By Karl Grossman
Larry Penny, East Hampton Town’s longtime director of natural resources, was out in a small boat having taken friends to the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, California when a blow-out on an offshore oil rig resulted in a massive oil spill in 1969.
The oil on the Pacific Ocean through which his boat needed to travel was “about a foot thick,” he recounted last week. He only barely made it through the “black mess” and got back.
“It sure choked up the motor.” The next day he went up in a small plane and saw the devastation from the air. The “wind had been blowing from the west” and the shoreline was coated with oil.
Mr. Penny was a fisherman, ran an aquarium and was a teacher in Santa Barbara at the time. The spill was a pivotal event for him—and many others. It resulted in the organization Get Oil Out (GOO) demanding an end to the drilling—and today the waters from Santa Barbara to north of San Francisco have been declared marine sanctuaries and no longer is there offshore oil drilling there.
Thus the announcement last week by President Obama that he is moving to open up large sections of offshore waters to oil drilling—including the Atlantic from Delaware to Florida, a stretch also barred to drilling for decades—is seen as an outrage by Mr. Penny. The waters off Long Island are not—now—part of what Mr. Obama wants opened to drilling. But Mr. Penny notes that spilled oil travels far and Delaware and Maryland are not that distant—especially considering frequent southerly winds and the Gulf Stream off our coast, both of which would send black goo north. Moreover, those rigs would go up right in hurricane alley.
And the East Coast stands to be far more damaged by an oil spill than the West Coast, notes Mr. Penny, considering that it is lined with wetlands, the feeding and breeding grounds of sea life. “Once oil gets in the marshes, that’s it.”
“This is completely unnecessary,” protested Mr. Penny of Noyac. The technologies for clean, renewable energy are here today waiting to be fully implemented. “In this day and age this is ridiculous.”
It would be a huge threat to marine life, the fishing industry and the recreational industry which serves as an economic base for much of the East Coast. As New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg said last week, Mr. Obama’s gift to “Big Oil” is a “kill baby kill policy. It threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars.”
It was exactly 40 years ago, in 1970, that as a reporter for the daily The Long Island Press
that I broke the story of the oil industry seeking to drill in the offshore Atlantic. I got a tip from a fisherman in Montauk who said he had seen in the ocean east of Montauk the same sort of vessel as the boats he observed searching for oil when he was a shrimper in the Gulf of Mexico.
I spent the day telephoning oil companies. PR people for each said their companies were not involved in searching for oil in the Atlantic. But at day’s end, as I was walking out of the office, there was a call from a PR guy at Gulf saying, yes, Gulf was involved in exploring for oil in the Atlantic—as part of a “consortium” of 32 oil companies. These included the companies which all day issued denials. It was a first lesson in oil industry honesty, an oxymoron.
I traveled widely on the issue including in 1971 visiting the first drilling rig set up in the Atlantic, off Nova Scotia. The process was fraught with danger. A rescue boat went round and round the rig as the man from Shell Canada explained: “We treat every foot of hole like a potential disaster.” An oil well blow-out, a gusher, is one thing on land and another entirely on water. The Shell Canada official acknowledged that curtains, booms and other devices the oil industry still claims clean up spills “just don’t work in over five foot-foot seas.”
In 1974, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality stated that a major spill along the Atlantic Coast “could devastate the areas affected…the Atlantic [is a] hostile environment for oil and gas operations. Storm and seismic conditions may be more severe than in the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico.” There were strong Congressional, state and local challenges—with Suffolk County a leading force—and the Atlantic was closed to offshore oil drilling.
The Republican presidential slate, John McCain and Sarah Palin, advocated offshore oil drilling. Mr. Obama, as a candidate, opposed it. As president, Mr. Obama has—as he earlier did on nuclear power—done a complete reversal. “This is stupid,” said Mr. Penny. It sure is and needs to be stopped with citizen action and Congressional, state and local opposition.