Protecting the climate requires rapidly reducing the extraction of fossil fuels. That’s a crucial part of the Green New Deal. While the federal government has done little so far to reduce fossil fuel production, people and governments all over the country are taking steps on their own to cut down the extraction of coal, oil, and gas.
The U.S. needs to cut around 60% of its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 to reach zero net emissions by 2050. The world will need to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6% per year between 2022 and 2030 to reach the Paris goal of 1.5°C. Countries are instead planning and projecting an average annual increase of 2%, which by 2030 will result in more than double the production consistent with the 1.5°C limit.
In the previous two commentaries in this series we have shown how initiatives from cities, states, and civil society organizations are expanding climate-safe energy production and reducing energy use through energy efficiency and conservation. These are essential aspects of reducing climate-destroying greenhouse gas emissions, but in themselves they will not halt the burning of fossil fuels. That requires action on the “supply side” – freezing new fossil fuel infrastructure and accelerating the closing of existing production facilities. That is often referred to as a “phaseout” or “managed decline” of fossil fuels.
Such a phaseout of fossil fuel production is necessary to meet the goals of the Green New Deal and President Joe Biden’s climate proposals. The original 2018 Green New Deal resolution submitted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called for a national 10-year mobilization to achieve 100% of national power generation from renewable sources. Biden’s Build Back Better plan sought 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035 and net zero GHG emissions by 2050. These goals cannot be met without reducing the amount of fossil fuel that is actually extracted from the earth.
While the US government and corporations are failing to effectively reduce the mining and drilling of fossil fuels, hundreds of efforts at a sub-national level are already cutting their extraction. 50 US cities are already powered entirely by clean and renewable sources of energy. 180 US cities are committed to 100% clean energy. According to a report by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International, Indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions. Such reductions are an essential part of a widespread but little-recognized movement we have dubbed the “Green New Deal from Below.”
How does supply-side fossil fuel phaseout work? In 2020, two geographers at the University of British Columbia established a global Fossil Fuel Cuts Database of 1302 “supply-side climate initiatives seeking to constrain fossil fuel production” in 106 countries. They define supply constraints as financial or physical initiatives by public authorities and private actors “constraining the production, transportation or transformation” of fossil fuels. They identified seven major types of supply-side approaches:
- Moratoria and bans: legislated suspensions or prohibitions on fossil fuel extraction and/or transportation.
- Divestments: withdrawal or exclusion of funds and assets from financial portfolios.
- Blockades: physical obstruction or occupation of fossil fuel extraction, transportation or refining sites.
- Litigation: Court cases to disrupt or end fossil fuel extraction.
- Emission trading schemes (ETS): a system of caps on the maximum level of emissions permissible with permits for emissions allowed under the cap. (They note that ETS are sometimes used by producers to try to maintain production and insulate it from demands about more fundamental policy reform.)
- Carbon taxes: taxes imposed on fossil fuel producers in proportion to their emissions.
- Subsidy phaseouts: cessation of indirect or direct monetary government assistance to fossil fuel companies.
Many of these approaches are being applied to phase out fossil fuels by local and state governments and grassroots activist groups. While national and global action will be necessary to phase out fossil fuels completely, in their absence action from below is forming the tip of the climate protection spear.
And a Child Shall Lead Them
In California, 2.2 million people live within half a mile of an oil or gas well; another 5 million live within one mile. More than 60% of the 25,000 drilling permits issued by the state between 2015 and 2020 were in majority-Latino communities.
At the age of nine Nalleli Cobo began getting unexplained nosebleeds, stomach cramps, nausea, headaches, and body spasms. So had other members of her family and others in her low-income, majority Latino University Park neighborhood. Community-based non-professional researchers, backed by a team of toxicologists from Physicians for Social Responsibility, identified the source of the problems as an oil well 30 feet from the family home. Cobo and her mother began knocking on doors in the neighborhood. They helped found the group People Not Pozos (People Not Wells) which filed complaints with regulators and testified at city hall and other governmental bodies. After three years, the oil well’s owner announced it was shutting the well down. Cobo recalled, “My nosebleeds stopped, no more headaches or heart palpitations, I didn’t need my inhalers every day. All the kids started to feel better.”
There still remained more than 1,600 active and idle oil and gas wells in Los Angeles county, most of them located in communities of color. In 2015, Nalleli Cobo, now a teenager, helped form the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition in Los Angeles. With other organizations it sued the city of Los Angeles for rubber-stamping oil projects in communities of color. As a result, the city adopted new environmental requirements. The oil industry countersued but lost.
