A Thin Green Line: An Interview with Benjamin Levy
October 13, 2021

Last month we got a chance to speak to Benjamin Levy. Ben is a researcher who focuses on the connections between global capitalism and the fossil fuel industry. He also investigates the industry's influence on governmental policy, as well as the study of environmental justice movements. His research is remarkably multifaceted and encompasses themes from political science, state sociology, social movements, and activism. Ben combines the roles of activist and researcher, and his most recent efforts have concerned the struggle over a proposed liquified natural gas refinery in Tacoma, Washington. Through his involvement in the resistance against this facility, he has witnessed firsthand how imperative it is to keep fossil fuels like natural gas in the ground. Ben sat down with us to explain how this struggle and its geographic location are critical to the climate justice movement.

What is the thin green line?

The thin green line is a term that activists use to describe the Pacific Northwest, which includes British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington. This region lies in a privileged location between emerging sources of fossil fuel supply and demand, so it has become an especially important region in the fight against climate change. If all of the Pacific Northwest's proposed fossil fuel projects were constructed, it would generate a similar amount of carbon dioxide as five Keystone XL pipelines. If this happened, we would have no hope of preventing catastrophic climate change. The thin green line is a prescriptive term. It refers to our need to aggressively prevent any additional fossil fuel infrastructure from being constructed in the area. Succeeding in this task is the only chance humanity has of surviving and perpetuating itself as a civilization.

How did you get involved in the fossil fuel resistance in Tacoma? 

Ultimately, my research interests concern the Pacific Northwest's broader climate justice movement, which defends the thin green line from fossil fuel expansion. However, my recent work focuses on a more localized movement that has emerged in opposition to Tacoma LNG, which is a natural gas refinery that a private utility company has recently built in Tacoma, Washington. LNG, or liquefied natural gas, is natural gas that's been frozen to an extremely cold temperature. This liquefies the gas, which condenses it so that it takes up a much smaller space. Liquefied gas is cheaper to store and to transport overseas. The liquefaction process allows natural gas to become an exported commodity that can be shipped by marine vessel to foreign countries.

Tacoma LNG is located in the industrial port of Tacoma and is within a mile or two of the city center. A portion of the facility is devoted to peak shaving. Peak shaving, which is common throughout the United States, is where plants store large amounts of liquefied natural gas for the winter months when demand is highest. What makes this plant distinct is that the vast majority of its operations are devoted to a much newer and far less regulated function: marine bunkering. This means that in addition to freezing natural gas and storing it, this facility also serves as a fueling station that provides local shipping vessels with liquefied natural gas as a fuel source.

Puget Sound Energy, which is the utility company that owns Tacoma LNG, has argued that liquefied natural gas could replace bunker fuel. Bunker fuel is the horrible, polluting substance that currently serves most of the shipping industry's energy needs. By reducing cargo vessels' air emissions, LNG fuel would supposedly reduce local pollution and result in a cleaner Tacoma. However, the shipping company that will purchase fuel from Puget Sound Energy already uses a highly refined, less-polluting version of bunker fuel. Its ships also use electric power instead of bunker fuel when docked. This means that liquefied natural gas is irrelevant to the environmental aims of this shipping company, which is really interested in LNG because of its low cost. All of this contradicts Puget Sound Energy's assertion that LNG fuel is necessary to mitigate pollution in Tacoma. In fact, this argument completely ignores liquefied natural gas’s damaging implications.

What are the potential impacts of the Tacoma facility?

Since it is a multifaceted and largely unregulated operation, Tacoma LNG has raised many concerns for local residents. Once operational, the facility will emit regional air pollutants that can be very dangerous. Tacoma LNG will also increase the region's demand for fracked gas (which is very polluting at the point of extraction), and will vastly increase the methane emissions throughout the natural gas supply chain (which leaks methane whenever natural gas is transported or extracted). Methane is a dreadfully polluting material — when examined over a 20-year life cycle, methane is approximately 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide. Many activists are considering methane, and by extension, the natural gas industry, as the next front against climate change. Carbon dioxide emissions have already been revealed as damaging in the public eye, but methane needs to be seen that way, too.

