Looking Beyond Carbon Reserves: the Violence of International Fossil Fuel Extraction

Nikita Perumal - During my summer at REC (in between an organizing retreat, joint projects, and conversations with my incredible coworkers), I spent a large chunk of my time exploring how fossil fuel companies don’t just create climate change—they also perpetuate global violence through the very process of carbon extraction. Along with my findings inevitably comes another realization: we cannot fight for climate justice, or against the human rights abuses of the fossil fuel industry, without also fighting relentlessly against systems of imperialism and neoliberal free trade.

Nikita at REC's Summer Organizing Retreat in July 2016

The typical “international” perspective of climate justice goes like this: The countries that are most responsible for climate change are rarely those who feel the brunt of climate impacts—and, vice versa, historically low carbon-emitting communities are the ones that overwhelmingly and disproportionately face the devastation of climate change. These include countries from the Global South and formerly colonized countries–which are disproportionately poorer and often house communities of color. The 52 small island developing states (SIDS), for instance, collectively emit less than 1% of global greenhouse gases, yet are considered canaries in the coal mine for climate injustices like threatened food and water security, potential displacement, the devastation that accompanies intensifying storms, and fundamental threats to land-based identities and cultures.

This particular narrative of international climate justice is important, and should not be denied attention–but zooming out further, to examine other aspects of fossil fuel extraction beyond inequitable emissions and impacts, reveals even more about the international dimensions of climate injustice. Most fossil fuel divestment campaigns organize around the Carbon Underground 200’s list of the top 200 publicly traded oil, coal, and gas companies. Unsurprisingly, however, the 200 fossil fuel companies enumerated in the list are not just at fault for planning to perpetuate climate change or profiting off of climate chaos. Examining the state of fossil fuel extraction today reveals that modern fossil fuel companies–including the companies of the Carbon Underground 200–also violate human rights around the world through their business practices. In performing this examination, something else also comes to light: the international rights abuses of the fossil fuel industry are inextricably linked to imperialist logic and neoliberal free trade.

Moving beyond: other injustices of fossil fuel extraction

Fossil fuel companies pose harsh threats to the safety and health of workers and neighboring communities.BP (number six on the Carbon Underground Oil and Gas list) has been fined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 760 times; in fact, a 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery was attributed to 300 “egregious, wilful” safety violations and led to the death of 15 works and the injuries of 170 others. What’s more, a joint investigation by the Texas Tribune and Houston Chronicle found that the death toll at U.S. refineries continues to be unacceptably high: “At least 64 energy company employees and contractors were killed in the decade before the Texas City blast [and a]t least 58 have died in the 10 years since.”

Even without considering the grave dangers climate change poses to workers’ health, the actual process of fossil fuel extraction is disastrous to the health of communities. Consider increased health concerns and documented water contamination around fracking sites. Consider the higher rates of cancer, birth defects, and cardiovascular/respiratory diseases around mountaintop removal coal mining sites, or the 3 to 7 million people dying each year from air pollution, with 1.6 million in China alone. Consider the 2014 report by the NRDC that found that “people who live near tar sands strip-mining, drilling, and processing operations in Canada face health risks from additional air and water pollution, and there are reports of an increasing incidence of cancer.” Fossil fuel extraction is consistently linked with deteriorated levels of public health in communities surrounding extraction sites.

As we consider the devastating health impacts of fossil fuel extraction and the communities in which this extraction takes place, another piece of the puzzle comes into play: economic imperialism and the implicit belief that some communities deserve less than others.  

Fossil fuel companies have a long legacy of infringing on the sovereignty and land rights of indigenous communities. (Indeed, modern fossil fuel companies, in denying indigenous self-determination, perpetuate the longstanding imperial mindset that first allowed them to first flourish.) From TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL to the newly approved Dakota Access Pipeline, fossil fuel energy projects are notorious for cutting across or endangering territories that belong to Native communities in the United States—without the consultation or consent of those communities. First Nations communities in Canada havesimilarly resisted Keystone and tar sands projectsproposed in Canada as direct transgressions of federal First Nations treaties.And, as we might recall from a mining company’s attemptedland swap of 2400 acres sacred to the San Carlos Apache in 2014, companies are not above direct land grabs, either.

