Photo above: Interim Dean Larry Swanson speaks about how oil from drilling offshore Long Island would reach our shores based on his research on prevailing winds and the movement of plastics debris in the Atlantic. Photo by Assemblyman Steve Englebright.
Content provided by Dr. Carl Safina, Dr. Malcolm Bowman and Dr. Larry Swanson.
SoMAS faculty joined with public officials, environmentalists and concerned citizens to speak out regarding the Long Island focus of the United States Department of Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s National OCS Program.
On Wednesday, February 14, 2018, Dr. Carl Safina spoke at a meeting hosted by New York State Assemblyman and SoMAS lecturer Steven Englebright. His testimony, “Why Not To Drill off the East Coast of the U.S.” is below:
Thank you for this opportunity to share my thinking.
I’m a bit out of synch with some other environmentalists worried about the big spill, warning of another Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez-type fiasco coming to the Northeast. To me it’s not about “the big spill.” It’s about the day-to-day of chasing oil, the wrong-headedness of it all.
It’s not that I don’t have some personal history with the major oil calamities of recent decades; I do. In my early teens the first televised images of oil-coated birds during the 1969 blowout off Santa Barbara shocked me and the nation, inspiring the first Earth Day and helping propel the burst of environmental laws signed by Republican president Richard Nixon.
Twenty years later, at home working on a scientific paper, I heard the radio’s news of the Exxon Valdez’ rupture, and of thousands more oiled birds and otters, and sitting right there at my desk I began sobbing.
A decade later I visited Cordova, Alaska, and saw how the Exxon Valdez’ pain and disruption had seeped into lives as thoroughly as the oil had seeped into shoreline sediments and the livers of waterfowl. After citizens were awarded damages in a judgment against Exxon, an appeals court had reduced the judgment by roughly 90 percent.
And in 2010 I spent a lot of time along, on, and above the Gulf of Mexico while oil freely gushed from the hole PB had made in our coastal soul. There was the failure of the ‘blowout preventer’ to prevent the blowout, the crazy “junk shot” attempt to jam golf balls and shredded tires down a gushing well against the geologic force of the upward-shooting oil, the ghastly photo of one nearly unrecognizable brown pelican dying jacketed in crude. I was there when fishing stopped, tourism stopped, property values went to zero, and the oil would not stop. My chronicle of that summer of anguish became the book, A Sea in Flames.
We’re here thinking about all this because the White House has proposed opening a large area off the Eastern Seaboard to oil exploration and potential drilling. No exploration has been allowed here since the 1980s.
With everything we know about the threats of drilling and extraction to marine mammals, it’s noise and disruption to them and to other ocean wildlife, the possibilities of catastrophic spills and blowouts, and the mere grind of daily oil-producing infrastructure—with all we know about the need to move off of fossil fuels and onto renewables—no new areas should be explored for oil. We should be looking, planning, and investing forward to cleaner tech and cleaner energy.
During that summer of anguish in 2010 while I was witnessing BP’s Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf, I got an invitation to appear on The Colbert Report. During the show, Stephen Colbert expressed alarm as a native South Carolinian that the oil might come up the coast and get into the South Carolina marshes. “Those are my marshes,” he said, sounding every bit the homeboy. Colbert’s concern about his beloved marshes is now grounded in possibility.
I’d seen Colbert’s marshes while researching my book Voyage of the Turtle. Sally Murphy of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources took me on an aerial survey of leatherback turtles migrating up the east coast during springtime. Many of them weigh nearly half a ton, so you can see them from the air. As we flew from the airport towards the ocean in a light plane, I wrote, “Soon, we’re over a mosaic of wooded islands inlaid into emerald marshes, grouted with wriggling creeks, spanning expansively toward the coastal contour. The verdant sprawl of a blossoming summer, languid and luscious, stretches to the planetary curve.” More simply, they’re still the most beautiful coastal marshes I’ve ever seen. It’d be nice if they could stay so.
I’ve also seen the Mississippi Delta from the air. Louisiana has lost more than 2,300 square miles of wetlands. Each year, another 25 square miles of marsh disintegrate. Oil leak or no leak, mere busyness of getting oil perpetuates the most devastating disaster that’s hit America’s wetlands.
That’s why, as the oil was gushing in 2010, I came to the conclusion that the main disaster is the oil we don’t spill. It’s the daily grind of oil extraction. That’s why I find myself not focusing on the inevitable big accidents. I’m more worried about the day-to-day.
