By David Helvarg / Blue Notes #47 / July 8, 2008
McCain channels Popeye, announces — “Oil’s Well”
If you thought we’d be celebrating Independence from Oil this 4th of July you must be huffing hydrogen. Instead responding to public anxiety over high gas prices and political opportunity seen in new polling figures Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain (followed shortly by our lame duck president) has come out in favor of offshore oil leasing and getting rid of a congressional ban on drilling off the continental U.S. that’s been in effect for a generation.
It’s easy to understand why the Bush/Cheney White House would favor this. While there’d be no short-term prospects of actual drilling once they transferred lease areas over to the oil companies the value of their Wall Street stocks would increase, just as they have thanks to tens of millions of public acres they already hold leases for but are not drilling on . Think of it as a going away present to their most loyal constituents. Plus for George W. there’s the added pleasure of rescinding another one of his father’s decisions, this one not to drill offshore. So much for Bush’s Blue Asterisk (see Blue Notes #46).
Candidate McCain on the other hand seems willing to write off his credibility with environmentalists, ocean advocates and residents in coastal states like California in order to create what he’s called a “psychological” incentive to reduce gas prices. That’s certainly a maverick move.
He’s also playing footloose and sludge free with the facts. In announcing his position he claimed new drilling technologies prevented any oil spills from offshore rigs damaged and destroyed by 2005’s hurricanes Katrina and Rita such as Deepwater Platform Mars (see pix). The New York Times and others took exception pointing to 700,000 gallons of oil spilled offshore. But even this is parsing things too finely. According to the Coast Guard over 8 million gallons of oil was spilled when you count the pipes, tank farms and other storage facilities that were linked to the Gulf’s offshore oil industry. That’s two/thirds of an Exxon Valdez the largest spill in U.S. history that, unfortunately, the Supreme Court doesn’t seem to think was such a big deal either (see next story).
It’s also vital to remember what’s changed since seaweed activists started fighting offshore drilling more than 30 years ago. Today offshore drilling is no longer just a question of energy versus marine and coastal pollution. It’s also a product liability question. Petroleum, used as directed, tends to overheat the planet leading to catastrophic climate change.
Of course as dedicated fish-huggers we should also let Democratic Candidate Barack Obama know that while his position defending our public seas from oil drilling is a good start, it does not in itself an ocean policy make.
Fishermen victimize Exxon
Following the devastating 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince Williams Sound back in 1989, an Alaskan Jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to 33,000 plaintiffs including fishermen and their families hurt by the spill. In 1994 a federal court of appeals cut Exxon’s fine to $2.5 billion, which the Supreme Court, this June 20th, cut again to $500 million ruling there was no malice on Exxon’s part (and certainly no forethought when they let a drunk Captain drive their ship onto a reef). In the near 20 years since the disaster almost 20 percent of the plaintiffs have died waiting on a settlement.
It’s also worth remembering that after their verdict the original jurors explained their punitive fine was aimed at causing Exxon enough financial pain that the company would never again practice the failed oversight and disregard for the environment that the spill represented. The $500 million settlement just ordered by the Supreme Court on the other hand represents about 5 days of Exxon’s profits based on last year’s earnings. So if you lend your poorly maintained car to your clearly drunken friend and he mows down a crowd of people be forewarned, you could be facing up to a $50 dollar fine.
Polar Bears have become the poster carnivores for climate change in the rapidly melting Arctic (See Blue Notes # 38 & 44). Now a new study in the July/August issue of BioScience says carnivores penguins (if you’re a krill, they’re a terror) are also at risk and their colonies collapsing because of global warming, pollution and overfishing. Ten years ago I wrote about declining penguin colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula that scientists were even then linking to rapid climate change which the world has been experiencing most dramatically at its poles.
Though I have to confess the adelle and chinstrap penguins I met in Antarctica all tended to be loud, smelly and kind of mean (if not haughty). Their colonies combined the fragrance of a cow barn with the lilting sounds of a Thrash-metal rock concert. Still it was pretty amazing when Palmer Station’s lead scientist Bill Fraser showed me a polished granite boulder on Humble Island one of the sites of the collapsing penguin colonies. “These pengins are the ultimate canaries in the mine shaft. They’re extremely sensitive indicators of climate change,” he warned. The shiny reflective rock, like polished sculpture, was the result of 700 years of penguin feet marching over it. It would be nice if our grandchildren had a chance to experience that kind of shock of discovery for themselves.