This imposition of control and violence on sovereign nations continues in other parts of the world as well. One of the most outright examples of violence that I looked into this summer was the repression that fossil fuel companies inflict–whether implicitly or outright–on labor and environmental activists of the Global South who seek to fight against extraction projects on their land. In Nigeria in the early 1990s, Shell (number seven on the Oil and Gas list) requested, backed, and financed “deadly force and massive, brutal raids” against the Ogani people, who had begun a movement against the company’s oil project in the country. In Colombia, fossil fuel companies Ocensa and BP are being sued for their complicity in the abduction and torture of trade unionist Gilberto Torres; thousands of other activists have also been killed or disappeared in the pipeline-heavy region. In 2001, 15 Indonesian villagers brought a claim in United States federal court against government security forces backed by Exxon Mobile (number four of the Oil and gas list). The forces had “committed brutal oppression” (including claims of sexual assault, battery, and kidnapping) while guarding a natural gas facility in the oil-rich Aceh province.

What right do these companies have to inflict the dangers of fossil fuel extraction upon indigenous and local communities without consent? This form of economic imperialism pervades the daily practices of modern fossil fuel companies, even as fossil fuel interests drive more overt imperialist interventions in world politics. Furthermore, Howard University Professor David Schwartzman notes“the central role” that the imperial militarism has in climate injustice. Indeed, the military-industrial complex is a huge contributor to global climate change, and its imperial agenda shapes the policy agendas of “big capitalist powers”—which, in turn, blockade the international, cooperative climate regime that we so need to quell emissions and facilitate a just energy transition.

A system of fossil fuel extraction that feeds into and relies so heavily on imperialism is inherently at odds with the right to self-determination and, fundamentally, with many other global human rights. In this sense, it is unsurprising that the fossil fuel industry would continue its legacy of violence. On the contrary, it seems inevitable.

What true solutions look like

Luckily, solutions to climate injustice do exist—but unluckily, some responses to the climate crisis are no more than false solutions, organized to reduce carbon emissions without addressing the violence that accompanies the extraction of carbon. Climate solutions that abide by the rules of neoliberalism shirk away from true justice, because regulation-free economic policies allow for the outsourcing of economic exploitation, the squashing of labor and health rights, and the perpetuation of neocolonial economic relationships. While we take pride in the US’s reduction of coal production, for instance, neoliberalism has allowed this production to simply relocate; countries like China and the Philippines have seen massive spikes in dirty and harmful coal projects in recent years. Similarly, proposals to geoengineer our environmental systems to combat carbon absorption offer no changes to our dominant extractive economy based on fossil fuels; instead, “geoengineering tell us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved.” Market-based carbon-offset projects also disregard the roots of climate injustice, as they allow companies to pay to “continue polluting” and fail to challenge the mega industries that violate human rights and perpetuate imperial logic. In fact, many carbon-offset projects are incredibly detrimental to the health, wealth, and human rights of local communities in host countries. In displacing communities, denying key human rights, and denying the accumulation of injustices embedded in carbon extraction, these solutions lose their claim to “climate justice.”

A true, climate justice-based approach to climate change must also see other forms of injustice declining alongside carbon emissions. As such, we cannot depend wholeheartedly on market logic at the expense of human rights or community agency. Instead, efforts to spread awareness, to increase mitigation, and to improve adaptation to climate impacts in vulnerable communities must revolve around communities and the priorities they set.

In doing research on the exploitation that accompanies fossil fuel extraction, I began to realize how important such a framework is to the climate justice movement and international solidarity. The climate justice movement is flourishing—fossil fuel divestment is the fastest growing divestment movement in history, and the promise of reinvestment hangs in the air between us. But we need to ground our movement not just in the theoretical impacts climate change can have on future generations, but also on how carbon extraction is intertwined with processes of imperialism and exploitation at the global level. To do so makes our movement grounded in people, in communities, and in human rights. To do so makes the stakes of our movement less aloof, more inclusive, and all the more worthwhile.

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