How to Fight Big Oil: Join Your Neighbors

Written by Sarah van Gelder

Originally posted on

The last few weeks and months have seen major victories for communities resisting oil trains, coal terminals, pipelines, and strip mines. This is big news at a time of an out-of-control climate crisis—this July and August tied as the hottest months ever recorded. Could these stories represent our best shot at taking on the giant corporations and banks that are trying to build new fossil fuel projects at a time when we need to be phasing out carbon-based fuels?

Case in point: On Oct. 5, the San Louis Obispo County Planning Board rejected the application by Phillips 66 to build a railroad spur to its Nipomo Mesa refinery, based on widespread safety concerns. Coincidentally, that same day, Shell Oil Co., pulled its plan for an oil train line north of Seattle that would have brought Bakken oil to the company’s Anacortes refinery. The company cited low oil prices, but the growing movement to stop the oil trains may have been a factor. Seattle is where hundreds of protesters in kayaks and tribal canoes faced down Shell’s massive drilling rig last year; the company has since abandoned plans for Arctic drilling.

And in late September, the small San Francisco Bay town of Benicia voted unanimously to deny Valero a permit to transport 70,000 barrels of oil a day by train through the community to the company’s refinery.

Certainly not all confrontations with the oil and gas industry result in victories—some communities welcome the projects; some are unable to stop them. Still, what is it that has made it possible for one community after another to win against the powerful and extremely wealthy fossil fuel industry?

Consider these factors:

1. Moral authority 

These local groups demonstrate a commitment to the well-being of generations of people. The Standing Rock Tribe, for example, a small community on an impoverished North Dakota reservation, is countering a giant energy corporation and transnational banks. Prayerful nonviolence, coupled with their stand for the water and all the lives that depend on it, is drawing support from around the world.

2. Sovereignty

The tribes, whose sovereignty is spelled out in the treaties negotiated with the U.S. government, are becoming increasingly sophisticated about defending their rights. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit to build a giant new coal terminal in Bellingham, Washington, for example, acknowledging the Lummi Tribe’s treaty rights. Nontribal communities have rights, too, a fact that was recognized in late September when the federal Surface Transportation Board refused to override the Benicia ban on the oil trains.

3. Commitment

Sometimes persistence makes the difference, and those who are defending their homes may be willing to work harder in spite of adversity. Last year I interviewed southeastern Montana ranchers who told me of the hours they spent reading reams of documents and traveling hundreds of miles to testify at legislative hearings or speak at rallies to stop the proposed Otter Creek strip mine. The coal company eventually halted the project, in part because of “regulatory uncertainty.” In other words, the mining company gave up when faced with self-described “ornery ranchers,” who had aligned with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and weren’t about to give up on the land. 

4. Solidarity

Even with all these assets on the side of communities, the size and power of big corporations can still overwhelm them. That’s where solidarity comes in. The Northern Cheyenne people and the ranchers in southeast Montana, the Lummi Tribe and environmentalists in Washington state were able to win together when they might not have won alone. When the Standing Rock Sioux put out a call for help, hundreds of tribes responded, along with non-Natives from around the United States and around the world.

In each case I’ve researched, the community was motivated to stop a pipeline, oil train, or coal terminal by the safety and health of its own citizens. But people far beyond also benefited, as did the natural world. The atmosphere is already saturated with greenhouse gases. A new study by Oil Change International shows that no new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be allowed if we are to have any prospect of keeping worldwide temperature increases to less than 2 degrees.

Perhaps we will turn the tide on the climate crisis one community at a time.