The Blue Beat
Coverage of the ocean just keeps growing from a Discovery magazine cover story on the sorry state of our seas and ocean acidification to a New York Times magazine piece on the plastic trashing of the ocean to reports in Newsweek, the Washington Post and on ABC about collapsing fish and shark populations and dying reefs. When I started pushing for an expanded Blue Beat among my journalistic colleagues eight years ago I wasn’t really thinking about breaking news on a saltwater apocalypse.
The important thing I guess is figuring out how we can turn the improved coverage of the most disturbing findings in marine science into corrective public action. Part of this invovles showing people how their actions can still have an effect in turning the tide.
Challenge of the Savage Seas
One approach is what I call the Roz Savage Challenge. Seaweed Rebel Roz Savage is now six weeks into her second attempt to row from California to Hawaii, as she seeks to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific. The challenge – If Roz can row oceans to raise awareness about the state of our blue planet, what can each of us do in our lives to make a difference? – Use less plastic? Buy more organic produce? Drive less? Join a Beach Clean Up? Roz is rowing with a copy of our book, ’50 Ways to Save the Ocean,” which details these and other options.
Since she’s well underway and the media embargo is off let me recount a bit of her May 24th Midnight departure from Horseshoe Cove by San Francisco’s Golden Gate:
Her 24-foot boat ‘Brocade’ was well prepped and packed with freshies — bananas, avocados, fresh bread for her first days at sea. Along with Bill Chandler and his film crew doing a documentary about her journey she was also scrutinized by two Coast Guard safety inspectors who were impressed by both her gear and her gumption.
,p>Roz was a bit cold and so Sarah, a stranger who’d just wandered down the dock offered to open up the Yacht Club bar (where we’d held last year’s launch party). Sarah recently moved from Ohio to live on a sailboat by the sea was, like many, instantly inspired by Roz.
The escort vessels arrived just before Midnight. The blustery winds and water chop from earlier lay down as if her Weather Guy Rick Shema could read the local eddies from far Hawaii. Still she seemed to momentarily hesitate, as the pull of the land is strong. Then she brightened and with hugs and wishes, climbed aboard her rowboat. Lines were cast, a cheer went up and oars began stroking water.
I joined Paul Dines from SF Bay Adventures on his rigid hull inflatable. Roz cleared Horseshoe Cove at 12:10 pm outlined against the lights of the city. Vessel Traffic Control reported no incoming or outgoing traffic. The Bay seemed eerily empty except for some curious seals. It was a slack tide and she said the boat felt good but also like it wasn’t going anywhere. At 1:30 she cleared the bridge. The ebb tide started flowing and fifteen minutes later it looked like she’d kicked in the afterburners. A sea lion then escorted her for a while. Just after 2 a.m. hanging on the north side of the shipping channel she said she felt confident and good just taking it, “one stroke at a time.” She thanked Paul and we turned back near the Point Diablo Lighthouse. She was moving well, gliding through the coastal seas towards the Farallon Islands and beyond.
Leaving Fort Baker I stopped to admire a young mule deer buck with velvet antlers. The pull of the land is strong. It takes special effort to remind us ours is still an ocean planet at risk. Roz’s ongoing adventure is a good way to recall that we can each be ocean heroes in our own lives. We’re honored to have her as a Blue Frontier project. For more on her day to day progress go to Roz’s website – RozSavage.com
The Vision thing
Also plan to join with Roz, Philippe Cousteau, Sylvia Earle, Rep. Sam Farr (D, CA), Surfrider, Waterkeepers, Oceana, Blue Frontier, Pew Environment Group, dockworkers, fishermen, aquariums, marine science centers and agencies, public health organizations, youth activists and pods of local, regional and national seaweed groups March 7-10 2009 for the second U.S. Blue Vision Summit in Washington DC.
This gathering of 400-500 key ocean leaders and activists will show our new President and Congress that there’s now a Blue Movement ready to work from the bottom up for healthy and abundant public seas, local and regional solutions and federal action. For more information on how to participate or be a part of the planning process contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Final Note
If you enjoy Blue Notes please sign up friends at www.bluefront.org or post these notes on your site/blog or link your site to ours or, if you’re feeling happy as and also have a few extra clams, make a donation.