The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

BOEM Scoping, Part 2: Not in My Backyard

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Last week, I wrote about how BOEM, a US government agency, is currently accepting public comment about whether to allow oil and gas exploration off the coast of part of the Atlantic Seaboard.

The comment period runs to the end of this month. You can find more information, and you can comment online, here.  You can also comment on the other proposed leasing areas, most of which have already been open for drilling for a while, but if you think that should change, this is your chance to say so.

The reasons some of us don’t want the Atlantic opened for drilling are two-fold.

First, drilling means accidents, sooner or later, and we don’t want anywhere on the Atlantic coast contaminated with oil. I am particularly concerned about the horseshoe crabs. Delaware Bay has some of the most important spawning beaches for horseshoe crabs in the world. Their eggs, in turn, are a critical food source for the red knot, a migratory bird that makes a stop in Delaware to refuel. The red knot population is already crashing, and if the spawning beaches were oiled we could lose the species. Delaware and Maryland have not opted into the drilling program, so our waters are not being considered, but Virginia and North Carolina have. It’s not hard to imagine that a spill off the coast of their states could contaminate our waters.

Second, finding the oil and gas deposits involves blasting the seabed with extremely loud noise. This sonic testing is loud enough to kill or maim wildlife in its path, and to disturb wildlife lucky enough to be farther away. Some of that wildlife–whales, for example–are legally protected, so the oil and gas companies that want to do this testing must apply for a “take permit.” Essentially, they need to ask for permission to kill whales and other animals. Does this really make sense? Is oil and gas really worth the life of whales and dolphins? Do we want mass strandings of disoriented and deafened whales and dolphins dying on our beaches?

I don’t.

Go ahead: comment here.

We went into that meeting hoping to be able to get the Atlantic taken off the table for gas and oil entirely. This comment period is not the last opportunity to ask for that, but it is the most promising. We have the best shot right now that we’ll ever have. I left that meeting much less optimistic. I still say we should go for it; unexpected victories are possible, as long as David actually shows up to the battle with Goliath. But the reasons for my pessimism are important to discuss as well.

What I gathered, from meeting with the representatives of BOEM, was that BOEM is not the enemy (they were all very friendly and helpful) but that they work on the basic assumption that oil and gas exploration will happen. Their job, in their eyes, is to direct the process in such a way as to minimize harm. They may, for example, reduce the area available for lease so as to protect the horseshoe crabs, or to protect whale spawning grounds, as much as possible, and their sister agency, BSEE, will ensure that the drilling itself is done in the safest way possible given current technology. But they will not rule that drilling should not happen at all, even though that is the best way to protect our oceans and coasts, because drilling is a given for them.

As I said last week, I do not think BOEM should be vilified for this order of priorities. I even think it’s possible that the reason the BOEM representatives were so friendly to a group of obvious anti-drilling activists like us is that they want to say “no drilling,” and really hope we can give them the political cover to do that. Realistically, if they oppose the oil and gas industry too vociferously, the industry will likely respond by funding the election of Congressional candidates willing to defund or dismantle BOEM. And if the public does not care about whales and horseshoe crabs and tourism and fishing, those candidates will win. And then sonic testing and drilling will simply happen everywhere. BOEM is not the enemy. Ignorance and complacency are the enemy.

And the assumption that oil and gas exploration will happen is an enemy, an enemy largely created by the American people when they insist upon an economy based on fossil fuels no matter what.

What we’re looking at here is the concept of NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard. The phrase is sometimes used as an insult–someone is a nimby who wants to keep their own neighborhood clean for selfish reasons. I agree with the negative connotation as applied to people who are perfectly happy to mess up other people’s back yards instead. Someone who would rather get their electricity from a coal-fired plant elsewhere than from a wind farm that they have to look at is a nimby in the worst possible sense. But in other contexts, I think the nimbys have it right–certain things shouldn’t happen in anybody’s back yard.

I get in my car, turn the key, and drive to the grocery store, say. Is that trip really worth even a small contribution to sea level rise, species extinction, international conflict?

I tend to think that if anybody really put the matter frankly, this entire fossil fuel project would look like a really bad deal. Hey, let’s destroy whole mountains, pollute rivers, blow up small towns when oil trains explode, gum up birds and fish and poison coastlines when offshore well heads break or oil barges wreck, and warp the atmosphere so that sea level rises and a lot of people have their homes flattened by hurricanes, all so that a small minority of people can get rich and the rest of us can pretend we have a couple of spare planets available.

Sure.

We, in fact, make this deal by how we spend our money and how we vote and we do it because the chance of any of those awful consequences happening to us are very small. Most of the people who benefit from fossil fuels don’t experience injury from them directly. The costs are borne by a small number of people somewhere else. When those people object, they are called nimbys, basically for not being team players. The logic, it seems, is that what benefits a large number of people is worth the loss of life and livelihood of a few, especially if it’s not clear who those few are going to be–we don’t know where or when the next oil spill will happen, only that it will happen somewhere, sometime. Fossil fuel is like a reverse lottery, where everybody buys a ticket and whoever holds the winning number has their property stolen and distributed to everyone else. It looks quite fair from a certain perspective.

Or, we could build a society where one litmus test we apply to any technology or policy is that it not destroy anybody’s backyard.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

4 thoughts on “BOEM Scoping, Part 2: Not in My Backyard

  1. Pingback: Looking Back | The Climate Emergency

  2. Pingback: Sleepless in DC: Lobbying Against Oil and Gas Exploration in the Atlantic | The Climate Emergency

  3. Pingback: Um–YAY! | The Climate in Emergency

  4. Pingback: Whose Back Yard Should Get a Pipeline? | The Climate in Emergency

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