The demonstration couldn't have been better planned. Greenpeace protesters swung on carefully-strung wires from the St. John's Bridge in Portland, Oregon, last Thursday -- obstructing the path of a Royal Dutch Shell icebreaker ship that was attempting to leave port. Below, kayakers milled around the waters of the Willamette River, Portland's key inland shipping lane.
Onlookers cheered from the shoreline. Those who were positioned in path of the vessel stocked themselves with plenty of food and water in case the standoff went on for days. And for a while, it looked like it would. Shell's vessels, bound for the Arctic, where the company was given federal go-ahead to start drilling, appeared to be going nowhere. For now.
Earlier that day, Shell's 2015 first quarter report reflected a similar quandary. Second quarter results indicated that low oil prices and demand in the past year had cost the company $2.3 billion. In an effort to stem the losses, Shell had announced it would cut 6,500 jobs and sell off $20 billion in assets over the coming year.
Last April, BP reported losses that were even worse. Profits plummeted 60 percent by the first quarter of 2015, revealing a widening gap in its earning capacity since the start of 2014. Shell showed the same results for that quarter as well. According to one analyst, it was the worst loss in profits for oil companies since 2009.
Both companies are blaming the collapse of their profits on external issues like oil prices and dwindling demand for drilling in places like Alberta, Canada, where a new technology once promised huge returns for oil and gas investments. Shell's decision to pull the plug on a 200,000-barrel tar sands project earlier this year was an indicator that it was being increasingly careful about the investments it chose. The Pierre River Mine, once thought to be a profitable investment, is the largest development of its kind in the Alberta oil sands region.
In fact, it is in the Alberta oil sands that one finds the biggest indicator of what may be in store for these oil and gas companies. TransCanada and Suncor Energy have both cut jobs, unable to sustain against the falling price of the barrel. The loss of thousands of jobs in Alberta's once flourishing oil fields is a change that few in western Canada would have foreseen two years ago.
And there is another underlying current that links all of these companies: increased, vocal public scrutiny. Over the past decade, all of these companies have been the target of public protests, blockades and media campaigns. And all have sustained financial losses as a result of business decisions that critics -- and affected communities -- felt weren't in their best interests to support.
In 2009, Suncor took Greenpeace to court for interrupting its production in 2009. A Suncor refinery was also the target of protests in 2014. The demonstrations against Transcanada's Keystone Pipeline are legendary, but the company has also been the subject of protests in Quebec, where a few hundred individuals turned out to protest seismic testing in the small town of Cacouna. And BP's fight with the U.S. court system over compensations for the Deepwater Horizon spill is ongoing, as has been the vigilant protests by environmentalists to ensure that restitution is fulfilled.
Shell, which fought a lawsuit for a massive series of oil spills in Nigeria, has also been under pressure to compensate local community members for the spills. The company's costs now not only include legal fees from the 2008 spills, but also the ongoing damage to its reputation as a company that is accused of not living up to its word.
On Thursday evening, after several hours of tense confrontation with protesters, Shell's icebreaker, MSV Fennica, peaceably motored out of port after police removed enough demonstrators from the bridge for the vessel to weave past the protests. Earlier that day, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that Greenpeace was in contempt of court for violating a May 2015 order to stay away from Shell's drilling vessels and operations following a protest in Seattle. She also imposed fines starting at $2,500 for every hour that Greenpeace volunteers remained in the vessel's path.
It's unknown whether the protests against Arctic drilling are over. Citizens continue to call on President Barack Obama to rescind the company's drilling permit, which at this point may be unlikely. With the Arctic already carved up between key nations, the search for the world's most obscure oil source has, in the words of some environmentalists, been dubbed a "reckless gold rush." And as we already know from North American pioneer history, with gold rushes that left many more paupers than rich, the price of the hunt is often greater than the payout in the end.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.