Bipartisan opposition is growing to President Trump’s proposal to greatly expand offshore oil and gas drilling. The reversal of the Obama-era restrictions would open more than a billion acres of water in the Arctic, Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil and gas drilling. Initially the Interior Department moved to allow offshore oil and gas drilling in nearly all of the United States’ coastal waters, but then announced it has dropped plans to open up the waters off the coast of Florida, following fierce opposition by Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott. Scott is an ally of President Trump, and the state is also home to Trump’s winter resort at Mar-a-Lago. Now governors and lawmakers from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, California, Oregon, Washington and other states are asking why only Florida is being exempted. We speak to Subhankar Banerjee, professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico. Banerjee is the author of “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land” and editor of “Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bipartisan opposition is growing to President Trump’s proposal to greatly expand offshore oil and gas drilling. The reversal of the Obama-era restrictions would open more than a billion acres of water in the Arctic, Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil and gas drilling. Initially the Interior Department moved to allow offshore oil and gas drilling in nearly all of the United States’ coastal waters, but then announced it has dropped plans to open up the waters off the coast of Florida, following fierce opposition by Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott. Scott is an ally of President Trump, and the state is also home to Trump’s winter resort at Mar-a-Lago. But now governors and lawmakers from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, California, Oregon, Washington and other states are asking why only Florida is being exempted.
AMY GOODMAN: The move comes as the Trump administration is also moving forward on plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. The Republican tax bill, which Trump signed into law last month, included a little-discussed provision to drill in the Arctic. On Wednesday, during a press conference with the prime minister of Norway, Trump boasted about his embrace of fossil fuels.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am for massive oil and gas and everything else and a lot of energy. Putin can’t love that. I am for the strongest military that the United States ever had. Putin can’t love that. But Hillary was not for a strong military. And Hillary, my opponent, was for windmills. And she was for other types of energy that don’t have the same capacities, at this moment, certainly.
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we’re joined by Subhankar Banerjee, professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico. Professor Banerjee is the author of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land and editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point.
Well, we come back to you, Professor Banerjee, because, while first we talked to you about the inclusion of opening up the Arctic to drilling, to satisfy Senator Murkowski, to get her to sign on to the tax bill, that tax bill was signed off on. She supported it. And now, if you can take us from there, what has happened since?
SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: Thank you, Amy, thank you, Nermeen, for giving voice to our Arctic oceans.
So, the Department of Interior released their five-year Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas lease plan last Thursday, which is really—there is no other way to say it than that it is an all-out attack on our oceans, across the country, and on coastal communities. It is so expansive. As you mentioned, it plans to open up more than a billion acres of federal waters. It’s very hard to comprehend the scope of this, from Florida—although Florida, as you said, he’s pulling back—to Alaska, from California to Maine, and every state, as well as the entire Gulf of Mexico. So, it’s a massive plan. There are 47 leases that they plan to offer, which is the largest number of offshore leases ever in the history of the United States. And in terms of acreage, also, like you said, Nermeen, more than a billion acres, it is the largest. And plans to open up the entire Arctic seas of Alaska, the Beaufort and the Chukchi seas, our undeveloped Arctic Ocean. Now, this decision comes on the heels of opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as, Amy, you mentioned. And that came right after the administration offered, on December 6th, what they call the largest lease sale ever within the National Petroleum Reserve in Western Arctic of Alaska. So they’re on an all-out war against conservation and indigenous rights and against small communities across the country.
Now, in addition to the lease sale, this massive offshore lease sale plan, they have done two more things that we need to pay attention to. One is weakening of offshore regulations, safety regulations that were put in place after Deepwater Horizon. And the other is weakening of federal oversight on offshore oil and gas lease plan. And I will speak briefly the immediate history of those two components, which is extremely important.
