How A Small Town Won an Unlikely Victory Against Big Oil
Longview is a timber and mill town of 37,000 in southwest Washington with a desperate need for jobs. It should seem like just the spot for a proposed $1.25 billion oil refinery and propane export terminal that would bring well-paying employment and revive the economy. But after months of negotiations, on February 23, Port of Longview commissioners voted unanimously to end talks with Waterside Energy, the backers of the proposed facility.
Is it really possible for citizens to prevent the use of those vast resources?
I have been following the Longview case with particular interest because Longview is the town where my husband, David Korten, grew up. We travel there regularly for family gatherings, and, last June, Dave spoke at a Longview event attended by many who were concerned about the proposed facilities. At the time, the outcome was very much in question.
Local citizens learned about the potential consequences of the refinery and propane terminal. They learned that the facilities would be fed by a daily stream of oil trains bifurcating the town’s central district. They heard from fire department officials who explained that the department had no ability to respond to a fire caused by an oil train explosion and that taxpayers would have to pay for expanded capacity. They were told of the smell caused by an oil refinery and the increased risks of cancer for those nearby. Local folks packed the Port Commission’s hearings on the projects, and, when the commissioners voted to end negotiations with Waterside, they erupted in applause.
We know that if the world is to remain livable, we must keep 80 percent of the known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Yet giant companies carry those reserves on their books as the basis of their future profits. We all know our politics suffer from the outsized influence of powerful corporate interests. Is it really possible for citizens to prevent the use of those vast resources?
The victory in the small town of Longview says maybe it is.
Activist Tim DeChristopher makes the point that in the absence of a carbon tax that would make their price better reflect actual costs of fossil fuels, “we the people” are the carbon tax. It is our activism that impedes companies from exploiting these damaging sources of energy.
According to The Longview Daily News, Port Commissioner Doug Averett said the decision was not about fossil fuels, but rather about Waterside Energy’s failure to meet a deadline to document their financial backers. A Waterside official, the paper reported, said their backers did not want to reveal themselves until the deal had been sealed. They feared being dragged into a battle with “environmental groups that will malign this project.”
It is our activism that impedes companies from exploiting these damaging sources of energy.
These fossil fuel infrastructure battles are significant. Whether it is TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline connecting the Alberta tar sands to refineries in the Gulf, Shell Oil’s efforts to drill in the Arctic, Arch Coal’s proposed Otter Creek mine in Montana, Pacific International Terminals’ planned coal export facility at Cherry Point in northwest Washington, or the battles over fracking across the country, each is part of an epic struggle for the future of life on this planet.
And infrastructure is a form of public policy. That’s because once facilities are built, tremendous public pressure develops to maintain them. This new infrastructure, so desperately sought by the fossil fuel industry, is a means to keep the price of fossil fuels artificially low, despite the toll they take on the environment.
Activist Bill McKibben says that’s why these current battles are so urgent. The price of renewables is falling rapidly. If we can prevent fossil fuel facilities from being built now, it will likely be just a few years before the economics will tilt in favor of renewables. Then we won’t have to keep mobilizing on this particular issue. Industry won’t want to build the infrastructure, because it won’t pay.
That is the logic that makes the victory in this small town such a big deal. Longview is now the hotspot for yet another fossil fuel project: the Millennium Bulk Coal Export Terminal. Local groups say they are ready to fight this one, too.
Fran Korten is a contributing editor for YES! Magazine, writing about opportunities to advance a progressive agenda in politics, economics, and the environment.