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OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND
There's no phrase that better explains how our planet's oceans have reached a point where they are so direly threatened on so many fronts and yet so few of us have any idea of the danger they're in.
On one level, this makes perfect sense. Humans are terrestrial creatures. We live on the land, not in the sea. When we refer to the "environment," we're typically talking about our environment--the land, air, rivers, lakes, and coastlines where we live, work, and play. It's no surprise that a study of charitable giving in America showed that of all donations directed toward environmental concerns, 99 percent went to agencies and organizations focused on terrestrial issues, while 1 percent went to groups working to protect the oceans and the sea life within them.
Protect them from what?
That would be the typical question asked by anyone on the street. And again, at first glance, this makes sense. We're all taught in school that 71 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by oceans, and much of that is so deep that only a handful of humans have ever gotten close to the bottom. It would probably come as a shock to most people to learn that less than 1 percent of the living space on the Earth is on land--the other 99 percent is in the oceans, which contain many unique, and undiscovered species.
So what kinds of hazards could possibly threaten that many animals in that much water?
This has been the prevailing attitude ever since men first began pulling fish from the sea. Until the past half century or so, the oceans have always been seen as an inexhaustible resource, far too vast and abundant for us to even conceive of any danger that could possibly threaten them.
It's only when a disaster of one kind or another hits close to home-- meaning close to our shorelines--that we consider the health of our high seas.
So it makes sense to begin this book with just such a disaster--the April 2010 explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig, some fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana, a blast that killed eleven workers, injured seventeen others, and, as I've mentioned, triggered the biggest oil disaster in the history of the United States.
EXPLOSION at BP's
THERE SEEMS to be A CYCLE to these OCEAN DISASTERS--and it's A CYCLE WE SIMPLY CANNOT AFFORD to LET CONTINUE.
IT WAS TRAGIC, HORRIFYING, ALMOST BEYOND COMPREHENSION . . .
And, sad to say, it wasn't surprising at all--not to anyone familiar with the ever-increasing dangers of offshore drilling.
It's almost eerie to look at the similarities between the situation our American Oceans Campaign (AOC) group in Santa Monica faced back in the 1980s, when we began our fight against drilling near the coast of Southern California, and the situation our entire nation faces today in the wake of the Gulf tragedy. There seems to be somewhat of a cycle to these ocean disasters--and it's a cycle we simply cannot afford to let continue.
At the time that Bob Sulnick and I formed the AOC and launched our antidrilling campaign in the Pacific, it had been roughly twenty years since an offshore platform off the coast of Santa Barbara--just up the coast from us--suffered a blowout the likes of which, at that time, had never been seen in America. By the time that well was capped nearly twelve days later, a hundred thousand barrels of crude oil (4.2 million gallons) had spewed into the surrounding waters, creating an eight-hundred-square- mile surface slick, shutting down the region's fishing industry, coating seabirds and mammals with chocolate pudding-like petroleum, and blackening the area's beaches with tar balls.
AGREE TO DISAGREE
Cofounder of the American Oceans Campaign
In 1985 I was the president of No Oil Inc., an organization fighting to stop Arm & Hammer and Occidental Petroleum from drilling oil wells adjacent to the Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades, California.
On a cold rainy night, we held a poorly attended fundraiser in the basement of the Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica. After my speech to the nine people there, a tall thin man walked up to me and said that he liked what I had to say. When he left, the other No Oil folks asked if I knew who that was. I said no. At the time, I thought Cheers was a bar somewhere in Los Angeles. So began one of the most amazing friendships I have ever had. In 1987 Ted Danson and I founded American Oceans Campaign (AOC).
The environmental community, as necessary and vital as it is, cannot solve environmental problems on its own; it does not have the resources or infrastructure to do so. Industry, of course, has the resources and the infrastructure. AOC decided to approach the oil industry with the proposition that we agree to disagree about offshore oil drilling and agree to agree about things like conserving energy and re-refining used oil.
By reaching out to the oil industry, we were able to accomplish things that otherwise would have been out of reach. During the 1980s, we had a constant dialogue with big oil, which led, among other things, to California's first rerefined oil program. Those relationships also helped BP Solar establish solar energy in California and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) support California's first used-oil rerefining law.
I will always believe that agreeing to disagree with an opponent while being able to work with them on other mutually beneficial issues is the right approach for environmental problem solving.
These days, unfortunately, we're all too familiar with those kinds of images. But back then, just one month into the year of 1969, they were shocking, unprecedented. The entire nation looked on with a mixture of outrage and disgust. This was a landmark turning point for America's oil industry, which, until then, had enjoyed almost completely unchecked expansion. In the explosive decade of street protests and demonstrations that followed the Santa Barbara spill, people responded by burning their gasoline credit cards and marching with placards calling for the government to step in and take action so something like this would never happen again.
Which the government did, with a vengeance. Its response to that spill reached far beyond oil. With cities across the nation smothered in smog, rivers so polluted they actually caught fire (as Cleveland's Cuyahoga River famously did later in 1969), bodies of water as large as Lake Erie declared "dead" because of oxygen-sucking algal blooms caused by decades of chemical runoff from industries and farms, and, finally, the Santa Barbara disaster, US lawmakers at all levels passed an avalanche of landmark environmental legislation, including, in 1972, the Clean Water Act and the statutes creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Dozens of federal and state laws were enacted, restricting and regulating what Americans, both as individuals and as corporations, were allowed to dump into our water, our soil, and our air. A little more than a year after that Santa Barbara spill, the first Earth Day was celebrated. Eventually, a moratorium was placed on all new leases for gas and oil exploration in federal waters for the lower forty-eight states (outside of existing areas in the Gulf of Mexico) which, of course, included those waters off the coast of Southern California.
