Legendary coastal activist Richard Charter puts out a rousing call to action on the Trump Administration’s threats to revive offshore drilling while weakening coastal protections off California, putting beaches, marine sanctuaries, and ecosystems in danger from more oil spills and industrialization.

Offshore drilling in california

Photo Credit: Adam Lau, Associated Press

Presentation by Richard Charter/Senior Fellow, The Ocean Foundation

October 28, 2017, Gualala Community Center – Environmental Forum

Welcome to “Loving Your Ocean in the Time of #45.”

Today is about the current strategy and tactics needed to defend our magnificent coastline, and this session presumes you have already audited the precursor course in coastal inspiration, which is hard to ignore since it is consistently offered free of charge 24-7 every day of the year, immediately to our west.

For reasons beyond our understanding, at our house near Bodega Bay, a small and very bold new fox has adopted our wildland front yard as his presumed territory in the past month or so, and we occasionally find him perched mysteriously on an old chaise lounge right by our front door when we go out. This unusual proximity, of course, causes us to be careful when we leave the house and generally make what we think will be scary noises before we go down the front steps. Not an illogical place for this strangely-precocious fox to hang out, there are dozens of quail who are diligently trying to raise their young in our yard, as well as a small and apparently very cautious bunny-rabbit, but as far as we are concerned, this new fox is welcome to eat as many of the overpopulated gophers as he can consume, because those gophers are constantly digging holes everywhere a human would like to walk or plant anything.

We have become more cautious, knowing he is a wild animal exhibiting an unusual lack of fear of people, and because we have never previously had a fox this bold lurking around there in the past forty years. We know that we are, even after at least 9,000 years of human habitation on Duncan’s Landing, interlopers in fox territory, and so we try to work around him while avoiding any unfortunate confrontations.

And so it is also with a half-dozen or so of the past U.S. Secretaries of Interior, some making only a vague pretext of guarding the hen-house.

We, collectively, here on the North Coast, have found it necessary to make as much noise as possible, to intimidate them into staying away from our homeland, and like the wise beings in Avatar, devise ways to make it through their tenure until they leave office, give up, or a scandal about restoring the electrical power grid in Puerto Rico takes them out.

The Mid-80s Fight to Save California’s North Coast from Offshore Drilling

Many of you here will recall the fine example of our past tactics working together, when the largest public hearing in the history of California before or since greeted a panel sent out to Fort Bragg to gauge public support for offshore drilling extending from Gualala to Little River to the Mendocino Headlands and on up to the Lost Coast, during the mid-1980’s. In that particular case, after twenty-three hours of nonstop heartfelt day-and-night public testimony, including poetry and song, the Secretary of Interior in Washington, Donald Hodel, remotely instructed his hearing panel to abruptly adjourn the proceedings. The problem, or one of the problems, was that there remained at least 750 people formally signed up to testify at the hearing. At this point in time, Bonnie Raitt was up on the stage of a rusting old flatbed playing to a street packed curb-to-curb with our fellow coastal activists while the hearing proceedings were being carried live on Bay Area FM radio, which was causing some of our urban colleagues to head up here to testify too. We all were soon joined by most of the patrons who found themselves down at Dick’s Bar in Mendocino, where they had also been listening to the live broadcast. Only the Mendocino Children’s Choir, leading the crowd in a reverent version of a since-forgotten melody called “The Battle of the Mendocino Coast,” coupled with a public presentation of colorful tee-shirts to each Interior Department hearing panelist emblazoned with the motto “I Survived the Fort Bragg Oil Hearings,” were in combination able to rescue the panel-members and thereby save the day.

In the intervening years, I have actually just happened to run into one of those long-ago hearing panel members in Washington over at the Interior Department, and the first thing he said to me was “I still have that tee-shirt you gave me.” I remind you of this because there are probably some listening today who were schoolchildren back then, and institutional memory being what it is, we are very likely going to need to do it again, and we will probably need to prepare for a similar production pretty soon in the context of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has made it abundantly clear that he wants see the opening of new ocean leases to facilitate new offshore drilling off of the California coast, he just hasn’t specified exactly where. We will not let this happen. This is Our habitat. The new Interior Department head fox and his Boss, #45, are now the most recent interlopers, bent on undoing our hard-won protections here, currently threatening even our National Marine Sanctuaries, and opening the coast we love to the oil industry.

Make no mistake, the coin of the realm in this new round will be the economy. We know that this coast is precious and deserving of our work to protect it. So do millions of past, present, and future visitors from around the world, whose help and voices we are going to need to help us win again this time.

