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  • Citizens gave the high-carbon oil sector its toughest year

    Who could have imagined that over the last year the oil industry would be facing so many radical changes and high-carbon tar sands would be having such a tough time? The year 2015 told us that these kinds of positive changes can happen rapidly when economics, citizen mobilisation and political leadership converge in the same direction.

    Let’s start with the economics. The oil price has been plunging since 2014 and it reached its lowest level in 11 years in December 2015. In parallel, the tar sands industry has been facing several project cancellations and delays (approximately 16 between January and July 2015), because tar sands extraction and production is very expensive and requires a high oil price. In June 2015, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers announced that “the sharp drop in world oil prices (…) is slowing the growth of Canadian oil production over the next two decades”. The delays and cancellations came also at a time of big uncertainty around potential building of pipelines and huge citizens’ mobilization against these projects, not only in the US against Keystone XL but also in Canada, especially against Energy East.

    In that context, the most powerful and decisive message of 2015 came from US president Barack Obama who announced early November that he was rejecting the project to build the Keystone XL pipeline. This sent out a clear signal against the tar sands industry and put climate change again at the centre of the political agenda, contrary to what the EU did in 2014 when adopting a weak EU Fuel Quality Directive. Finally, a big political step was also achieved in December 2015 with the agreement reached at COP21, which signals a clear shift away from fossil fuels.

    2015 also saw a surge in a new form of action to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The ‘divestment’ campaign goes beyond grassroots’ activism or high-level political decisions. It has seen more than 500 institutions representing over $3.4 trillion (€3.1 trillion) in assets make some form of divestment commitment away from fossil fuels.

    Now, what does it mean for 2016 and the situation in the EU? It means that political changes are possible, even if it takes time like with the Keystone XL battle that lasted several years. It also means that civil society mobilisation is crucial, whether it is through direct actions or indirectly by convincing companies, universities, etc, to divest. Finally, it also means that the EU should encompass all these positive changes and ensure an ambitious EU climate and energy policy for the future, in line with what has been agreed at the COP21. It is clear that we have no reasons to go backwards now.