And here's where the cycle set in.
You would think--you would hope--that that outrage and those laws would stand strong forever. But the very success of that moratorium seemed to lull people to sleep. As years passed with virtually no disasters to speak of--certainly nothing on the scale of those events of '69--public concern over environmental issues faded. People became complacent. All the while, the oil industry was pushing behind the scenes for legislators to lift those restrictions and allow them to begin drilling again--on land and, even more critically, at sea.
By the late 1980s, it looked like those efforts would pay off. A movement among congressional supporters of the oil industry to lift that offshore drilling moratorium began picking up steam. This was my first taste of a high-stakes, toe-to-toe battle on behalf of the environment, and our AOC joined with like-minded organizations around the country to push back against the bill proposing the change. I traveled around the country, speaking at rallies, appearing on radio and television, even testifying before Congress.
When we finally prevailed in 1995, with a House committee voting to keep the ban in place, I was euphoric, just like the rest of my fellow activists. But just like them, I also knew that this deal was far from done, with so much at stake for the oil industry, and with its advocates in Congress, led by some pretty fierce political brawlers--like Texas representative Tom DeLay--bound and determined to tear down that ban.
When Andy Palmer, our spokesman for AOC at the time, spoke to the press after that vote, he shared our mixed feelings.
"Those who treasure America's fragile coastal ocean waters can breathe a little easier today," he said. "However," he added, "it would be a serious mistake to assume this fight is over."
He was right.
If Americans needed a wake-up call on this issue, they got it just past midnight on March 24, 1989--almost precisely twenty years after the Santa Barbara spill--when the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, California, struck a reef while avoiding some icebergs as it was leaving a port on Alaska's southern coast. To this day, estimates of how much crude oil gushed out of that vessel range from 11 million gallons to more than 30 million (the ship had been carrying 53 million gallons of oil). To this day, no one knows the precise amount that escaped. The generally accepted figure is that low-end number of 11 million. At the very least, it was well over twice the size of the Santa Barbara spill.
IF AMERICANS NEEDED A WAKE-UP CALL ON THIS ISSUE, THEY GOT IT.
Once again the nation was battered with images of wildlife smothered in oil, of surface slicks spreading for miles, and of black, gooey crude washing up on one of the most ecologically productive coastlines on the planet. Once again the public was horrified and irate. Once again there were calls for more legislation, for tighter rules and restrictions. Once again the oil industry was forced to retreat and circle its wagons.
And once again the years went by.
And the outrage faded.
And by the turn of this century, the oil industry was on the offensive again, pushing for exploratory wells in the tundra of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge wilderness and off both US coasts, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. With the arrival of the George W. Bush administration and its numerous ties to big oil, the industry had strong support in the White House. Over the course of the next eight years, it took extraordinary resources to fight back just to hold the fort and preserve that moratorium. By then, our AOC had merged into the largest oceans conservation organization in the world--Oceana.
FINDING THE MIDDLE GROUND
MAYOR EDWARD ITTA
I went up to the village of Barrow, Alaska, to talk to the mayor of the North Slope Borough, Edward Itta. The North Slope Borough is above the Arctic Circle; the area has been home to Itta's people, the Inupiat Eskimos, for thousands of years. In his two terms as mayor, he has found himself smack in the middle of the debate over oil. North Slope contains the largest oil field in the country: The area of Prudhoe Bay and just offshore, in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, is thought to be the next major source of oil and natural gas. Itta spoke to me about his position on oil and how he is trying to balance environmental concerns about drilling with the tremendous growth energy development has brought to his part of Alaska.
MAYOR ITTA: Since Prudhoe Bay was discovered in 1968, we have been worried that the oil development would interfere with our way of life up here. As hunters and whalers, we know that smelt, the very lowest of the food chain, are the organisms that feed the krill, who feed the cod fish, who feed the seal, who feed the polar bears, which feed everything else. If that's gone, no kind of Endangered Species Act is ever going to matter.
When I was growing up, we had no electric switches, diesel, or natural gas. We had virtually no airports, runways, landfills, or health clinics and just a small hospital. We now support eight outlying villages that all have airports, health clinics, and schools. Obviously our revenues come from being able to tax Prudhoe Bay and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline within our borders, but oil is decreasing, so our revenues are going down as well.
Five years ago, my position on drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas was "Hell no, over my dead body." But one of my responsibilities as mayor is the economic well-being of our people--ensuring that our children and grandchildren will have an economic base. So I've been negotiating with the oil companies and the government, pushing for baseline science, pipelines, stricter regulations, and an examination of the cumulative impact.
We are inseparable from the land and sea because we cannot live as Inupiat Eskimos without them. One lesson from our past and current elders: "You as Inupiat Eskimos were here long before oil, so whatever happens, you do your best to ensure you're going to be here after the oil."
You can imagine our disbelief when President Bush, in one of his last acts in office, as he was literally headed out the door of the White House following the election of 2008, opened up the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to drilling, and Congress, for the first time in more than 20 years, failed to renew its moratorium as well. Shock was followed by a sense of relief when Barack Obama took the oath of office in January 2009--twenty years after the Exxon Valdez--and suspended the Bush decision. But that relief turned to disappointment when, in March 2010, President Obama made his first moves toward allowing oil and gas exploration in the formerly protected areas.
Naturally, the oil industry geared up to finally sink those wells they'd been waiting so long to drill, especially out there in the oceans' deep water.
And then--again, right on cue--a mere month after Obama's decision to move forward with new offshore leasing, came the blast in the Gulf.