Obama (and Our) Ocean of Trouble

by Guest Blogger

June 2, 2010

By David Helvarg

Less than six months ago environmentalists were celebrating President Obama’s commitment to our public seas as they went to work in support of a proposed National Ocean Policy.  Of course that was before the President endorsed offshore oil drilling, nukes and “clean coal,” as a path to carbon-free energy.  That’s like proposing a healthy diet based on junk food, amphetamines and low-tar cigarettes.  You just can’t get there from here.

The President’s call for expanded fossil-fuel development on the nation’s outer continental shelf waters at the end of March came less than a month before the catastrophic explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in the Gulf.  That disaster, as we all now know, left 11 oil workers dead and 17 injured.  Then the rig burned for two days before sinking in almost mile deep water, setting off the worst and ongoing environmental disaster in U.S. history (and most compelling video since the jets hit the twin towers).



I’ve been on some of BP’s deepwater platforms in the Gulf and have written that this is where the next offshore disaster would likely take place.  The history of the industry’s claimed  “safer drilling technologies” has always come about – to the degree it has at all – in the wake of rapid exploration and extraction in new frontier waters, be they the drilling piers off Summerland California at the end of the 19th century (“the township is aslime with oil,” reported the San Jose Mercury News at the time) or mile deep Gulf waters today. 

These lessons keep getting learned in blood and oil in large measure because there was never any real government oversight from the Department of Interior’s Mineral Management Service that issues the offshore permits Created by Ronald Reagan’s notoriously anti-environmental Secretary of Interior James Watt in 1983, MMS has been – according to a two-year old Inspector General’s report on sex, drugs and paintball parties – the only government agency literally in bed with the industry it was supposed to regulate.  I once asked the chief of the environmental division of MMS why the agency has never cancelled an oil lease sale based on its own oil-spill risk assessments.  His response:  “It’s hard to make or break something as big as a lease on one issue.”

Right now, along with deep-ocean drilling in the Gulf another newer ‘frontier’ area is the Arctic Ocean that is becoming more accessible as a result of fossil-fuel fired climate change resulting in loss of sea ice.  Several Greenpeacers were recently arrested for writing a warning against drilling the Arctic Ocean on the side of a ship chartered by Shell Oil for exploratory drilling this summer.  Their chosen medium of expression – oil spilled from the BP hydrocarbon eruption.  Obviously, the wrong people were arrested.

Just retired Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who has stayed on as the federal official in charge of the BP oil disaster response in the Gulf recently told me that the United States’ emerging 5th blue water coast in the Arctic lacks the Search and Rescue (SAR) assets, oil spill response capability, security and other resources including basic aids to navigation necessary for industrial and commercial activity to safely take place there.  Nonetheless the push to drill the Arctic continues even as the Gulf of Mexico is dying before us and 40 percent of America’s coastal wetlands are threatened with an oily apocalypse.  A reporter recently asked me if burning the wetlands or the waters was a better solution.  Is amputation better than gangrene?  Marginally perhaps, but the term ‘better’ doesn’t even apply at this point.

The better thing is to begin making a national and global commitment to a rapid transition from the extraction and burning of coal and oil, the cutting edge carbon technologies of the 16th and 19th centuries, to clean renewable energy for the 21st century and beyond.  After all no ecosystem, coastal culture or economy was every destroyed by a wind spill or a turning of the tide. 

David Helvarg is President of the Blue Frontier Campaign (www.bluefront.org), a marine conservation group that works with Greenpeace.  His book, ‘The U.S. Coast Guard – America’s Forgotten Heroes’ has just come out in paperback.  His new book is ‘Saved by the Sea – A Love Story with Fish.’  (both with St. Martin’s Press).

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