David 5, Goliath 0 (and Counting)

September 26, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

This article originally appeared on Onearth.org.

Love the underdog? Well, get this: people around the globe are going up against Big Oil and Big Mining—and winning.

Okay, so we’re all depressed. The planet is going to hell in a bucket, Congress is a train wreck, the fossil fuel lobby is stomping us into the ground, the Keystone XL pipeline means game over for climate change.

Right? No, wrong. And here’s why. I’ve never been a Pollyanna, but all over the world I see remarkable things happening. In one multi-billion dollar mega-project after another, David is standing up to Goliath—and winning. These projects run the whole gamut of dirty and destructive development, from coal and oil to open-pit mines and giant dams. In many cases, they involve stories I’ve reported on in the past few years for OnEarth.

Let’s start with the extraordinary announcement last week that the mining company Anglo-American (market cap $35.5 billion) is pulling out of the partnership that has been planning to build the gargantuan Pebble Mine on the pristine headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay. With an estimated $300 billion in recoverable reserves of gold, copper, and molybdenum, Pebble would be one of the richest mines in the world. Now Anglo-American, which held a 50 percent share in the project, is writing off losses of more than half a billion dollars.

The environmental threat posed by the mine, especially to the world’s largest wild salmon runs, was clear from the start. But who could stand in the way of such a colossus? A bunch of cantankerous local fishermen? A few native peoples, whose views have never counted for much? Yet that ragtag assortment of dissenters has morphed over the years into a diverse and vocal opposition movement that drew in guides and outfitters, anglers and hunters, bush pilots and storekeepers, and big NGOs such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth). Polls of Bristol Bay residents show 80 percent opposed to the mine.

Already pushed to the wall by this wave of opposition, Anglo-American and its partner, Northern Dynasty, were then hit by a second setback. The unprecedented decade-long boom in gold and copper prices has suddenly turned sour. Two years ago, gold almost broke the magic barrier of $2,000 an ounce. Copper was trading at $4.50 a pound. Those numbers today? $1,312 and $3.19 respectively.

True, the fight over Pebble Mine is far from over. But this setback to the mining companies’ plans is not an isolated case, far from it. Here are some more in the same vein.

Revenge of the Incas

Let’s stay with mining for a moment. For the past 20 years, Newmont, the third-biggest gold-mining company in the world, has operated a huge mine in northern Peru called Yanacocha. Several years ago, it announced plans to build a new $5 billion mine, Conga, right next door. Ranged against the expansion were a local priest, the tiny NGO he created, a few university students, and some disgruntled peasant farmers, descendants of the Incas, many of whom didn’t even speak Spanish.

But as in Alaska, this motley opposition grew and prospered, and at the end of 2011 Newmont was forced to halt work on the project. In July 2012, on the day I visited the Conga site, riot police shot dead five protesters. Despite this intimidation, the protests have not abated. This summer, thousands of peasants occupied a sacred lake that Newmont wants to turn into a tailings pit. Polls show that 78 percent of people in the region oppose the mine. The project remains paralyzed.And the protests have spread nationwide. A report by Standard and Poor’s last month predicted that community opposition might lead to other mega-mines in Peru being scrapped. And Newmont CEO Richard O’Brien announced in July that the company had suffered second-quarter losses of almost $2 billion.

Damn the Dams

The most conflict-ridden hydropower project in the world is called HidroAysén. Costing $10 billion, it would erect five giant dams on two of the most beautiful and unspoiled rivers in the world, the Baker (pictured above) and the Pascua, which run through the remote fjords, icefields, and rainforests of southern Chilean Patagonia. These dams would be connected to the capital, Santiago, by a 1,400-mile transmission line, largely to serve the mining industry.

When I started covering this story, back in 2006, the debate seemed hopelessly lopsided. On one side was a consortium of powerful corporate interests that controlled almost unlimited rights to develop the country’s rivers, thanks to a law passed during the Pinochet dictatorship. On the other were a few lonely environmentalists in Santiago and an assortment of unhappy locals in the small Patagonian town of Coyhaique. But again, something happened here. That fragile coalition became a national movement that staged the biggest street demonstrations since the Pinochet era. Polls showed anywhere from 67 to 74 percent of Chileans opposed to HidroAysén. Opinion has shifted steadily toward support for the country’s abundant supply of renewable energy—solar, wind, and geothermal. The mega-dams have been fought to a standstill, and now Michelle Bachelet, the prohibitive favorite to win Chile’s presidential election in November, has declared that “HidroAysén is not viable, it should not go on.”

Pebble: 80 percent opposed. Conga: 78 percent. HidroAysen: 74 percent – these are huge, perhaps insuperable, majorities.

