The Climate in Emergency

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

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I was just scrolling through my email in-box and social media accounts, not expecting to see very much, when I clicked on something I thought was probably spam. It wasn’t.

You know that whole struggle I’ve been talking about for a year to get the Atlantic taken out of consideration for oil and gas exploration? The subject of this post and this one and this one and this one? Well, we just won.

To quote from the celebratory letter I just received from Oceana:

Today is not only an incredible day for the oceans, but also for democracy. It’s proof that good old fashioned grassroots organizing makes a difference.  Local leaders make a difference, no matter if you are a private citizen, business owner or elected official, without you this would never have happened.

When the administration was asked to consider input from East Coast stakeholders and local residents – they did. When the administration was asked to listen to fishing and tourism interests along the coast – they did. When the administration was asked to support local constituents instead of Big Oil – they did.

As of today, 110 East Coast municipalities, over 100 Members of Congress, more than 750 state and local elected officials, and  roughly 1,100 business interests have all publicly opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic blasting, citing threats to marine life, coastal communities and local economies….All of your hard work and voices have been heard. Every single call, email, letter to the editor, press conference, rally, sign on letter WORKED. Every single community gathering mattered in this historic fight, from organized statehouse meetings and community rallies to strategic stakeholder meetings and strategy meetings in town halls or church basements.

The related issue of seismic testing continues–these tests, which pose a serious threat to marine life, have not yet been banned in the Atlantic, and the whole question may recur on the next five-year planning cycle, but as the email-writer pointed out, “this is a day for celebration.”

I know most of the issues in this fight, which has centered around pollution, might seem a little far afield of climate change, which is the sole focus of this blog. However, if fossil fuels can’t come out of the ground, they can’t be burned. This is an example of think globally/act locally. The threats to the entire planet are scary, but a little diffuse. Most of us do not have the power to act on a global scale anyway. But we can act on local or regional scales, and what the fight against climate change looks like on the ground is often a long serious of arguments about things like the possible impact of pollution on a single salt marsh or the type of street lights installed in a single neighborhood. Win enough of these, and we win the world.

The other reason I’m psyched right now is that this is evidence that getting involved matters. It’s easy to get discouraged and cynical, to believe that “they” are simply in charge, the game is rigged, and none of us have a chance to make a difference. But none of that is true. Sometimes the system does work. Other times it can be changed. And we do have friends and allies who can jump in this fight with us, including not only the many people who got involved in this particular fight at ground level but also many of the Congress-members we lobbied and President Obama himself. There are victories.

Don’t let anyone tell you there aren’t.


Sleepless in DC II: Lobbying Against Oil and Gas Exploration in the Atlantic

The other week I wrote about my unexpected experience as a lobbyist for a day. I was one of of a group of “ordinary people” brought in by an activist group so that Congress members could put a human face on the opposition to oil and gas exploration. But my first article focused on my subjective experience. Now I want to talk about the details of what we were in Washington to do and how the process of lobbying works, at least based on my limited experience of it.

The Issue

Although the United States Government is generally supportive of fossil fuel use, there are limits–permits companies must obtain, leases they must take out, and regulations they must abide by. And not all places are even available for energy exploration. What we were doing in Washington was attempting to keep the Atlantic out of consideration for fossil fuel.

It’s not that that any of us really want new oil and gas exploration anywhere, but as residents of the Atlantic coast we have special standing to object to it on our doorstep. The mid-Atlantic coast specifically is an important stop for migratory birds–it’s almost not an exaggeration to say that the avian population of half of Canada funnels through here every spring and fall. We also have the densest concentration of spawning horseshoe crabs in the world every spring. We see whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles from our beaches. Maryland’s coastal economy depends entirely on fishing and tourism. An oil spill would be very, very bad here. The relevant regulatory agencies talk about ensuring safety, and they may well be sincere in their efforts, but even if the chance of a major accident is low for any given installation in any given year, given enough installations and enough years, a big spill is almost inevitable. And minor leaks, the kind that don’t make the news, are actually close to routine. We don’t want any.

It is true that Maryland’s coastal shelf is not being considered for oil and gas exploration–but Virginia’s is, and spilled oil does not respect state lines.

