Offshore Oil – The Next Keystone

Offshore Oil – The Next Keystone

By guest blogger David Helvarg, Author and Environmental Activist


So what do conservative Congressmen Curt Clawson of Florida and Mark Sanford of South Carolina, liberal Congressman Sam Farr of California, climate activist Bill McKibben, a former petroleum engineer, an evangelical minister and a surfer all have in common? No, it’s not a joke. They all spoke out against offshore oil and gas drilling at our D.C. press conference for the Sea Party Coalition on November 4. The Sea Party aims to make opposition to proposed offshore drilling a major issue in the 2016 election.

President Obama’s decision two days later to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline after seven years of polarized debate, and the pushback it received, increases the likelihood that energy and the environment will play a prominent role in the upcoming election. And in the wake of the recent terrorist atrocity in Paris (followed by similar outrages in Mali and Nigeria) the Paris Climate Summit and what comes out of that will likely further polarize the elections and challenge the Republican Party’s climate change position of denial. My hope is that it will also mark the beginning of a global commitment to end our dangerous oil addiction that both funds terrorism and threatens the planet.

For my complete analysis of our Sea Party event under an 85-foot life sized blue whale see my article “Fish don’t like oil spills and neither do I”: Finally, something environmentalists and conservatives can agree on,” in Salon magazine.



On November 19, Oceana, the Southern Environmental Law Center and other environmental groups invited business people and locally elected leaders to Washington D.C. to meet with the Obama administration and members of Congress to talk about their opposition to offshore drilling in states that have been targeted for acoustic surveying and drilling (and inevitable spilling).

After Shell Oil hit a dry hole in the Chukchi Sea and announced it was giving up fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic Ocean (for now) and the Obama administration cancelled two other pending oil lease sales off our Northern coast (see Blue Notes #140) two strategies seem to have emerged among those battling offshore oil. One is focusing on the hope that President Obama, increasingly committed to addressing climate change and leaving behind an action-based legacy, will reverse course in the final days of his administration and also withdraw his proposed Atlantic lease sales.

The focus of this work combines inside the beltway lobbying with continued grassroots mobilization to convince mostly Republican pro-oil governors in the South (along with pro-oil drilling democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia) that it will cost them politically to continue on the track they’re on. The Obama administration has indicated it will not pursue leasing in federal waters off states that don’t want it, so obviously if governors can be turned against the drilling that would make it easier for Obama to withdraw the lease sales.


The Sea Party Coalition including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Blue Frontier and some 60 other groups believes that while it would be great if President Obama were to reverse his past mistake in opening up the Arctic and Atlantic to drilling, it’s at least as likely that decision will be made by the next president. They plan, through voter education and mobilization to make offshore oil drilling an issue during the 2016 elections that the presidential candidates will have to address. Then next summer, as Blue Frontier did in 2012, we will send a letter to the final two candidates from ocean leaders in conservation, recreation, science and business to find out where they stand on the future of our public seas including offshore drilling and publicize the results so that the public can know where they stand on protecting the blue in our red, white and blue.

In the 1980s when California defeated plans for new offshore drilling (see my book, ‘The Golden Shore’) the issue was coastal pollution versus energy. Today, as climate activist Bill McKibben pointed out at the Sea Party press conference, even if there is no oil spill from offshore operations and the oil is refined and burned in cars and power plants we create a carbon-dioxide spill into that atmosphere that will continue heating the ocean, raising sea levels and changing the basic chemistry of seawater in a way not good for complex life on our blue planet

For millions of people from Dewey Beach Delaware to Pawley’s Island South Carolina and Key West Florida questions of strategy or whether offshore drilling is an ocean issue or a climate issue are less important than that the threat of offshore oil go away, hopefully forever and that we begin to deal seriously with the rising seas and more powerful typhoons, droughts and extreme weather that are becoming a part of our daily lives because of our burning of fossil fuels (and forests).

The good news is there are some ideas so inherently stupid – be it processing and pumping tar sands for export like the Keystone scheme proposed or continuing high-risk at sea oil exploitation – that we can actually defeat them and offer something better (job generating clean energy and marine sanctuaries) if we all school together.

By David Helvarg


For The Sake Of The Younger Generations He Had Awakened To Love The Sea.

