Houston Mayor to Welcome Radical Anti-Oil and Gas Activist Who Opposes Economic Growth

Fri, September 06, 2019

Billed as a discussion with the “world’s most famous environmentalist,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is set to join anti-oil and gas activist and “Keep It In The Ground” movement leader Bill McKibben on stage for a September 15th event in Houston. Hosted by the Progressive Forum, the event includes Mayor Turner providing “opening remarks” for McKibben, as well as participating in a “brief Q&A on climate change and planning at a local level,” with the environmental activist.

The Mayor of the Energy Capital of the World rolling out a red carpet for and discussing “local planning” with someone whose goal is to shut down the entire Houston energy economy is confounding, to say the least. McKibben founded the group 350.org, which demands we “stop and ban all oil, coal and gas projects from being built through local resolutions and community resistance.” 

But McKibben’s beliefs on economic growth – namely that it’s a bad thing - make this decision all the more shocking. As McKibben wrote in a Mother Jones article

“Which means, according to new research emerging from many quarters, that our continued devotion to growth above all is, on balance, making our lives worse, both collectively and individually. Growth no longer makes most people wealthier, but instead generates inequality and insecurity. Growth is bumping up against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that trying to keep expanding the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous.” (emphasis added)

This opinion is not a one-off commentary. As Matthew Nisbet, Associate Professor of Communication, Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University wrote following his time as a visiting fellow at Harvard University studying McKibben’s writing and career:

“Yet as a public intellectual, McKibben has failed to offer pragmatic and achievable policy ideas.  Instead, reflecting his intellectual roots in the deep ecology movement, McKibben’s goal has been to generate a mass consciousness in support of limiting economic growth and consumption, with the hope of shifting the United States towards localized economies, food systems, and “soft” energy sources.” (emphasis added)

What McKibben is advocating for is then the antithesis of what Houston strives to be. Houston is home to 4,600 energy-related firms, including more than 500 exploration and production companies, 800 oilfield service companies and over 90 pipeline companies all contributing to the City’s economy. Houston’s petrochemical sector alone currently has an estimated $50 billion in facility construction taking place. 

Yet, if McKibben’s goal of driving a “stake through the heart of zombie fossil fuel” were successful, it would put all of these thousands of hardworking Houstonians out of work. And the mayor of Houston is welcoming him to the city!

McKibben’s anti-growth ideas also contradict Mayor Turner’s beliefs and vision for Houston. For example, as mayor, Tuner has supported the development and export of natural gas, stating for the Gastech 2019 conference being held in Houston:

“The United States is set to become a net exporter of natural gas for the first time in over half a century, and Houston will be at the center of that commerce. Our city has the resources, the infrastructure, the expertise, and the largest U.S. port in foreign tonnage. In short, Houston is ready to take the leading role in the U.S. energy exports market.”

In contrast, McKibben claims that his “greatest failing as a communicator” is not successfully turning the public against the idea that natural gas is a more climate-friendly alternative to other fossil fuels – even though the fuel has helped prevent more CO2 emissions than renewable sources since 2006. As he wrote last year:

“No, the single most annoying failing is a more technical one, but with huge consequence: Public opinion — and especially elite opinion — still accepts natural gas as a cleaner replacement for other fossil fuels. And this acceptance — nearly as strong among Democrats as Republicans — has meant that we’ve seen huge increases in the use of natural gas.”

More broadly, McKibben’s view on the impact of economic growth is the opposite of what Mayor Turner has supported while in office. As the mayor stated in an address to the World Energy Cities Partnership in 2016:

“A stronger economy, in which everyone profits, creates a stronger community and a stronger workforce in which people have the resources to better themselves. Inclusive growth is how we all win.”

Or, more recently, what Mayor Turner stated at CERAWeek in 2018:

“We still want the development…We still want people to come. We are still the energy capital.”

If Houston is still the Energy Capital, and “inclusive growth” is what Houston needs, then why is Mayor Turner willfully giving a megaphone to someone who is trying to undermine the anchor industry of the city of Houston?