The most problematic aspect of the refinery relates to the many different fire hazards it would create. If the primary LNG tank of the facility should somehow fail, it would create a flammable gas cloud. Activists in Tacoma conducted independent research and found that if such a cloud was ignited, it would lead to second-degree burns for all residents within a two-mile radius of the facility. Tacoma LNG has also been sited within miles of the city center, even though these plants are typically located away from industrial areas due to safety concerns. Even more worrisome, the refinery is near additional fossil fuel and chemical refining infrastructure. As a result, an LNG fire would create a cascade of further industrial incidents. This cascading effect would exponentially amplify the impact of a leak, so injuries would be far worse than this study found.

Puget Sound Energy is a regional utility company, but it's owned by a conglomerate of transnational investment corporations. The company has a ghastly track record of investing in the coal industry and of financing political candidates who support fossil fuels. Additionally, it routinely neglects to maintain its pipeline infrastructure; there was a large explosion in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle that happened because the corporation wasn't managing its pipelines. It was in a busy commercial center, so if it had occurred during the day, several lives would likely have been lost. For this reason, and for many others, residents have strongly opposed the refinery.

Why has this become an issue now?

The reason why the Pacific Northwest is central to the coming struggle against fossil fuel capital and global warming relates to its distinct geographic location. The region is located between emerging sources of fossil fuel in the United States, as well as growing energy markets in Asia. On the supply side, since roughly the year 2000, several technological developments — like fracking, horizontal drilling, and new forms of seismic imaging — have allowed the fossil fuel industry to access forms of unconventional oil and natural gas that weren't accessible before. Many of these unconventional energy reserves are located near the Pacific Northwest, which has led to new fossil fuel operations in territories like Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. To export these fossil fuel commodities overseas, corporations need to construct much of their energy infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest. This has led to the region becoming a terminus for the processing, distribution, and export of petrochemicals.

Another supply-side change that's recently emerged is the technology of liquefied natural gas. Liquified natural gas has been around for several decades, but only recently have corporations made substantial investments in LNG infrastructure. These investments have made the Pacific Northwest a more prominent player in the global market for natural gas. This has resulted in infrastructural projects like Tacoma LNG, which will freeze natural gas and either fuel ships with it or place it on ships for export. On the demand side, you see emerging Asian economies like China, India, and Japan. These economies have increased the market for American unconventional energy exports.

Because of the Pacific Northwest's role in transpacific fossil fuel development, activists have come to refer to the region as the “thin green line.” This term denotes a territory that must successfully repel fossil fuel expansion if humanity is to avert climatological disaster. There are good reasons for activists to be concerned about the implications of the Pacific Northwest's energy infrastructure. If every current proposal was successfully permitted, constructed, and rendered operational, this would translate into a virtual game over for the climate. Humanity's survival depends on how successfully activists can defend the thin green line from further fossil fuel development.

With renewable energy becoming cheaper, is there a risk that LNG would become even more popular to counteract intermittent production from wind and solar?

We're at an exciting juncture in terms of energy politics; we're coming to the point where renewable energy is becoming cheaper than fossil fuels, changing the entire equation from the standpoint of economic and investment decisions made by energy corporations. What's been concerning to activists in the Pacific Northwest is the notion that a single LNG facility in Tacoma might not be a massive deal in the short term. However, this assertion ignores what investment in this facility represents more broadly. Many other facilities are being proposed in the Pacific Northwest that would turn into sunk investments if they were constructed. Energy corporations are committed to the infrastructure they build, which can exist for 40 or more years — and the next 40 years are the critical time horizon in which humanity needs to address climate change. Once this infrastructure is built, even when renewable energy becomes cheaper, it will still be more affordable for energy corporations to continue running natural gas and fossil fuel facilities they’ve already invested in. It is imperative to stop the construction of these facilities immediately, so that as soon as renewables are consistently cheaper than fossil fuels, corporations have a rational incentive to build out renewables.

How has capital influenced the situation in the Pacific Northwest? 

For siting decisions to be truly democratic, scientific justice is necessary. Scientific justice refers to a context in which the public exercises democratic control over the funding and direction of scientific research. For example, Tacoma LNG relied upon scientific information already tainted by capitalist interests before initiating these processes. Similarly, one of the regulatory agencies, Puget Sound Clean Air, responsible for giving Tacoma LNG its final air permit, relied upon research conducted on the methane emissions of the natural gas industry in British Columbia. Puget Sound Clean Air recommended that it source all of its natural gas from British Columbia, suggesting leakage rates from methane through the natural gas supply chain are lower than in the United States. In the past couple of weeks, it has been exposed that the government reported methane emissions in British Columbia are around five times lower than they are.

Scientific justice refers to a context in which the public exercises democratic control over the funding and direction of scientific research.

Capitalists have avoided funding research that might accurately gauge methane emissions. They have instead relied on industry-funded research that primarily results in pro-industry conclusions. Many of these methane emissions are already inaccurately reported, or the studies that can accurately report them aren't being initiated because they don't have the requisite funding and support. Scientific justice regarding the climate crisis would entail the democratic financing of scientific research and studies that would ascertain the polluting consequences of the fossil fuel industry. 

Government officials aren't going to initiate this type of funding of their own accord. It needs to derive from popular pressure and the influence of organized social movements. Activists need to mobilize and put pressure on political institutions to provide funding and democratize the process of scientific research.

What is passive revolution, and how does it relate to the movement against Tacoma LNG?

In the current paper that I'm writing, I'm viewing the struggle over Tacoma LNG through the concepts of a Marxist state theorist who lived in the 1930s named Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci points to the fact that, at least in liberal-democratic societies, capitalists can't retain power solely by using force. They also need to gain the consent of the broader population through ideological means — by presenting their interests as identical to the interests of the broader population. If capitalists manage to depict their interests as being in accord with the public good, they can be said to possess ideological ‘hegemony.’ I'm arguing that the context in which Tacoma LNG is being constructed is a case where regional fossil fuel interests lack hegemony. Instead, this situation needs to be viewed through the concept of what Gramsci called passive revolution. Three traits are helpful to understanding passive revolution:

Trait One: The first trait that Gramsci associated with passive revolution is that capital has failed to gain the political and moral leadership that's affiliated with hegemony. As characterized by the popular social movement that's arisen against Tacoma LNG, Puget Sound Energy has failed to gain hegemony over Tacoma's broader population.

Trait Two: The second aspect of passive revolution is that governments need to modernize so that they can retain their competitive stature within the world economy. In cases where capital doesn't have popular support, governments need to ensure economic development in ways that bypass public opposition. This is precisely what's happening in the Pacific Northwest and Tacoma. Tacoma, along with the rest of the Pacific Northwest, has been desperately trying to attract fossil fuel capital. Since activists and residents tend to oppose such infrastructure, municipal governments in the Pacific Northwest are mainly doing this in ways that bypass popular support by using strongly anti-democratic practices. For instance, Tacoma has tried to attract a series of fossil fuel proposals through permitting processes that have been extremely exclusionary. The City of Tacoma only advertised Tacoma LNG's future existence to property owners within 400 feet of the facility's construction grounds. This meant that the only people who were able to participate in the plant's environmental review process were local businesses and industrialists who inevitably supported the plant because of its potential commercial benefits. Activists and residents only learned of the refinery's existence after this initial environmental review had been completed.

Trait Three: The third aspect of passive revolution is what's called transformismo. This is the idea that by co-opting the leaders of potentially resistant groups, you can foreclose opposition to capital when it lacks popular support. Puget Sound energy has been doing this in all sorts of ways: they influence “progressive” politicians through campaign funding, they form close ties with local labor leaders who support fossil fuels, and they construct good working relationships with the region's liberal media outlets.

You emphasize how a new ideology is necessary to push transformation of our institutions. Have you seen this new ideology successfully applied?

We need to complement our attempts to oppose the fossil fuel industry with positive efforts, and specifically with efforts to create alternative institutions that exist outside of the mainstream political system. These institutions need to demonstrate how alternative institutions can be constructed in ways that serve people's immediate needs. It is not enough to have a negative project where we oppose the status quo; we also need to create positive institutions that can serve as substitutes.

It is not enough to have a negative project where we oppose the status quo; we also need to create positive institutions that can serve as substitutes.

Similarly, there is a concept that was originally devised by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky: transitional demands. Transitional demands try to bridge the gap between short-term demands and long-term structural demands. Individuals who promote transitional demands emphasize that existing political and economic institutions can't accommodate short-term demands because they're antithetical to the needs of capital accumulation. Existing institutions need to be changed as a prerequisite for the sustainable implementation of even short-term, seemingly reformist demands. I believe the notion of a transitional demand is essential because promoting short-term demands ultimately implies the need to challenge our existing political and economic system.

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