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Surfrider Discusses Environmental & Economic Damage of Gulf Coast Spill

Matt McClain, Surfrider Foundation
As more devastating information is released daily about the recent BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast,  people within the surf industry and beyond are increasingly left wondering how this disaster will continue to affect the region on both an environmental and economic level. Surfrider’s Marketing and Communications Director Matt McClain stopped by TransWorld headquarters last week to discuss what the organization has been up to in the weeks since the spill, what activists can do right now, and the lasting impact  the spill will undoubtedly have on the Gulf Coast for generations to come.
Watch an interview with Matt McClain on TransWorld Surf, where he explains the latest development in the oil spill involving fragmentation of the piping under the ocean floor causing oil to permeate up through the ocean floor, hundreds of feet from the actual well head.

Working with SkyTruth.org, the Surfrider Foundation has been able to build a real-time map of beaches and coastline on their website, NotTheAnswer.org, where tarballs from the oil spill have washed ashore. The organization is also working to deploy members from several of its Texas chapters who are trained in Hazmat clean up to the regions that are being affected in Florida, Louisiana and Alabama. According to McClain and recent media reports, the economic damage from this spill may ultimately have an even more profound effect on the region than the environmental repercussions.

What is the current state of the oil spill at this time, as you understand it, and what is Surfrider’s take on the way it’s being handled?

It’s been so hard because there’s been so much misinformation about the situation from the start.

The numbers have just been reforecasted. The government and BP have minimized the numbers. BP is liable for $4,200 per barrel spilled. And the revised estimate is 40,000 barrels per day, so this could easily bankrupt them. In a recent Rolling Stone article it talks about how for a long time Obama was anti-offshore drilling but then when he came into office he worked it into his energy package. His administration has reversed position once and now it seems like they are reversing positions again. Now we are in a situation where two principle players are trying to downplay this and it’s kind of in your face right now. The challenge is that we don’t know when we are going to contain the spill, we don’t’ know how we are going to contain the spill and it’s just getting worse day by day. So a lot of people are asking us, “Ok what are we going to do?” Sending guys out there to try to clean the beaches is almost pointless because this thing is still gushing and  if it continues to gush for weeks or months – or even years, heaven forbid that is a possibility – how do you mitigate for that? I’m not sure.  It’s kind of unprecedented.

I would say this is going to be the defining environmental event of our life.  I think if you believe in climate change that’s probably going to be number one, but the one thing about climate change is that it’s not as obvious. This is obvious. There is already those heartbreaking pictures of birds and turtles all over the news. The effects will be that much more profound and immediate.  It’s going to be something that’s a big issue for us  and could be a big issue for generations to come.

Oil Spill Map, Courtesy New York Times

Oil Spill Map, Courtesy New York Times

Speaking of legislation, you touched a little on Obama reversing his position. He recently reneged on overturning the moratorium earlier this year, but what does that mean, and is there any additional legislation coming out that we should be focused on?

Here’s what happened, I’ll go back thirty years. In 1981 congress enacted the moratorium on new offshore drilling and that was off the continental shelf, so that means no drilling 50 miles off the coast, and states could decide their own policies. Then in 1990 Geroge Bush, Sr., in response to the Exxon Valdez spill, enacted a presidential moratorium on all new offshore drilling. Keep in mind the oil companies are sitting on tens of thousands of existing leases, they can put wells in those at any time – they don’t need any permission from anybody. There is not really even a need for them to open up more sites for offshore drilling, if they wanted to put wells in right now they could do that. Their plan was to open up areas off the Gulf of Mexico that were not being drilled which is the eastern part, the part that we all surf – the panhandle and the Atlantic Coast of Florida within state waters and then off of Virginia and New Jersey and up in Alaska.

Go back two years ago, President Bush decided not to renew the presidential moratorium, and Congress decided not to renew the congressional moratorium. It was shortly after that when Surfrider started speaking out abut the potential of what could happen if they open up new drilling sites. The danger is what they have there isn’t safe. We were hoping that when Obama got in office that he would at least put one of the two moratoriums back in place. We had a big rally in San Francisco in May 2009. We closed our whole office and took everyone up there, got about 2,500 people to appear before Secretary Salazar to speak about offshore drilling. They made their decision back in March of last year, and it was that of all the areas they were going to open up the coast of Florida, Virginia and Alaska. Obviously we were disappointed, but we were glad that California didn’t get lumped into that. Now we’ve had to shift our campaign from fighting on a national level to a state-by-state level.

Now, 52 days ago we get the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Shortly after that happens, Obama puts a moratorium first on new drilling, putting a hold on some of the projects that had been green-lighted, and then on top of that he puts a 60 day moratorium on all deep water drilling, which only actually accounts for about one percent of all oil drilling.

Our position for the last year is that we need to get a moratorium on new drilling. We can deal with the existing wells later but right now, we are behind where we were two years ago and we don’t want to get any deeper than that.  We’ve really been trying to rally our members to make calls to President Obama. We have an action alert on our Not The Answer site and I think so far we’ve sent 15,000 emails to President Obama asking him to reinstate the presidential moratorium. There’s a new bill in congress that’s been introduced by Congressman Frank Pallone from New Jersey called the No New Drilling Act, but its not getting a lot of support right now in Congress, oddly enough. What we’re doing is trying to get people to call local representatives and have them support that bill.

