Innovation Ecosystem

The siren song of oil

The efforts by the Trump administration in 2018 to open up the U.S. coastline to oil and gas exploration is the latest episode in a decades-long battle

Photo by Richard Asinof

Rep. Aaron Regunberg, right, joins with protesters outside the Marriott on Orms Street on Feb. 28. Inside, protesters set up their own "informational" hearing to protest the proposal by the Trump administration to open up U.S. coastal waters to oil and natural gas exploration.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/5/18
When it comes to oil and gas exploration along the U.S. coastal waters, the song remains much the same as it did 40 years ago, with the same slick salesman who once pitched burning industrial wastes at sea now selling the scheme of the U.S. Bureau of Energy Management.
Will local and state officials be able to turn the tide and prevent the potentially disastrous federal plans from moving forward? Is there a way for those protesting gun violence to find common ground with environmental activists fighting the U.S. Interior Department plans for ocean exploration? Can the economic arguments about investments in renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and energy efficiency provide an effective challenge to the Trump administration? What kinds of democratic strategies engaging with local citizens can be deployed in a way to make the political consequences of supporting the Interior Department’s plans unpalatable in an election year?
One of the big stories well below the radar screen is the effort by utilities, supported by both R.I. Gov. Gina Raimondo and Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker, to build a power line to facilitate the importation of hydropower from Quebec’s James Bay project. At first blush, it would seem as if the plan would fit into the formula to purchase hydropower under the renewable energy mandate.
In reality, it would undercut the investments the job-creating solar energy industry and ocean wind industry, as well as stymie efforts to build a modern electric grid that is more sustainable and resilient.

PROVIDENCE – The protests that marked the public meeting held by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Feb. 28, in opposition to the National Outer Continental Oil and Gas Leasing Program and Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement Process, included an ugly reminder of environmental nightmares past.

The chief environmental officer for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management was none other than William Y. Brown, who in 1986 had served as director of marine affairs of Waste Management Inc., in charge of selling that firm’s efforts to promote ocean incineration, burning industrial wastes at sea.

The plan being pitched by Brown at the time was to have Chemical Waste Management, a division of Waste Management Inc., to test burn some 700,000 gallons of liquid waste containing polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs]. The burn, if approved, was to take place aboard the Vulcanus II, the company’s specially designed ocean incineration vessel, while it sailed in circles some 140 miles off Maryland’s coast.

Fortunately, the permit was denied. Unfortunately, none of the other reporters covering the protest had any idea about Brown’s past sordid history.

A deep dive
Thirty-two years ago, in 1986, ConvergenceRI had written a story published in Environmental Action magazine, entitled “The Nation’s Dumpster,” that began: “With his easy smile and soft voice, William Y. “Bill” Brown is a charmer… He’s the front man for the world’s largest hazardous waste disposal company, busily promoting ocean incineration.”

The backdrop for the “need” for ocean incineration was that Waste Management had been fined millions by both state and federal agencies for illegally disposing and storing PCBs at its Vickery, Ohio, and Emelle, Ala., sites.

“There is a national need to do this,” Brown claimed at a 1986 hearing in Philadelphia. “It’s an easy issue to scare people on. But there are more dangerous chemicals moving up and down the Delaware River every day than our ship will carry on its research run.”

Fast forward to 2018, and there was Brown again, engaging with protesters at the Marriott. “Your voice does matter,” he said, as reported by Tim Faulkner with ecoRI News.

According to Faulkner’s account, Brown told the crowd that he and other BOEM employees were not political appointees. The Trump administration had initiated the offshore drilling effort and the approval would lie with the U.S. Department of Interior.

“I’m not the decision-maker,” Brown said, according to Faulkner’s reporting. “On the next round it is the Secretary of Interior.” Cold comfort.

The sea around us
The other missing part of the story about the latest plans to open up the U.S. coastal waters is what happened 40 years ago, in 1978, when a similar effort was being pushed by the powers that be in Washington, D.C., to open the Georges Bank to oil and gas exploration.

In digging out the story about Brown, ConvergenceRI also uncovered the story written in January of 1978, on assignment for The Real Paper, an alternative weekly in Boston. In rereading the story, ConvergenceRI found that it provided an important historical perspective about the current conflict.

Here is the story, which was entitled: “The siren song of oil.”

