The Climate in Emergency

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


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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.

Lobbying

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.

 

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

On Wednesday, I went with a group of others to Washington DC to lobby against oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic. I will write more next week about the history of the issue and the specific political processes involved, but today I want to write about the experience of lobbying–something I’d never done before and had frankly not expected to ever do.

I also need to apologize for not posting on Tuesday–I was busy getting ready to going to DC.

I ended up on the expedition more or less by accident. My husband signed us up to go but then had to back out due to commitments elsewhere, leaving me to carry the family standard, as it were, to Washington, even though I had only the haziest idea of what “lobbying on Capitol Hill” actually meant. I figured I’d go and make the crowd at least look bigger and leave the talking to others.

But while I was fuzzy on lobbying, I was familiar with our cause–keeping oil and gas exploration out of the Atlantic. Wednesday’s events were a follow-up to the BOEM scoping meeting I wrote two posts about last year.

Wednesday began early for me.

I knew I had to get up at 3:45 at the very latest in order to meet the man I was giving a ride to and get both of us to DC in time for check-in and orientation at 7:30. I tend to need more sleep than average and while I got to bed earlier than usual, I knew it wasn’t early enough–I rarely have trouble sleeping, but getting myself to bed at a reasonable hour is a persistent struggle. So I was worrying about my impending sleep deprivation when I discovered my cell phone’s battery was down. I couldn’t remember whether its alarm function would work while it was charging. I went to bed with much trepidation.

And I lay in the dark, not sleeping, worrying about my alarm clock.

I think I slept an hour or two and not all of those minutes were in a row. I asked my passenger to be my driver instead, but I could not even sleep in the car. At one point I dissolved in helpless giggles, I forget why, my wonky, sleep-deprived brain behaving very much as though I’d been drinking. Eventually I got it together, but I had some concern about my performance for the day.

Actually, I did fine. My ignorance about lobbying turned out to be unfounded anyway, because my role was specifically to be an “ordinary person.” We went around in groups to the offices of various Congresspeople and the leader of each group would present our argument and then introduce us, the little people. We’d speak briefly and movingly about the threat from fossil fuel to our homes and livelihoods. Once or twice I lost my train of thought and had to apologize, explaining that I had not slept. The staffers were very understanding.

The staffers generally were very helpful and friendly. Several even made suggestions for how we could plead our case better. What surprised me was how much the Congressmembers who already agreed with us welcomed our visits. I had thought that once someone was on our side further contact would be seen as redundant. Certainly that is how it works in ordinary discourse; if you came to me and said “oil and gas exploration are bad” and I said “yes, I know, I agree,” I wouldn’t want you to keep reiterating your point. I’d say “didn’t you hear me? I said yes!” In politics, evidently, it’s different.

The issue is that the members who already object to oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic are under constant pressure from other lobbyists to change their minds. Since being in Congress means doing what your constituents want, members are eager to hear from constituents whose views they share.

The experience of lobbying taught me many things–most of which I’ll get into in next week’s post. Basically I got a window into how politics in Washington actually work. It’s not the passionate and impersonal generalities we often see from the outside, where you’re either for climate sanity or against it and in the pocket of the Koch brothers. Instead, it is specific decisions made by specific people based on a suite of considerations. If you’re friendly and polite and you speak to a Congressmember’s own interest and priorities, he or she might just say yes.


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Your Tuesday Update: An Action in Washington

A group of activists are currently part-way through an 18 day water-only fast to protest prioritization of fossil fuels by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). They hope to convince the commissioners to take their concerns about climate, due process, and justice seriously and also to draw public attention to what they see as  FERC’s failure to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. I have not researched the matter myself, but I am inclined to believe they are right about FERC.

The demonstration ends on the day Pope Francis addresses Congress about climate change. There will be an associated climate rally in Washington DC  on the morning of September 24th. There is no way I can go as I have just learned of the event today and I will be nowhere near DC, but please go, if you can. Make some noise, show Congress that we are serious (again) and somebody tell me how it goes so I can post about it on here.

To read more about both the fast and the rally, click here.

The stuff about the rally is on the second page.


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We Hold These Truths

It’s been an interesting week for freedom.

In the wake of the Charleston shooting, America has begun discussing the Confederate flag, grappling with the paradoxical legacy of a second declaration of independence organized specifically around retaining the “right” of slavery. The aftermath of the same tragedy gave us the unforgettable sound of the President of the United States of America, the most powerful man on Earth speaking–and singing–as a black man, in a country where that is still not a safe thing to be.

We also got the wonderful news that the US Supreme Court had ruled in favor of same-sex marriage–and almost at the same moment, certain conservative forces began plotting how they might exercise a different kind of freedom by ignoring or subverting the ruling.