It’s still kind of hard because of everything we’ve been seeing on the news. People want to know what are we going to do about oil. We’d love to move towards clean energy, we’re not saying let’s stop all oil [drilling] right now, that’s never been our position. Our position is to say no new drilling, and the reasons that we gave for that are still the same. It’s not going to ween us off any dependence on foreign oil; we consume far more than we produce. The second thing is the notion that most of our foreign oil is coming from the Middle East. While we do get a fair amount from there, our number one trading partner is Canada.  Some of it comes from Mexico – the Gulf – and then Venezuela is number four, and we also get some from Nigeria. There is a lot of places outside of where we traditionally think. A lot of people use the argument of the war, and they think America can be self-sustainable with oil, and that’s just not going to happen.

When is the No More Drilling Act Legislation supposed to come before Congress?

Not for a while, we have a few months on that. In my experience having seen a few environmental acts get introduced, it seems like if they don’t get a lot of support out of the gate then they don’t get passed. You would think it would be a no-brainer.

What we need is to have some public outcry. I think people’s hearts naturally go to the animals and the people that are affected by this. People who are going to lose their business, whose families have shrimp boated down there for a hundred years and what do they do now? The ironic thing is that many of the people down there, even now because it’s so ingrained in their culture, are like “Hey we need help cleaning up the spill, but don’t get rid of the oil wells because we need those.” It’s not an easy question but that’s why we are advocating getting rid of no new drilling and we can deal with all the existing platforms later.

A pair of Brown Pelicans, covered in oil, sit on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast, Thursday, June 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

A pair of Brown Pelicans, covered in oil, sit on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast, Thursday, June 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel - Boston Globe)

Speaking of business, do you have direct contact with surf shops that are at the beaches that are being affected?

We are starting to. It’s a little more spread out than it is out here.

Yancy Spencer at Innerlight (locations in Destin, Pensacola and Gulf Shores, Florida, and Alabama) is already 80 percent off. If you are a seasonal business, one bad season is all it takes and you could be done. This is not a bad year in like you are down 20 percent, this is 80 percent – how are these guys going to weather that, especially on top of the recession? What are these surfers and fisherman going to be doing? The charter boats –are they still going to go out? Are the surfers still going to go out there and surf? Are they going to get some kind of crazy disease from this stuff?

How many beaches has the spill actually touched at this point?

SkyTruth.org and Surfrider Real-Time Oil Spill Map

SkyTruth.org and Surfrider Real-Time Oil Spill Map

The government has been saying oh it’s here, it’s not here. Surfrider partnered up with an organization called SkyTruth, who did the whistle blowing during Katrina. There’s a famous press conference where the interior secretary at the time gets on camera and says “Not one teaspoon of oil has been spilled into the Gulf from the hurricanes,” and we come back with the satellite images of fourteen platforms destroyed and all these spills out there. So we’ve been partnering with them for a long time.

So we developed this software app with SkyTruth, where people can go down to the beach, take a picture and it geo codes just like google maps does, and now we have a real time map on our site of where  oil has been washing ashore. We’re tracking that right now and what that’s going to dictate is where a lot of the response gets marshaled. The other thing we are doing right now, is working with activists from our Texas chapters who are actually trained in HazMat cleanup. So we are going to fly them over to Florida and other places and do trainings with our activists. So in some places in Florida where the oil has got to the shore there is a bit more weathered. Keep in mind that in Louisiana and Alabama, the slick is so pervasive  and is releasing so many chemicals that it’s not safe for anyone to be there. If we can get enough activists trained in Florida where the oil is washing ashore and is weathered like in tar balls, we feel confident that we can start addressing some of the issues at those beaches. We are putting some funding into that as well. But the big thing is that we need to get this moratorium in place.

What’s the next step after that and how can people get involved?

After that we need to come up with some kind of comprehensive plan to control the situation in the Gulf. Are we going to be able to control this thing? I don’t think anybody knows right now, and I think that many don’t want to admit that the answer might be no. Also, we need a clear understanding of what the ramifications are going to be and then explore whether there’s a potential for clean up, because if somehow we do get it controlled we need to focus on that.

Right now the oil is extending five miles into the wetlands area off the coast of Louisiana. This was an area that we were losing at a football field every thirty minutes. Over the last decade the wetlands off New Orleans have been disappearing because we’ve choked off all the sediment source with all the rivers, and they’ve become the fastest disappearing habitat in the world. Everyone thinks it’s the rainforest, but it’s these wetlands. Now you’re looking at a dead zone that is the size of half of Texas floating out there right now because of all these underwater plumes of oil mixed in with these toxins. We’ve got fishing closures. These guys’ entire livelihood is shut down. You are talking about the loss of entire economies that have been in people’s families for generations. A quarter of our seafood supply comes from the gulf – all gone right now.  Recreational fishing counts for $42 billion a year in the gulf.  All that stuff is going to come to a grinding halt.

We would love to have support from any of the endemic businesses if they want to get involved. So far, O’Neill is going to make some T-shirts for us. Our plan right now is to take that money and try to get it back. We want to try to fund the Hazmat training and get as many activists trained as possible. We have a full-time coordinator position that we pull other money from so we’d like to get that funded. We’d like to continue to build out some tools so people can get involved from their iPhone and desktop, just by pushing a button, to get this moratorium back in place. There are things that surfers and the industry can do to help our efforts to deal with this situation and the larger situation.