IT IS A CURIOUS SONG that will infect the breezes warming the Massachusetts coastline this summer, a mechanical melody sweet with promise, its rhythm as constant as the slapping of waves on the beach. The southerly winds will carry the distant hum of machinery gnawing away at the crust beneath the ocean in search of all those tiny plants and animals that have rotted and petrified into the wealth of Western civilization, oil and natural gas.

The oil companies have been given the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court to commence exploratory drilling of the Baltimore Canyon trough on the Outer Continental Shelf off New Jersey. Last week the justices refused to hear the case of Suffolk County, New York, which had been seeking to block drilling on the grounds that the environmental impact statement filed by the Department of Interior was bogus. Exxon, U.S.A., the big spender with over $320 million invested in lease sales, has promised to have its semi-submersible rigs in place and drilling in a matter of weeks.

Late last month, almost 900,000 acres of the Georges Bank on the Outer Continental Shelf off the Massachusetts coast – the world’s richest fishing grounds – were scheduled to be divvied up into offshore oil drilling leases by the world’s richest oil companies. But a successful suit by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Conservation Law Foundation, who were seeking to delay the sales until adequate safeguards could be implemented by Congress, resulted in Federal District Court Judge Arthur Garrity issuing a preliminary injunction halting the proceedings.

Such protection would be assured by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Bill, which amends the original 1953 legislation. Its provisions include a fisherman’s gear compensation fund to pay for damages caused by debris dumped by oil companies, stringent oil tanker and pipeline safety regulations to protect against unnecessary spills, a process for determination of oil spill liability, and a dual-leasing system separating the exploration from the production phase.

Different versions have passed both the U.S. House and Senate, and the bill is now languishing in House-Senate conference where Democratic Sen. Henry Jackson, the warlord from Washington state, has postponed any action on the amendments until the energy bill becomes law, which very well might not be until Congress freezes over.

The circuit court of appeals will [soon] conduct a full hearing on whether to uphold or overturn Judge Garrity’s temporary injunction. No matter what decision is reached, the case will be remanded to Judge Garrity’s courtroom for a hearing on the merits.

Manifest destiny
That the sea contained oil and natural gas beneath its crust was never a great secret. In her book The Sea Around Us, published in 1951, Rachel Carson had explained the relationship of the ocean to oil. Most of the great reserves of oil on what is now dry land were once ancient oceans. “Wherever great oil fields are found,” she wrote, “they are related to past or present seas. This is true of inland fields as well as those near the present seacoast.”

“Our search for mineral wealth,” her tract continued, “often leads us back to the seas of ancient times, to the oil pressed from the bodies of fishes, seaweeds and other forms of plant and animal life and then stored away in ancient rocks, to the rich brine hidden in the subterranean pools where the fossil water of old seas still remain…”

Our search for oil, coal and natural gas in the 20th century, more gluttonous than poetic, has become America’s manifest destiny. And like our country’s drive westward a century ago, it proceeds at any cost. Often the land is ravaged, the wildlife destroyed, the native people uprooted. The same arguments that were used to plead for construction of the Alaskan pipeline – to make our country independent from foreign oil sources – are being repeated for off-shore explorations for oil and natural gas. Energy for a strong America, as the latest Exxon advertisements purport. Yet the oil from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska would be going to Japan if the oil companies had their way.

In the old whaling port of New Bedford, the civic and business community have great expectations that its sagging industrial center can be energized by enticing into its harbor the support industries and spinoffs from a major oil discovery.

Calling offshore oil “the new frontier,” Mayor John Markey personally led two expeditions to New Orleans where lawyers, bankers, real estate brokers and Chamber of Commerce executives from New Bedford hobnobbed with oil executives and Louisiana politicians.

“I don’t think anyone could make the trip we made,” Markey commented after his trip to Louisiana in September of 1976, “and come away and say, ‘We don’t want them.’”

The fishing industry is New Bedford’s largest employer, but most fishermen are resigned to oil’s inevitability, and use what muscle they have to push for safeguards.

“The oil is on Georges Bank and is going to be removed; it’s an inevitable fact of life,” said fishing boat owner Roy Enokson of the Seafood Producer's Association. “I don’t see any problems with the two industries living together if the right precautions are taken.”

In such a fecund atmosphere, the oil industry has been carefully cultivating its growth tentacles, making overtures, nurturing contacts, all the while downplaying the potential of the oil find and its impact on New Bedford.

