Last week, I attended a protest and an informational event in Annapolis, Maryland. The objective was to keep oil and gas exploration away from our shores.
It is a seldom-discussed fact, but for people who live on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, large-scale oceanic oil spills are a disaster that happens somewhere else, to someone else. Tragic, and we’re glad to donate money and outrage to the cause, but not really our problem. I don’t mean to sound smug, it’s not like we’re above disaster (we do seem to be developing a problem with hurricanes), it just usually happens elsewhere and we don’t really think about why.
Turns out, the reason we don’t have oceanic oil spills it quite simple; we don’t have off-shore oil and gas exploration, as per US energy policy. And that is about to change. Hence the protest.
Where and how energy development takes place in America’s oceans is the purview of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM. According to one of the handouts I picked up at the meeting,
BOEM promotes energy independence, environmental protection, and economic development through responsible, science-based management of offshore conventional and renewable energy and marine mineral resources. BOEM is responsible for resource management, including leasing, economic analysis, resource evaluation, and environmental analysis.
BOEM is engaging a wide range of stakeholders to gather as much input as possible for consideration of potential new leases in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mid- and South Atlantic.
By “South Atlantic” they mean the sea off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.
While it may sound odd for a single agency to simultaneously promote both fossil fuel exploitation and environmental protection, it’s worth noting that the alternative–what existed prior to BOEM’s creation–was a piecemeal permit process without any formal means of large-scale planning or public input. As long as fossil fuel exploitation is allowed to exist, there must be agencies capable of limited and shaping the process in accordance with the public and environmental good.
BOEM operates according to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), which states (again, according to the handout) that
The Secretary of the Interior must prepare an oil and gas leasing program every five years showing the size, timing, and location of potential leasing activity and precisely as possible. The process beings with a Request for Information and culminates with a final program, with drafts and comment periods in between.
The OCSLA process receives input, not just of from the public, but also from an environmental impact assessment, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In essence, each program defines the areas within which oil and gas leasing can even be considered. The area is divided into small plots and only a small number of those plots are actually made available for lease. Then, before a company actually does anything to the plots it leases, it must do another environmental impact assessment. Oil and gas exploration involves sonic testing, which is harmful to marine life and therefore requires a permit–and the permitting process is again separate from the OCSLA process. BOEM does not enforce any of the conditions of its various leases and permits, but the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, or BSEE, can and does. The BSEE can, if necessary, shut an extraction operation down completely if it violates the law. At least on paper, then, there are a lot of safeguards in place to ensure that the oil and gas industry operates without inflicting undue harm on anybody or anything.
The proposed 2017-2022 Gas and Oil Leasing Program includes parts of the Gulf of Mexico, some of the waters off the coast of Alaska, and areas off the coast of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. Maryland’s waters are not included, but we’re uncomfortably close to areas that are. BOEM is currently conducting a “scoping process” preparatory to the first environmental impact assessment. That means they are accepting public comment to find out what our concerns are–what we’re worried might happen if drilling in these areas goes ahead. Then, they can address those concerns when they do the assessment. BOEM called the meeting in Annapolis, along with meetings in other affected regions, in order to let the public know how to use the comment process. The comments themselves must be made online or by mail.
We’re hoping that, based on our comments, BOEM will remove the Atlantic from the 2017-2022 program.
The problem is that, no matter how safe a drilling operation is, an accident sooner or later is close to inevitable. The Mid- and South-Atlantic sections don’t begin until 50 miles off-shore, which might offer some protection to the coast, but also means that most of the lease areas will be in deep water–just like the Deepwater Horizon, in the Gulf of Mexico. Part of why that disaster was as bad as it was had to do with how far the damaged wellhead was under water. We’re looking at running exactly the same risk in the Atlantic.
Let’s say there is an accident.
We’re looking at a major economic and cultural hit, since a lot of communities in this region depend on the seafood industry, tourism, or both. We’re also looking at a major ecological hit, since both the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays are vulnerable. Just as an example of what’s at stake, the Delaware Bay is a critical stop for the Red Knot on its migration route. The birds “refuel” there by eating horseshoe crab eggs on quiet beaches. Red Knots already have Threatened status under the Endangered Species Act, in part due to the over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs. Now, if those beaches were oiled, as could happen if an oil well in the northern part of the proposed program area leaks badly, what will happen to those horseshoe crabs and those birds?
And even if everything goes perfectly, sonic testing is a routine part of marine oil and gas exploration. This involves blasting EXTREMELY LOUD noises at the sea floor, killing, maiming, or disorienting any marine life that happens to be in the way.
I went to the scoping meeting with Assateague Coastal Trust, and advocacy organization that stands up for the coastal bays of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. Although we knew the meeting would not include any formal opportunity to register our comments, we thought it would do some good for BOEM’s representatives to see and hear us. We arrived early so we and a group from Oceana, another organization, could have a rally out on the sidewalk. There were perhaps thirty of us, waving signs and toy windmills and waving at passing cars. Four people wore fish costumes (two striped bass, one weakfish, and one Atlantic sturgeon) and one wore a hazmat suit. Various reported spoke to us. Cars honked as they drove by. One of the Oceana people said our turn-out was much better than for some of the other scoping meetings that have already happened.
One of the BOEM people came out and told us it was fine for us to rally, but please don’t block the sidewalk or stand in front of the restaurant. We all scooted over cooperatively.
When we went in, the helpful, respectful treatment continued. They asked us to leave our signs behind the front desk, but we were allowed to carry our windmills in and wear our costumes. We got a lot of compliments on the fish. Everyone from BOEM was friendly and welcoming.
There were several information statements and we could wander around and ask questions at each station. We did so, and they answered our questions. They often asked whether their answers were helpful and clear. A few times some of them answered slightly different questions than what we had asked, a common evasive technique, but maybe they were simply trying to be clear when we asked questions that weren’t. Certainly, BOEM representatives frankly admitted to paying a lot of attention to the needs of the energy industry, something they surely would not have done if they were trying to greenwash themselves.
We didn’t see any members of “the public” at the meeting besides ourselves.
I was heartened by how friendly and helpful the BOEM people seemed. I believe them to be genuine. At the same time, it seemed abundantly clear the BOEM will not say no to the fossil fuel industry as a whole. If the industry wants to extract fuel from the Atlantic, BOAM will use its authority to direct that activity into the least destructive channels possible. It will not say that “least destructive” isn’t good enough.
The truth is that fossil fuel extraction is a given in our society.
But the other truth is that if BOEM hears mostly silence from the public on conservation and a deafening roar from the industry, they will have little choice but to side with industry. They live and work in a political and economic reality that won’t go away by wishing. It’s possible that the BOEM people were so friendly precisely because they welcome the intervention of environmentalists. Many of them are probably environmentalists themselves, fighting a war on the defensive, with very few tools. They need reinforcements badly. We can provide reinforcement by commenting.
They’ll accept comments until the end of the month. Go to http://boemoceaninfo.com/ for information or to comment online.