Borrowing another team’s playbook to tackle ‘The Tyranny of Oil:’ An Interview with Antonia Juhasz

Can the tactics that succeeded against Big Tobacco simply be transferred to a different battlefield? 

By Peter Gorrie
The Toronto Star, December 2009

Last month, 160 countries agreed to try to stop tobacco lobbyists from interfering with their health-care policies. With cigarettes and their makers out of favour in North America and Europe, the industry is trying to expand sales and defeat regulation in developing countries.

The response at the meeting in Durban, South Africa: “The anchor principle … was that there is a fundamental conflict between tobacco-industry interests and public-health interests,” says Kathy Mulvey, an observer from Boston-based Corporate Accountability International. The new guidelines “will help advocates and public officials begin to slam the door on tobacco-industry tactics.”

Antonia Juhasz dreams of a deal in which “tobacco” is replaced by “oil,” one that recognizes a conflict between that industry and the environment, economy and security.

The intense activist and writer is part of Oil Change International, an American group working to make Big Oil as unpopular as Big Tobacco has become, and to break its grip on politicians and policy.

“Under President George W. Bush, the oil industry moved from successful lobbying for laws and regulations to actually legislating them,” Juhasz says in a recent interview. She was up from California to promote The Tyranny of Oil, a detailed account of the industry’s rise to power. Her book is part homage to 150 years of anti-monopoly muckraking and trust-busting and part signpost to where the leading edge of the environmental and social activist movements are headed.

With the election of Barack Obama, mainstream American green groups figure they can finally influence White House policy. Thirty of them, headed by the well-heeled and -connected Natural Resources Defense Council, have just presented “their top policy recommendations” to the president-elect’s senior advisors.

Juhasz is delighted by Obama’s rise and wishes the groups well, but she’s not much for the insider game and the (at best) incremental progress it usually achieves.

She understands Obama’s boundaries. Though his campaign got only a third of the oil money that went to John McCain’s, and those contributions were a tiny drop in his record-breaking bucket, he’s tight with big bankers who, in turn, are entwined with the oil industry.

And Juhasz already sees indications of trouble. A big one is Obama’s change of heart on drilling for oil off the U.S. coast – he shifted to support it, “directly pandering to the oil industry,” she says.

“Obama has come out with some very good prescriptions, but they don’t go far enough.”

Far enough means uncoupling the oil industry from politicians so it can be brought under control.

The economic downturn has been both good and bad for that effort. On one side, the cash-rich oil giants are consolidating their control by buying up the mid-size and small companies that had previously been uninterested in selling, she says. On the other, it’s opening minds to the possibility of a green economy, and of taxing the oil industry’s windfall profits to help pay for the transition. And, “the American public … will no longer accept the mantra of deregulation and corporate self-regulation,” opening the door for tough controls.

The first step is to repeat the success of groups that turned the tobacco industry from powerhouse to outcast. They benefited from studies that linked cigarettes to lung cancer and other fatal diseases, as well as the industry’s ham-handed attempts to deny, then discredit, that evidence. The high cost of caring for victims hastened action.

While the details differ, a similar case can be made against the oil industry although, as Juhasz acknowledges, it’s far bigger and more pervasive than Big Tobacco. We do, after all, depend on fossil fuels. That gives the industry leverage to dictate military and environmental policies, rake in massive profits and swat aside efforts to curb its influence.

Still, “people are already angry at the oil industry,” Juhasz says. “If you make it into a pariah, if you frame the issue as an industry whose money is limiting the debates in which policy is made … you can craft a very powerful argument – one that we weren’t as ready to act on in the past.”

That’s the recent past.

About 120 years ago, Americans got riled over how John D. Rockefeller and a few other oil kings crushed independents, controlled supply and prices, and blatantly bought elections and legislative votes. Public pressure forced U.S. governments to partially dismantle the giants.

But the regulations and enforcement were watered down until, reconsolidated into seven mammoth corporations, the industry returned to a level of influence that, Juhasz contends, leads to wars, poverty, pollution and climate change. She suggests reforms: revised election financing, effective regulations and taxation, tougher enforcement, another break-up of corporations.

But they hinge on turning impotent public anger into such hostility that politicians will shy away from oil cash and lobbyists, and act independently.

It’s tilting at windmills, perhaps. The world is more complex now; the corporations and the resource are global. And Obama “is not about to undo the entire oil industry structure of the United States.”

But there are echoes of the early tobacco battle: The U.S. Congress and California have passed laws that would impede imports of “dirty oil,” such as that from Alberta’s tar sands. Many oil-soaked candidates fared poorly in the election.

The campaign involves many groups that helped put Obama into the White House and, Juhasz says, history has shown that social movements, not presidents, create change.

Why not again, she asks? ” ‘The separation of oil and state’ is a powerful phrase.”

View Original ArticleThe Toronto Star