Preface: Writing my book FROGMEN has enabled me to reconnect with old friends. Bill agreed to let me share his amusing, insightful story about his experience working with the Cousteau team. Enjoy! – Richard

Cousteau 1975: Bimini
By Dr. William Herrnkind Professor Emeritus, FSU,

Mass migrating lobsters evaded filming by the Calypso’s team at Contoy in late 1974, largely because waters were too rough and turbid. Thus, JYC agreed to a second effort at Bimini, my research “backyard”, in fall 1975. However, JYC and Calypso were committed elsewhere so a shore and seaplane based team was assembled, led by Philippe. And a fine assemblage it was, including master diver Bernard Delemotte (my 1974 cabin-mate on Calypso), cinematographer Michel Deloire and several others. Much effort time and expense had been invested on this project so successful underwater footage of large lobster formations was essential. I had all but promised success. As we impatiently awaited a migration-triggering cold front, my assertion on occasion would later lead me to the rum bottle.

In mid-October, Bernard, Michel and his wife met my grad student Paul Kanciruk at Bimini and setup shore-base housekeeping in a large rented cottage. Bernard had brought a Zodiac but at my urging also rented a fast, roomy, stable 17 ft. cathedral hulled skiff with a 100 hp Evinrude from the Lerner Marine Lab, where my students and I had operated since 1969. Paul was in his last year of doctoral research on ecological and behavioral aspects of mass migration – he was as capable and familiar with the lobster waters as I.

Meanwhile, I was obliged to teach for another week. Paul served as guide until I finished my 13- lecture section of a big liberal studies class at FSU – lectures to an auditorium audience of over 1300 students!

Paul had a somewhat uncomfortable experience with the land team. They conversed mostly to one another … in French. Paul felt left out and wasn’t certain his knowledge was either sought or appreciated. He returned to Tallahassee soon after I arrived to meet his own university obligations. (BTW, Paul went on to run the mass data storage/retrieval system at Oak Ridge Nat. Lab. Tragically he died in 2006. We had co-published 8 lobster research papers in the late 1970s.)

My arrangement worked fine, I appreciated my department head and colleagues for allowing me time away from campus to pursue the project. To create an academic experience, I collaborated with the FSU Marine Laboratory to use their 60 ft. research vessel R/V Tursiops, carrying five of my graduate students, and a Miami-Dade Community College class of 10 marine technology students and their 48 ft. work/dive boat. The students would get academic credit.

The M-DCC arrangement was set up by their faculty member Eric Frehsee, an accomplished underwater photographer and past guest on Calypso. Frehsee was also amidst gathering photos of the migration for National Geographic and had worked with me at Bimini in 1971-1973 (See Nat. Geo. Mag. June 1975). In addition, he planned to shoot stills and cine of the Cousteau team to document their operation. On my behalf, FSU divemaster Joe Halusky coordinated the student effort to produce a topographic and ecological underwater map of a set of patch reefs that served as shelter to lobsters during reproduction in spring, as well as respite to migrant lobsters in fall.

All the watercraft and students meant theoretically that we had lots of logistical assistance but it practically meant keeping everybody out of each other’s hair, especially that of Bernard and Philippe! Everyone wanted to be part of the Cousteau “team”. Thankfully, the M-DCC faculty and Joe Halusky kept the several projects apart yet got all hands on deck when needed. I stayed mostly with the Cousteau team.

About a week after my arrival, word came that the PBY was on the way. One mid-day, the huge ungainly aircraft made an exploratory pass over the narrow Bimini Lagoon, banked steeply, came around and landed – Biminites, tourists and scientists alike gawked. Soon I got to meet Philippe for the first time. He turned out to be a complex character.

As I recall, a cold front hit a week later, but not a strong one. Night migrants showed up in small numbers, a few hundred, but enough to get the cine team filming. Because migrants left their shelters at dusk, I had my grad students observe and record behavior as the lobsters initiated queuing. This turned out to later yield important data and was a good lead into work I did 25 years later. Meanwhile, Michel and Bernard assembled the camera, lights, dive gear and generator aboard the R/V Tursiops, anchored near a den with about 50 migrants. I got to witness Murphy’s Law of the sea in underwater cine ops – whatever can go awry, will. I was already all too familiar with its effect doing underwater science.

The most amusing instance involved the underwater photo team; Bernard, Patrick (I think) and Michele, Zodiac and operator, and several volunteer grad students on Tursiops were to operate the generator. The underwater lights’ power cord stretched to the den, about 100 ft. from the R/V. The Zodiac ferried stuff back and forth. The sun had just set, ambient light was dim. It was essential that the movie lights be off until a queue formed and left the den for open bottom. It was ordained that the dive team would, upon this occurring, wave a dive light back and forth, easily visible thru 20 ft. of clear calm water.

