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Greenpeace’s latest battle

Environmentalist groups are exploiting the Iraqi crisis to push their own agendas, argues Jim Glassman of Tech Central Station.

Jim Glassman

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In what the London Evening Standard called ‘guerilla attacks’, anti-war protesters from the environmental group Greenpeace closed 119 Esso gas stations in London and its suburbs on 24 February 2003, tying up nozzles and switching off electricity to pumps.

They also used a truck to block the entrance to the company’s headquarters and climbed up on the building’s glass roof. There were 76 arrests.

The Greenpeace website boasted that its ‘activists in the UK severely disrupted the operation of the world’s most powerful company, Exxon Mobil’, parent of Esso, and that the company had ‘sent its staff home in response’.

Greenpeace is attempting to exploit the impending conflict with Iraq by claiming that US oil companies have somehow persuaded President Bush to go to war so that they can get access to Iraqi oil. The logic is a little hard to follow, but according to Anita Goldsmith of Greenpeace, Bush’s ‘paymasters’ at Esso ‘have spent millions keeping the US hooked on oil….and fighting international action on climate change’ (1).

In fact, the US Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol on climate change three-and-a-half years before Bush was elected president. The Senate voted unanimously not to approve a treaty whose restrictions on emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, would have cost the USA an estimated $300 billion a year, as well as severely damaging the economies of poorer countries. Wisely, Bill Clinton never submitted the treaty for ratification, and Bush later declared it ‘fatally flawed’.

But Greenpeace knows all this. The aim of its campaign is not to change minds through rational discourse but to shift the battleground after a rout. Its mistake is that it has failed to choose a docile corporate target. In January 2003, for instance, ExxonMobil filed a lawsuit in Luxembourg seeking damages for a demonstration in which 600 Greenpeace activists chained themselves to the country’s 28 Esso stations, shutting them down for 14 hours.

Greenpeace is more accustomed to dealing with corporations that it can bully and co-opt. In Johannesburg in August 2002, I watched in amazement as Bjorn Stigson, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development – an organisation that includes 160 giant corporations, ranging from AOL Time Warner to BP to Zurich Financial – shared the stage with Remi Parmeniter of Greenpeace, to urge governments to ratify and implement the Kyoto agreement.

Greenpeace is not alone in claming that oil and Iraq are closely linked. But even Greenpeace’s position paper on Exxon Mobil, The Tiger in the Tanks, admits there are subtleties involved: ‘Only time will tell which oil company will benefit most from a war with Iraq…. US oil companies are only likely to benefit if Bush secures a regime change in Iraq, whereas a peaceful resolution is likely to leave French, Russian and Chinese oil companies as the main winners.’

But there is no guarantee that ExxonMobil or any other US-based company will be pumping oil in Iraq after Saddam Hussein is gone. In February 2003, the Washington Post reported that TotalFinaElf, SA, France’s principal oil company, had claimed that ‘its knowledge of the oil fields and its contacts with Iraqi officials would overcome any hostility it might face from a new regime in Baghdad because of the French government’s resistance to a US-led invasion’. Perhaps. No one knows.

The postwar Iraq oil situation is complex and fluid. Consider that Iraq produced 2.9million barrels of oil per day in 2002, down from a peak of 3.5million in 1979. Iraq’s oil fields are a mess – but imagine that in two years, Iraq can produce 4million barrels or more. Now imagine that you run an oil company. Is it good for you to have that extra 1.1million barrels of supply a day on the open market? Not according to the most basic rule of economics: more supply means lower prices.

But if we were to accept the Greenpeace argument, that America is hooked on oil and Bush is a puppet of the oilmasters, then why go to war with Iraq? Why not simply drill in parts of the USA that are now off-limits, or why not lift the sanctions on Iraq and allow America to buy as much oil as it wanted from Saddam?

Such nuances are lost on Greenpeace. The activists are not really out to limit greenhouse gas emissions or replace coal-fired plants with windmills. They are promoting an anti-American, anti-capitalist agenda.

Greenpeace sees the imminent war as an opportunity to revive a movement that has lost its momentum. And it is not alone. Friends of the Earth has been running full-page newspaper ads with photos of nuclear power plants and the headline, ‘Terrorist Target! Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood?’

There is little hard evidence that US oil companies want to use the war with Iraq for their own ends – but some environmental groups seem to be using the conflict to push their agendas.

Jim Glassman is host of Tech Central Station, which is sponsoring the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Crude arguments, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Greenpeace protest closes Esso pumps across UK, Guardian, 24 February 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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