Op-Ed: Bill McKibben: How to drive a stake through the heart of zombie fossil fuel

Pumpjacks pull oil from wells near Lovington, N.M., in 2015. The Republican Party platform puts a renewed emphasis on extracting and burning fossil fuels, which would add to global warming.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

When I was a kid, I was creepily fascinated by the wrongheaded idea that your hair and your fingernails keep growing after you die. The lesson seemed to be that momentum was hard to kill. The same thing is at work right now with the fossil fuel industry. Even as global warming makes it clear that coal, natural gas and oil are yesterday’s energy, two centuries of fossil fuel development means new projects keep emerging in zombie-like fashion.

In fact, the climactic fight at the end of the fossil fuel era is underway. In statehouse hearing rooms and far off farmers’ fields, local activists are making desperate stands to stop new fossil fuel projects, while the energy companies are making equally desperate attempts to build while they still can. The outcome of these thousands of fights, as much or more than the paper promises made at the U.N. climate conference in Paris in December, will determine whether we emerge from this century with a habitable planet. They are the battle for the future.

Here’s how Diane Leopold, president of Virginia-based Dominion Energy put it last year: “It may be the most challenging” period in fossil fuel history because of “high-intensity opposition” to infrastructure projects that is becoming steadily “louder, better-funded and more sophisticated.” Or, in the words of the head of the American Natural Gas Assn.: “Call it the Keystone-ization of every project that’s out there.”


I hesitate to even start listing what’s “out there” because I’m going to miss dozens. In North America, people are fighting the Sandpiper pipeline in the upper Midwest; the Line 9, Energy East, Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines in Canada; the Piñon pipeline in Navajo country; the Vermont Gas pipeline down the western side of my own state; the Constitution pipeline; the Spectra pipeline; and on and on.

And it’s not just pipelines. Activists are on trial for trying to block oil trains in the Pacific Northwest. In the Finger Lakes region in central New York, not a week goes by without mass arrests of locals attempting to prevent old salt mines from being turned into a giant underground gas storage site. In California, it’s fracking wells in Kern County.

The protests are endless, and the protesters have to be endlessly resourceful. Everywhere the opposition is forced by statute to make its stand not on climate change arguments but on older grounds. This pipeline will hurt water quality. That coal port will increase local pollution. All the arguments are correct and accurate but a far more important case always lurks in the background: Each of these new infrastructure projects should be stopped because it extends the fossil fuel era a few more disastrous decades.

Here’s the basic math: If you build a pipeline in 2016, the investment will be amortized for 40 years or more. It is designed to last — to carry coal slurry or gas or oil — well into the second half of the 21st century. It is, in other words, designed to keep us extracting carbon, the very thing scientists insist we simply can’t keep doing and survive.

The only way to short-circuit this zombie process is to fight like hell, raising the price, both political and economic, of new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies have the clout to keep politicians saying yes. Just a week after the Paris climate accords were adopted, for instance, the well-paid American “employees” of those companies, otherwise known as senators and representatives, overturned a 40-year-old ban on U.S. oil exports, a gift that an Exxon spokesman had asked for explicitly a few weeks earlier. “The sooner this happens, the better for us,” he’d told the New York Times.


The money, however, is only part of it: The whole process is on autopilot. For many decades the economic health of the nation and access to fossil fuels were more or less synonymous. So it’s no wonder that laws and regulations favor business as usual. The advent of the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s introduced a few new rules, but it didn’t try to shut down the whole enterprise. Now fossil fuel projects continue to get approved, almost automatically, because there is no legal reason not to do so.

As 2016 began in my own backyard, Vermont — as enlightened a patch of territory as you’re likely to find — the state Public Service Board approved a big new gas pipeline. Under long-standing regulations, the pipeline was found to be in the public interest, even though science has recently made it clear that the methane leaking from the fracked gas the pipeline will carry is a bigger climate problem than the burning of coal. The decision came two weeks after the temperature in the city of Burlington hit 68 on Christmas Eve, breaking the old record by, oh, 17 degrees.

The only way to short-circuit this zombie process is to fight like hell, raising the price, both political and economic, of new fossil fuel infrastructure to the point where politicians begin to balk. That’s what happened with Keystone and it’s happening elsewhere, too. Other Canadian tar sands pipelines have been blocked. Coal ports planned for the West Coast haven’t been built. In May, a coalition across six continents is being organized to engage in mass civil disobedience to “keep it in the ground.”

In a few places you can see more than just the opposition; you can see results. Last fall, in Portland, Ore., the City Council passed a remarkable resolution: The city will use its powers to keep out new fossil fuel infrastructure. The resolution will almost certainly stop a proposed propane export terminal project, but far more important, it opens the door to a better future. If you can’t do fossil fuel energy, after all, you have to do something else — sun, wind, conservation.

This business of driving stakes through the heart of one project after another is exhausting. So many petitions, so many demonstrations, so many meetings. But for now, there’s really no other way to kill a zombie.

Bill McKibben is the founder of and a professor of environmental studies at Middlebury College. A longer version of this essay appears at


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