And now, American Independence Day itself is fast approaching, a time I like to use, not for patriotic veneration of the Stars and Stripes, but for contemplation of history, especially of how and why our cultural ancestors acted as they did and made this country.

In this spirit, then, I want to call the reader’s attention to a different Declaration of Independence, written by Alec Loorz as a means to call for action on climate change:

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to rid themselves of an energy system that has been found to threaten their lives and liberties, it is only decent that they should declare the causes of separation from the dependence on Fossil Fuels.

We, the youth of these United States, know that some truths are self-evident: that all people are created Equal and that they have certain inalienable Rights: especially the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Because of our addiction to fossil fuels, the Earth has been pushed out of balance and suffers from Global Warming.  The effects of that warming include extreme weather shifts, more frequent natural disasters, melting ice caps and glaciers, global sea level rise, diminishing food and water supplies, and habitat loss.  These problems put the Children of this and every Nation, thousands of entire Species of animals and plants, and Future Generations in danger of losing their rights to Life, Liberty and Happiness.

So, when the burning of fossil fuels has been shown to cause Global Climate Change, it is time for those most affected to stand up and to demand change. We call for change from our cities, our states, and from our Nation.  And we commit to change ourselves.

Therefore, We, the youth of the United States of America, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of this Country, solemnly publish and declare, that we, as a Community, ought to be Free and Independent from lifestyles and forms of energy that cause Global Climate Change.

We Implore our Leaders to build of a Secure Future, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent People may of right do to build a more Sustainable and Just Society. And for the support of this Declaration, we mutually pledge our Commitment, our Passion and our sacred Struggle for Equality and Justice.

Moving, no?

But without in any way criticizing Mr. Loorz’ work, I find it important to point out certain differences between his document and the one it was clearly intended to echo.

The first paragraph of each is essentially equivalent to the other; Thomas Jefferson acknowledged that when a people does something as radical as to unilaterally declare its independence, some explanation is in order. Mr. Loorz used similar wording to likewise offer an explanation. Mr. Jefferson goes on to assert what was at the time a very radical principle–that sovereignty rests with the people, whom government exists to serve, not the other way around. The Declaration of Independence from Fossil Fuels contains no such iconoclasm, but that is because it didn’t need any–the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness provide justification enough. Both documents enumerate a list of reasons for taking action, although Mr. Loorz’ list is much shorter.

But the critical difference lies in the fourth paragraph: “when the burning of fossil fuels has been shown to cause Global Climate Change, it is time for those most affected to stand up and to demand change. We call for change from our cities, our states, and from our Nation.” Structurally, its equivalent in the original is “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled…do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”

See the distinction?

Both writers used the because of A, B, and C, we therefore do D structure common to most legal declarations, but where Mr. Jefferson’s D was to unilaterally declare independence, Mr. Loorz simply asked somebody else to do a better job of leadership. In other words, it’s not a declaration at all: it’s a request. And, so far, the request has been denied, as most such requests are.

There is nothing wrong with making such a request, indeed, the signers of the original Declaration of Independence sent several requests for better treatment to their King, before finally deciding to take matters into their own hands. As Mr. Jefferson  acknowledged, revolution is such a major step that it should not be taken lightly, but only when there is no other reasonable choice. Then, too, Mr. Loorz was a teenager when he penned his request, and he was writing on behalf of other teenagers and of children. He and his colleagues could not reasonably declare unilateral independence from what amounts to the American economy since they were themselves still dependent on their parents (most of whom, we can assume, are still embedded in that economy). An impassioned request was probably their best move.

But what would a true declaration of independence from fossil fuels look like? I mean, aside from its literary form.

First, to declare independence, one must actually be independent. As John Adams later described, American independence was not something one on the battlefield but rather something that grew in the hearts and minds of the people. Britain tried to stop the independence, failed, and then admitted that they had failed by recognizing our government  as legitimate–but that recognition did not create our independence, it only ended the war. To declare independence from fossil fuel, one must first become independent from these fuels. Some individuals have done that–and some communities are in the process of working towards it.

Have any communities of significant size achieved independence? I do not know. If and when some do, it’s possible they’ll be some push-back–gunboats blockading New York Harbor seem unlikely, but expect lawsuits, arrests, jail time. Being opposed by “the establishment” is a sign that one is having some success.

The point is that one does not, cannot ask to be independent from anything–one simply becomes independent, and then announces that fact to others. As Mr. Jefferson wrote, it is decent to let the world know why this step is necessary–especially since the very fact that the declaration is necessarily suggests that the principles on which it rests may not yet be universally understood and accepted.

And so, let me say this; the radical truth that we hold self-evident is that short-term economic gain does not outweigh the good of the disenfranchised, the people of the future, or than planet as a whole. Indeed, it is the other way around.