Oil and water: Trump scientists find California hostile to renewed possibility of offshore drilling

At the state’s only public hearing on lifting national ban, ocean-protectors see a farce

Protesters delivered one-minute speeches, hooted and hollered outside California’s only public forum regarding President Donald Trump’s offshore oil drilling plan.

Protesters delivered one-minute speeches, hooted and hollered outside California’s only public forum regarding President Donald Trump’s offshore oil drilling plan.

Photo by Nicole Fowler

Brian Jordan, a marine archaeologist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, must have drawn the short straw. Stationed at the first stop in a series of information tables lining the walls in the high-ceiling Galleria of the Sacramento Public Library, he found himself surrounded by angry ocean-defenders.

It had been just over a month since President Donald Trump announced that his administration would revoke an Obama-era ban on offshore oil drilling. His Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, vowed to open 90 percent of U.S. coastal waters to energy companies, and to auction leases off the coast of California for the first time since 1984.

This was to be the only public hearing scheduled to take place in California. That fact alone outraged environmentalists. Many of the folks who were insistently prodding Jordan also expressed frustration at the structure of this hearing, which was billed as an “open house.” They had come to voice their concerns, yet there was no microphone nor anyone whose job it was to listen. Instead: a string of information stations, each manned by a BOEM staffer, and tables full of laptops equipped to collect comments.

Megan Robbins, who had traveled from Bodega Bay, pressed Jordan, seeming to want him to explain the reasoning behind the government’s plan.

“There are already so many forms of life that are endangered right now,” she said. “There is already so much chemical pollution. The oil companies already have record profits.”

But Jordan was not there to address the logic of the president’s decision—his task was to describe his agency’s bureaucratic process and help folks navigate the room.

He explained that the purpose of the meeting was to collect public comments about the “Section 18 factors that that go into the development of the oil and gas leasing program.” These apparently include “eight factors that Secretary Zinke is charged by Congress to take into consideration.” Jordan explained that this was all part of the public scoping process for the National Environmental Policy Act, “and that is actually to solicit information on the environmental impacts and environmental areas that we should be looking at that rise to the level of ’significant.’” Robbins eventually shrugged and gave up.

Calm but with eyebrows slightly clenched, Jordan faced the small mob, looking and sounding every bit the part of a government scientist. “We have scientists here that work on all sorts of ocean issues,” he said, gesturing toward dozens of folks wearing the same blue golf shirt he wore. Not one person gathered in a tight half-circle around him seemed the least bit satisfied. But what were they to do?

For a marine archaeologist with an advanced degree in wood science (who has focused on wooden shipwrecks for most of his career), Jordan did a damn good job of diffusing an angry crowd’s initial response to what Blake Kopcho of the Center for Biological Diversity says was a deliberate effort to deflect protest.

“All of these BOEM processes used to be actual public events,” Kopcho said. “Even the lease sales were open to the public. Now they are conduced with sealed bids decided behind closed doors.”

A bit later I asked Jordan how it feels as a scientist to be working for an administration immensely considered hostile to science.

“I agree that’s the public perception,” he said, “and I’m not going to weigh in on that. I can tell you that we have not been asked to curtail any of our science, or to speak in a certain way. I think the secretary knows that if we don’t provide him with the best available science, then it can be challenged in court. And so our job is to make sure that he has that information that he needs.”

While we were speaking, a group of protesters, maybe 30, marched into the room chanting and clapping: “Where’s the hearing?! Where’s the hearing?!”

As the crowd grew and the chants became louder and faster, Jordan ignored the bedlam and patiently described a process that would open virtually the entire outer continental shelf, including millions of acres off the California coast, to the most profitable and destructive companies in the world.

At a protest on the north steps of the Capitol that preceded a march to the library, Atta Stevenson stood with a half-dozen fellow water protectors holding a colorful banner. A veteran of nine months at Standing Rock, she is a member of the Cahto Tribe in Laytonville, an hour north of Ukiah.

“I’m a fisher, a hunter, a traditional gatherer from the ocean,” she said. “Our tribe depends on the wealth and health of the ocean. We respond to the seasons of the ocean rather than a calendar. When we have events in our tribe—somebody who’s passing, or a roundhouse opening—our culture dictates that we have traditional food. We don’t go to Safeway. You need to have traditional knowledge to go out and get the fish. You need to know how to prepare it and also how to give—a lot of people don’t even understand the act of giving from your heart rather than duty.”

Stevenson was disappointed that the government representatives would not be hearing public comments, but glad for the opportunity to share her message with the hundreds of activists at a “citizens public hearing” organized by the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups.

Speaking the day after the event, John Laird, California’s Secretary for Natural Resources, said he too was disappointed—if not surprised—by the way BOEM structured the meeting. Laird is one of a cadre of lawmakers and activists who have successfully fought offshore oil leasing since the 1980s. He recalls attending a public hearing in Fort Bragg in 1988, while he was serving on the Santa Cruz City Council.

“They said they would listen to everybody that wanted to speak,” he recalled, “and that meeting went a full 24 hours. I remember driving up Highway 1, up the Noyo River into town, and there were all these schoolkids dressed as starfish marching in to testify. It was what yesterday should have been.”

Laird said the arguments that he was making back then still hold. “I would always say if there was just an increase in fuel efficiency of one mile per gallon, it would more than equal anything that could be gotten from offshore on the West Coast. And when you fast forward 30 years, two things have changed: One is that the oceans acidified at a much more rapid level than we predicted. And the other is California has gotten so much more efficient. We are set to meet our goals of getting 33 percent of our electricity from renewables. And that is the place that we need to go, rather than more offshore drilling.”

Laird says that he and Zinke met after Trump appointed him, and offshore oil did not come up. Now, he says, the state must resist.

“California has to prepare itself on every level in opposition,” he said. “That means legally—laying out every environmental concern in a way that is on the record. And educating people, because this is an issue that does cross party lines in different states. We can bond with other states and municipalities across the country in a way that could build a broad coalition in opposition.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Laird also has hope that the Trump administration might listen to reason. He says Gov. Jerry Brown called Zinke to ask that California be granted the same exemption Florida was given.

“The governor even invited him to come out to California to see for himself, and it sounded like there was interest,” Laird added. “If you’ll recall, 1988 was the last time a Republican carried California. And George H. W. Bush agreed to a moratorium during that period. So that kind of pressure does work.”

Elise Brewin was the only person I spoke with last week who felt that the open house worked.

“At first I was thrown off—it was like we were being herded around in circles,” she said. “But I feel like I’ve had some good conversations with the people who are going to actually be doing this work. I would say about half the people I talked to really heard me, and the other half were just doing a job. I think one petroleum engineer was a little irritated.

“I was saying that I didn’t think there was any amount of money in the world that could offset the costs that would result from taking more oil out of the ground—the idea that these leases would somehow benefit us just seems nonsensical to me. But when I asked him about his children, he was lovely.

“I teach sixth grade, so obviously I’m focused on that. I feel angry at what’s been handed to them. I don’t have a choice about being political. If I don’t pay attention to climate change, I’m political. If I do, I’m political. There’s no choice to just sit in my little corner and have a happy life.”