Sally Murphy, the South Carolina sea turtle researcher who’s now retired after 33 years working for that State, says, “It’s not a fear of a big spill. But everything else: the tanker traffic, the storage tanks, the increased highways, railways, the omnipresent smell of petrochemicals. You might get an occasional big spill,” she says, “but it’s the daily, chronic, minor spills that just pollute everything. Go to Houston, and you get the picture. It’s infrastructure, port expansion—. Our number one industry is tourism. All the stuff that would be needed for oil; where will it go?”
And then, yes, there is the possibility of a blowout or major spill. When that stuff gets on every blade of marsh grass and every mile of beach, there’s no getting it out. It can remain in the sediments for decades.
A question becomes: are we willing to realize that our coast is precious?
Oil-related jobs are being dangled before our eyes, but maybe we’d like to hold on to the multi-billion-dollar tourism that comes for lovely shores and clean waters.
And before we get the first drop of oil, we’d have to find it. To do so, seismic air-guns fire intense blasts of compressed air as frequently as every ten seconds, for days to weeks at a time, loud enough to harm marine life.” A 2012 Draft Environmental Impact statement estimated that the seismic surveys would cause millions of instances of harassment to whales and dolphins annually. [Draft EIS, p xiii]
I asked whale expert Ken Balcomb about this. He was the first person to document Navy sonar kills of whales. “There are many cases of air gun use leading to injury and death of marine mammals,” he said.
With seismic exploration, marine animals often have time to move themselves away from the noise before they’re in the zone of injury. Slowly ramping up air-gun noise is another way to let mammals get out of the area. But “the area” happens to be where they live and hunt for food. They’re there because it’s where they need to be.
Thanks to oil industry lobbying and subsidies, we have built no viable clean alternative to oil. I think our very own coastal ocean is as good a place as any to stop the advance of the fossil fuel footprint.
We get the jobs we plan for. So let’s plan for cleaner, renewable, eternal energy instead. The heat of the sun, the strength of the wind, the power of the tides, the warmth of the earth. It’s there. Remember, a solar spill is called: a sunburn.
On Friday, March 2, 2018, the Department of Interior was invited by Representative Lee Zeldin to the Town of Brookhaven offices in Farmingville, New York for a public hearing in response to President Trump’s Executive Order to permit offshore oil drilling all around the US Exclusive Economic Zone. Dr. Malcolm Bowman noted that there were “several hundred people in attendance.” The hearing focused on the offshore waters of the New York Bight, out to the edge of the continental shelf. All speakers were given three minutes to make their presentation.
The public comment period closes on March 8, 2018 and the event offered the chance for many to voice their concerns.
The hearing began with the testimony of Congressman Lee Zeldin (R) of the 1st Congressional District of New York, who came out very strongly against the permitting of oil drilling off the coasts of New York. This was followed (in no particular order) by testimonies by NY State Assemblypersons Steve Englebright (D), Christine Pellegrino (D) and Fred Thiele (I), Town of Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle and Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R). All spoke against the proposal.
This was followed by a long stream of testimonies lasting over three hours from representatives of NGOs, academia (Dean Larry Swanson and myself), advocacy groups and private citizens. All testimonies were strongly negative. Not one speaker spoke in favor of permitting offshore drilling.
I am Dr. Larry Swanson, Director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute and Interim Dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. It is an honor to be able to speak to you today. I am pleased to be able to express my concerns about the prospects of opening the New York Bight to oil exploration and production.
The Federal Government proposal to explore and possibly drill for oil in the New York Bight (continental shelf area off the Atlantic shores of Long Island and New Jersey) is irresponsible and must be prevented. We have four decades of experiences dealing with medical waste and other marine debris wash-ups in this area to inform us of the consequences. The events demonstrate the vulnerability of the coasts to polluting activities within the Bight driven by its oceanographic processes — particularly oil at the surface. We can say with certainty that major negative ecological and economic consequences will occur.
Some 70 miles of beaches were closed at times from Rockaway Inlet to Moriches Inlet on Long Island in June 1976. New York State Governor Hugh Carey declared the area a disaster and President Ford sent the Job Corps to clean up under the supervision of the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1988, essentially the same beaches were closed, off and on, for most of July. The central coast of New Jersey experienced a similar problem in 1987. These latter wash-ups raised the marine debris problem as an international concern and was the cover story of NEWSWEEK on August 1, 1988. Following Superstorm Sandy, when considerable debris escaped into the marine environment, little of it returned to our local beaches.