With promises of new jobs, industrial spinoffs and even job-training centers, they have tantalized the business sector. Five executives toured the New Bedford Harbor and they hummed a tune that had the mayor thinking increased tax base and decreased unemployment.

They sent the best public relations men to forums and public hearings to assuage any fears of ecological disaster, talking in a sincere voice of the oil industry’s concern for the environment and the sea. And with such constant critics as Democratic Congressman Gerry Studds, they sought to disarm him by arguing before his constituents, saying that more delays will mean higher fuel bills and more dependence on foreign oil.

It’s a sweet siren song that will lull even the most cynical, making it all so easy to forget that the story is more than oil versus environment; it’s energy versus food.

“No use in keeping warm,” warned Howard Nickerson, the salty leader of the New England Fishermen’s Association, “if you're hungry. We’re finding a helluva lot of gas and oil around the world, so it doesn’t make sense at any price to drill for oil if the fishing resources will be destroyed. We’ve been catching 10 percent of the world’s seafood production. If you're going to feed the hungry of the world, the plains of Nebraska are not going to do it.”

With all the arguments swirling in the courts and Congress and the newspapers over offshore oil, it’s easy to forget that the scenarios of economic boom and ecological disaster have all been projected on an intangible: no one, not even the oil companies, knows for sure how much oil and natural gas will be discovered in the Georges Bank. The potential field, according to data gathered from exploratory drilling two years ago indicates a geological formation that favors natural gas over oil. The impact of offshore drilling on the New England coastline remains a guessing game.

In one of the most complete forecasts on the impact of offshore drilling, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation published a 175-page book [in December of 1977] entitled: New York State and Outer Continental Shelf Development; An Assessment of Impacts. The report analyzes the entire process of offshore oil development from the preleasing phase through exploration, development, production and shutdown.

It clearly supports Massachusetts’ concerns that Congressional safeguards should be in place before drilling begins. Under present regulation, the state has no authority or is pre-empted in decision-making during the pre-leasing, production and shutdown phases. Of the 14 steps involved in exploration and development, the state has a decision-making role in only three, and is limited in half to advisory comments.

“The leasing of Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas resources is the exclusive responsibility of the federal government,” the report states. “The states have only a limited, advisory role in the decisions on the leasing and development process.”

Yet the informational base for federal decisions, the report continued, “is inadequate, particularly in regard to environmental data. Little is known about the long-term impacts of OCS activity, including oil spills, on the marine environment.”

“Many coastal states view the federal program [for oil exploration initiated under President Richard Nixon] with suspicion,” the report declared in an historical overview. “The federal government would receive royalties from the production of mineral resources while the states would be exposed to the bulk of the risks, especially those associated with oil spills. The only way a state could receive positive economic benefits would be from new employment that would be generated, and/or increased energy supplies that could accrue to the state.”

Among its conclusions, the report says:

The cost of OCS oil and gas is expected to be high. There is no reason to believe that the price of energy to the consumer from these domestic sources will be less than other existing supplies, including foreign sources.

Oil and natural gas resources from the Atlantic OCS could become available in 1986, peak around 1995-2000 and be largely depleted by 2005.

In the case of the Georges Bank leasing area, tankers will most likely be used to transport oil to refineries in the Mid-Atlantic, increasing the likelihood of spills. According to United States Geological Survey estimates, there is an 81 per cent chance that there will be between one and four spills greater than 100 barrels. There is also a 50 per cent chance of 13 spills of 50-100 barrels.

The report echoes the observations of sociologists studying the impact of offshore drilling on the Scottish communities, where exploration of the North Sea has had a profound influence on the predominately rural and fishing villages. “Oil” acted as a catalyst for expansion of local businesses and attraction of new business.

“An oil rig,” one observer noted, “is an island completely dependent on imports for its subsistence.” Industrial spinoffs – pipeline manufacturers, mud-drilling operations, lubricant and clothing manufacturers – flourished.

But few jobs became available for the local workforce, as the companies imported skilled laborers. Competition for harbor berths between rig support boats and fishing vessels escalated, and fishermen blockaded the port of Peterhead to prevent support boats from using the harbor.

Disparity in wage scales between the imported laborers and the local workforce increased tensions. Most of the local planning capabilities were overwhelmed by the pressure of offshore drilling.

