Can people power stop investments in dirty energy?

We shouldn't have to choose between planet and financial stability

Right now, in a field on the outskirts of Preston, Lancashire, people are standing in the way of climate change.

It’s been six years since any actual fracking took place in the UK. Aside from one regulatory hiccup following earth tremors near Blackpool, the single reason why companies have failed successfully to drill deep beneath the earth and force out gas trapped in shale is because people have organised to prevent them from being granted permission.

As the Independent reported recently, this resistance is kicking the fracking industry hard where it hurts most: in their pockets. Which, for the climate’s sake, is a very good thing. As well as preventing individual companies extracting shale gas, people power is doing a job that governments and bankers are failing to do.

Ground-breaking analysis from an organisation called Carbon Tracker puts the facts on avoiding the catastrophic climate change starkly. Its analysis shows that, to stay beneath the 2 degree climate threshold, we can only ever burn about one fifth of the coal, oil and gas currently in proven’ reserves and in which our pension funds are already invested. Shale gas and other unconventional fossil fuels are not even included in this figure.

From a planetary point of view, investing in extracting more conventional fossil fuels is reckless – and fracking is beyond reckless.

It’s a Hobson’s choice. Either the planet fries, or our investments in the companies that plan to extract the fossil fuels are worthless. The only way of avoiding this choice is if the people making the investments – banks, pension firms, analysts – understand and put a price on the risks and take their money out of these companies.

Preston may seem an unlikely place for this debate to be playing out. But that’s where people are taking this fight to financial markets.

For many, what began as an objection to the idea that oil and gas firms could be granted permission to begin fracking near or even underneath their homes has become a vocation.

It’s been a roller-coaster ride. After a heroic effort by local people involving years of protests and persuasion, and in which officials were bombarded with thousands of objections, in summer 2016 Lancashire County Council turned down fracking company Cuadrilla’s application to begin drilling.

This spring, the company appealed and won a planning inspectorate inquiry. Ever since, community leaders and anti-climate change protestors have worked together to frustrate Cuadrilla’s efforts to commence operations. In what’s called rolling resistance’, people walk slowly in front of vehicles to delay their journey into and out of the site. They are literally standing – or slow-walking – in the way of climate change.

If your aim is to stop fracking altogether, this kind of micro-delay may seem fruitless. But it’s not. Bit by bit, it’s adding more hours and days and months to the time between investors such as banks agreeing to back Cuadrilla and the company extracting and selling gas to deliver a return. And it’s having an impact.

The people of Lancashire are not alone. Across the Pennines, another people-powered fracking battle has ensued. This has led to Barclays, owner of the relatively small Third Energy, the company trying to get its drills into the ground near Kirby Misperton, announcing its intention to dispose of its stake in the company.

In the US, protests against two new oil pipelines have at the very least introduced significant delay; President Trump’s executive order overturning his predecessor’s decision to halt both Keystone and Dakota Access developments is unlikely to be the end of the story.

And it doesn’t stop there. In some cases people are paying a high price for their resistance, but they’re part of a worldwide micro-protest movement that is stepping in where governments are failing in their responsibilities to prevent climate wrecking developments.

The collapse in the oil price, the extraordinary boom in solar and wind power, the similarly exciting shifts in vehicle technology, the risk of climate change itself and at least some climate and energy policies are all playing a part.

The more dogged the Preston, Kirby Misperton and Dakota protestors, the greater the risk for the investors. And for those who believe in the legitimacy of people power – as at the New Economics Foudnation we strongly do – that’s hugely exciting.

That raises a big question for financial institutions and governments. What are they going to do about it?

There are perhaps few institutions more opaque and further away from people than central banks. But if protest is pointing in the same direction as market dynamics and policies to deter the use of coal, oil and gas, then shouldn’t central bankers take note?

One of the underlying causes of the 2008 financial crisis was group-think; investors and analysts backed the same assets which, at the level of individual decisions or institutions, looked sound but turned out not to be.

Policies that go by the unnecessarily jargonistic term macro-prudential’ have, ever since the crash, been favoured by central bankers as a way to avoid the myopia of the markets. So why not green’ these and introduce extra burdens on investors putting our money into firms and activities that risk a future carbon bubble?

At the local level, people are ensuring we don’t have to choose between planet and financial stability. Their resistance is changing the facts on the ground for investors. Central banks should follow them.

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