Political Reality for Environmental Activists

by Aaron Johnson, Vice President of Public Affairs on January 9, 2017 - 2:17pm

Environmental activist group 350.org kicked off 2017 with protests of president-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees. Organizers targeted the state offices of senators who will soon hold hearings and votes on nominees to head the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies focused on environmental and energy regulations. Today in Colorado, for instance, activists held protests at the offices of Senators Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R) in Denver.

The process of nominating and voting on members of the next president’s cabinet picks will provide several months of protest fodder for these groups. They will oppose any person President Trump seeks to appoint regardless of his or her qualifications. To gauge the level of support for this effort, it’s important to look at the past.

It turns out 2016 was a dismal year for environmental groups across the West. Despite their best efforts and considerable financial investments, activists stacked up several failures in their war on the oil and natural gas industry. We’ve compiled a list of some of the many setbacks environmentalists endured in 2016.

Judged in Court and at the Ballot

Some of the biggest flops came from court decisions and failures at the ballot box. It turns out that extreme policies pushed by activist organizations can’t withstand scrutiny in the courts of law or in the court of public opinion.

  • Federal fracking rule halted – An Obama-appointed judge in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming halted the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) hydraulic fracturing rule in July. It was a major setback for environmental groups who sided with the government to support the first federal regulation of fracking. The judge agreed with Western Energy Alliance, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the Ute Tribe, and several western states that the federal government lacks authority over these activities. 
  • Local moratoriums ruled unconstitutional – The Colorado State Supreme court ruled in May that a moratorium on fracking in Fort Collins and a ban in Longmont violated state law. Environmental groups had failed in previous years to pass federal or state bans, so they shifted to a city-by-city strategy. Since Colorado is a political bellwether, these court rulings dampened momentum for environmental groups to pass similar measures in other western states.
  • Ballot measure bust – Looking to overcome political setbacks earlier in the summer, environmental groups put on a show in August while trying to get two anti-fracking measures on Colorado’s election ballot. Knowing they didn’t get the required number of signatures from local residents to make the ballot, activists staged a rally to bolster the sprits of their major donors, national groups like Bill McKibben’s 350.org. Turns out, however, the stacks of boxes they took to the Secretary of State’s office were mostly empty. They didn’t have enough signatures and they knew it.
  • Political playground closed – On the flip side, the oil and natural gas industry had ample support for a measure to amend the Colorado constitution and make it harder for environmental groups to abuse the state’s ballot. “Raise the Bar” passed by a healthy margin to ensure that future amendments are supported across the state, not just in few urban areas, and garner at least 55% support from voters.

Protesters Scream, Shout, and Shiver

Activists in 2016 showed the extreme lengths they’d go to advance their agenda, including protesting and committing acts of civil disobedience.

  • Up a creek without a DAPL They’ll of course point to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) as a victory in 2016. However, they’re counting chickens before they hatched. Sympathy from the Obama Administration and coverage from an unwitting media resulted in a construction delay of the pipeline. However, on January 20th Donald Trump will be sworn into the Oval Office. His new administration can easily reverse the work of President Obama by approving the final stalled permit holding up construction of a small section of the pipeline, which sets the table for a major failure for activists in 2017.

  • Lease sale protests – Environmental groups used quarterly oil and natural gas leases sales held by BLM as staging grounds for protests on a local level. These Keep-It-in-the-Ground protests started and ended the year with dismal turnout, however.

In February, WildEarth Guardians, RainForest Action Network and Food & Water Watch attempted to organize protests in three states. In Colorado, where BLM had previously canceled the lease sale, only a dozen protesters showed. In Wyoming, bitter cold and snow led movement organizers to cancel another protest. In Utah, activists became so unruly that local police kicked them out, and BLM simply proceeded to lease 46 parcels following the disruption.

Looking to overcome poor attendance at protests, Keep-It-in-the-Ground organizers re-doubled their efforts and went extreme. In May, they organized nearly 250 people to protest the quarterly BLM lease sale in Colorado. They trained many of them to commit acts of civil disobedience and recruited volunteers to be arrested. Not taking the bait, local police didn’t arrest a single activist, though many were deserving. At the end of the day protesters were unable to play the victim card in social media without images of people in handcuffs. Moreover, BLM’s lease sale went on as scheduled and raised $5.2 million in revenue from just under 7,000 acres. 

Bill McKibben

  • Keep it real, not in the ground – Days later, activists flew in Bill McKibben, the movement’s leader and head of 350.org, to protest at an existing well site. It was promoted as the largest environmental protest in Colorado history. Hampered by rain and 40 degree weather, however, the big guy only drew a crowd of 80 activists, most bussed in from Boulder County or flown in from California and Washington DC.

December’s Keep-It-in-the-Ground protest in Denver capped off the trend of poor protests in 2016. Not even a dozen showed up. The fact it was 11 degrees outside with snow on the ground may have been the cause. After all, it’s hard to convince people to protest oil and natural gas when your teeth are rattling.

Rodney Dangerfield of Environmental Activism

Due to the extreme tactics and unrealistic demands of the Keep-It-in-the-Ground protesters, the movement failed to gain respect. There was a drumbeat of comments throughout the year by leading policymakers in Washington D.C. that pointedly contradicted the environmental campaign.

  • Most notably, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called Keep-It-in-the-Ground “naïve” in a visit to Arizona.
  • BLM Director Neil Kornze equated the security threat posed by protesters the same as the threat posed by armed militiamen who took over an Oregon ranch. In response, BLM transitioned to holding lease sales online by year’s end.
  • Pres. Obama’s White House Science advisor, John Holdren took a shot at environmental activists, saying, “The notion that we’re going to keep it all in the ground is unrealistic. We are still a very heavily fossil-fuel dependent world.”
  • The White House issued a pointed response to an online petition by Keep-It-in-the-Ground organizers, stating, “Even as we move full steam ahead towards cleaner energy, the United States will still need to use fossil fuels in the near term.”

The political reality for environmental groups looks dim for 2017 since one party controls both chambers of Congress and Donald Trump is a week away from taking office. Activists will try to sway the public court of opinion to put pressure on lawmakers and federal agencies. Expect environmental groups to organize more protests and to engage in more acts of civil disobedience, as we saw in 2016. What we witnessed with DAPL and lease sales last year will be a template for the next four years.