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Steve Kretzmann

Steve Kretzmann is the founder of Oil Change International

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Steve Kretzman 'We won the Keystone XL campaign because of nonviolent protest'

Matilda Lee

17th November, 2011

The founder of Oil Change International, Steve Kretzmann, talks about the tight bond between politicians and the fossil fuel industry, 'fracking', and why Occupy is now the anti-Tea Party

Keystone XL: Was Obama's recent decision to delay the final decision on the pipeline a big win or just a temporary respite for campaigners?

President Obama's decision was a big win for our movement for sure. It has been a brutal couple of years to be campaigning for the environment, particularly in the U.S. As one activist said to me last week: "I feel like I can finally get out of the fetal position I've been in since Copenhagen". The best thing about the decision is that we won it not because of clever policy or inside deals but because 12,000 of us surrounded the White House, more than 1200 got arrested in nonviolent civil disobedience, and millions more around the U.S. supported us. That's movement building and its empowering and it's something we haven't seen at scale in the U.S. in entirely too long.

All that said, there's no rest for the weary. The industry is already pushing back and trying to sew up a new deal for the pipeline. Their allies in Congress are organizing. Other pipelines are moving ahead. And who knows what the Obama Administration will decide in 14 months? But we're in a better, stronger position today than we were before this victory and people should take a moment to celebrate for sure.

As a seasoned campaigner, do you feel it's become easier or more difficult to campaign against Big Oil?

"Seasoned" - yeah, that's one way to put it. If you had told me twenty years ago that it was only going to get harder, that the industry was only going to get more and more powerful, and that our problems would become more dire and numerous, well, I might be a "seasoned" bartender now.

It is harder now, particularly in North America. The oil industry here is enjoying a ‘grand resurgence.' Hydraulic fracturing techniques have not only unlocked vast reserves of natural gas but in the last 12 months have reversed the decades-long decline in US oil production. Tar sands production is charging ahead, fully recovered from the 2008-9 recession. The climate is headed south at an alarming rate. The Supreme Court has essentially removed any limits on corporate political spending which means we get a government that is of, by and for corporations - Big Oil in particular.

But you know, we're stronger now too. If you had told me ten years ago that we could have 1200 people arrested in civil disobedience at the White House over a pipeline, I would have laughed. But more people, particularly more young people, really understand the stakes we're playing for now. With the Occupy movement and everything that's going on here now, its clear we're on the right path. But the power and money around the oil industry won't go quietly - we're going to have to keep pushing.

What gets you out of bed when you're at your lowest?

My wife and my son, first and foremost. Corny, I know, but really true. Also the memory of all the people I have had the privilege to know who were really on the front line of oil's impacts - in Nigeria, Ecuador, Louisiana and elsewhere. Those people didn't choose to be oil campaigners - they had to be, to protect their homes and their families. I feel I owe it to them and others to do my best as often as I can.

Can you name a campaign where you've successfully worked with a corporation rather than against?

There are many of them. Back in the day, Greenpeace worked with Munich Re and Swiss Re to sound the alarm on climate change. And of course The Body Shop was central to the struggle against Shell in Nigeria. In many, many campaigns we've worked closely with socially responsible investment firms to pressure oil companies on human rights and environmental issues.

What is the best way to motivate people to be active campaigners?

Success breeds success. When people see that something they are doing is having an effect, that's the best positive reinforcement there is. Beer is good too.

What is the best way of influencing politicians?

You know, I'd like to live in a society where intellectual arguments and cogent presentation of compelling facts won the day - but that's not what we have, particularly in the U.S. For corporations, the best way of influencing politicians is money - they buy them. We don't have that kind of money, nor do we generally think that's the way democracy should work. Organizing vocal demonstrations. Tying politicians to scandal and corruption, following the money, showing the public (their constituents) how corporations are influencing our democracy. Essentially using transparency and disclosure and sheer people power to counteract money in politics is the way to go.

What is the most important thing to avoid when campaigning?

Overconfidence. Not only are you not countering your opponent, you're not building more political strength because you're all full of yourself and you think you've got it locked up. Particularly prevalent among campaigners who get sucked into an inside game. Beware.

Most important thing the US government could do this year?

End subsidies to fossil fuels. You'd think that Congress could agree that giving billions of our tax dollars to the richest corporations on the planet when we're deeply in debt was a bad idea. You'd think.

Most important thing Americans could do this year?

Demand that their Representatives stop taking money from and giving money to the fossil fuel industry. And stop driving so damn much and start biking to work as often as possible.

What makes a good campaigner?

No one model. The common ingredient seems to be passion - but passion alone doesn't get you there.

What (other) campaign has caught your attention recently?

Occupy Wall Street is the most interesting and important thing to happen in the U.S. since the corporate anti-globalization movement and the Battle in Seattle. The Occupy movement is well positioned to be an umbrella campaign that encompasses a lot of existing work and counters the Tea Party. Very much needed. Also the huge and growing grassroots resistance to fracking in the U.S. is fascinating and powerful.

Who is your campaign hero (past or present)?

Ken Saro-Wiwa. Meeting him changed my life in so many ways. The fact that we won the Keystone pipeline decision on the sixteenth anniversary of his death was a nice symmetry. I know he would have been happy, and I know he would have gotten up the next morning and kept fighting.

Further information:

Oil Change International

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