Here’s What You Need To Know
In a retrospective piece celebrating protesters that gathered at Standing Rock in 2016 and 2017 to fight against the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), one veteran of the protests told Buzzfeed, “I’m still fighting. I’m only done when that pipeline is dug out of that ground. I’ve only just begun.” Another declared, “After Standing Rock there will be so much more to fight for. Corporations and dirty politicians might have thought they won the battle, but they will not win the war.” It is not surprising, given these comments, that energy executives gathered in Houston last month for CERAWeek, one of the premiere energy events in the world, had the issue of protests at the top of their minds. But do these potentially disrupting events matter outside of the industry?
In vowing to “fight back” against environmental activism and sabotage, pipeline CEOs have made clear that the clashes at DAPL, the biggest story of 2016 after the presidential election, were not a one-off occurrence. They were a demarcation into a new age of activism, which has only continued to percolate beneath the surface – and appear at other energy projects across North America. While this key issue does not tend to reach national attention until protests become massive, its implications could impact the economy and our security before then. Here is what you need to know about it:
- Energy Activism Past? Not So Fast: Anti-pipeline protesters reaffirmed that Standing Rock was only the beginning. As an activist told Buzzfeed, the “sacred fire in the camp left with all of us and ignited a larger movement of Water Protectors all over the globe. Standing Rock was the beginning of something special and the work is not done.” This “sacred fire” has gained significant momentum, with DAPL veterans leading protests across the continent. Don Gentry, the chairman of the Klamath Tribes in Oregon, published a New York Times op-ed saying the next Standing Rock fight is against the Jordan Cove terminal and Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline in the Northwest. He is far from the only activist hoping to create the next DAPL. The increased media coverage of DAPL veterans highlights that energy activism is continuing, despite the lull in coverage over the prior year. If anything, the consequences of the upcoming confrontations may be more severe.
- Financial And Legal Actions Threaten Economic Growth: Notably, new climate lawsuits have the potential to result in disastrous financial and legal consequences for the energy industry and the millions of jobs that depend on it. Besides financial reparations, climate change cases could establish a new legal standard that environmentalists will use across the country to block critical infrastructure projects necessary for meeting American and global energy needs. Should courts in different jurisdictions reach different conclusions, it could also potentially set up a U.S. Supreme Court battle that further politicizes and polarizes views of the industry. If courts start being more sympathetic to activists, as some are already doing, energy companies could be stuck in litigation for years. In addition, divestment campaigns targeting major financial institutions backing pipeline projects and fossil fuels investment continue, posing serious political and reputational risk to the financial sector.
- Energy Tensions Impacting National Security: A report by the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology concluded that Russians exploited American social media to promote a campaign hurting fossil fuel research and the expansion of natural gas development in the U.S., with the ultimate goal of benefitting the Russian energy sector. Prominently, the report also claimed the Russian government may have funneled money to U.S. environmental NGOs, including the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. While the committee provided little evidence of this funding in their public report, Russian-funded propaganda outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, frequently promote leaders from these groups and their messaging has been utilized in Russian influence campaigns. More broadly, as long as Europe depends on Russian natural gas – highlighted by Germany’s approval last week of Russian oil giant Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline a day after expelling four Russian diplomats due to the Skripal poisoning in the United Kingdom, as well as the import of natural gas to the U.S. from a sanctioned Russian company in January – national security challenges are ripe to be exacerbated by environmentalists seeking to advance their green agenda.
- Enviros Focus On Pipelines Over People: New England’s extremely cold winter has already pushed its energy grid to the brink, and it will likely happen again, making the need for more pipeline infrastructure for natural gas critical to “relieving this constraint” and preventing a future of “rolling blackouts” at the precise time residents in the region need energy the most. Unfortunately, the Northeast is an epicenter of energy activism, illustrated by the 2015 protest in West Roxbury, Massachusetts where 198 activists were arrested protesting a gas pipeline. Last week, a judge acquitted 13 of those protesters after they argued that their actions to stop climate change were a legal “necessity.” If activists are able to find more sympathetic judges like this one across the country, the climate action defense could become common and encourage more lawless tactics by protesters that damage property and threaten public safety, greatly impacting law-abiding residents of all and no ideology who depend on energy.