In a time of deliberate White-House-originated confusion and obfuscation, we will need to raise our voices, and our political profile, so prominently and ferociously that saving this coast cannot be ignored, and we need to do that in the global context, as in making a noise heard planet wide. Not just because along our shores we have one of the four most productive ocean upwelling systems on the planet, bringing nutrients to a lush food web and vitally important fisheries here. Not just because the beauty of this coast graces our visitors and ourselves with sacred natural imagery treasured by so many. But because this coast is the backbone of our regional, and therefore our state’s, economic base. What Mr. Zinke and Mr. Trump are pushing, in the vernacular of the day, is a “job killer.”

Unfortunately, the relatively recent days of routinely running into Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on the streets of Point Arena and saying a friendly “Hello” have passed. The era of introduced alien predators is now upon us here, and we humans will need to actively defend our local natural habitat as we have for many decades. I’m sure you recall the very specific admonition we all received from the late Peter Douglas, long-serving Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission, reminding us that “The California Coast is never saved, it is always Being Saved.”

Now I have a respected activist friend down in Sonoma County who, whenever we meet, bewails what she views as the fact that all of our local environmentalists seem to be getting older (except for us, of course). My friend says that she does not see the next generation coming into the space of defending these places where we are privileged to live. I always respectfully disagree with her, reminding her of the phrase that always appeared at the top of the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog, which said “Energy moving through a system acts to organize that system.”

In my experience, threats catalyze action in response, and for that reason, I am confident that we, and our next generations here, will rise to the occasion as the threats now coming our way begin to materialize. Saving our coast is a process. So here is what we can now anticipate as we peacefully try to live on the western margin of what Kenny Ausubel, introducing the Bioneers Conference just last weekend, has so appropriately named “Trumpistan”…

Hard Won Coastal Protections Again Under Threat

President Obama (remember him?) had, just before leaving office, finalized a new “Five-Year Outer Continental Shelf Leasing Program,” delineating what parts of the U.S. coastline were proposed for leasing to the offshore drilling industry between 2017 and 2022. The good news is that California was simply not in that drilling plan, nor were any offshore tracts anywhere along the Pacific Coast. The bad news is that President Trump is presently in the process of replacing that prior Obama offshore drilling plan with a REVISED offshore drilling plan for the more extensive time-frame from 2019 through 2024 and we do not yet know whether or not California will be included as an offshore drilling target, but there is every reason to be concerned that it will. If California is in this Draft Proposed OCS Program, set for release for public comment by the end of this year, the drilling targets identified therein are likely to extend from Pt. Arena to the Oregon Border, and in Southern California from La Jolla up through Santa Monica Bay to Morro Bay. In other words, everything that was protected using a bipartisan congressional moratorium for 27 years, a drilling ban that expired without being voted up or down as George W. Bush left office in 2009, would now be up for grabs to the drillers.

Clearly, if sensitive areas of the California Coast are now suddenly targeted for offshore drilling, the oil industry interest is going to be close to shore, because of our narrow “Shelf,” and therefore close to some of our state’s most valued and iconic beaches, coves, and parklands. The public reaction is going to have to be very, very loud. The litigation team is going to have to be very, very proficient.

Even if Trump’s now-pending Draft Proposed Offshore Drilling Plan does NOT include California, there is other related mischief afoot in the U.S. House of Representatives, where oil-funded Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah is about to mark up a dangerous piece of legislation known as ASTRO (deceptively called the “Accessing Strategic Resources Offshore Act”), which would prohibit any future President from creating any National Monument without Congress passing legislation to do so. This so-called “ASTRO” bill would, among other egregious things, try to bribe coastal states and local jurisdictions on the Atlantic Coast and in Alaska by trying to tempt them with a share of offshore drilling revenues, including a proximity-based incentive scheme that would give states and localities more money the closer to shore drilling is allowed. Even more alarming, ASTRO proposes to short-circuit the longstanding consultation between coastal states and the Department of Interior over offshore drilling by enabling whoever is the Secretary of Interior to arbitrarily, at their sole discretion, add a brand new offshore drilling lease sale to the Five-Year Drilling Program at any time, and then the Department must conduct and complete that lease sale within one year of proposing it. This means that even if California is not originally included in the Draft Proposed Leasing Program that we expect to see in December of this year, if ASTRO passes and is signed into law, California could be added later, at any time, as an unannounced “surprise” offshore drilling sale. ASTRO also proposes to make it easier for the Trumpsters to recombine two separate arms of the federal agencies that are currently in charge of offshore drilling, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, back into the prior singularly scandal-plagued combined agency where cocaine was king and sleeping with oil industry lobbyists was just another day at the office at the former the Minerals Management Service (“Google” It).