Time went by. A diver rose to the surface low on air to get a refill. Soon another came up for whatever. The generator team was in a high state of anticipation, on hair-trigger – any time now!

Suddenly, a brief flash of light from the bottom. The pull cord was yanked, the generator loudly roared to life deafening us, huge bright beams flooded the den. No lobsters were emergent. Soon a head bobbed up: Bernard, summoning all his lung power, yet his voice barely audible over the noise, “STOP ZEE JENERATOR!!”

A diver had inadvertently hit the switch on his dive light. The lobsters withdrew well back into the den for the night.

Next day, while the land and vessel based teams looked underwater near the islands for migrants, I proposed to Philippe that we use the PBY to fly low and slow over the 5-10 m deep shallows of the Bahama Bank away from Bimini and try to spot queues as dark lines standing out from the predominantly sand sea floor – I was told by a Florida Marine Patrol officer that he once saw migrants in the Keys that way. We tried this at Contoy via ‘copter but waters were too turbid. Philippe fell for the idea – off we went.

We flew the Great Bahama Bank north and east of Bimini but saw no migrants so we flew north over deep water to the Little Bahama Bank east of Grand Bahama Island – an area reported to me by a Bahamian colleague to host migrations.

We saw no lobsters but near East End, Grand Bahama, I pointed out an assemblage of 20 or more Bahamian lobster boats – 15 ft. outboard skiffs sculled by one person as the other peered thru a glass-bottom bucket and wielded a bully net – the net hoop set perpendicular to the pole so it could be pushed downward over one, or better yet, several lobsters. I suggested so many concentrated boats surely indicated migration. Philippe decide to land and check it out.

We sure got the lobster fishers attention as the PBY swooped among the tiny skiffs, dwarfing them. We soon had several guys visit to ask what we were doing – they were helpful and cooperative. Indeed, the “crawfeesh” were “marchin’”.

By the time we anchored up, inflated the Zodiac, hauled out the dive gear, etc., it was near dusk. There was enough food for Jan (definitely pregnant at the time) to prep a meal although stocks aboard were sparse. We had expected to be back at Bimini by dark. Best of all, Philippe removed a hatch in the floor to reveal a well-stocked bar – I chose scotch. So did Philippe. We bonded.

We got busy the next day inflating the Zodiac and readying the dive gear and camera then heading to the lobster skiffs. Short queues were apparently migrating from the Bank side of Grand Bahama through mangrove sloughs to the dropoff into the Northwest Providence Channel. Philippe got some good footage of queues assembling into a closely packed pod all pointing antennae – their main defensive weapon – at an “attacking” bully net. This scene made the eventual program. However, filming was cut short by an engine problem on the PBY. The co-pilot/mechanic proclaimed we needed to do repairs sooner than later. We took off and flew to the Grand Bahama International airport.

After landing, I became aware at one of Philippe’s mild phobias – he was a bit miserly but hated to personally confront people of authority to ask for favors. In this case he didn’t want to pay the airport fees, wanted them waived. So, he told me to arrange it with the airport authorities. I resisted. You see, I have the same personality flaw. But I reluctantly did as he asked.

I called the airport administration and announced that the world-famous Cousteau Team had landed with urgent need to speak to the Director. He came on and greeted me with a welcome and what could he do for us? And who was I? I told him about the PBY’s repair needs and that I was the lead consultant for JYC and in the company of son Philippe. I added that I had some familiarity with aviation, as my long-time neighbor at home was Director of Tallahassee Regional Airport, whom he knew. This seemed to win him over. He agreed to waive landing fees on the condition that we visit his office so he could meet Philippe in person. And so we did. Philippe put on a good show.

Once we checked into a hotel (the Xanadu!) I had little to do so I asked the co-pilot, who was also a certified mechanic, if I could be of assistance. Sure, he said, I could pass him tools he specified as we stood on tall scaffolding while he leaned into the bowels of the big radial engine. I don’t recall the mechanical issue but it took less than a day to make repairs. We would return to the lobster site the next day. However a family tragedy befell me; a phone message reached me that my father in law had suffered a fatal heart attack at home in upstate New York. I decided to fly out from Bimini earlier than planned but we spent another day filming at East End.