The campaign against oil and gas wells near residential areas has continued to burgeon. In September 2021, the Los Angeles County supervisors voted unanimously to phase out oil and gas drilling and ban new extraction sites in unincorporated areas of the county. In late January, 2022 the LA City Council voted to phase out oil and gas extraction in the city.
The LA ordinance bans new drilling entirely. It orders an evaluation of how to shut down operating wells across the city. It orders city departments to draft a new policy to ensure the proper plugging and site remediation of closed wells. And it initiates an analysis of economic and job impacts of the shutdown and how to transition oil industry workers to clean energy jobs. City Council President Nury Martinez also introduced a motion to create a new city office to support workers as they transition out of jobs affected by new technology, including those in the oil and gas industry. She said the city can’t “correct the sins of environmental racism” by “taking away jobs from working-class communities.”
Shut It Down!
In 2010 the US had 530 active coal-fired power plants. Hundreds of local campaigns, backed by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, have led to the completed and planned closing of 353 of them. For example, on December 14, 2021 Ameren Missouri announced its intent to retire its Rush Island coal plant no later than March 2024. Ameren Missouri previously planned to retire Rush Island in 2039, but accelerated the shutdown following Clean Air Act violations and a court order to add modern pollution controls. And the owners of a coal plant in Rockport, Indiana just announced that it will be fully retired by 2028. 177 US coal-fired power plants remain in operation.
Many of the closed coal plants are now being repurposed. The former site of the coal-fired Brayton Point Power Station in Massachusetts is being developed into the Anbaric Renewable Energy Center, a logistics hub and port base for the region’s emerging offshore wind industry. In New York, the owner of the Cayuga and Somerset coal-fired power plants is considering a $100 million investment that would repurpose the sites into data centers, transforming them “from energy suppliers to energy consumers.” Idaho Power announced that it would use transmission lines connected to the retiring North Valmy coal-fired plant in Nevada to connect to a new 120MW solar farm south of Twin Falls, Idaho. Pennsylvania, which has lost 14 coal plants, is repurposing nine of them for such uses as a medical marijuana farm, a warehouse, and a data center.
In 2021, after years of public pressure, the Hawaii legislature passed a law that blocks new utility contracts for coal power. It states, “The purpose of this Act is to eliminate the use of coal in Hawaii for electricity production.” Hawaii’s AES plant, which provides 16% of the peak demand for Oahu, the island where two-thirds of Hawaii’s people live, must shut down by September 1, 2022. Hawaiian Electric, which provides most of the state’s power, already uses more than 30% renewable sources, and a race is on to expand both utility-scale and rooftop solar and battery storage to replace the energy from the closing coal plant. As part of a crash replacement program, the state is paying residents to install batteries and send their rooftop solar production to the grid during times of peak demand. It is also fast-tracking community solar and expanding wind farms. The coal ban will help the state of Hawaii implement its law mandating 100% renewable power by 2045. Building on the coal ban, Hawaii law requires the closing of all oil burning power plants in 2024.
Keep It in the Ground!
In 2021 the International Energy Agency, the leading advisor to governments on energy policy, reversed its long-established approach and stated that, in order to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree C limit for global warming, nations would need to immediately stop approving new oil projects. In short, fossil fuels in the ground need to stay there.
There has been a continuing struggle to shut down the infrastructure that makes possible the burning of fossil fuel. In 2008 the TransCanada Corporation applied for a permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry eight hundred thousand barrels of bitumen daily 1,700 miles across the US border to refineries in Texas. A thirteen-year struggle against the pipeline incorporated life-risking blockades, court cases, and congressional contests. A coalition among farmers, ranchers, Indigenous leaders, and climate advocates led to at least 1,238 arrests. After repeated vacillations President Barack Obama declined to give the project a permit, but President Donald Trump reversed the decision. President Joe Biden revoked a permit for the pipeline on his first day in office and in June 2021 the owner finally terminated the project. The struggle not only stopped the pipeline, it transformed the politics of fossil fuel extraction.
