Interview: Oceana’s Jackie Savitz

EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman interviews Jackie Savitz, Oceana’s Vice President for U.S. Oceans, on the dangers of drilling for oil off the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic . . .

If you’d rather read it than watch it, the full transcript of our discussion with Jackie is below…

EarthTalk: The Obama administration has recently put a moratorium on deep sea drilling in most of the Arctic Sea and expanded the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. On the other hand, it has opened up Atlantic waters for exploration and drilling. Why do you think they made this decision?

Jackie Savitz: Well, the Obama administration recently announced its draft proposed five year exploration program for offshore drilling. It’s still going to have a lot of discussion before it becomes finalized. But in that program, in the draft, what they’ve done is they’ve taken a lot of the areas of the arctic that are important for subsistence fishing out of play, which is good, but also left areas some of the Arctic in play, offshore, and that’s a real concern for us. They took those areas out because they’re concerned about oil in areas that are important for subsistence fishing and also important for Arctic wildlife. But they haven’t really explained how drilling, say, 50 miles away from there, when there’s a spill, will be safe for that same wildlife and that same subsistence fishing. And so one of our concerns is obviously that the Arctic is one of the most dangerous places we could possibly be drilling and when there’s a spill in that area you’re in a place that’s dark a lot of the year, that’s extremely cold, there’s floating ice, and there’s very little, if any, response capacity. So, while some areas have been taken off the table, those areas in the Arctic offshore may still be at risk.

E: And so you would favor just taking the whole Arctic offline to oil drilling?

J.S.: Oceana actually thinks that the Obama administration should not allow drilling to expand into the Arctic offshore anywhere or into the Atlantic. These are both areas where we don’t have response capacity, we don’t really have the infrastructure and we know that a spill would be devastating in either of those places. And so we’re really hoping that over the course of the consideration of the five year investigation the Obama administration will decide not to allow drilling in those areas.

E: Can you talk a little bit more about the Atlantic coast and the primary dangers, what can actually happen? We’ve obviously seen this with the Deepwater Horizon.

J.S.: Well, drilling in the Atlantic is extremely risky to the Atlantic coastal tourism industry, to the coastal fishing industry, to the beaches. We saw what happened with the Gulf spill back in 2010. When the oil spills, it doesn’t just stay in one place, it travels many, many miles to beaches, it can close beaches, it can kill fish, it can also, obviously, have impacts on marine mammals, sea turtles, birds. So if you’re concerned about those things, then offshore drilling in the Atlantic can have some of the same problems. But it can also have impacts on the fisheries industry. Both recreational and commercial fishing are very important industries in the Southeast, but also the tourism industry. A lot of those towns are heavily dependent on their tourism industry, and that’s part of the reason why there’s been so much opposition brewing in the Southeast on the coast.

E: So there are economic and environmental reasons. Can you say a little bit more about the nature of the opposition and also how Oceana fits into the picture?

J.S.: Yes, it’s been very interesting in the Southeast, for example in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia and Florida, where a number of coastal towns have actually passed resolutions now. I think we’re up to 32 coastal towns that have actually passed resolutions against seismic testing, which is the exploration component of oil production, and also against offshore drilling. And we’re starting to see more mayors speaking out against it; many members of Congress have spoken out against it; I think we’re up to over 150 local officials who have said they’re opposed to this development. And so what we’re seeing is sort of a growing movement of opposition against offshore drilling along the coast, but at the same time what we’re seeing is some support for offshore drilling coming from some of the coastal governors, such as the governor of North Carolina. So in a way, we have a little bit of a rift between the coasts and the capital, if you will.

E: Okay, and what would it take to actually stop it? Like what political event would actually stop it or what would greenlight it and move it forward?

J.S.: Ultimately, the decision whether to open these areas will come down to the Obama administration, so it’s really up to the president. His secretary of the interior, Sally Jewel, will be a big player in that decision. And I think the president has been looking to some of the elected officials in various states to see how they’re guiding his decision. So ultimately we hope the president would make the right call, but it would be very helpful if some of the coastal elected officials in those states, especially governors, would recognize that this is the wrong call for their states.

E: Okay, great. Can you also talk, because we’re only about five years from the Gulf Coast spill, so can you talk about what the industry says it’s done to react to that and to improve safety and how well Oceana feels that it’s doing.

