Policy News

Opinion: Hydrocarbon Extraction Debated at BOEM Open House

On 20 April 2016, I was in Houston for meetings when I learned that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was hosting a public open house to answer questions that very day; what an opportunity!

Abigail Ross Hooper, Director of BOEM was to be there and no doubt many of the offshore industry business leaders would be there. I anticipated that anti-offshore drilling protestors would be there. I was not disappointed, all the actors attended and it was an interesting experience.

Before the meeting started, protestors held a spirited rally on the street corner complete with banners and chants. They were organized and the chants very . . . rhythmic. They were sincere in their beliefs and energetic in having their voices heard. They then joined the open house inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel to mingle with agency leaders and oil/gas industry leaders.

Within ten minutes of checking in I was listening to a person I just met explain that human caused climate change scare was a hoax. He knew this in part because someone with a past high-level association with an international conservation organization told him so! Climate was always changing. All we need is more plants to absorb CO2, he suggested. We did not get around to discussing the fact that massive areas of the Amazon Rain Forests and tropical forests of Indonesia are being cut down to support farming and palm oil plantations. If green leafy plants are the answer, we are going in the wrong direction.

Shortly thereafter, I was approached by one of the anti-drilling “leave it in the ground” activists who seemed to know who I was. I asked how this was so, and he held up his smart phone and said he had looked me up. Damn, I have trouble just answering mine. Anyway, he asked, “What is the environmental condition of the Gulf of Mexico?”

My reply, “Right now, the Gulf of Mexico is in pretty good shape.”

Before I could offer an explanation, he launched into a vigorous rebuttal. Referencing the Macondo blowout/spill, he had read of “huge” numbers of dolphins dying, etc.

To quote that immortal intellect, Vinnie Barbarino from the Welcome Back Kotter sitcom, “I am so confused!” There is only one set of scientifically generated facts on the table, but yet conclusions are drawn to the extreme ends of the spectrum of truth. How can this be?

Early on in the Macondo event, responding to the prevailing headlines I was quoted in the New York Times saying, “The sky is not falling.” This comment was based on historical evidence of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. Spills had occurred before and the Gulf was still alive. My opinion was we needed to let the scientists conduct the science and report before we concluded that the Gulf of Mexico was doomed. Unfortunately, dramatic headlines sell news – not long term science.

No spill in history has been studied as intensely and comprehensively as the Macondo spill; and the studies continue. New technologies are being used and no stone is being left unturned. The studies are now being reported and to date to date have generated a great deal of new knowledge, but there have been no big surprises. Yes, there was immediate impact from the spilled oil and from the dispersants. Yes, the impact is still occurring six years after the event, but that impact is declining as the Gulf of Mexico repairs itself. In the area of the spill, highly visible fauna such as dolphins were impacted as well as the unseen fauna such as zooplankton. No, the impact is not a threat to the overall population of dolphins or ecosystem health of the entire Gulf of Mexico.

Consistent with the spills of sunk tankers in 1942 in the same area of Macondo, the IXTOC spill of 1979 in the southern Gulf, numerous maritime accidents around the Gulf, and dozens of hurricanes and floods washing a toxic brew of contaminants into the Gulf, the Gulf of Mexico remains relatively healthy and productive, despite the obscene insults upon its integrity by coastal society. Fisheries production is at an all-time high, the beaches are safe for visitors, and the waters are fine for swimming.

There are some rough edges and warning flags flying. We have not implemented a solution to the hypoxic or “dead zone” conditions off Louisiana; Louisiana continues to lose significant coastal habitats to erosion and saltwater intrusion; oyster reefs are at risk; developers and beach goers continue to encroach into coastal habitats; mangrove forests of the southern Gulf are disappearing at an alarming rate; and freshwater inflow, quality and quantity, is a looming challenge. And yes, climate change is real; I trust the science of the International Panel on Climate Change; it is likely not perfect, but it is the best that is on the table. Plants? We can only wish the solution was that simple.

The oil and gas industry exists for one reason only, there is a market for the product; a global market that is growing. Technologically, it is an amazing industry; and the offshore industry is the most technologically amazing of all. Economically, oil/gas are the commodities on which the global economy functions. It is the one commodity that gives less developed countries a stake in the big picture of the future. It is the commodity of power and wealth.

I was once asked how I and the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, a conservation organization, could work with the oil/gas industry. I challenged the audience to name one thing in the room that did not have either hydrocarbon energy or chemistry involved in its production. It is a trick question—there is no one thing produced by humans that does not involve hydrocarbons in some form. Then I asked the audience what they would be willing to give up to reduce hydrocarbon demand; they had no response. Hence, the growing market for the product. I welcome the opportunity to work with any industry to find ways to operate with less impact on the environment.

As members of society, we pay the oil/gas industry to mine a natural resource that is a part of the “commons.” This is a privilege not a right. As such, the industry owes it to society to do this in the most environmentally benign manner possible. All valid efforts to protect human life and environmental quality must be implemented. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. During a press conference at the 2016 Paris Climate Conference, a spokesperson for some of the major producers committed themselves to solving the problem of CO2 in the atmosphere. My first response was “good,” but then I became frustrated, maybe even angry. It has been documented that the industry was aware of the potential impacts of CO2 for nearly 50 years! Why are they just now pledging to find a solution? It may be too little, too late.

We need the oil/gas industry to sustain our quality of life; the quality we all aspire to. We also need the industry to become more than just a serf of the stock market. Profits for the institutional stock holders is not what is most critical to society. The industry has the financial resources and intellectual capacity to get ahead of the challenges to human and environmental safety – they need to do it as a priority investment!

We need to be aggressively developing alternative sources of energy to reduce market demand for hydrocarbons. In the 1800’s teamsters driving oxen wagons hauling freight resisted the expansion of the railroad west as a threat to their industry. The oil/gas industry resisting the growth of alternative energies makes about as much sense. They should be leading the development of new energy sources.

We need industries, all industries, to stop trying to influence elections and the actions of elected officials with limitless amounts of money. That is not democracy, but plutocracy. Stop it!

I like my quality of life with my pickup truck, air conditioned climate, air travel, boats, and lights that turn on with the flick of switch. Yes, we need the oil/gas industry and, just as much, we need to the industry to be a good citizen and a leader in solving the CO2 challenge.

By: Quenton Dokken, Ph.D., Gulf of Mexico Foundation, Inc.

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