In the year following President Obama’s rejection of the KXL pipeline in November 2015, at least 28 other proposed fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the US were halted as a result not only of unfavorable economic conditions, but of environmental concerns and local resistance. Many had been targets of direct-action campaigns. Other pipeline struggles continue today. The Dakota Access Pipeline, which transports oil from North Dakota to Illinois, is currently being appealed in federal court. And in Minnesota, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, backed by the Sierra Club, are suing to stop construction of the Line 3 Pipeline, which would carry 760,000 barrels of crude oil a day over and under more than 200 bodies of water.
After initially proclaiming a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling on public lands, President Joe Biden put 80 million acres up for lease for oil extraction in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest such lease sale in US history. Environmental and racial justice groups in the Gulf states launched a last ditch campaign against the sale based on its climate effects, and the devastating impact it would have on coastal residents and the coastal ecology. A coalition of environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf, and Friends of the Earth, sued the Biden administration to stop the lease sale. Rudolph Contreras, a US District Court judge for the District of Columbia, said the lease sale was invalid because the Department of Interior’s analysis did not fully take into account the climate impacts of the leases. The decision cancels 1.7 million acres of oil and gas leases. It also lays the groundwork for challenging other fossil fuel extraction projects based on their contribution to global warming.
Stop the Money Pipeline!
In 2010, a group of college students asked their colleges to divest from coal. Soon universities, foundations, and faith-based organizations were divesting not only from coal but from all fossil fuels. From colleges the movement spread to new sectors, including large insurers, pension funds, philanthropic organizations, and banking institutions. By the end of 2016, institutions and individuals with assets over $5 trillion were divesting from fossil fuels. By 2017, 43 U.S cities and states had committed to some form of divestment from fossil fuels, largely through public employee pension funds.
The divestment movement continued to spread through cities and states. In New York State a coalition of more than 40 different groups joined as #DivestNY, conducted an eight-year campaign for divestment. In February, 2021 State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli announced that New York State’s Common Retirement Fund, valued at over $226 billion, would decarbonize by 2040. The plan included interim trajectory goals, rigorous reporting, staff hiring, and transparency. New York State became the largest pension fund in the world to take this kind of comprehensive climate action.
In March 2021 New York City’s largest pension funds voted to divest from companies related to fossil fuels. The $4 billion divestment is one of the largest in the country and the first time a major city has committed to complete divestment of fossil fuel holdings.
Union leaders representing workers whose pensions are in the funds strongly endorsed the decision. Henry Garrido, Executive Director, District Council 37, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, said, “As NYCERS (members of the New York City Employees’ Retirement System) Trustee and Executive Director of District Council 37, New York City’s largest municipal union, I am proud to vote today with Mayor de Blasio, Comptroller Stringer, and my fellow NYCERS Trustees in support of divestiture from fossil fuel stocks.” Teamsters Local 237 President Gregory Floyd said, “We at Teamsters Local 237 have concluded that, under the current proposal, we can confidently support a vote to divest from fossil fuel holdings in the NYCERS portfolio, and most importantly do so without an adverse effect on the pension fund.” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said, “The world economy and our pension investments need to focus on the future, while fossil fuels are the energy sources of the past.”
Taka a Walk on the Supply Side
These are only a few examples among hundreds of how local, state, and other non-national entities are actually cutting the production of fossil fuels. Other examples range from fracking bans, to the emission caps established by northeastern states and western states and provinces, to carbon taxes introduced by some states.
Such supply side strategies are essential to protect the climate by reducing fossil fuel burning. Without such a “managed decline” in fuel production, less consumption of fossil fuels will mean plummeting prices, rebound increases in consumption, and/or huge overcapacity leading to financially devastating stranded assets.
Phaseout strategies need to be combined with “managed decline” strategies that address the side effects of freezing or shutting down fossil fuel production. They need to ensure that energy needs are met through climate-safe renewable energy and by using energy more efficiently. And they need to provide what is often called a “just transition” for workers and communities that may be affected.
Fossil fuel phaseout can’t be fully achieved by action “from below.” That will require the power and capacity of governments to make plans for the economy as a whole; develop and select technologies; deploy massive investments; and where necessary enforce managed decline. But the fight to “shut it down,” “keep it in the ground,” and “stop the money train” have put cutting fossil fuel extraction on the agenda and shown how the objectives of the Green New Deal can start to be realized without waiting for national governments to act.