Rolling back safety standards for the Arctic Ocean and elsewhere offshore seems like a particularly bad idea during the most recent two week period, which has been characterized by the largest offshore oil spill since the Deepwater Horizon, as a deep-sea pipeline system trying to tap the same Macondo oil reservoir responsible for the BP spill accidentally leaked at least 672,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. This represents the largest release of oil in America since the Deepwater Horizon spill, even as a Lake Pontchartrain oil rig tragically exploded in Louisiana’s wetlands, injuring seven workers with one person still missing, and a barge carrying 133,000 barrels of crude oil exploded and started leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico, with two of its crew still missing. Perhaps this is not the best week to have a debate in Congress about rolling back the safety protocols applied to oil drilling in our marine environment when those were intended to try to prevent these things, and maybe it’s not the right time to deliberately unlearn important lessons about which agency can best enforce worker safety and environmental standards.

Of intense local interest, just this past week we were supposedly scheduled to find out the recommendations of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross as to what the fate of eleven of our National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments should be. As you know, each of our five nearby counties unanimously opposed any shrinking of the boundaries of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary as comments were sought by NOAA earlier this year, duly submitted along with expressions of strong support for our Sanctuaries from nearly a hundred-thousand of our fellow citizens, since this Sanctuary extends permanent protection from offshore drilling from Bodega Head up to Alder Creek north of Pt. Arena.

The Trump Administration was scheduled to transmit a report to the White House on our Sanctuaries this past Wednesday, and indeed the report was transmitted to the president, but the contents were inexplicably kept secret. We remain cautiously optimistic that this process might still leave our coast unscathed, and even the oil industry has made it clear they don’t want the Marine Sanctuaries in California opened to offshore drilling, but nobody knows for certain what the outcome will eventually hold.

In the tragic event that the current Commerce Secretary has just now recommended, and the President concurs, with opening the Sonoma and Southern Mendocino coasts to offshore drilling by trying to roll back our hard-won National Marine Sanctuary protections, I respectfully suggest, in addition to suing their socks off, that we simply respond by asserting that the orderly eighteen-year bipartisan transparent public process that led to securing this protection of our coast within a National Marine Sanctuary is more valid than the Trump Administration’s illegitimate three-month pretense at a biased and deceptive “review” process. We will keep our Marine Sanctuary, with the support of all local governments and our state, and maintain the successful protections that now exist, until coherency and reason return to Washington, which they eventually must.

When will we know our fate here? Well, just yesterday Trump called up Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and told him he will be altering both Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Obama, and will also be modifying Bill Clinton’s spectacular Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, and will be making a visit to Utah in “early December” to unveil the outcome there. So unless some enterprising staffer predictably manages to again accidentally leak this week’s Commerce Department report about the fate of California’s National Marine Sanctuaries, I am presuming we can anticipate the word about our fate here coming at about the same time.

Time to Act is Now

I will close with the simple reminder that the protection of the California Coast has never been a partisan issue, but that rather, over the course of the past forty years, both Republican and Democratic elected officials have worked tirelessly to protect our coast and our fisheries from offshore oil pollution and the resulting toxic impacts. This is no time for looking backward and engaging in retrospective political recrimination, no time for arguing over whether Bernie could have beat the Russian hackers, this is a time for being truly “Indivisible,” since human rights and the rights of nature are fundamentally part of the same equation of core values. Climate warming and the environmental damage and carbon mayhem unleashed by extractive industries are also simply the opposite poles of the same continuum. We need to do more than “Resist” in the traditional sense of the world, we instead need to seriously fight back at every legitimate level of public policy and in the Courts.

Bravely going forward into this new era of protecting our own habitat in “The time of #45,” our collective effort to save this place is going to need to rely on the direct participation of virtually every coastal business, every saltwater fisherman, every visitor from anywhere at all, every “non-consumptive user” who takes only photographs and leaves only footprints, and especially the vitality and dedication of our next generation, to ultimately succeed. And we will succeed. We have won on this coast before, against great odds, and we can and will, with certainty, win again, although we have never been up against any Administration quite as blatantly “odd” as the one now temporarily in power in Washington.

Richard Charter is a specialist in advocacy on ocean protection issues, including marine spatial planning, media techniques to secure conservation outcomes, and preventing and mitigating industrial impacts on ocean ecosystems. As Co-Chair of the National Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Coalition, Richard was involved in initiating and maintaining the twenty-seven-year congressional moratorium on offshore oil and gas leasing which prevented new drilling along the U.S. West Coast, the Atlantic Coast, and Florida’s Gulf Coast, as well as in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Richard also coordinated the local government support that helped to bring about the creation of the Gulf of the Farallones, Cordell Bank, Channel Islands, and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries.