Last month, over two hundred people gathered in the coastal city of Long Beach, Long Island to watch New York Governor Andrew Cuomo formally veto the Port Ambrose project. The proposed LNG terminal would have brought giant tankers full of volatile compressed gas to the south shore of Long Island, threatening local communities while expanding markets for fracking. Cheers went up as the Governor signed his name, marking the end of a years-long battle by residents and activists to stop the project.
The Governor’s veto was more than just a stake in the heart of a profoundly risky, unnecessary project. It also helped to puncture the doubt and pessimism that infuses so much fossil fuel activism. When you’re fighting the richest and most powerful corporations in the world, it can be hard to have faith that we can win. But we can. We did. And we can do it again next time.
As a member of Sane Energy Project, I was deeply involved in the Port Ambrose campaign. We learned several key lessons, which I’m gathering here in the hope that they might be useful to others fighting the fossil fuel industry—or, maybe even more importantly, to anyone considering how to get involved, including those who find themselves in the heartbreaking position of having the fight brought to their own home.
1. Start by talking with the frontline community (and if you are the frontline community, talk with your neighbors!)
If you wake up one morning and an oil, gas, or coal company wants to build a project in your backyard, talk with your neighbors about it. Think carefully about who would be impacted by this project and engage with them from the beginning. In the case of Port Ambrose, the marine environment and the beach would have suffered, directly impacting everyone from fishermen to surfers and surf shops. From conversations with these constituents, fishermen turned up at official hearings, and surf groups were an invaluable part of the organizing effort.
If you aren’t a resident of the community itself, this is extra important. How can you expect to know what people care about if you don’t know what else they’re contending with? How will you know which individuals—whether it’s local politicians, community figures, or business people—you’ll need to bring on board? If we are outsiders, we have to remember that, and conduct ourselves with humility when speaking with folks who know the local landscape better than we do.
2. And then talk with everyone else
Politicians? Talk with them. Unions? Talk with them. It’s almost never a bad idea to have conversations as long as you are well-prepared and have all the facts. And don’t be afraid to meet with someone on the other side—you might be pleasantly surprised by how much common ground you discover. During the Port Ambrose fight, I personally met with a number of groups and individuals who had either publicly come out in favor of the project, or who I had reason to believe were supporters. These meetings ended up being enormously fruitful, and in some cases we found friends we didn’t know we had.
This is another reason why it’s important to begin with the frontline community—it changes the dynamic when you speak with politicians. This may sound obvious, but they tend to pay attention to the issues that their constituents care about. In a few cases, elected officials noticed the work we were doing and reached out to us, not the other way around. They ended up being absolutely invaluable allies.
3. Know the landscape of power and plan a strategy
We began our involvement in the Port Ambrose fight by asking who had power over Port Ambrose, and then what it would take for them to stop the project. In this case, it was the governors of the adjacent states—both Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey had the authority to veto the project under the Deepwater Port Act. From there, we asked ourselves who the Governors listened to, who has power to influence them, and what the source of that power is. This process is sometimes called “power mapping”—there are different terms and schools of thought on how to do it. I recommend checking out the Midwest Academy and the work of the ruckus society as you start thinking these things through.
One short(ish) caveat. All of this sounds straightforward enough—find out who the powers that be care about and work with them, right? Well, yes, but if that’s the entirety of your strategy, then you are losing sight of the long-term. For instance, a glance at power relations in New York state shows that some districts wield more influence than others. During the Port Ambrose fight, I sat in a conversation where someone suggested that we not waste our time organizing in certain areas, because those areas don’t wield a lot of influence. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand the logic behind this suggestion. If you’re a climate activist, chances are you are already stretched paper-thin in terms of your time and energy, and you may have to prioritize. And if you are a professional organizer, then you may even have institutional limits on what you can or cannot work on. But if that’s the case, you have a duty to find ways to fight this logic. In our campaign, we were able to delegate our time and actively organize in both impacted communities. This is the radical move—working to not just taking advantage of existing power relations, but to actively change those relations over time. On this subject, definitely take the time to read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded if you haven’t yet. (Honestly, you may want to think about dropping everything and reading TRWNBF right now. Seriously, read it.)
4. Find the alternative
One of the fossil fuel industry’s most hallowed myths is that we won’t be able to power our homes or find jobs for our families without them. That simply isn’t true. In the case of Port Ambrose, the alternative was unusually clear—Liberty Natural Gas LLC., the company behind the project, had proposed building Port Ambrose in the exact same location where the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management was considering leasing up to 700 megawatts of offshore wind power, enough to power 245,000 homes. If the gas project got built, the wind farm wouldn’t. We were able to make the case that the largely short-term, largely out-of-town-contractor jobs that Port Ambrose would create could not hold a candle to the local, long-term jobs that would be created by jumpstarting an offshore wind power industry right here in Long Island. While the choice between fossil fuels and renewable energy was unusually stark in this case, it’s essential to look around and find alternatives wherever you are.
5. Many hands
We would not have been able to successfully fight Port Ambrose without first organizing ourselves as a coalition. Some of our members translated research on marine impacts or economic consequences into everyday language that we could use in meetings with potential allies. Some of us had enormous email lists and were able to get the word out to large numbers of people, while others had connections to specific constituencies like faith groups or business leaders. Some of us had the capacity to go door-to-door and engage communities directly. And some of us were able to think creatively about street actions and how to create eye-catching, inspiring art, attracting media and making marches and rallies fun and engaging in new ways. Understanding the capacities of the different individuals and groups in your coalition is paramount—none of us can do this work alone.
6. Organize communities, not just campaigns
This gets back to the caveat in number 3. At the end of the day, we have to remember that the job of an organizer is to put yourself out of a job—you want to help people gain the skills, resources, and platforms necessary to defend their own communities. Fossil fuel resistance is a long-term fight. Oil, gas, and coal companies are bullies, and like all bullies they tend to repeatedly target people who they perceive as vulnerable—which means that if a community has a stronger network of concerned and engaged local people than it did before the campaign, those people will be better prepared and organized to fight fossil fuel corporations when they come back next time. If I could do the campaign over again, I would have focused even more on this aspect of the work.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that this was one battle among many. We still have so many gas projects that must be shut down if our climate and our communities are to be protected. And in many ways, we were very lucky—in the case of Port Ambrose, there were clear figures (the governors of New York and New Jersey) who had the power and were easier to engage than faceless, soulless entities like the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This is especially important to remember because the campaigning mentality can tempt people to prioritize “low hanging fruit” and dismiss the harder but absolutely equally important battles of frontline communities across the country. And this mentality was present in Long Island as well—some people I spoke with shied away from the Port Ambrose fight because they didn’t perceive that it was a “winnable” battle.
But if there’s hope at all for a tolerable climate, then we have a responsibility to change what is “winnable”—and that’s where community organizing comes in. By growing the power and the numbers of concerned people taking agency over their own lives, we create possibilities for ourselves and bolster the radical imagination. At a time when the climate crisis threatens to foreclose on human possibility on a global scale, I can’t think of anything more important.