 Climate Tracker, Josh Lederman, “Biden’s over-under for Paris climate goal: 50 percent,” NBC News, March 19, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/joe-biden/bidens-paris-climate-goal-50-percent-rcna454
 Swedish Environmental Institute, International Institute for Sustainable Development, ODI, E3G, and UN Environmental Programme. (2020). “The Production Gap Report: 2020 Special Report.” http://productiongap.org/2020report
 For a detailed analysis of the necessity for supply-side reductions as a part of climate protection see The Sky’s Limit, Oil Change International, Chapter 4. https://priceofoil.org/2016/09/22/the-skys-limit-report/
 Sierra Club, “Ready for 100?’ https://www.sierraclub.org/ready-for-100/about-our-program
 Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International, “Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon,” August 2021. https://www.ienearth.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Indigenous-Resistance-Against-Carbon-2021.pdf
 Jeremy Brecher, “The Green New Deal-From Below,” Labor Network for Sustainability, https://www.labor4sustainability.org/strike/the-green-new-deal-from-below/
 Nicolas Gaulin and Philippe Le Billon, “Climate change and fossil fuel production cuts: assessing global supply-side constraints and policy implications,” Climate Policy, February 14, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1080/14693062.2020.1725409
 Nina Lakhani, “Nalleli Cobo: the young activist who led her LA neighbourhood against big oil,” Guardian, November 10, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/nov/10/nalleli-cobo-the-young-activist-who-led-her-la-neighbourhood-against-big-oil
 Gabrielle Canon, “Los Angeles city council votes to ban new urban oil and gas drilling in historic move,” Guardian, January 26, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jan/26/los-angeles-vote-phase-out-oil-and-gas-drilling and Dakota Smith, “L.A. City Council takes steps to phase out oil drilling,” Los Angeles Times January 26, 2022. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-01-26/l-a-city-council-moves-to-phase-out-oil-and-gas-drilling
 “The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign Marks 350th Coal Plant Set for Retirement,” Sierra Club, December 15, 2021. https://www.sierraclub.org/articles/2021/12/sierra-club-s-beyond-coal-campaign-marks-350th-coal-plant-set-for-retirement?_ga=2.138220339.2018989559.1643391125-734552592.1641400575
 Karl Cates and Seth Feaster, “IEEFA Update: Out-to-pasture coal plants are being repurposed into new economic endeavors,” Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, June 7, 2019. https://ieefa.org/ieefa-update-out-to-pasture-coal-plants-are-being-repurposed-into-new-economic-endeavors/ A later Commentary in this series will address a just transition for workers as part of the Green New Deal from Below.
 Julian Spector, “Hawaii has a one-year deadline to ditch coal. Can it keep the lights on?” Canary Media, October 25, 2021. https://www.canarymedia.com/hawaii-surges-toward-clean-energy-a-special-series
 Jeremy Brecher, Common Preservation in a Time of Mutual Destruction (Oakland: PM Press), p 253. https://pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=1095
 James Steinbauer, “In a Major Victory, Keystone XL Pipeline Canceled,” Sierra, June 10, 2021. https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/major-victory-keystone-xl-pipeline-canceled?_ga=2.185006634.2018989559.1643391125-734552592.1641400575
 “Should Your Union’s Pension Fund Divest from Fossil Fuels?” Labor Network for Sustainability, 2019. https://labor4sustainability.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Divest-Invest-Guide-2019.pdf
 “New York State Divests Pension Funds from Fossil Fuels,” Labor Network for Sustainability, February 16, 2021. https://www.labor4sustainability.org/articles/new-york-state-divests-pension-funds-from-fossil-fuels/
 “New York City Pension Funds Ditching Fossil Fuels,” Labor Network for Sustainability, March 16, 2021. https://www.labor4sustainability.org/articles/new-york-city-pension-funds-ditching-fossil-fuels/ For an account of the New York City divestment movement see Nancy Romer, “How New York City Won Divestment from Fossil Fuels,” Labor Network for Sustainability, https://www.labor4sustainability.org/uncategorized/how-new-york-city-won-divestment-from-fossil-fuels/
 “1485 institutions with assets over $39.2 Trillion have committed to divest from fossil fuels”. Stand.earth, October 26, 2021.
 Laurence L. Delina, Strategies for Rapid Climate Mitigation: Wartime mobilisation as a model for action? (London and New York: Routledge, 2016). Chapter 6: Legislations, control, oversight.” https://www.routledge.com/Strategies-for-Rapid-Climate-Mitigation-Wartime-mobilisation-as-a-model/Delina/p/book/9780815364542