Gold rush mentality
The computer scannings at the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, D.C., the informational gathering and dispensing organization for the 11 major multinational oil corporations, could not have chosen a better city in New England than New Bedford to launch the oil industry’s next search for black gold. In 1974 and 1975, the city’s unemployment figures were among the highest in Massachusetts, running a rugged 10 per cent above the national average.

The bottom had dropped out of the textile industry in the early 1950s as the mills moved to North Carolina for the southern hospitality of cheap overhead and non-union labor. The resurgence of the fishing industry in the early 1960s was strangled by foreign competition as the floating factories from Japan, Russia and Eastern Europe over fished Georges Bank. The 200-mile limit imposed in 1976 has given a second life to the fisheries in New Bedford, but the fishermen still say that many stocks of fish have been seriously depleted. So the potential development of oil and natural gas buried deep under the ocean’s crust quickly brought out the gold-rush mentality in the New Bedford community.

When a state planning document in July of 1975 identified New Bedford as a “leading port of entry” for future oil activity, Mayor John Markey leapt into action and immediately formed the Mayor’s Committee on Offshore Oil, composed of civic, financial, business and labor leaders. The committee was charged with investigating the impact of offshore oil on New Bedford, but it acted more as a cheerleader for promoting New Bedford as a prime site for development by offshore oil interests.

The Committee’s main accomplishment was the development of a promotional multi-media show entitled, “This Is New Bedford…” utilizing seven screens and three slide projectors. It begins, “Let slip the mooring lines of your imagination…” In modern New Bedford, the script goes on, “giant steps forward into tomorrow are taking place. Everywhere. The sound of builder’s hammers mingles with the slap of surf on beaches and pilings.”

The Committee also put together a thick-bound volume called “Port of New Bedford, Offshore Oil and Gas,” which told you everything you always wanted to know about New Bedford and the wonderful opportunities it could offer the oil industry in case they had forgotten to ask.

More recently, a slick publication entitled the New England Oil Newsletter (NEON) has appeared. It’s the brainstorm of local entrepreneur, Radcliffe Romeyn, Jr., who contracted with the Southeastern Advertising Agency to produce the monthly newsletter. It gives the latest news and views on offshore oil and the Georges Bank from a pro-oil perspective.

The newsletter turns out to be the come-on for a larger marketing device – The New England Oil Directory, a glossy guide just published this month listing all the companies in New England that might become involved in offshore oil drilling and support industries. Produced by an industrial group called the Georges Bank Industries, its one of the first speculative ventures to capitalize on the projected oil bonanza.

The frequent trips by civic and business leaders – to Houston in 1975 for the International Offshore Oil Convention; in September of 1976 to New Orleans in what was billed as “the first concerted effort of a New England municipality to induce offshore oil concerns to locate facilities in their area,” and the recent January expedition to Louisiana by a 28-person delegation – have been criticized as being junkets.

When the local afternoon daily, The Standard Times, did not send a reporter down to Louisiana to cover the visit of New Bedford’s 36-member delegation in September of 1976, the mayor sharply criticized the newspaper. The editor, Jim Ragsdale, responded by saying, “This type of trip taken by our civic leaders, as important as it was, was basically a public relations mission.”

Fred Rubin, former economic director of the Industrial Development Commission and now President of the Chamber of Commerce, bristled at the suggestion that these expeditions were junkets, and that the New Bedford community leaders were behaving like love-sick “johns” who had fallen hopelessly in love with the oil industry, preferring to put their faith in oil rather than in government.

“We’re not naive,” he said angrily. “We had fishermen, attorneys and bankers – people who are concerned about the environment. This didn’t happen overnight, you know. Some people think that only government regulations can make things work. But sometimes, in a free enterprise system, things happen between industries without any government involvement. And that's what makes America great.” [Sound familiar?]

The decisive action by Gov. Michael Dukakis to bring suit to stop the sale of offshore leases angered Rubin. He was particularly distressed at what he termed the poor timing, since his delegation was in New Orleans trying to woo the industry, and spoke vehemently against any delays in the sale of leases.

