President Bush and John McCain urge Congress to lift a federal ban on offshore oil drilling and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Their call comes as a new global warming report finds that North America is likely to experience more droughts, excessive heat and intense downpours. We speak with David Helvarg of the Blue Frontier Campaign. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with the impact of offshore oil drilling. On Wednesday, President Bush cited soaring gasoline prices and urged Congress to lift federal bans on offshore oil drilling and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: This morning I asked Democratic congressional leaders to move forward with four steps to expand American oil and gasoline production. First, we should expand American oil production by increasing access to the Outer Continental Shelf, or OCS. Experts believe that the OCS could produce about 18 billion barrels of oil. That would be enough to match America’s current oil production for almost ten years.
AMY GOODMAN: Bush’s comments came a day after Republican presidential candidate John McCain said the ban on offshore oil drilling had to be lifted to combat rising gas prices. Since McCain’s original statement, his own advisers have begun acknowledging lifting the ban would have no immediate effect on supplies or prices.
According to a recent study by the White House’s own Energy Information Administration, any impact on oil prices from exploiting the Outer Continental Shelf is expected to be “insignificant.”
Meanwhile, vocal opposition to the proposal is growing, particularly from environmentalists, as well as officials in California and Florida, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
David Helvarg is the president of the Blue Frontier Campaign, a marine conservation group. He’s the author of three books The War Against the Greens, Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, joining us on the phone from Maryland.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, David.
DAVID HELVARG: Hi. Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of this call for the ban on offshore oil drilling to be lifted by President Bush and the Republican presidential candidate John McCain?
DAVID HELVARG: Well, I think it makes sense in terms of Cheney and Bush trying to lift the ban. Essentially it’s a kind of final gift to their friends in the oil industry. That is, you know, there’s no expectation that there will be rapid drilling, but as soon as they have these lease areas on our public oceans in their ledgers, it increases their valuation as companies, it increases their stock value on Wall Street. So, you know, from the Bush administration point of view, why not?
It’s a little more difficult to understand McCain’s purpose, other than — remember, you know, they falsely tagged John Kerry as flip-flopper. McCain has clearly followed a recent poll that says a majority of Americans are very upset about $4 and $5 gas and looking for any solution and are now willing to open up offshore waters, and I think he jumped on that.
And, you know, he’s smart enough — in fact, he’s smart enough that a couple of weeks ago he gave a talk in which he pointed out that there’s no short-term benefit to this. It will be at least ten years ’til oil production would come online.
And, you know, the battle for the last twenty-five years, this moratorium that’s had bipartisan support, essentially it’s protected offshore waters, pristine areas, from the threats of oil spills and catastrophic disasters at that level. Now we have this added issue, which if we start drilling production ten, fifteen years down the line offshore, this product, used as directed, overheats our planet. It simply makes no sense.
And I think it’s, you know, like his tax, suggested removing the eighteen, twenty cents of federal tax on gas, it’s probably going to be seen as somewhat opportunistic. And I know that the Democrats talk about a windfall tax, and if you look at the $2.50 that’s been added to gasoline prices in the last year, if you took all that money and put it into a crash program to begin developing non-carbon-based energy systems, you might be going somewhere.
I mean, the problem is that, you know, they’re looking at drilling offshore. They’re drilling in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The use of fossil fuels is literally melting away the Arctic ice cover, and there are going to be eighteen exploration ships, drilling ships, up there looking for oil this summer. You know, the rapid decline of ice in that area, the extreme weather events we’re experiencing, should be a signal for a global response. And unfortunately, at the moment, the global response we’re seeing is this kind of cold rush into the Arctic to look at mineral exploration, shipping lanes and even oil drilling.
AMY GOODMAN: So we will soon see no ice in the summer in the Arctic. We just have this latest report led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Climate Change Science Program, that says as greenhouse gas emissions rise, North America is expected to experience more droughts, excessive heat, more intense downpours, hurricanes. President Bush basked in the sunlight in Washington, D.C. when he made the announcement of offshore drilling, as people in Iowa — the levees were breaking — were seeing, what now, tens of thousands of people who’ve basically become climate refugees.
DAVID HELVARG: Well, we’re in a country that in 2005, we had a million environmental refugees as a result of Katrina.
