By Laura Borealis
The path oil leads from the ground to the multitudinous pockets of daily life in which we use it more and more commonly involves trips down massive pipelines that stretch through every type of terrain, traverse national borders, and affect all that’s in the path of their construction. This month, the consistently excellent publishing house Verso Books has released in the U.S. The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, a thorough and inspiring political cartography and travelogue by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello, two members of the London-based activist outfit Platform, whose work deals largely with issues of the oil industry. The Oil Road charts the path of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and details the myriad nefarious impacts it has had on the communities and environments atop of which it was built.
Marriott, Minio-Paluello, and their Platform colleague Anna Galkina will be in New Orleans over the next few days for events to support the book and raise awareness about their activism and the oil industry. The first is at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3, at Maple Street Books (7523 Maple St.) and the second is at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 4, in Miller Hall on Loyola University New Orleans’ campus. They will be joined at the Loyola event by Cherri Foytlin, founder of Gulf Change, an environmental justice collaborative based in the Gulf Coast.
Laura Borealis had the chance to speak via Skype with Minio-Paluello and Galkina about the new book for Room 220 last week as the Platform cadre rode the train on their way to New Orleans.
Room 220: I’ve worked a lot with the tar sands blockade. One of the main organizers of that rode his bike the entire length of the Keystone XL pipeline. What did you learn about the impact of the industry by actually traversing the length of the pipeline?
Mika Minio-Paluello: To me, what it brought home was that people had their lives changed, and the landscape was ripped apart—not just in one place or in two places or five places, but a continuous long sweep across a thousand-mile stretch. That wasn’t really obvious to me until I’d traveled along it, until I realized that it’s not that in a couple of places there are some bad violations—by its nature, having such a large industrial project ripped through a continuous stretch, you can’t get around the fact that it fundamentally changes people’s lives, communities’ lives, and the environment it’s in.
Rm220:In New Orleans, in our aquarium we have a Gulf of Mexico exhibit—
MMP: Sponsored by the oil companies, right?
MMP: Some Egyptian friends of mine had gone to New Orleans and to the aquarium and told us about that installation, and they were completely outraged.
Rm220: It’s sponsored by BP, Shell, Exxon, and they have a miniature oil rig in there, and they claim this oil rig is actually promoting marine life. These oil companies also fund a lot of universities and other educational institutions. I was wondering if you could talk about this kind of thing in relationship to what you call the “carbon web” and how various institutions enable oil corporations to better conduct their business.
Anna Galkina: What we see happening is the oil companies buying a reputation by doing this kind of sponsorship. In London, where we’re from, they sponsor all of the biggest art galleries, the natural history museum, and things like that. They also sponsor university programs, their executives get honorary degrees from universities. All of this contributes to what the companies call “the social license to operate.” This means that the people they care about, the people they don’t want to think of them as bad corporate citizens, will hear of BP or Shell and Exxon and think, “Oh, well, they’re great. They’re sponsoring the Tate, they’re sponsoring the aquarium,” or whatever it is. By doing this, they advertise themselves to elite people in big cities—not necessarily people who are going to buy from them, but people who might otherwise stand up to their worst corporate practices.
Rm220: BP’s been fined billions of dollars here as punishment for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, yet they still seem to be bringing in a lot of profit. It doesn’t really seem like it’s hurting them. Do you think there’s a way to hold these big corporations accountable for this destruction of habitat and communities that they seem to cause?
MMP: To be honest, I’d say the only way you can truly hold them accountable is to shut them down. Ultimately, I think that is the only way to truly hold them accountable. The decisions oil company executives make have led to people dying, have led to people losing their livelihoods, of whole communities being displaced. Those things are crimes. Paying a fine doesn’t deal with those crimes.
The other thing is, the way BP is currently paying their fines is by trying to make profits quickly to have the money to pay those fines. The way it does that is by forcing its way into new frontiers, new areas where it wasn’t operating in the past. So when we ask them to pay a fine to continue existing, that’s part of them imposing on communities in Egypt, or the Caspian, or the Artic, and spreading their tentacles further and further.
