Athan Manuel, Director, Sierra Club Lands Protection Program
I recently enjoyed some excellent hiking and camping in one of America’s wildest places, southern Utah’s Canyonlands. Some Sierra Club colleagues and I joined the Great Old Broads for Wilderness for a “Broad Walk” the last weekend of September. It was my first trip to that spectacular part of the Beehive State.
The Canyonlands, both the 300,000 acres in the National Park and the almost 3 million acres of federal land (mainly BLM land) that surround it, is one of the most unique and beautiful places on the planet. Formed by rivers like the Colorado and Green, and shaped by the prehistoric sea that created the Great Basin, Canyonlands offers a collection of stunning canyons, rivers, mesas, cliffs and archeological sites. Thousands of visitors go there annually to hike, camp, rock climb and recreate.
Athan Manuel, Director, Sierra Club Lands Protection Program
We saw some tremendous landscapes, including the above photo of the Colorado River taken during an overflight with Ecoflight. What struck me was seeing thousands of acres of wild and largely untamed land. In addition to wild lands, we also hiked among thousand-year archeological sites and petroglyphs left behind by ancient First Nation civilizations.
When most people look at places like the Canyonlands, that’s what they see – a great place to visit, explore and enjoy.
Most people – but not all.
At the recent presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney boldly stated that if elected he planned to double the amount of oil and gas drilling on our public lands - public lands like the Canyonlands. Double the drilling means double the pollution, double the spills, double the industrialization of our public lands. Instead of protecting one-of-a-kind places like the Canyonlands for future generations to enjoy, Gov. Romney would lock up our public lands for oil and gas drilling and mining.
Gov. Romney admitted earlier in the campaign that he “didn’t get it” when it comes to America’s public lands – and that’s an understatement! He doesn’t get that America’s public lands protect spectacular beauty and unique places, support hundreds of thousands of tourism and recreation jobs, and generate millions in tax revenue for local communities.
More importantly, he does not understand that our public lands belong to us as Americas, and that our public lands also represent the best of American democracy.
This fall the U.S. Supreme Court will decide a
case that throws a spotlight on the oil industry's toxic influence on our democracy -- and
why we need to move America beyond oil as quickly as possible.
In the 1990s, Shell Oil enlisted the Nigerian military dictatorship to
suppress opposition to Shell's oil operations. A 2002 lawsuit, Kiobel v. Shell, alleges that Shell "aided and abetted" the
Nigerian military dictatorship in committing severe human rights abuses against
members of the Ogoni people who were involved in a nonviolent movement to stop
it from drilling for oil in their rich Niger River Delta homeland. But, in a
challenge to a 200-year-old law, Shell is arguing that as a corporation it
cannot be held responsible for human rights violations abroad.
The company isn't denying the charges; it's claiming that as a
corporation it should be able to get away with murder.
Shell is asking the
Court for a "Vegas" rule: that what happens in Nigeria stays in Nigeria. In the
1990s Shell funded and armed a violent military dictatorship. They used the Nigerian
army and sham courts to torture and eliminate people standing in the
corporation's way. And now Shell, and the entire oil industry, wants a world in
which human rights law does not apply to them.
Shell -- and six oil companies who filed briefs in support of Shell -- claim that
as corporations, they enjoy immunity from prosecution under international human
rights law because they are not a person, but a corporation. Forget that the
Supreme Court ruled in the 2010 Citizens
United case that corporations ARE people
under the law. But somehow their "personhood" stops short of taking responsibility
for their actions. And, in this case, we’re talking about some really
The Ogoni people are ethnic minority that farms and fishes the rich
Niger River Delta. Since the 1950s the Ogoni and their land has been poisoned
and exploited by oil development. Nigeria is Shell's largest source of oil
outside the U.S. In the 1990s, Shell collaborated with the military
dictatorship to target Ogoni leaders who opposed Shell’s oil operations in
their homeland. After a widely condemned sham trail in 1995 the Nigerian
military government executed a prominent Ogoni leader, Dr. Kiobel, along with
other leaders of the peaceful resistance to oil development known as the "Ogoni
Nine," which included Goldman Environmental Prize winner Ken Saro Wiwa. In 2009,
Shell paid $15.5 million to settle a separate lawsuit for its role in the Ogoni
Nine executions and Saro Wiwa’s death.
Dr. Kiobel's wife brought the Kiobel
v. Shell lawsuit in 2002 under the Alien Tort Statute, a 220-year-old federal
law that allows victims of crimes that break international law -- including
serious human rights abuses -- to ﬁle suit in the U.S. The law was passed in 1792
and signed by President George Washington because the founding fathers wanted
to affirm that our new nation was ready to uphold the rule of law.
Looking back at some of the most heinous examples of corporate behavior
in history, the question of corporate responsibility under the law has come up
before. At post-World War II Nuremberg trials corporations that contributed to
Nazi atrocities were dissolved and their executives were stripped of their
But Shell says the Alien Tort Statute doesn't apply to it, simply
because it is a corporation. Only two years after the Supreme Court's Citizens
United decision, Shell is asking the same judges to accept that corporations are
immune from prosecution for human rights violations because they are NOT people
under the law.
Do you think, in the
18th Century, if they brought Pirates Incorporated, and we got all their gold,
and Blackbeard gets up and he says, "Oh, it isn't me, it's the corporation." Do
you think they would have said, "Oh yes, I see, it's the corporation, goodbye,
To which Shell's lawyer answered:
Justice Breyer, yes,
the corporation would not be liable.
The Supreme Court will now decide if Shell oil is legally responsible
for its part in murder. This shouldn't be a difficult decision. I’m hoping that
common sense and decency prevails in the halls of the Supreme Court, where even
the ideologues must understand that as Americans, we must hold a zero tolerance
policy for human rights abuses, wherever committed. George Washington and the
other founding fathers passed a law to ensure that the arm of the law reaches
pirates and murderers wherever they break the law, and that those pirates and
murderers would have no safe haven in the US. And in 1792 they had a pretty
good idea of the intent of the framers of the Constitution on the subject,
since they wrote it.
-- Michael Marx, Sierra Club's Senior Director
of the Beyond Oil Campaign
According to Sierra Club's Bruce Nilles, there's really no such thing as "clean coal." Pollution from the coal-fired power plants —which are often located in poorer communities, such as in West Virginia —creates smog, which can cause chest pain, coughing, and breathing difficulties, and worsen conditions like bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. The coal mining process also takes its toll on the natural environment, especially in low-income areas. Beyondcoal.org reports that during the past 10 years, 500 of the biggest mountains in West Virginia have been destroyed as part of coal mining efforts.
Nilles points to a number of factors -- such as powerful monied interests, a "broken" political system and competing global agendas -- as barriers to overcoming the coal problem. Though some disagree with the "Beyond Coal" platform, Nilles stands firm in his belief that coal is a major threat to the global environment.