“It’s the same as talking about the Seabrook nuclear plant,” he complained. “Delays, delays, delays. We're going to be five and ten years behind schedule in meeting our energy needs for economic purposes. We have to move forward ... "

Food vs. energy
Every weekday morning at seven, the fishermen and dealers gather on Pier Three in New Bedford and in a flurry of activity bid on the “hail” for scallops. The dealers haggle with the union reps who perform as auctioneers until the catch is sold. Then there is a short hiatus until eight o'clock, when the auction for fin fish starts. The dealers must buy a ship’s catch in its entirety – so much haddock, cod and flounder – insuring spirited bidding.

The sea has always been a major staple of New Bedford’s economy since the early 1800s, when the large whaling fleets roamed the Atlantic and whale oil was the most sought after fuel. A fisherman’s lot is still a hard life, and the fishermen who depend on Georges Bank for their livelihood are worried over the impact of oil drilling.

“Fish and oil do not mix,” growled Howard Nickerson, president of the New England Fishermen’s Association and ardent critic of offshore drilling. “If you’re going to have oil, you're going to have problems.” He discounted the claims by the oil industry about the compatibility of fishing and offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. “We’re a different kind of fishing industry. We trawl – drag the bottom for fish with nets. We have different weather. If you want to make comparisons, go see what’s happening in the North Sea where there has been pollution, explosions, rig collapsing. It could happen here.”

Fishing boat captain Mickey Swain agreed. “We don’t welcome oil,” he lamented, “but we can’t deny it. It’s a big pre-emption of our fishing grounds, but what are we to do? We can’t fight it. I don’t think anyone in particular is going to benefit from it. We’re all going to be losers.”

“The people here in this area are looking for it to make a big addition to the economy,” Swain continued. “They’re looking for pie in the sky. I just don’t understand how the mayor could be so naive. The oil companies will promise you anything. Don’t they know that there won’t be a major facility here – New Bedford doesn’t have the facilities for a major search for oil.”

Like a true sea captain, Howard Nickerson won’t back down in his battle with oil. He refuses to be resigned to accepting offshore drilling as inevitable. “We’ve delayed it for three years. Here it is 1978 and we don’t know whether they’re going to sell the leases. There is a chance they’ll discover more energy around the world.”

“I would rather think of the value of fish five years from now,” he continued. “We’ve been catching 10 percent of the world’s seafood production. It’s out there and people are not cognizant of that. We haven't created a good consumer demand for seafood products. Maybe in five years, food shortages will be more severe than oil shortages.”

“We don’t have the dollars or the people,” Nickerson said in a tired voice, “to get our story across. The oil companies have lots of money to spread around to pay 40 or 50 lobbyists. It’s easy to fight when you’ve got the money.”

In early March of 1976, L.W. ‘Luke’ Trahin, representing the Morgan City, Louisiana, Chamber of Commerce, spent a week in New Bedford testifying to how wonderful offshore oil would be. His home city, which nestles next to the Intercoastal Waterway south of New Orleans, serves as the major industrial staging ground for offshore operations in the Gulf of Mexico. He told the New Bedford residents to “look for economic growth, but no oil boom.”

When asked what would happen when Louisiana ran out of its reserves of natural gas and oil, Trahin answered bluntly, “It’s beyond man’s comprehension to plan 40 years from now. Years from now most of us will be dead. It’s not our province to worry about that. Let each generation take care of its own.”

And when a local reporter asked him what could be done to protect against a major oil spill, he responded with the faith of a true believer in the free enterprise system: “The oil industry works for the best possible environment. Spills are avoided for the simple reasons that if you spill it, you can’t sell it.”

It all comes down to economic priorities. As long as the country’s appetite for oil and natural gas increases, the oil companies will spend billions of dollars to develop new oil fields, whether they be under the ocean of prime fishing grounds or under the streets of Paris [a reference to the Madwoman of Chaillot, a play by Jean Giradoux]. The energy shortages are real, our consumption of energy unrealistic.

Development of oil sources has become synonymous with the national interest. The oil industry, despite the public relations campaigns by cities like New Bedford anxious to be exploited economically, will make its decisions on where to locate support bases on cold, pragmatic calculations. What costs less. The oil companies are sophisticated multinationals, and their strategies are carefully developed.

One might ask what if the billion of dollars were to be spent on the development of better solar technology, or the implementation of [University iof Masachusetts Amherst professor] William Heronemus’s plan for offshore wind generators, or a public conservation program. It’s a matter of economic priorities. And profit.


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