The reason Deepwater Horizon happened in the Gulf of Mexico, British Petroleum’s, BP’s Deepwater Horizon, which spilled more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating wildlife and coastal communities, was because BP was trying to save costs and was trying to become the top dog in the entire Gulf of Mexico offshore drilling operations, trying to beat out Shell. And so, in that process, they basically cut costs and did not do proper safety. So the blowout preventer is what caused that blowout to happen, the largest blowout and spill in the U.S. history. Subsequent to that, several years of work went in that led to establishing offshore safety equipment regulations. So, exactly the week before last week, the Obama—I mean, the Trump administration announced weakening of those regulations. So, it’s extremely important.
The other is, right before that, in early December, the Department of Interior also killed a study that would have reviewed offshore how the agency, which is the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, controls and does oversight of offshore oil and gas leasing program. So they killed that study. That is also very significant. And we may have forgotten by now, but in 2008 the agency that used to do oversight of all offshore oil and gas operations, as well as the leasing program, used to be called Mineral Management Service. That agency got caught up in a wide-ranging ethics scandal, including sex and drugs, that was actually reported in The New York Times at the time, in 2008. So, following that and following the Deepwater Horizon, President Obama decided to get rid of the Mineral Management Service and created what he called at the time Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, which later became BOEM, or Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
So, in addition to this billion acres, of trying to open this up, all of our ocean water, and the weakening of our safety equipment regulations, as well as the weakening of oversight, is an all-out war against our oceans and our coastal communities, that we need a all-out antiwar movement now, nothing less than that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Banerjee, I want to go back to what you were talking about earlier, namely the Arctic region. This is a region that you’ve studied for a very long time, and the indigenous communities who work there, as well as the biological diversity that exists there. Could you talk about what the impact of this will be in that region and why the Arctic is so important to biodiversity?
SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: Thank you, Nermeen, for bringing that up. The Arctic seas of Alaska, the Beaufort and Chukchi, still continues to be our only undeveloped seas in North America. And the Arctic Ocean, in those seas in Arctic Alaska, harbors an incredibly rich diversity of life. And it is also considered the least understood and one of the most ecological complex seas on Earth.
Just to give you a simple example, in those Arctic seas, I mean, I have seen about three species of whales, but you can see actually eight different species of whales, three of which are Arctic, and five come from warmer waters, like the coast of Mexico, where they are giving birth, and then they go up to the Arctic. There are gray whales, blue whales, beluga whales and bullhead whales and many others. And then the Arctic communities, coastal communities, the indigenous Iñupiat people, call themselves “people of the whales” and the seas “our garden.” So, opening those up, for many of the Iñupiat communities, other than the ones who are the corporate Iñupiat, is a outright violation of their human rights.
So, we are talking about seas that we don’t even understand very well, and are incredibly ecologically rich, and indigenous people depend on it. Just to alert you to one thing that Audubon Alaska published late last year, a massive report called “Ecological Atlas of Bering, Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.” It’s an amazing report. The Trump administration wants to open up all of that. So, it’s not only the Arctic seas, but the other seas in Alaska. There are 19 leases planned in the entire Alaskan water.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about what just happened, this remarkable meeting where the interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, reportedly flew down to Florida to meet with Governor Rick Scott, and afterwards announced that Florida would be taken off the map for opening up to offshore drilling, because it would threaten tourism and the economy. So, governors across the United States are basically saying, “Me, too.” They have expressed outrage at Interior Secretary Zinke’s decision to grant just Florida the exemption—again, Florida, of Republican Governor Rick Scott, also of Mar-a-Lago. This is Oregon Democratic Governor Kate Brown speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
GOV. KATE BROWN: My question is, to Secretary Zinke: Why is this OK for Florida and not OK for Oregon?
ANDERSON COOPER: Is this politics?
GOV. KATE BROWN: In what universe is this OK?
ANDERSON COOPER: I mean, is this about electoral politics?