AG: That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be compensated.
MMP: Of course. It demands compensation. But holding them to account will take more.
Rm220: Can you describe what you felt was inspiring or a successful action put on by local people in the regions you’ve been traveling who are fighting against the pipeline?
MMP: The one that sticks out most was actually more recent than any of the pipeline actions that I witnessed, partly because right now I’m based in Egypt. Since the revolution started in Egypt, what you saw was one particular community on the north coast, near Alexandria, where they’ve been facing pollution for many years from another company called BG. Their guava trees died, their fisheries were being wiped out, and then BP came along and wanted to build an $11 billion gas plant. The community there, they’re already sick of oil pollution, and they looked up BP online and they saw the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. They saw the people in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast were protesting and didn’t want BP there, so they said, “Well, if people don’t want BP in North America, then why should we want BP here?”
They had big public assemblies in the streets with hundreds and hundreds of people there, they occupied the site where BP was planning to build its plant, they shut down the major highways going past, and every time BP came to town, they chased BP out. They delayed the project for six months, and then for a year, and then after a year and a half, BP just couldn’t build it. BP did the offshore drilling, but obviously they needed some on-shore components, so the offshore ended up being delayed, as well.
After the whole project had been on hold for a year and a half, BP basically gave up and said, Okay, we’re not going to be able to build it there. The community won. They prevented the plant from being built right next to their homes. Of course, BP then decided they’d try to build the plant further down the coast, by a different village. And what I found most inspiring was that the people from the first community promptly jumped on the bus and went down the coast to the new place and shared their story—we, Platform, helped them make a video explaining how they managed to chase BP away, so that folks elsewhere could learn from it and try and repeat the struggle.
Rm220: The oil industry is a huge, interconnected global entity, which seems to suggest that any successful effort to oppose it would also have to be, to a certain extent, also global and interconnected. How might this book work toward this goal and how does it fit in with the other work you do with Platform?
AG: One of the things that we’re hoping for it to do is to connect struggles—what I see as environmental justice struggles, places where communities are resisting harmful infrastructure projects that are imposed on them, climate action, and actions on other issues.
One very concrete way it fits into our more current work is that, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that the book looks at, that’s already been built, but now the UK and European governments and oil companies and U.S. diplomats are planning a full load of other pipelines to ship gas from the Caspian region into Europe to supply the next 40 or 50 years of European energy. So now, our book becomes not just the story of the oil road, but it’s a warning for what the gas road might look like if it gets built in the next decade.
MMP: We’re using the book quite proactively, particularly in Europe, as a way of reaching out and building wide engagement from different communities to challenging these pipelines. Some of these communities are obvious audiences—people who are already engaged with climate issues and social justice issues—but some of them are more literary audiences that might be coming along to a talk at a literary festival. Some of them are audiences that are more interested in the economics, or taxation and revenue roles.
One of the things we at Platform are always very interested in is challenging the oil companies on all these different issues, because the reality is that BP, Shell, Exxon, the way they rip of the planet is not restricted to climate change, it’s not restricted to environment or economics or to national soveirgnty or to worker’s rights—it’s all of them at the same time. Some of the most exciting alliances we see cross those lines.
For instance, in the epilogue to the book, we describe a meeting in London of these pensioners in their 60s, and they’re having a meeting about the issues that affect their lives. One of the big issues that affects their lives in Britain is fuel poverty—not being able to keep their homes warm in winter and having the choice about whether to heat their homes or to eat. In the meeting, you’ve also got folks coming along from a climate perspective who are challenging a push toward new gas plants in Britain, which, as well as being bad for the climate, will also drive up fuel prices, which will make it difficult, particularly for pensioners, for retired folks, to heat their homes. Building those alliances between folks who all want to have a life where they can survive with some basic rights and comfort, that’s what enables us to really stand up to oil companies, when they can’t divide us.