All this can be explained quite nicely by wind patterns throughout the seasons. Floating debris, like an oil slick, tends to be transported at about 3 percent of the wind speed and in the direction of the wind. Our prevailing summer winds (May-September) are from the south to southwest. If there is debris on the water surface in the Bight (i.e., from combined storm sewers, oil, etc.) these winds, if persistent, will transport it to the ultimate barrier, Long Island’s south shore. Persistent southerlies (blowing continuously from a given direction for days) are rather common in summer. In a controlled experiment in the 1970s, drift cards, designed to mimic surface oil spills, were released some 14 miles south of Long Island during summer. They were recovered on the south shore beaches within days, further substantiating the drift of debris and oil.
The New Jersey wash-up in August 1987 was a consequence of easterlies — somewhat unusual in summer. Superstorm Sandy debris, if in the Bight, most likely moved with the northwesterly winds of winter offshore and to the south.
In a way, these incidents served as grand experiments — ones that are informative, couldn’t be replicated at the same scale as a science experiment, and hopefully won’t be replicated in reality. In 1976 and 1988, for days, even weeks, debris washed ashore in waves. According to records, debris could be identified that came from as far away as Maryland. And, when TWA Flight 800 crashed in July 1996, it took little more than two days for wreckage to wash ashore in the vicinity of Quogue, some 20 miles northeast of where the plane went down. These debris incidents clearly ascertain that the ocean coast of Long Island will be particularly susceptible to the chronic oil discharges from oil rigs and devastated by a spill in summer. New Jersey is less at risk during summer. However, if oil sinks, it could impact New Jersey beaches due to upwelling (bottom water transported shoreward) driven by the southerly winds.
The economic costs of the 1987/1988 incidents were $1.3-5.4 billion ($2.8-11.8 billion in 2018). Summertime visitations (3 months) at Jones Beach, Long Island dropped about 1.4 million from 1987 to 1988. It took until 1993 for attendance to recover.
We can look forward to constantly having oil and tar balls on our beaches during the prime tourism months from offshore oil products as well as spills. Stations dispensing alcohol towels to wash one’s feet will probably be necessary just as it is in much of Florida and the Caribbean.
Predictably, spilled oil will have serious environmental consequences. While it is relatively easy to clean oil off sandy beaches, the real challenge will be in preventing the spilled oil from entering the ecologically sensitive and prolific south shore lagoons, where New York State is trying to restore water quality and shellfish populations. It will be necessary to have floating curtains at the ready at all seven inlets along the south shore to prevent spilled oil from entering.
Clearly, the downsides of oil drilling are excessive and the undertaking is not worth the environmental risks. When it comes to drilling in the ocean, we can with certainty guarantee an accident no matter the assurances of industry. Twenty-five years ago, the Federal government ended ocean dumping of a variety of wastes in the Bight by passing the Ocean Dumping Act (P.L. 100-688), with the idea that we would be able to clean it up for numerous beneficial uses. Let’s not allow the Federal government to reverse this positive step by permitting major polluting activities by the oil industry.
This concludes my testimony and I will be glad to answer questions.
Dr. Bowman did not submit a written testimony; however his oral remarks will be entered in the Federal Register along with all submitted written testimonies. After introducing himself as a Distinguished Service Professor of Physical Oceanography at the School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), also President of the NY Marine Sciences Consortium and Chair of the Metropolitan NY-NJ Storm Surge Working Group, he made the following points:
Hydro Power. The US Federal Government is now heading in exactly the wrong direction in terms of energy policy. However, NY State is blessed with abundant resources and possibilities for renewable energy. New York is the largest hydroelectric power producer east of the Rocky Mountains and is fourth in the nation in the generation of electricity from hydropower. More than 300 hydroelectric generating stations – some very small, a few very large (St Lawrence River, plus Quebec Hydro imports) and many in between – connect to New York’s electric grid. Hydro plants typically meet at least 17 percent of the state’s total electricity demand with renewable, clean and inexpensive power.
