Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Big Blue: Don't Spill on Me

The blue whale is the largest animal to ever live on earth. As an endangered species, she serves to highlight the crisis of the world's oceans. Last week, my recently acquired used pick-up served to ferry the world's only full-scale replica from the NC mountains to the Sea Party Coalition's rally in DC last week their kick-off for making ocean health a campaign issue in the upcoming 2016 election. The key focus is stopping oil drilling and sonar exploration off the Atlantic seaboard (President Obama's recent directive through the EPA to halt Arctic drilling, which was a twin goal, narrowed the focus. Thank you, Mr. President.) The press conference was on the Mall in front of the reflecting pool, with the 85-foot whale as backdrop, joined by sundry sea brethren in costume. While only about 60 people attended, the quality of both the speakers and audience was high.

It was a practically windless day, which was really important, since the inflated whale is like a huge balloon, primed for airborne. It was very warm, in the mid to upper seventies, a record for DC on November 4. My friend Michael Fishbach, director of the Great Whale Conservancy, oversaw the protracted set-up process, which was made much easier by the Capitol Police allowing me to drive the truck on footpaths around the reflecting pool to the precise spot we wanted the whale. It weights well over 300 pounds, and we were shorthanded at the beginning of the morning. After offloading the whale and the ballast tubes that support it, the generator for inflating it, and the sandbags for holding it down should a sudden breeze descend, the inflation process went smoothly, since the balance of our crew arrived shortly afterwards, joined by interested bystanders and guests for the event. It was a stunningly beautiful day.

Three congressmen spoke, two Republican and one Democrat. Sam Farr (D) of Monterey, CA is a longtime oceans champ, and pointed to the success of turning the situation off Monterey around after the collapse of their fisheries due to overuse. His theme of the greater value of ocean tourism to collapsed fisheries and degraded oceans and beaches was echoed throughout the morning. In Monterey's case, the fisheries, carefully controlled, are finally coming back, along with the continuing boom in ocean-related tourism.

The other two congressmen (R), Curt Clawson from Florida's 19th district, and the rehabilitated playboy Mark Sanford of SC, stressed the economics as well. They reminded the audience that there were more jobs and money in ocean tourism than in oil exploration and development, no matter what the strikes. But they have their work cut out for them in persuading their colleagues on the red side of the aisle to join them in saying NO to offshore oil exploration. We in NC know the slippery slope that opens precariously when one tries to be “fair” and let industry “at least do the preliminary studies.” This has put us in a dangerous situation in terms of explorations for fracking natural gas deposits of dubious merit in south-central NC. But it is certainly encouraging that two congressmen from the mostly-pristine beaches along the southern Atlantic Coast have come out early for a five year ban on any offshore exploration.

NC Senator Burr attended coastal community hearings about proposed drilling shortly before the Sea Party press conference. Neither he nor the five NC congressional reps I invited came last Wednesday. One staffer, for Mark Meadows in my home 11th district, did meet with me, but said the congressman was non-commital on the issue. Burr has yet to take a stand, which may be a significant one for him, since he is up for re-election in 2016. The NC coastal plain is strongly Republican, and many of the frontline coastal communities are opposed to any drilling.

The three congressmen were followed by an impressive crew of scientists, activists, and journalists. The South Atlantic was represented a by a spirited crew of women from South Carolina low country who represented SODA, Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. They were spearheaded by a very forceful woman, Peg Howell, aka “Company Man,” from the time that she was the head of a Chevron rig in the Gulf. As a geologist and experienced “oilman,” she was able to refute all the industry claims for the benefits of offshore drilling. Wilmington's Bonnie Monteleone, aka “plastic woman,” spoke of how ubiquitous plastic was in the ocean, at every level and of all sizes. Fittingly, she called it the “first oil spill.” She will soon accompany the first woman (or person) to attempt to swim the Atlantic (!), taking samples all the way, in a 76' boat. She was a ball of fire, really exciting the audience in a rousing speech.

Michael Stocker from the Ocean Conservancy is an expert on sonar and its effects on marine populations. His account of the overwhelming damage that sonic guns have on aquatic animals, especially cetaceans, was very difficult to take in. I knew it was bad, but blasts every three minutes, 24 hours a day, makes it clear that we are looking at ecocide. Some of the Sea Party's sponsor organizations are in talks with the Navy about their use of this technology. To have the oil industry pile on even more of this maniacal activity is unthinkable. Stocker had the sound man play a background tape of cetacean communications, eerily beautiful music, overtaken towards the end by sonic booms. The message got through, as the crowd hushed a long moment before applauding him. But we are the choir. It was good to have the minority staffer of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee present to guide us in how an NGO could communicate more successfully with the Navy and its hierarchical structure. This is what I mean by audience quality.

Many others testified, including stalwart Greenpeace and the American Surfing Society, who have sponsored a surfboard bearing thousands of signatures against Atlantic drilling, now making its was to the Capitol. Michael Fishbach spoke of the challenges faced by the remnant 10,000 blue whales, who are barely holding their own after a drastic decrease in their once-abundant numbers. He also spoke of the importance of these magnificent creatures to ocean ecology, based upon their ability to “bioengineer” their food source, krill, through whale feces, which work as a “whale pump” to bring nutrients needed by the krill from lower depths to the surface.

Richard Cizik, a deeply spiritual, scientifically grounded and intelligent political observer, spoke of his personal epiphany many years go which led him to earthcare. I first learned of Richard when his interview with Terry Gross on NPR caused him to be fired as the VP for political communications of the Evangelical Alliance, and have heard him speak at events sponsored by the Interfaith Moral Action Committee, IMAC. He felt like an old friend, and we had a good talk. He spoke eloquently of the imperative to earth stewardship in a time when we are overwhelming the remnant of God's Garden.

And Bill McKibben was there. He arrived early and stayed late, leaving to help boost his friend Bernie Sanders' event taking place on the other side of the Capitol. He spoke only briefly, but made the key point that it's not just for the sea critters and the tourists that we shouldn't drill off the Atlantic Coast. The truth is that we need to leave fossil fuel “where the good Lord put it and intended it to stay” because we can't resist burning it when extracted, adding to the intolerable CO2 burden of the planet.

In concluding remarks, David Helvarg, director of Bluefront, the Sea Party sponsor, joined other speakers in reckoning this battle winnable. I think he is right, because it already has bipartisan support, and the target area is the South Atlantic, which is largely Republican. This may be one of the few issues on which partisans can agree. But action will probably wait for the new government that will be seated in January 2017. The folks I met November 4 will not rest until we win this one.

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