Although not featured in today’s national media spotlight, actions taken by environmentalists to advance their anti-pipeline agenda across North America have ramifications on policies well-beyond the energy sector. While energy executives at CERAWeek were discussing the implications of this activism on their businesses, their attention should serve as a warning to policymakers and business leaders who need to take this risk seriously and prepare for it now – before the next crisis hits.
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News You Can Use
Seventeen states, seven cities, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are suing the Census Bureau and Commerce Department to remove a new citizenship question from the 2020 Census. The lawsuit, which is the third filed on this issue in just two weeks, has led to hysteria alleging sinister motives, everything from “suppress[ing] the political influence of Latinos and communities of color” to “whitewash[ing] Latinos out of existence.” The Census has not asked all U.S. households a question about citizenship since 1950, although it has continually asked some variation of the question to a subsample of households using the now-defunct “long form” or ongoing annual surveys, and, ironically, the Justice Department asked to reintroduce the citizenship question to help with its enforcement of Section Two of the Voting Rights Act, which requires majority-minority districts.
Given that the Obama Administration used Section Two “as a cudgel against GOP redistricting plans and voter ID laws,” and that its increased and more informed enforcement would “continue a longtime progressive policy,” the hysteria surrounding the Census seems to be an overreaction based on hostility to this Administration, rather than the policy itself. As with many claims about policy pronouncements in the Trump era, we would all do well to take a deep breath, because the hysteria obfuscates the facts about the important policy question at hand and makes it more difficult to address meaningful problems with proposals.
DIGITAL ASSISTANTS’ NEXT ACT?
Amazon and Google, makers of the Alexa and Google Home digital assistant devices, recently filed patents that outline what the future may look like for devices that monitor what their owners do or say at home. Among the patents under consideration include a “voice sniffer algorithm” that can hear and analyze words in real-time to tailor ads, audio monitoring to detect whether a child is engaged in mischief, and even an application to determine a speaker’s mood.
Both companies insist that their devices only record and process audio “after users trigger them by pushing a button or uttering a phrase,” but with high scrutiny due in part to calls to regulate Facebook and other tech firms amid growing mistrust of tech in a “post-Cambridge Analytica world,” the legal and ethical implications of such technologies raise further questions for policymakers to consider as they build the regulatory framework for proliferating 21st century technologies. It also shows that in this era, public records that used to be fairly inaccessible to the public can now bring significant scrutiny if not presented correctly.
UNDERWATER, NOT UNAPPRECIATED, CABLES
The increased activity of Russian ships and submarines around underwater communications cables is causing alarm among the U.S. and its allies, who fear “the Kremlin might be taking information warfare to new depths.” There are approximately 400 fiber-optic cables that run 620,000 miles under the sea, which are mostly owned by private companies, and “carry almost all of the communications on the internet – including calls, emails, texts and $10 trillion worth of daily financial transactions.”
It remains to be seen whether Moscow is interested in cutting the cables, tapping into them, posturing, or perhaps there is a completely innocent explanation altogether. However, particularly in the aftermath of cyber offensives on the U.S. energy grid and the political processes in the U.S. and Europe, critical underwater communications infrastructure that is vital to business and national security operations should be included in the policymakers’ public policy discussions to protect critical infrastructure going forward, or otherwise risk being the target tomorrow’s asymmetrical offensive.
BIG OIL TO BIG ELECTRIC?
Royal Dutch Shell and Total, Europe’s biggest private oil producers, are dipping their toes into a whole new market that may foreshadow the future for Big Oil. With growth in renewable energy and electric vehicles, as well as pressure to limit climate change, Shell and Total expect low-carbon electricity to become more prevalent within the coming decades and are buying or creating retail power businesses in preparation.
Maarten Wetselaar, Shell’s head of gas and new energies, said such investment “makes [Shell] future proof in a world where electricity becomes the biggest game in town,” although selling electricity profitably and competing with tech companies that may enter the space mean that success is anything but certain. Regardless, Shell’s and Total’s “long-term bet” on an increasingly electric future suggests one way some Big Oil firms are shifting toward “Big Energy” as the public pressure for cleaner energy increases and the market provides opportunities to adapt.