J.S.: Well, it’s interesting that since the Gulf spill happened five years ago not a single piece of legislation has been passed by Congress to make offshore drilling safer. The oil industry likes to say that it’s a lot safer, but it’s very difficult for them to point to things that have actually changed. Some of the biggest problems with offshore drilling have to do with the lack of inspections of drilling rigs or a lack of fines for penalties. And so we see that what rules are in place are often broken, and that really hasn’t changed. Some of the obvious things you could think of that you would expect to see, like requirements for simultaneous drilling of relief wells, which is something that’s required in some places, isn’t being required. Remember when the oil spill happened and they said it would take three months to stop it, and the reason was that it was going to take three months to drill that relief well, and then they tried everything, the top hat and all those different toys that they tried to get down there that didn’t work. And ultimately it was the relief well that solved the problem. And so, we need more requirements on safety and we really haven’t seen any from the administration, out of Congress, or really from the oil industry.

E: So you feel like you’ve been let down on all fronts.

J.S.: Yes, I mean they’ve all let us down and I think that what it means is we’re about the same place we were five years ago. It’s equally likely that we could have an oil spill if we continue this risky behavior of offshore drilling.

E: So could you talk a little bit more about the potential oil spill, just the impact on aquatic life and ecosystems?

J.S.: Sure. Oil has a variety of effects on marine animals. It can coat them, which can kill them, in some cases. In the case of birds, when they get coated with oil it prevents them from maintaining their temperature. You see sea turtles, which are air breathers, come to the surface for air, and they inhale some of the fumes from the oil. That’s one way that sea turtles can be impacted, or dolphins. Any animal that breathes air, whales even. Another problem is beaches becoming oiled. So you have sea turtles trying to lay their eggs on nesting beaches, which is already kind of a hard job for the sea turtles to do. As you’ve seen, when they’re hatched they’re always attacked from all sides by birds and other animals, but now on top of that they have oil they have to get through; that’s not going to help for them. And so there’s a variety of different ways marine animals can be affected by oil. The other problem with oil is it stays in the environment for a long time. There’s still oil being found in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, there’s still oil being found on beaches where the Exxon Valdez spill happened, and that was close to 25 years ago now.

E: So the oil will burn up quickly but if it spills it stays with us for a long time.

J.S.: That’s right. And the thing that’s interesting about it is that this oil that we’ve decided to go out and get, we take all the risks in the United States, but when we drill it, it stays on the world market. So we don’t necessarily get any financial benefits, we only get the risks. And so we think that offshore wind is a better solution if it’s done right, because offshore wind can generate about four times the amount of electricity we need in the Atlantic coast alone. And it never spills. And it has this sort of perpetual ability to continue to provide us energy for a long time, which offshore wind doesn’t.

E: So instead of oil solving our energy problems, put up those wind turbines and it’s solved forever.

J.S.: Pretty much. I mean, obviously wind isn’t going to do it all by itself; we need a portfolio of clean energy, so wind and solar, obviously, are two of the top clean energy sources we think of. But we’ve got to start working on that. It’s a little bit sad that five years after the Deepwater Horizon we’ve made so little progress in stimulating what could be such a great potential clean energy for us.

E: Okay. But wind will not move cars by itself, so you need a way to convert it to fuel, so could you talk a little bit about the move to electric cars.

J.S.: That’s right. A lot of people always point out, well, we use the oil for our cars and we use wind and electricity to power our homes and that’s true today, but in the long run what we need to be doing is shifting away from oil to power our cars. The way to do that is to build the electric fleet where we can actually rely on electric cars, which means we can then rely on that wind energy to power those cars. And it really is kind of an interesting teamwork that the electric cars and offshore wind can play, because what happens with electric cars is a lot of people charge their batteries overnight while the wind is at its strongest and it’s generating a lot of electricity. There’s not a lot of battery potential in the world to store all that electricity, but if we build an electric car fleet, we’d be creating a sort of distributed form of battery that’s spread out among all the places where it gets used, so that overnight all that wind energy can essentially be packaged into the useful tool of the car battery, and in the morning we all have charged car batteries. And so we really do have to solve all of these problems simultaneously, which means moving to an electrified fleet at the same time we’re building offshore wind energy.

If this interview inspires you to do more, head on over to Oceana’s website and use their form to tell President Obama to prevent off-shore drilling in the Atlantic and the Arctic…