Wind Power. An increasing number of wind power turbines are being installed, both onshore and offshore. The American Wind Energy Association ranks New York eleventh in the nation for installed wind generation capacity. As of 2014, 20 projects are operating with a rated capacity of a little more than 1,812 MW, approximately 2.6 percent of all the electric power available from generation facilities in New York and enough to power more than 500,000 homes. In addition, two wind power projects are under construction in New York, and one is under active review .
Solar Power. NY-Sun is Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s $1 billion initiative to advance the scale-up of solar and move New York State closer to having a sustainable, self-sufficient solar industry. The growth of solar in the State has increased more than 300 percent from 2011 to 2014, twice the rate of U.S. solar growth overall. The NY-Sun Incentive Program will help bring affordable solar electric power to 150,000 new homes and businesses by 2020.
Many opportunities are available to continue this growth of renewable energy.
The 2015 New York State Energy Plan is committed to:
- 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels
- 50% electricity will come from renewable energy resources
- 600 trillion Btu increase in statewide energy efficiency.
Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has also recently unveiled his 20th Proposal of his 2018 State of the State message: New York’s Clean Energy Jobs and Climate Agenda. He has also released his First-in-The-Nation Offshore Wind Master Plan to Guide New York’s Development of Renewable Energy. He has also to set an Energy Efficiency Target for New York. His promise claims to be an important first step to transforming the state into a national energy efficiency leader. It includes offshore wind power, expanding energy storage, and reducing power plant pollution. Energy efficiency is fundamental for climate progress and integral to the state’s clean energy platform.
In November 2017, the northeastern States of Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island released three reports on offshore wind development, claiming that industry has the potential to power almost four million homes and provide thousands of U.S. jobs.
Nine eastern States have agreed to cut power plant emissions by an extra 30% between 2020 and 2030. The compact of Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont) known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) has worked for two years to hammer out the next step in their landmark emissions cap-and-trade program, which puts a price on carbon dioxide emissions from the production of electricity. The program has a track record of cutting emissions fairly painlessly across a densely populated section of the country.
Because of humanity’s insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, we are heading down the slippery slope of the so-called “worst case scenario” as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This details the worst effects of the continuing increase in atmospheric CO2 buildup in the atmosphere (and associated acidification of the oceans). In a recent article published by the National Academy of Sciences , the worst case scenario is predicted to lead to a rise in sea level of up to 1.8 m (six ft) by the end of this century .
Long Island, a relic pile of sand (terminal moraine) left over from the retreat of the last ice age, is especially vulnerable with its low topography and the especially vulnerable southern and eastern coastlines. Even a two-foot sea level rise will be catastrophic for Long Island and a serious threat to New York City and coastal New Jersey. A 6 ft rise in sea level will spell the end of life as we know it in Metropolitan New York, coastal New Jersey and Long Island.
New York State
DEC has officially taken the position that a 6 ft rise in sea level may occur by the end of this century and all available steps need to be taken to adjust to this grim prediction.
As a state and as a nation, we need to reverse this dangerous reliance on fossil and fuels and drive forward to a fossil free future before it is too late. As a society, we need to think hard, before it is too late about the legacy we will leave to our descendants. What kind of world will they inherit from us?
Dr. Swanson’s testimony included the following references:
Ofiara, D.O. 2015. The New York Bight 25 years later: Use impairments and policy challenges. Marine Pollution Bulletin 90:281-298.
Long Island Beach Pollution June 1976. 1976. Report coordinated by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Marine EcoSystems Analysis (MESA) New York Bight Project, Stony Brook, New York, R. Lawrence Swanson, manager; with major contributions from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region II (EPA-RII) and U.S. Coast Guard, 3rd District, Marine Environmental Protection Branch, Governors Island, New York Environmental Research Laboratories.
Swanson, R.L. et al. 1978. Pollution of Long Island Ocean Beaches. Journal of the Environmental Engineering Division, ASCE, Vol. 104, Issue 6, 1067-1085.
Swanson, R.L. and R.L. Zimmer. 1990. Meteorological conditions leading to the 1987 and 1988 washups of floatable wastes on New York and New Jersey beaches and comparison of these conditions with the historical record. Estuarine, Coastal, and Shelf Science 30:59-78.
Swanson, R.L., K. Lwiza, K. Willig, and K. Morris. 2016. Superstorm Sandy Marine Debris Wash-ups on Long Island – What Happened to Them? Marine Pollution Bulletin 108, Issues 1-2, 215-231.