The Nightmare Brewing off Our Shores

photo credit: Grace Nichols

Activists’ Diary, a new space in the Co-op Voice for local activists to share their experiences and insights; not a position paper or a consensus statement, but a personal, subjective view. As with all of our articles, we welcome your responses.

I attended a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) hearing in mid-February at the Albany Hilton. It was a public meeting to announce the BOEM’s intention to open the coastlines of the mainland United States and Alaska for oil and gas leasing. Sensitive areas such as the Chukchi Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Mid-Atlantic Ocean will have lease sales in 2020, if BOEM gets its way. The North Atlantic segment, including New York State’s waters, is slated to have lease sales in 2021—despite a moratorium since 1981.

As I write this, I am listening to the songs of the humpback whales and remembering that all terrestrial species arose from the oceans. We can regard our oceans as the mother of the first cells, 1.45 billion years ago. Our North Atlantic coastal waters host humpback whales, minke whales, and endangered right whales that migrate past New York State every year. This open season on the ocean territory which extends from 3 to 200 nautical miles offshore, threatens fisheries and bird life along the coasts of the United States, and the complex oceanic ecosystem as a whole.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 requires that the federal government conduct ‘scoping’ of potential issues, impacts and alternatives any time the federal government proposes changes that pose significant environmental risks. This has always meant that there would be hearings in which the public can hear one another’s concerns and the views of the agency. Under President Trump, this has been mechanized in order to stop that conversation.

The Dog and Pony Show

The BOEM “hearing” was a bit surreal. At first we were ushered into a small room and asked to watch a video presentation that told us we could comment via paper or computer, but we were cautioned to limit our comments to small, specific points. Then, we were given a form with only eight lines of space on which to write out our comments.

The next step was to enter a larger room with stations, which looked like a science fair. Unfortunately, not much science was involved. At the environmental impacts station, some employees cheerfully explained that they didn’t know about the safety of pipeline transport. They didn’t have any data on expected impacts on right whales either. However, you were encouraged to submit your data at the computers on the other side of the room, and visit the employees in charge of educating the public about extraction. It turned out the extraction people didn’t know about safety either, so you needed to cross the room to talk to the safety people who were, as it happens, involved in the safety systems before and after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Mexican Gulf, and were quite convinced – sans data – it could never happen again.

Real Science

In the real world, our best science, articulated in the International Academy of Science’s journal, Nature by Christophe McGlade and Paul Etkins in January 2015, states that “to have at least a 50 percent chance of keeping warming below 2 °C throughout the Twenty-First Century, the cumulative carbon emissions between 2011 and 2050 need to be limited to around 1,100 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. However, the greenhouse gas emissions contained in present estimates of global fossil fuel reserves are around three times higher than this, and so the unabated use of all current fossil fuel reserves is incompatible with a warming limit of 2 °C.”

McGlade and Etkins also report that keeping a climate that can support agriculture, forests free from constant fires, inland areas free from drought, and coastlines that can continue to support human populations, requires us to remove no more than a third of known fossil fuel reserves. Yet, the BOEM plans to open up the entire coastline in the hopes of feverishly extracting more fossil fuels.

Map Graphic from:

Further Mockery of Environmental Protection

The most touching part of my BOEM experience was chatting with a chief environmental officer, who divulged quietly that he believes in climate change. He sadly admitted that not even the sensitive Florida coastline is exempt from leasing under the BOEM’s proposed changes. He described the beautiful underwater canyons off the coast of New York, which were once subject to environmental protections.

Then, in an ironic anticlimax, the computers for comment were malfunctioning. As I was asking for paper on which to write my concerns and attach the Nature article, across the room security was attempting to stop former EPA regional director Judith Enck from carrying a paper polar bear around to the tables. It would be funny, if this whole enterprise and its mockery of NEPA process weren’t so dangerous.

After all, if a foreign power were attempting to surround the entire coastline of the mainland US and also Alaska, and attack with activities which could snuff out whole cities and large swathes of farms, our response would be clear; in a Winston Churchill fashion, we would vow to defend from the land, air and sea. However, the sad reality is that Washington, D.C. is the power poised to attack the US coastline.

The BOEM chose, for their own convenience, to hold hearings only in the capital cities of the coastal states, although this proposal affects the nation as a whole. Areas such as Long Island held ‘peoples’ hearings’ as a protest against the leasing. The kicker is if you visit the virtual hearing (the public comment page online), you find that only 10,587 of 639,613 public comments have been actually accepted for posting on the agency website; so 1.7% of the public comment submitted can be heard/read by the general public. This is hardly the equivalent of public hearings. As of this writing, only six comments from Albany, NY were posted.

Past administrations wrote federal laws to protect the ocean environment. The current administration is making a mockery of this and leaving these complex international ecological webs defenseless. We need public outcry and lawsuits to protect our oceans and marine wildlife.

Perhaps this all seems peripheral to the Honest Weight Food Co-op community, which is an inland sanctuary of environmentally conscious efforts. In truth, if we permit our national environmental legal protections to be undermined in this way, we are all in grave danger of becoming a casualty of the Sixth Extinction.

Grace Nichols has been a member of the Honest Weight Food Co-op since 2002. She has been a staff member, member-owner and a consumer at different times throughout the years. She is looking forward to seeing Co-op members continue to come together to protect Earth – from which all our precious food originates.