Turkish Delight

Next, on to fossil fuels. Istanbul hit the front pages this summer after a small group of environmentalists occupied Gezi Park, an oasis of green in the concrete heart of the city, protesting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to raze the park and replace it with a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks. As in Peru, I happened to get there on the very day riot police stormed the park and destroyed the protesters’ encampment with great brutality.

We all read about the violence in Istanbul. But has anyone ever heard of Gerze? It’s a small town, population 12,000, on Turkey’s forested Black Sea coast. Yet what just happened there is in some ways more momentous than the events at Gezi Park. For the past two years, local people have occupied the site of a proposed 1,200-megawatt (i.e. really big) coal-fired power plant. Last month, for the fourth time, a court rejected the developer’s environmental impact assessment, and the project may now be dead. And as public sentiment turns against coal, Gerze is not an isolated case. An even larger plant, the $12 billion Afsin-Elbistan, which would be one of the biggest in the world, is also in deep trouble. Last month, its biggest investor, a company from the United Arab Emirates, announced that it was postponing (widely rumored to mean withdrawing) its $8 billion investment.


When I reported in 2011 on the plans of industry giants like Peabody Energy and Arch Coal to export hundreds of millions of tons of coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to serve roaring demand in Asia, the two sides again seemed grossly mismatched. Big Coal, like Big Gold, was rubbing its hands at an unprecedented bull market that seemed to stretch into the future as far as the eye could see. The opposition? Mainly activists in a few small towns along the Columbia River and on the Pacific Northwest coast, places like Longview, Oregon and Bellingham, Washington that were slated for possible coal export terminals. They marshaled their arguments as best they could: did people really want mile-and-a-half-long coal trains rumbling through their towns day and night, spewing coal dust?

But here too, the protests mushroomed into something much bigger. The Pacific Northwest roils with debate about whether it wants to trade its proud tradition of being the greenest region in America (both Oregon and Washington State are committed to the elimination of coal-fired power plants) for a new identity as a conveyor belt for global CO2 emissions. Six prospective coal ports have been blocked. And the demand side for coal has collapsed. The world market is glutted, and China, the main customer, is reducing its demand for imports by retooling its own mines and power plants and stepping up the development of renewables. Companies like Arch and Peabody have seen their revenues and stock prices tumble.

The Big Enchilada

All of which, of course, brings us back around to the biggest fight of all: TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry filthy diluted bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta to Port Arthur, Texas—most of it destined for export and not, as its advocates claim, to promote U.S. “energy independence.” Once again, this battle seemed unequal. On one side, several of the most powerful oil companies in the world, their supporters in Washington, and the ambitions of Prime Minister Stephen Harper of turning Canada into the next Saudi Arabia. On the other, environmental groups like NRDC; Nebraska farmers and landowners unnerved by the threat of a pipeline spill that could affect the Ogalalla aquifer; a vibrant local group called BOLD Nebraska; and an organization named 350.org, created by author-activist (and OnEarth contributing editor) Bill McKibben and a small number of his students at Middlebury College. Yet from these modest beginnings, something remarkable has grown. In February, outside the White House, all these anti-Keystone XL forces came together to stage the largest climate rally in U.S. history.

Even so, was this enough? The conventional wisdom was still that presidential approval of Keystone XL was a foregone conclusion. But then, in April, the EPA challenged the State Department’s favorable review of the project. And in June President Obama shocked Harper, TransCanada, and the fossil fuel industry by declaring that the pipeline would be built “only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon emissions.” The protests continue to gather force: this past weekend, under the rubric “Draw the Line,” people took to the streets in 200 locations nationwide, from the farmlands of Nebraska to the coal-train tracks of Seattle to the streets of New Orleans.

So what about the Goliaths? How have they reacted to this chain of events, all of them unfolding in just a matter of months? I’d divide their responses into three categories:

Putting on a Brave Face: Northern Dynasty, the remaining partner in the Pebble Mine consortium, declared that Anglo-American’s departure “opens the door to a number of exciting possibilities.” (Uh, really? Northern Dynasty’s stock plunged by 30 percent after the announcement.)

Panic and Bluster: In Turkey, Erdogan lashed out at his environmental critics as “terrorists.” In Chile, Fernando Gardeweg, CFO of the majority partner in the HidroAysén consortium, ripped into “environmentalist paranoia” and howled that some people think “building a power plant is like committing a mortal sin.”

Running Scared: Last month, Harper wrote to Obama with a vague offer of “joint action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector.” You might call this do anything—or rather, say anything—to get Keystone XL approved. Meanwhile, Harper, TransCanada, and the fossil fuel lobby continue to repeat the canard that blocking the project will cost 20,000 jobs. But Obama thoroughly debunked this in July when he declared that the pipeline “may only create about 50 permanent jobs.”

So, David 5, Goliath 0. And Keystone? Bring it on.

George Black

OnEarth's executive editor has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exploration of Yellowstone and was published in March 2012.

Tags: environmental activism, social movements