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Fossil Fuel Companies Are Turning the US Into a Repressive Petrostate

Recent emails show corporate America is trying to stop banks divesting from fossil fuels, the latest example of fossil fuel companies looking to use state power to block and repress climate action.

Police in riot gear arrest environmental activists at the Line 3 pipeline pumping station near the Itasca State Park, Minnesota on June 7, 2021. (Kerem Yucel / AFP via Getty Images)

A frequent refrain of Joe Biden and other liberal climate denialists — those who refuse to act on scientists’ warnings of a shrinking window of time for aggressive government climate action, whatever their public stance on “the science” — is that the private sector will save us, voluntarily divesting from fossil fuels out of both moral and business concerns. It’s a dubious proposal, but one even Biden’s political foes have bought into — and are now working to prevent from happening.

Not long ago, the Center for Media and Democracy’s Alex Kotch reported on an ominous development in the fight to prevent climate disaster. Emails show that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Koch brothers’ venture that writes legislation for state and federal government on behalf of corporate interests, approved a new model bill to let state governments blackball financial institutions that divest from fossil fuels. It’s a response to mounting headlines of firms announcing or pledging such divestment after pressure from consumers and activists.

“This model proposes a strategy in which states use their collective economic purchasing power to counter the rise of politically motivated and discriminatory investing practices,” wrote Jason Isaac from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, another oligarch-funded venture that works as a state-level ALEC subsidiary.

As the New Republic’s Kate Aronoff points out, ALEC is jumping the gun, since the phenomenon they’re responding to is mostly a publicity mirage made up by a finance sector that’s still pouring untold amounts of money into fossil fuels. But it’s part of a wider and more menacing evolution in the decades-long campaign to block action against climate disaster: an intensifying effort by corporate interests to forestall climate action not through misinformation and bribery, but through the heavy hand of state power.

Over the past three years, at least sixteen states have passed laws criminalizing protest against “critical infrastructure” (meaning oil and gas pipelines and other fossil fuel assets), in many cases regardless of whether any damage was actually done, and turning an act unambiguously protected by the First Amendment into a felony punishable with thousands of dollars and years in jail. ALEC has been at the root of these bills and their passage, too.

The bills came in the wake of the 2016 Standing Rock protests that saw indigenous protesters and environmental activists block the construction of a North Dakota oil pipeline for months, pointing to both the carbon it would help spit into the atmosphere and the threat it posed to local water sources and ecosystems. Those protests were met by a brutal armed crackdown ordered by then president Barack Obama, which saw government forces spy on, maim, and try to prosecute nonviolent protesters and journalists alike.

More recently, the merger of government repressive arms with fossil fuel interests was made explicit when news broke that Enbridge, a Canadian company building an expansion to the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, had been paying for and training local law enforcement in its brutal crackdowns on protesters opposing the expansion, to the tune of more than $1 million. As part of this collaboration, the local sheriff’s office shared intelligence with Enbridge and included the company in its planning meetings for the protests.

These crackdowns are explicitly drawn from anti-terrorism campaigns developed after September 11 and will likely intensify, with Biden’s domestic counterterror strategy specifically singling out environmental activism as one of the types of “violent extremism” to combat in the coming years.

Arguably the most dramatic example of this repressive public-private merger has been Chevron’s legal war against human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, who won a historic judgment against the oil giant for its pollution of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. Donziger’s UN-condemned prosecution was set into motion by a Chevron-invested judge, and he was held in house arrest for nearly two years and ultimately imprisoned — ostensibly on contempt of court charges, but what many suspect was really retaliation for his legal victory against the company.

There’s an irony here. While Democrats, supposedly the champions of bold government action, are more and more suggesting the battle against climate disaster can be won by private sector choices and market forces, it’s Republicans, traditionally free-market dogmatists, who are resorting to government force to steer the market and get the climate outcomes they want.

Unfortunately for those enormous numbers of Americans who will be displaced, impoverished, and killed in ever greater numbers as the climate crisis gets worse in the years ahead, those GOP-desired outcomes are the limitless digging up and burning of fossil fuels, which will continue to spark more deadly droughts, fires, and disasters like hurricanes.

This isn’t just happening in the United States. In the UK, the Boris Johnson government is ramming through a bill eviscerating the right to protest and enlarging police power, adding an ALEC-style “key infrastructure” provision that would criminalize protest specifically against airports and oil refineries, among others.

This all comes against the background of the Biden administration and wider Democratic Party’s insistence on actually building on Trump’s program of deliberately speeding up the climate crisis. Despite accurately warning that climate change is an “existential threat,” the Democrats have largely dropped climate-fighting provisions from their legislative agenda under corporate pressure, while Biden has been overseeing a fire sale in oil and gas drilling leases.

With congressional gridlock still firmly in place, and the corporate capture of both major US parties precluding climate action through legislation, climate campaigners will be forced more and more to look to acts of grassroots resistance like that of the Civil Rights Movement to make progress on the issue as time slips away. In turn, the forces defending fossil fuel industries are already turning to outright repression to simply outlaw and punish such efforts. We may be at the start of a newly repressive, menacing phase of the fight for climate survival.