Maryland’s waters are under consideration for seismic testing, a method of searching for possible gas and oil deposits by blasting the seabed with very loud noise–it’s a kind of super-intense sonar. These noises are loud enough to kill marine animals who find themselves in the way. Others may be injured or disoriented and die later as a result. Unlike drilling, which in theory does not pose an environmental problem (the problem occurs when accidents happen, as we know they will), seismic testing definitely and inevitably kills animals, including marine mammals who are otherwise legally protected–part of the permitting process for the procedure includes a permit to kill these animals. We do not want this, either.

I admit I do not sound like a journalist at the moment. While I do not attempt the ritualistic objectivity practiced by newspeople, I seldom write about my personal opinion as such. This blog does not comment on matters unrelated to climate change and seldom takes a position on matters that fairly require judgment. So why am I writing now about pollution and animal welfare (important issues usually outside the scope of this blog) and who is this “we” I write of?

“We” is the group of people who have been involved in the protests I’m talking about. We’re not a formal, organized group (although several such groups are involved), but this isn’t something I do on my own, so it feels weird to say “I” when discussing it. As to why I’m talking about these issues–no, the topic is not carbon emissions, but without fossil fuel extraction there would be no fossil fuel use and anthropogenic climate change would not be an issue. Or, put it another way, the price of abundant energy includes not only the devastation of climate change itself but also oiled birds, gummed-up marshes, and deafened dolphins somewhere. Oil spills and climate change are inextricably linked.

The Process

Every five years, the Federal government issues a list of which areas are available for oil and gas extraction and which are not. These are large-scale decisions, lumping the coastal waters of many states into single blocks. The process is always one of reduction. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, begins by making a list of regions to be considered for inclusion. The governors of states within those regions can then opt out and some do. BOEM then solicits public feedback on the map of remaining areas and based on that feedback, more areas might be excluded from consideration. Then BOEM submits the new proposal to Congress, which approves it (Congress has the power to say no, but apparently never does), whereupon BOEM solicits public feedback again and then uses that feedback to write a final plan.

Even within that plan, BOEM does not lease out every acre, only certain blocks. And energy companies don’t drill everywhere in their leased blocks. They may actually lease a block and then decide not to drill there. At each step, the area available for drilling gets smaller–but at each step it gets harder and harder to get areas removed from consideration.

Last year, I joined a group of other activists at a scoping meeting facilitated by BOEM as part of the initial feedback process. Our purpose was to demonstrate our opposition publicly and to educate ourselves about the details of the situation (formal feedback was collected online, not at the meeting). As far as we can tell, BOEM decided not to alter the plan based on our feedback, but in the months since what had been sporadic resistance has become a vociferous movement all up and down the middle and southern reaches of the Atlantic seaboard. Whole towns have disavowed the plan. With such grassroots support, an environmental group called Oceana decided to ask members of Congress to intervene by asking members of BOEM, or others in the Administration, to drop the Atlantic from the plan before submitting it to Congress.

I was among the group of a few hundred people who converged on Washington several weeks ago to ask individual Congressmembers to get involved.


Before this event, I’d heard the phrase “lobbying on Capitol Hill” before, but it was like one of those words, like “admixture” or “indigent,” that you think you know, of course you know, but cannot actually define. I’d been to Washington DC before, but only to join political protests or to visit museums. I’d had little sense of how the place works, either as a human community or as a group of interrelated institutions. So, again, there was this sense of vague familiarity, of having seen all these grand buildings many times without really clearly knowing what people do inside them (except in a very general way–I do know how the US government works!).

In case I’m not alone in this confusion, allow me to share a few points:

“Capitol Hill” is, in fact, a low hill upon which sits the Capitol Building and several other rather august buildings, and a residential neighborhood. The offices of the members of Congress are distributed among the Capitol Building itself and two unusually attractive office blocks, all linked by a system of underground passages and above-ground ordinary sidewalks. To work “on Capitol Hill” means to have legitimate business in those buildings.

