An Occasional Ramble by the Sea
February 1, 2006
By David Helvarg
Rigs to Wrecks to Spills –
The offshore oil industry has long advocated a program called ‘rigs to reefs’ that would allow them to save millions of dollars by toppling rather than removing played out production platforms. But 2005’s Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did one better, damaging or destroying over 167 Gulf rigs including 115 wrecks that remain out there, littering the Gulf. Many of them have floated loose like the one I saw in the surf on Dauphin Island, Alabama, while others sank and became hazards to navigation.
To date there’s been little media coverage of the massive oil spills that resulted from the storms. At least 9 million gallons fouled the Gulf according to an early Coast Guard report (Exxon Valdez totaled 11million gallons). Now Ben Raines of the Mobile Register reports on a little known spill of up to 3 million gallons that took place in November 30 miles off the Texas-Louisiana coast. On November 11 a double-hulled tanker barge collided with a submerged oil platform that had not been marked with the warning light buoys required by law. The barge’s fuel oil was heavy and apparently sank to the seafloor where it has probably done massive damage to benthic life before breaking up into small pea sized tar balls.
Stricken by the terrible waste –
Former offshore oil and gas industry supply executive turned Vice President Dick Cheney must feel awful about the terrible loss – of oil that is. According to an article in the New York Times the energy industry boom that has seen record profits in recent years has not translated into greater royalties for the U.S. Treasury. New rules recommended by Cheney’s energy task force, and enacted by the administration, have resulted in the loss of at least $700 million in natural gas royalties alone. They even extended royalty holidays in the Gulf’s deep waters to encourage “new drilling technologies” that first came on line in the 1970s. How about a federal fashion subsidy for bell-bottoms and wide lapels?
Requiem for a Whale –
The northern bottlenose whale that died January 21st during a rescue attempt after it swam up the Thames River, and the way its plight enthralled a nation and much of the world is a reflection of people’s fascination and empathy for marine wildlife.
Unfortunately many people who will risk life and limb to wade into waters where whales and dolphins have beached themselves in order to help keep them afloat are often unaware of the greater risks faced by creatures like the Northern Right Whale. These whales may soon go extinct because of ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear off the U.S. Atlantic Coast. Deep-ocean cetaceans such as the northern bottlenose also face death from military sonar, oil surveying and other human generated sound disturbances. Minke and other whales face violent deaths from meat hunting Japanese harpoon vessels that claim to be doing scientific research (and selling their research “subjects” for $35 a pound). Marine conservation and environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, NRDC, Seaflow, Earth Island, the Cetacean Society and others continue to work to increase public awareness of these threats.
NMFS of no service to whales –
Meanwhile documents released to the NRDC under a court order show that NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service changed its report on the stranding of 37 whales along North Carolina’s Outer Banks a year ago. The report first suggested Navy sonar may have played a role, but when NRDC went to court to have the report made public NOAA “updated” it, dropping all references to sonar. If you’re a reporter, don’t ask your local NOAA biologist what they think about this, they’re not allowed to answer your questions till they clear it through headquarters (see Blue Notes #20 – ‘NOAA’s Silent World’)
Conch Republic claims new “land.”
On Friday the 13th (of January) members of the ‘Conch Republic’ planted their flags on an abandoned ‘overseas highway bridge’ in the Keys, claiming it as their own. This followed a federal ruling that the bridge was not U.S. territory after 15 Cuban exiles landed on it (unless Cuban refugees actually touch U.S. territory they can’t claim asylum). With a tongue in shell attitude the Conch Republic was established on April 23rd 1982 when Key West’s mayor seceded from the United States, declared war, surrendered and demanded foreign aid, all on the same day. In the cause of full disclosure I should mention that the Conch Republic’s Secretary General Sir Peter Anderson and I both sit on the board of Reef Relief, the marine conservation group that works in the U.S., the Bahamas and the Conch Republic.
No oiled Sealskis! –
My friend Olga Berlova from SEU, the Socio-Ecological Union of Russia, sends notice that Lake Baikal, the deepest, largest volume lake in the world with its own species of fresh-water seals – close enough to an ocean for me – is now threatened by a huge oil-pipeline slated to run along its (seismically unstable) shore. SEU, along with others including California based Pacific Environment (www.pacificenvironment.org) have organized a letter writing campaign to Russian President Putin that seems to have gotten some initial response. A state science committee assessing the pipeline’s Environmental Impact has just declared the lake route unacceptable. That doesn’t mean they’ll change it without continued pressure however. Remember, Presidents Bush and Putin are self declared ‘soul mates.’
Global Ecological Disasters also bad for business –
Blue Frontier friend and long-time author and journalist Eugene Linden has an excellent article, “Cloudy with a Chance of Chaos,” in the new issue of Fortune magazine. In it he warns of a disturbing consensus emerging among key scientists that fossil-fuel fired climate change may prove more violent and sudden than previously believed (See Blue Notes #21). He points out how companies like BP and much of the global insurance industry are beginning to address the danger but also that the business community and most governments are not doing enough. The article is an adaptation of his new book ‘The Winds of Change – Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations (Simon & Schuster, 2006).
Flying Reefs –
If you haven’t seen the new 7-minute “Reef Etiquette” video on our bluefront.org website (produced by Ziggy Livnat and his “For the Sea Productions”) starting February 1st you can catch it playing on every Aloha Airlines flight into Hawaii. Just in case you were looking for a reason to hit the islands.
Realism amidst dying seas –
‘Are you hopeful?’ a marine policy student recently asked me. Given the cascading series of potential disasters facing our living seas I think we have to say that we don’t know if we can act quickly enough to turn the tide. It’s unclear if we can educate and mobilize the public soon enough to win the battle for life abundant – all we know for sure is if we don’t try we lose.
And Remember –
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