And again, McCain, the other day, said there was no spillage from the — he parsed it very carefully — from the 160 offshore rigs that were either damaged or destroyed. I saw them up on beaches. I also talked to the Coast Guard. There was actually 8.2 million gallons of spillage. The rigs themselves were closed down and evacuated before the storm, but all the pipes and tank farms and the infrastructure you get around that created two-thirds of an Exxon Valdez.
And again, you know, the intensified hurricanes happen. I just — you know, this flooding we’re seeing in Iowa, they’re calling it a 500-year flood. But you remember back in 1993, just fifteen years ago, we had a hundred-year flood. I’ve talked to a scientist at NASA who says, what we used to talk about hundred-year events become decadal events now, every ten years.
I just spoke with Admiral Brooks, who’s the Coast Guard commander for Alaska. He said when he arrived there last year, he thought climate was an issue he’d have to deal with for 2020 or 2030. He says it’s happening now. They’re putting emergency stations, search-and-rescue stations, up in Barrow this summer. They’re, you know, doing over-flights of this open water, because people are there now. The open water has brought — last summer, you had three tour ships that went through the Northwest Passage without informing the Canadians or Americans. Suddenly in Barrow you had 400 German tourists on the beach in Barrow. The local folks were kind of shocked.
But change is happening much more rapidly than was projected by the most conservative projections of the International Climate Change Panel, and it’s interesting, because this is the first time in years of working as an environmental journalist, before becoming an ocean advocate. And for years, scientists tended to be more skeptical than the public on things like Alar and even oil spills. Right now, scientists are much more worried than the public. I mean, what we need is — it’s insane to be talking about developing new sources of oil. What we need is the kind of global industrial response to develop new energy sources that we had in World War II, when America just remobilized overnight. And unfortunately, we’re not treating this threat like World War II; we’re treating it like the invasion of Grenada.
AMY GOODMAN: David Helvarg, on the one hand, you have the difference between John McCain and Barack Obama on this. Obama is against lifting the ban on offshore drilling; John McCain is for it. On the other hand, on the issue of nuclear power, they join together — both are for it. In fact, John McCain just called for the building of nuclear power plants in the last week, saying we’re going to lose the ability to build, since people aren’t going to remember how to do it since one hasn’t been built in thirty years.
DAVID HELVARG: Yeah, well, you know, I think that what you’re seeing is, as there’s a recognition that the science can’t be denied and people’s own experience of changing weather and climate can’t be denied, the natural tendency is for corporations to game the system. And so, you know, the first response to climate change you saw was corn biofuel, corn ethanol, because you already had this big commodity with deep pockets that could push that. And that’s very quickly been shown to be a disaster.
The next move, of course, is towards clean coal and nuclear, because again you’ve got existing industries that have more influence and more lobby power than, say, the geothermal, the wind or the photovoltaic industries. Clean coal, I kind of think of like low-tar cigarettes: it’s just unproved. And nuclear is a very expensive way to boil water and has very serious consequences in terms of waste and potential problems. You know, we certainly have to look at the full range, but the range we should be looking at is the range that our energy system is going to have least destructive impact and what’s going to have to be a fast and in some ways dirty transition if we’re going to escape the worst impacts of climate.
Clearly, we’re also going to have to do adaptation. I mean, the next 500 years is a rough period, no matter what we do. We’re already seeing in the ocean that even if we transitioned off of coal and gas tomorrow, we’re still going to lose half the world’s tropical coral reefs to the heat we’ve already put in the system. The ocean is already more acidic than were projected and really more acidic as a result of absorbing some of our excess carbon than they’ve been in several million years. So things are changing rapidly. The question is, is it going to be difficult, or is it going to be a disaster?
And clearly, you know, it’s bad times and some very bad ideas, like continuing to drill for oil or seeing nuclear as the quick and easy fix. But, you know, these are problems. I think the difference is that, you know, as a candidate, Obama says he’s going to be responsive to public demand. I think he probably will be. Senator McCain has some environmental credentials, which he’s rapidly discarding to try and shore up his base.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Helvarg, I want to thank you very much for being with us, founder and president of the conservation lobbying group Blue Frontier Campaign. Among his books, 50 Ways to Save the Ocean.