“To lobby” originally meant to stand around in the lobby of a certain hotel waiting for government officials to make themselves available so you can try to talk them in to one thing or another. The word “lobbyist” has a rather nefarious connotation, but while I’m not saying all lobbying is benign, some of it clearly is. Lobbyists are professional relationship-makers. Their job is to know the members of Congress and their staff personally, to know what constitutes “polite and friendly” behavior in such circles, and to know how to present issues in terms of each member’s actual interests. A good lobbyist knows who cares about the environment for its own sake and who cares more about the economic ramifications of an oil spill. A good lobbyist also knows which Representative is utterly focused on his or her district and who is looking for statewide support ahead of an upcoming Senate race. Without that knowledge and skill, the chance of being listened to on Capitol Hill is very slim–not because lobbyists themselves are manipulative, but simply because they are pleasant to talk to and they get to the point.

“Our” lobbyist, the Oceana employee shepherding our group from office to office, was Will, a charming, confident young man in a stylish black suit and coat. I assume that Will is short for “William,” and so the entire time I was in his company I had “I’m Just a Bill on Capitol Hill,” from Schoolhouse Rock, stuck in my head. As a gesture of respect I decided not to tell him so. I’m sure he gets it a lot.

The Event

So, on a snowy day in January, a few hundred of us from all up and down the East Coast collected in a conference room of one of the Capitol Hill office buildings for welcoming speeches, a briefing, and some fruit and baked goods. Then we broke up into groups by state, with each group led by one or two lobbyists or experienced activists. All of the meetings had been prearranged, but some of the arrangements changed at the last minute because of the snow and other issues.

Our Maryland group set out to communicate with both our Senators and also with those Representatives whose distracts included coastline. In all but one case, we met with staffers, not the actual Member (I noticed that members of Congress are always called Members, with an audible capital M and no modifier). The staffers were not mere functionaries; their responsibilities include deciding whose request has which priority, so if you want the Member to hear about you sometime before 2027, you have to be nice to the staffer. But being nice to the staffers was easy–they’re all friendly, energetic, personable folks.

Will suggested we be discrete about talking strategy while we were in the halls of government. Nothing we were doing was actually secret, or, as I understand it, unusual, but he did not want the details of our conversations to enter the local rumor mill–apparently, Capitol Hill is like one of those small towns where everybody knows everybody else’s business. Our being talked about was a complication our cause didn’t need. I am following the same suggestion now by being a little vague.

So, we talked to staffers and one Member–a personable fellow who impressed me by knowing where Newark, Maryland is, something most people who live five miles up the road can’t manage–and found everyone friendly and helpful. Our message wasn’t news to anybody, thanks to Will, who had been carefully laying groundwork. I had expected that if the Member disagreed with us his or her office might be coolly polite or even hostile and that if the Member already supported us his or her office might be impatient. Like, yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time! I was wrong on both counts.

Those who agreed with us wanted us to keep up the pressure, even intensify it, in order to give them the political cover to do what they wanted to do anyway. They’re public servants, so doing what their constituents want is their job. Those who disagreed wanted us to stay involved and to speak to their interests because, again, it is their job to be responsive. We did tailor our “ask” to our audience–in some cases we asked that the Member call someone in the Administration to request active intervention in the plan-writing process, in other cases we merely requested he or she keep an open mind towards us. We gave each Member a packet on information on the issue and how it related to his or her constituents. Mostly Will did the asking. Our job was to speak briefly and movingly of our homes and what would happen if they were covered in oil.

Do I paint an overly rosy picture of the halls of government? Perhaps–I’m giving everyone I met that day the benefit of the doubt, certainly. But at the same time I do not mean to describe Capitol Hill as a place of warm and wise cooperation among everybody. I do not mean to deny the disproportionate influence of money or the existence of backdoor deals. What I wish to deny is the common misconception of Congress as a monolithically corrupt place full of people who have the power to do exactly what we want but choose not to for nefarious reasons. Reality is more complex, more nuanced than that. More than anything else that day I was struck by how human, how interpersonal. a system it is, and how much might depend on people simply being nice to each other–not in the sense of quid pro quo or wheeling and dealing in favors, but simply because nice people are more fun to talk to. If you talk to someone they can tell you what they want and why and you might end up agreeing with them.

Lobbying on Capitol Hill means getting to know people and talking to them.



BOEM Scoping, Part 2: Not in My Backyard

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.


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.


BOEM Scoping Part 1: Comments Needed

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.

The Situation

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

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.

The Event

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.

The Takeaway

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 for information or to comment online.