We’re near a tipping point on ending fossil fuels; let’s not mess it up | Opinion

June 30, 2021 6:00 am

A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

In his best-selling book “Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell defined the term as “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”

For an optimistic climate activist, some highly visible recent events might have been construed as a tipping point in the movement towards clean energy and the fight against the continued proliferation of fossil fuels.

On Jan. 20, in his first day in office, President Joe Biden rescinded the permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, effectively shutting down the controversial fossil fuel infrastructure project.

On May 17, the International Energy Agency announced that investment in new oil and natural gas projects must stop immediately in order to avert climate disaster. This, from an agency whose purpose is to ensure energy stability and that just a year ago expressed significant concern about the disruption of the oil industry from the pandemic. Following this announcement came three major blows to three oil industry giants within hours of each other.

ExxonMobil officials announced that shareholders — after years of frustration with the company’s strategy and lack of vision on climate change — had elected two dissenting candidates to the company’s board, both of whom promise to push for climate action.

A Dutch court also held Shell Oil reliable for its contributions to climate change and ordered it to dramatically cut its carbon emissions over the next decade, likely forcing a dramatic strategic shift toward clean energy solutions.

Lastly, 61% of shareholders at Chevron voted that the company cut emissions caused by its customers burning its products.

Given these recent seismic events in the climate challenge, the stars seemed aligned for another climate victory in Minnesota and a possible shutdown of Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 pipeline project. The Minnesota Court of Appeals announced that, on June 14, it would publish its ruling on whether to affirm the Public Utilities Commission permit to move forward with the pipeline project.

Yet it was not to be. The permit was affirmed 2-1 by the three-judge panel, with one of the key criteria for upholding the pipeline construction permit being whether Enbridge adequately proved the project was necessary in order to meet long-range energy demand forecasts.

Consider that the Metropolitan Council recently released a projection that electric vehicle sales growth in Minnesota will increase by more than 500% by 2040; GM is committing to selling only zero emission vehicles by 2035; and Ford has announced a $28 billion investment in electric vehicles through 2025.

Moreover, Judge Peter Reyes, the lone dissenter in the Minnesota Court of appeals decision, effectively pointed out that Enbridge supplied no demand forecast from oil refineries over the next 16 years, no demand forecast from independent energy agency sources, and no consumer demand forecast for oil products. Despite of all these facts, the PUC and the Minnesota Court of Appeals somehow rationalized a new pipeline in Minnesota with more than double the capacity of the existing one.

The answer to why the climate victory tipping point did not extend to Minnesota with the Line 3 ruling returns us to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory on the three agents of change necessary for the tipping point to occur. According to Gladwell, a tipping point requires, first, effective and varied messengers of change. On the issue of climate action, the messengers are abundant, and it now appears to include shareholders of fossil fuel companies, if that is not varied enough.

The second ingredient is a “sticky” message. As for Line 3, the message was sticky enough that in 2017, when the (PUC) solicited public opinion about the Line 3 project before approving permits, over 70,000 individuals provided public hearing comments, of which 94% were opposed to the construction of Line 3.

The key to understanding why the tipping point didn’t occur in Minnesota relates to the third necessary ingredient, which is the “power of context.” Here’s the context: 30% of all U.S. crude oil imports come through the state of Minnesota. The Chamber of Commerce — with a Koch Refinery lobbyist on its board — and Enbridge Energy are two of the biggest spenders on lobbying in Minnesota. In other words, the fossil fuel industry holds the power in the state of Minnesota. That’s the context.

And, as Minnesota’s political leaders remain silent on Line 3, including Gov. Tim Walz and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, it is possible that Minnesotans will have to wait for the good conscience of the Enbridge shareholders to enact real progress on climate change.

Until the public and private sectors fully awaken to their climate responsibility, the number of people demanding better will steadily increase. Even if it hasn’t arrived in Minnesota yet, the tipping point is coming.

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