June 3, 2015 / 5:16 AM / 3 years ago

For green activists, Arctic drilling could be the next big thing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Michael Brune is pleased that activists in kayaks are training for another “Paddle in Seattle” to confront an expected Royal Dutch Shell rig on its way to the Arctic to explore for oil. What makes the head of the Sierra Club just as happy is the effect Shell’s Arctic ambitions are having on his own environmental organization.

Activists protest the Shell Oil Company's drilling rig Polar Pioneer which is parked at Terminal 5 at the Port of Seattle, Washington May 16, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

Sierra’s funding drive against the resumption in Arctic drilling has taken in three times more money than usual campaigns by the nation’s oldest green group, said Brune, though he wouldn’t reveal specific amounts. And the group’s petition opposing President Barack Obama’s decision in favor of Shell last month has collected more signatures than any appeal in two years.

“Our members are outraged because they believe fighting climate change is a moral challenge and they ask how the president can reconcile this move with his goals on climate change,” Brune said. “All of it is getting a much higher response rate than we expected.”

With its pristine landscapes, the Arctic has always captured the imagination of environmentalists around the world. But Shell's exploration plans were a reminder that the polar region is home to what the U.S. government estimates is 20 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. (Graphic: Arctic oil and gas reserves: reut.rs/1AJHotZ)

For environmental groups from the Sierra Club to Greenpeace, that combination makes Arctic drilling a powerful symbol for the broader fight over climate change. Global activists are increasingly focused on stopping major extraction projects, with the aim of keeping carbon reserves buried to avoid emissions many scientists say would result in runaway global warming.

The stakes are also high for Shell, which has already invested $7 billion in Arctic operations, though commercial oil production remains 10 to 15 years away. Shell understands some people oppose Arctic drilling, but global energy demand is expected to double by 2050, said spokesman Curtis Smith. “We’ll need energy in all forms, and Alaska’s outer continental shelf resources could play a crucial role in helping meet that challenge,” he said.

Activists protest the Polar Pioneer at Terminal 5 at the Port of Seattle, Washington May 16, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

GLOBAL BATTLE

But as Arctic drilling becomes a test of wills, environmental groups say they have gained oxygen from their success in partially closing other gateways to large carbon extraction.

Sierra has sued in recent years to drive some of the nation’s dirtiest coal plants into retirement, an effort aided by low natural gas prices and Obama’s climate rules. Pressure from groups such as the grassroots network 350.org has been instrumental in delaying the Obama administration’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, meant to expand the connection between Canada’s oil sands and Gulf coast refineries, for more than six years.

“People are becoming really savvy about what each of these battles mean and the part we can play,” said Emily Johnston, a small-home builder in Seattle who was arrested in 2011 at the White House protesting Keystone.

Johnston joined a multitude of groups and ordinary citizens that swarmed Shell’s Polar Pioneer rig last month when it arrived in Seattle’s port. Shell is deciding whether to send a second rig, the Noble Discoverer to the port, en route to Alaska. If it does kayakers will confront that one too. But this is not a local battle: Arctic drilling resonates with the environmental movement far beyond Seattle.

“We’ve seen expressions of support from Argentina to Amsterdam,” said Travis Nichols, a spokesman on Arctic issues at Greenpeace, which has collected nearly 280,000 signatures under a petition against drilling in the region since March 1. Only 15,500 of those came from the United States.

A petition at Avaaz.org, a global activist network that calls on Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to stop Shell from using the city’s port has accumulated over 1.19 million signatures in 17 languages, including French, Dutch and Arabic.

Jamie Henn, a spokesman for 350.org, said its Facebook post on the paddlers who confronted Shell’s first rig on May 16 was its most popular in two-and-a-half years, reaching more than 5.2 million people across the world.

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POSTER CHILD

Henn said that Shell’s Arctic drilling quest will make it a “poster child” for a campaign to encourage investors to divest holdings from fossil fuel companies. If so, it would be a blow to Shell, which has tried to burnish its image with environmentalists in recent years by being a leader among oil and gas companies in recognizing the climate risks of carbon emissions.

Anthony Leiserowitz, a climate communications expert at Yale University, said Arctic drilling galvanizes a global audience because - unlike local issues such as oil and gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking - the region has become synonymous with the fate of the planet’s climate.

“Fracking is for most people relatively invisible and hard to imagine,” Leiserowitz said. Drilling in the Arctic, on the other hand, involves enormous rigs that can be targeted by activists for spectacular photo ops that help with fundraising.

And its receding ice cap - which scientists say results from rising temperatures and has repercussions for the earth’s climate and sea levels - puts the Arctic at the center of global consciousness on climate issues.

That is one reason Obama’s decision to grant Shell a permit has generated a greater backlash against the president than his decision to allow exploratory drilling off the U.S. East Coast.

With so much capital invested, few oil analysts expect Shell to give up unless they encounter lengthy delays from regulators or investors start to balk at the risks. The company hopes to produce at least 1 million barrels per day in the Chukchi in 10 or 15 years.

“For Shell to back down at this point, it’s a defeat, it’s disgraceful, it’s costly,” said Fadel Gheit, an energy company analyst at Oppenheimer & Co.

But Leiserowitz said greens, who have fought to keep wide swaths of the Arctic off limits, are in the fight for the long term. “This has legs,” he said, about environmental groups organizing to stop Arctic drilling. “It could easily just be getting going.”

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Bruce Wallace and Tomasz Janowski

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