Blue Energy vs. Blue Activists?
October 17, 2007
By David Helvarg
Almost everyone now seems to agree with Nobel Prize winner Al Gore that the world must make a rapid transition from fossil fuels (see Blue Notes #32, “Eight Climate Disasters on the Seven Seas”). The ocean contains vast amounts of power in the form of wind, waves, tides, currents, biomass and thermoclines (ocean thermal energy). Unfortunately, to harness that energy in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way will take more than smart engineering and underwater turbines like those being tested in New York’s East River.
Our public seas belong to all of us, and their retooling–from offshore oil and gas to non-carbon energy–will require vast political will. The worst-case scenario will see more fiascos like the Cape Wind Project in Nantucket Sound, where well-heeled local opposition derailed (or deturbined) a major offshore wind farm, even as half a dozen permit applications for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) fossil fuel terminals move forward across the region.
Unfortunately, the emerging ocean-energy industry is not doing much to reach out to seaweed activists, maritime unions and other potential allies. This summer they held the “Energy Ocean Conference ’07” at Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu. Because of that hotel’s expansion along the north shore and their anti-labor history, it remains hugely unpopular with Hawaii’s environmentalists and labor activists. While lawyers and seaweed activists Stuart Smits and Jack Sterne were there to tell the gathered engineers and investors that they needed to reach out to a larger blue constituency, other lawyers were sending the wrong message that given the urgency of their cause they should look to (Bush –administration-style) waivers of environmental law and regulation.
Seaweed activists, on the other hand, can no longer afford to take a NIMBO (Not In My Bay or Ocean) attitude about the need for clean marine energy. What is needed is cross-sector dialogue and common strategies to move forward. Blue Frontier has talked about being part of an initial meeting of ocean energy folks and blue activists to start the water wheel rolling. We would then like to see larger meetings of seaweed activists, scientists, engineers and others to talk about how we 1) inform the public about the links between ocean and climate, and 2) develop a common message focused on solutions that we can all be a part of.
We have to start addressing these new energy challenges rather than just sticking with our ocean legacy issues if we’re to find a sustainable path that also protects our living seas.
Army Corps sounds the retreat?
Under the category of anything is possible, the Army Corps of Engineers, famed for their propensity to mix beaver and warrior genes in the creation of flood walls that fail, now seems to be promoting a planned retreat response to rising seas and storms that threaten America’s coastal flood-zone residents. An initial voluntary program would buy up to 17,000 homes and other properties along the Mississippi Gulf Coast that were smashed and flooded by Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Army Corps will submit the $10 billion project proposal to Congress at the end of the year, according to the LA Times, but locals along the coast are only now learning about it and many say they’d rather stay and rebuild in harm’s way.
I remember meeting with the director and staff of the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs Mississippi just after Katrina. Even though they were on a 20-foot bluff, much of the lab had been flooded and major buildings destroyed. Over some MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) rations they discussed the idea of planned retreat, of creating a waterfront parkland buffer for the town. A vice chancellor from the University of Southern Mississippi objected, suggesting the town would need the tax revenue from rebuilding on the beach once the rubble was cleared.
But planned retreat has worked for places like Hilo, Hawaii, whose downtown was twice devastated by tsunamis before they got smart and moved it back, creating a 300-acre waterfront park. The creation of the park led to the clean-up and recovery of Hilo Bay, which is today the pride of that Aloha City.
In 2000, FEMA produced a study suggesting one out of four houses built within 500 feet of the coast will be destroyed by 2060. Which raises the question, if the Army Corps can get it right, could even FEMA help prevent and manage emergencies?
Ferry Good News from Kauai
In July, I flew with a Coast Guard helicopter crew over the stunning garden island of Kauai and then over the 350-foot long Hawaii Superferry, a high-speed multi-million-dollar catamaran designed to carry 850 passengers and 300 vehicles. Seeing its shakedown cruise underway, I had a moment of despair, accepting that Hawaii would soon take its next step toward becoming Miami. There would be a highway like surge of cars from the city island of Oahu to Maui, Kauai and, in 2009, the Big Island. Conservationists had warned this would mean more outer island traffic, pollution, development, the spread of invasive species like the Coqui frog, overfishing and inevitable whale strikes by giant ferries, all to no avail.
But I underestimated Kauai’s seaweed rebels, who took to the water in late August to block the inaugural passage of the Ferry to their home (an island “never conquered”). On shore, on surfboards, and swimming into the harbor they turned the ship around despite some aggressive maneuvering by three coast guard vessels. (It was suggested they’d have done better arresting the Ferry’s Captain). Indeed the Superferry Company had moved its sailing date up after the state Supreme Court, responding to a lawsuit by other seaweed rebels, ruled they had to carry out an environmental assessment that state bureaucrats had waived.
On October 9, after public hearings in which 1,000 residents spoke out against the Superferry, a Maui Judge ruled that it couldn’t sail anywhere until it’s environmental impacts were understood. The company CEO then laid off most of his employees and threatened to pull his ferries (a second is under construction and a third planned) out of Hawaii unless the legislature fixed things for them. Not surprisingly, the Honolulu Advertiser now reports company officials donated more than $175,000 over three years to the election campaigns of top state officials. What amazes me is that with the price of everything so high in Hawaii, politicians still remain such a relative bargain. Oh yes, the other surprising thing is how people power can still prevail.
Bad News and Noise for Whales
Five dead whales, including three giant blue whales, washed up on California’s golden shore last month. One of the deaths was determined to be from a natural, though bloody, cause: a humpback calf attacked by orcas (that’s why these black and white cetaceans are called killer whales not panda whales). Another was the victim of parasitic and bacterial infection that could be considered natural, only with more harmful algal blooms linked to industrial and agricultural runoff (not to mention warming Petri –dish-like seas), it’s hard to say. The three blue whales, out of some 1,700 thought to remain in the north Pacific, ranged in size from 69 to 78 feet long. Scientists believe they were victims of ship strikes in southern California’s shipping lanes rather than Navy sonar exercises taking place off San Diego as first suspected.
Navy sonar has been repeatedly linked to whale deaths, particularly those of deepwater beaked whales. Now the Navy is funding a multi-year study of the little-known beaked whales led by NOAA acoustics specialist Brandon Southall. His team will be testing whale responses at considerably lower noise levels than Navy sonar (to avoid harming their subjects). And since the Navy won’t be providing actual sonar signals, they’ll also have to make do with synthesized approximations. Still, the Navy has taken a first step, committing $6 million or almost 1/19,000th of their budget (of $115 billion) to study the implications of their actions. Only 11 steps to go.
A Whale of a Deal
New World Library, the new publisher of our book50 Ways to Save the Ocean (which is praised by Sylvia Earle, Bob Ballard, Bobby Kennedy Jr., Ted Danson, Leon Panetta and the other usual salty suspects) has agreed a deal is a deal. If you’re a nonprofit, you can still purchase 10 to 10,000 copies for only 40 percent of the $12.95 cover price (that’s $5.18 per book, plus shipping). That way, you can help educate the public while making a tidy profit for your blue or other organization (120 of which are listed in the book’s resource section). For more info. contact newworldlibrary.com firstname.lastname@example.org
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