GOV. KATE BROWN: Absolutely. What can I—what can I think otherwise? Is it about the governor wanting to run for the U.S. Senate? Or is it about President Trump wanting to protect Mar-a-Lago? I don’t know the answer to that, because Secretary Zinke hasn’t returned our calls. … There was absolutely no input from governors, coastal governors. We had no clue that this was coming, and we had no opportunity to express our outrage. We are outraged. This is absolutely unacceptable. There has been no drilling off the Pacific Coast for three decades.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Oregon Democratic Governor Kate Brown. Today, Roy Cooper, the governor of North Carolina, just went ballistic. He said, “We jut into the ocean.” He said, “Many of our towns and cities have already said they do not want this offshore drilling,” that the BP oil spill costs dwarf their annual budget. Professor Subhankar Banerjee, is this actually an opening right now, Zinke exempting Florida? Because of the outcry of not only Democratic governors, like Brown and Cooper, you’re talking about the governors of New Hampshire, of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia are enraged.
SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: Yes. So, let me point that out. As you said, it’s really a kind of a #MeToo movement. I like that thing. And what they’re doing is—Washington Post published an article late last night in which Michael Brune, the director of the Sierra Club, pointed out something quite important, that what the Department of Interior is doing in regard to the Florida decision, they are not actually following the procedure, proper procedure. There is something called a procedural act. They’re not even following that. So it’s a very ad hoc, arbitrary process. What does this mean now? Is he going to release another draft plan? Is he going to just strike out that Florida language by hand? And now there will be—there is already an outrage across the country from all governors, all of these coastal governors, except, I think, couple of them who support. But there is outrage across.
But let me actually highlight something else they are doing. Not only they are not following proper procedure, but they are, in my opinion—and this has not yet been reported by the media—in my opinion, they are both—they are setting up a process that will discourage and suppress public input. And there are two components to this. So, what happens is, with this massive offshore plan, the Department of Interior, by law, by the National Environmental Policy Act, have to hold public hearings across the country. That process, the way they are undermining that process is, instead of—in the way public hearing used to happen, you would—all public would gather in a big auditorium somewhere. There would be federal officials sitting behind a table. All of us would go in there and give our testimonies in an open mic, and that will be recorded. That’s the normal process. And I have done this numerous times. And I am sure you both have done it, you both have covered such public hearings across the country.
Now what they’re doing is they are getting rid of that and saying something, in their words—and you can look it up on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation website—is, they are calling it “open-house” style. So there will be no such thing what used to happen in the past. Public still can go in there as they please during the day. There will be no really this kind of formal recording or anything like that. There will be a small video playing on a continuous loop, that the public can look at, ask some questions, maybe put in a comment. What does that do? It’s a form of discouraging the public to engage in a proper public hearing. So they’re getting rid of the idea of public hearing. There is not really a public hearing. They’re just going to accept some comments.
The second component of that, how they’re suppressing the public input process, is they’re only going to hold this kind of public meeting in one location in each of the 23 states, at the state capitol. So let’s say you’re coastal community in California or any of the states. The public meeting will take place in Sacramento, but you are hundreds of miles away. Or let’s say in Alaska. The meeting will take place in Anchorage, whereas the indigenous people, who are living literally like close to a thousand miles away, how are they going to come to this meeting in such a short notice?
So, two things have to happen. I would encourage senators and governors across the country to slow down this process and understand what they are doing with regard to the public participation. They are undermining the public participation.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I also wanted to ask you, Professor Banerjee, about the threats faced by environmental scientists under the Trump administration. In August, Democracy Now! interviewed Interior Department whistleblower Joel Clement, a senior official at the Interior Department who had focused on the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities in the Arctic. We spoke with Clement after he was transferred to an unrelated job within the Interior Department where he was tasked with collecting royalty checks from oil and gas companies.
*JOEL CLEMENT: There’s been a long pattern, since the administration took over, of suppressing science, muzzling scientists, sidelining subject matter experts. The biggest concern is that doing so has huge consequences for Americans—and, particularly in my case, those Alaska Natives. I mean, that permafrost is melting. They’re fully exposed to storms now that the sea ice has receded. And that concern is not going to be limited to Alaska Natives for long.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s Interior Department whistleblower Joel Clement speaking in August. He has since, of course, resigned. So, Professor Banerjee, can you talk about the threats faced by environmental scientists under the Trump administration?
SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: This is—thank you for bringing this up. This is not only the Trump administration, but previous administrations have done this, is there is—any scientist working on pathbreaking work on Arctic offshore, or offshore at large, that somehow gets entangled with oil and gas issues, are being silenced and punished. So, Joel Clement is the latest of this. I’ll give you two more examples. And Joel Clement’s work is, again, pathbreaking, because the coastal erosion is an extremely significant issue for indigenous communities all across Arctic Alaska, both—all across Arctic Alaska. And he was trying to highlight that. And so, as we are speaking right now, the Department of Interior is actually hosting what they call some sort of a symposium to do a massive overhaul or reorganization of their senior staff members. And Joel Clement got caught up in that, but he’s extremely courageous, so he went and blew the whistle. Democracy Now! covered it.
Now let me give you a couple of more examples. Charles Monnett was a leading federal Arctic biologist who studied the polar bear biology and the first scientist to bring attention to the plight of polar bears from climate change. His research was published, and that research he did in the Beaufort Sea, where Trump administration will try to open up to oil drilling. He did the research in 2004, when polar bears were drowning in the Beaufort Sea because of melting sea ice. The research was published in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology in 2006, which actually inspired the animation in Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, and brought worldwide attention to the plight of polar bears from climate change. Fast-forward, the Bush administration then went after Charles Monnett and his studies. Again, they demoted him, and they did all sorts of things to cover his funding and so on and so forth. But Obama administration went one step further, because Obama administration was also really pushing for oil and gas development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The Obama administration Department of Interior actually put Charles Monnett under house arrest in 2012 for six weeks, after which he was released without any charges being leveled against him.
Then there’s a third example of Professor Richard Steiner of University of Alaska Fairbanks, who spoke out against oil and gas issues in the Bering Sea. The University of Alaska took away all his federal funding, from agencies like National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He protested. Democracy Now! did the coverage. Amy, you spoke with Rick Steiner also. And he protested and filed a lawsuit, and then he resigned.
So, to draw attention to all of these issues, I am convening a major conference called “The Last Oil” at the University of New Mexico, that will take place from February 21 to 23rd, to bring attention to this form of silencing, punishing, as well as marginalization of indigenous people all across the Arctic.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally—
SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: So, we are in a time they are doing everything to undermine the public process. They’re silencing scientists. They’re marginalizing and silencing indigenous communities. We need a all-out antiwar movement, antiwar-style movement now.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Banerjee, we just have a few seconds, but I wanted you to comment on this latest news, far from you, here in New York City, the mayor, de Blasio, and the city announcing that the city will sue five fossil fuel giants over their contributions to global warming, the suit targeting BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, this coming as Mayor de Blasio announced plans to divest some $5 billion in fossil fuel investments from the city’s public employee pension fund, leading 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben to tweet, “One of the biggest days in 30 years of the climate fight. Earth’s mightiest city now in full-on fight with its richest, most irresponsible industry.” We just have 10 seconds. But as you see all of this happening, this movement that you’re talking about, do you take hope in this?
SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: There is hope in this. And we are deeply grateful to the mayor of New York City for taking the lead. Believe it or not, the small Iñupiat community of Kivalina actually filed a lawsuit against 23 fossil fuel companies. That was thrown out in court, but a very famous history. So, now, the mayor of New York City highlighting this and bringing it is extremely important. And at a year when we just saw such extreme climate change events—three Category 4, Category 5 hurricanes, Harvey, Irma, Maria, the extreme wildfire, out-of-season wildfire in California in December, now the flood and the mudslide that is taking place—we need to transition away from fossil fuels, not enmesh ourselves in projects that will lock us in for five decades of fossil fuels development. So we really—
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us.
SUBHANKAR BANERJEE: —welcome and grateful to the New York City mayor.
AMY GOODMAN: Subhankar Banerjee, professor of art and ecology at University of New Mexico, speaking to us from the university, from New Mexico Public Television. Professor Banerjee is author of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land and editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. An exhibition of his Arctic work, Long Environmentalism in the Near North, is on display at the University of New Mexico Art Museum.