to Shell, for having the awareness, and the sensitivity to know when to back off. It wasn’t always so. Does anyone remember Nigeria?
Of course, this is only one battle. There will be more. ForestEthics continues to fight to defend the boreal forest from various threats ranging from bogus sustainability initiatives, to excessive timber use for mail order catalogs, to their newest Tar Sands Free West Coast campaign.
Still, this latest announcement is great news in several ways. Not only is a magnificent region of North America being permanently protected from the desecration of oil and gas exploitation, but it also shows that big companies can come together with citizen groups and government agencies to have a reasonable discussion about what is best for all. It’s a glimmer of hope, that at least some people in the oil business are getting the message.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.