Right whales. NOAA photo
North American right whales are among the Earth’s rarest creatures. Only about 400 remain, with just 100 breeding females. Each year the whales perform a wondrous 1,000-mile migration from Nova Scotia to as far south as Cape Canaveral, where they give birth off our Atlantic coast – the only known breeding ground.
Except last year. For the first time since scientists have been watching, last year there were no right whale calves born at all.
That fact is alarming, but even the specter of extinction isn’t consequential enough to stop the rapacity of the petroleum industry and its political sycophants in the Trump administration.
Ridiculously, the federal agencies that oversee offshore oil drilling last week gave the official sanction for private corporations to, as they put it in the official announcement, “incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals” in a huge swath of the Atlantic Ocean stretching from New England to Florida.
As in kill, injure, or torture whales, dolphins, sea turtles, fish, and whatever sea life is swimming around. Unless someone is able to get a court to stop it, these companies have the federal government’s permission to do that now.
It makes you wonder whether there wasn’t at least one person in the administration who had enough heart to stop and say “Hey wait a minute, we’re going to let these companies torture dolphins? My daughter loves dolphins! Maybe we should hold off on this.”
But, no. The “incidental harassment” comes with something called seismic air gun blasting, a precursor to offshore oil drilling.
You may be thinking: Wait – what? Didn’t nearly 70 percent of Florida voters just put a ban on offshore oil drilling in the state Constitution? (Yes.) And didn’t Gov. Rick Scott hold a meeting last year with the U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and emerge with a promise that Florida would not be part of Trump’s plan to open up America’s shores to oil drilling? (Two words: Election year.)
Now that the election is done, it’s back to the business of political paybacks, and oil companies are the original campaign cash rainmakers. The new state Constitutional ban on oil drilling only protects state waters, which on the Atlantic side extend from the shoreline to three nautical miles out. This seismic blasting would happen in federal waters.
The Obama administration repeatedly denied permits for seismic air gun blasting, rightly reasoning that the value of private companies to seek more oil profits doesn’t justify torturing and killing valuable sea life.
These oceanic seismic arrays can be huge. Their blasts are as loud as jet engines, and they go off about every 10 seconds for days, weeks or months. Underwater, they can be heard up to 2,500 miles from the source, the nonprofit Oceana reports, the distance of a flight from New York to Los Angeles. The blasts can indicate the presence of oil, but the companies still have to put in exploratory rigs – like the BP Deepwater Horizon that blew up and slimed the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Let’s look at what the science tells us about seismic air gun blasting. If you are a sea creature who experiences the world through sounds carried through water, if you use sound to find prey and mates, this is very bad news for you. Studies around the world reveal that air gun blasts can kill scallops and other shellfish, make sea turtles erratic, wipe out whales’ ability to vocalize and navigate, and wreck the organs that help sea life keep their balance in shifting currents. Giant squid who live deep in the sea have washed up dead with damage to their sensory systems. Not only that, the blasting harms commercial fishing: one study showed 40-80 percent reduced catch rates in Atlantic cod, haddock, rockfish, herring, sand eel and blue whiting.
“Seismic air gun surveys pose a dual threat to the biologically rich waters off the Atlantic coast,” says Steve Mashuda, Managing Attorney for Oceans at the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice. “Their continuous blasts can injure and deafen whales, dolphins and other marine life, and they are the sonic harbingers of even greater risks associated with eventual offshore oil and gas drilling. We are looking at all available tools to fight this unlawful action.”
It’s worth noting that drilling is intensely unpopular among people who live and work in the tourism-based economies of the Eastern U.S. coast.
“Over 200 Atlantic coast communities oppose it,” says Erin Handy, Oceana’s Field Campaign Manager for the Southeastern U.S. “That’s 90 percent of the communities. And this is the first step to oil rigs off the coast.”
That civic opposition hasn’t stopped a petroleum industry group called Explore Offshore from collecting its big lobbying checks, of course.
The “supporters” that the Florida arm of Explore Offshore lists on its website include a roster of hilariously named dark money Political Action Committees that funnel campaign cash into various races. There’s “Florida First Forever,” the “Florida Faith and Freedom Coalition,” the “Florida Council for Safe Communities,” “Floridians for Government Accountability,” “Citizens for Florida Prosperity,” and a personal favorite: “Floridians for Ethics and Truth in Politics.”
Those “ethics” were on full display last summer, when Gov. Rick Scott made a trip to Oklahoma City in July to collect fat checks for his U.S. Senate campaign from oil and coal executives at a luncheon thrown in his honor by Devon Energy.
Maybe the oil industry’s special “Ethics and Truth in Politics” banner was flying when former Florida Lt. Governor Jeff Kottkamp – now co-chair of Explore Offshore –told a room full of reporters in Tallahassee that oil from the 2010 BP Gulf spill “didn’t even reach the shores of Florida” – a claim that everyone (including a national TV audience) who witnessed it washing up on Panhandle beaches knew was absurd. Kottkamp was even in office when his former boss – Gov. Charlie Crist – visited Pensacola’s oil-slicked beaches with the U.S. president as workers tried to clean the oiled sand.
Even in a political climate where truth is now given about as much regard as a used Kleenex, Kottkamp’s bold lie was a shocker. Can it be any clearer that these oil lobbyists and narcissistic politicians have no shame?
Interestingly, the right whale got its name because of oil. Back in the days when people needed whale oil – not petroleum – to light their lamps, the giant blubbery creatures were known as the “right” whales to hunt and kill. Because the species is listed as a critically endangered under the Marine Mammals Act of the United States, let’s hope a court will find it the “right” whale to protect. And maybe compassion and stewardship under the law will be the very human qualities employed to rein in the corporate sharks now circling our coasts.
Note: An earlier version of this story had a photo of humpback whales rather than right whales. The Phoenix regrets the error and is thankful to the sharp-eyed reader who noticed it.
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