We saw no large scale mass queuing in the shallows nor on a deep dive (~130 ft.) to look for migrants that might have gone over the Bahama Bank edge. I accompanied Philippe on the dive. Afterward we discussed scuba diving philosophy – from which I learned a new perspective. I had asked him why he still used the “old technology” of double-hose regulators. He bristled, sipped some scotch, then strongly stated, “…because they are easier to breathe than single-hose types”. Furthermore, breathing is an energy consuming activity, one simply expends more energy on a single hose. He then criticized the gear I was using, such as the buoyancy vest, which is a big drag producer – like a parachute – fatiguing the diver. I mumbled something about that the vest had pockets where I carried instruments. He convinced me that U. S. dive gear was designed to isolate, protect, the user from the medium, not tune in to it. Why carry 20 lbs. of lead to have to offset it with an inflated, drag-producing buoyancy compensator. I was embarrassed to admit I had not considered a diver mimicking marine animals where evolution has shaped them to be biomechanically efficient. I mean, even spiny lobsters, by bringing the antennae together at their fastest walking pace, reduce drag. After that conversation, I often argued for Philippe’s perspective with my diving colleagues.

The migratory activity seemed to be over at East End so we headed back to Bimini with a disappointing amount of lobster footage – mainly sequences of the bully netters and some lobster group defensive behavior. Upon return to Bimini, however, we were elated to find out that there the “crawfeesh was marchin” big time while we were gone. Great footage was recorded of 50-member queues on open substrate in daylight with 100 ft. plus visibility. Virtually all the migratory sequences in the eventual show were from Bimini. Everybody was all smiles, wine and rum glasses were hoisted, and I soon flew to New York State to join with my grieving family.

Sometime the following year I flew to LA to meet with Philippe and to watch the edited show, as it was to appear on the air. I was impressed how the show was assembled to tell a story and especially how the above-water footage of the seascape and fishermen at Contoy were seamlessly blended with the Bimini underwater scape and migration. To the audience it appeared that the entire event was at one location!

I was OK with the scientific accuracy of all but the anthropomorphic story line at the end where a trailing lobster on a long queue turns to confront an approaching diver (a predator) using his rapier antennae. The sequence was portrayed that the trailing individual was “protecting” his fellows up the column like a rear guard. It is more likely that it was defending itself. In interpreting animal behavior it is scientifically verboten to imbue other species with human consciousness or intent. I was told that if I was adamant, my name could be withheld from the credits. My ego reigned, I relented.

I treasure the experience of working with the Cousteau team and carry with me notable memories and illumination from the two, nearly month-long, stays first on Calypso at Contoy (1974) then Bimini with the PBY (1975). I truly liked all my Cousteau colleagues, including the bright and thoughtful college student Richard Hyman, who took to the science and was much help and good company at Contoy. I have lasting impressions of several key people, especially JYC. I had many conversations with him besides interviews and preparation for them. I appreciated that he did not want to rehearse interviews, so recorded dialog was spontaneous and candid. I found our discussions otherwise to be candid and respectful, mutually so. I was delighted that he was not aloof.

I like to recall the instance where JYC, the new young deckhand from Key West and I got into an occasionally frictional argument over the role and rights of women. A bottle of red wine kept us company so the debate was lively. I can’t remember the outcome of the issues but in perspective the event personified, to me, JYC’s great character. After all, here was a superbly intelligent, world-renowned elder doing his best to win a semi-drunken argument with a know-it-all college professor and a kid of limited education and life experience. Wine gone, we eventually tottered off to bed without resolution. It was great!

The most amusing event was JYC’s attempt to make something happen while we impatiently awaited a storm to trigger a migration. One morning I wandered out of my cabin (shared with Bernard) where I was met by an animated, smiling JYC. He said, “Come with me Beel. I will show you how we will film lobstair queues.” There lying on the port stern deck was a 20 ft. length of 6 inch diameter PVC pipe. JYC, “I call it zee lobstair bazooka! “ He explained the obvious that we load it with lobsters then shove the line of them out with a push-pole and they would queue away, cameras rolling. I was speechless but stuttered that it was a clever idea.

The divers collected half a dozen local lobsters typical of the size range in the area, that is humongous, JYC and I watched from the gunwale as the team loaded the bazooka, placed 10 yards from the ship in ~20 ft. depth. Explosions of bubbles rose from their effort. After 15 minutes or so, Bernard surfaced, took out his regulator and held up a legless lobster and announced that the specimens were too big around for the barrel of the device. The effort to push the lobsters in a too-tight opening caused them to autotomize their walking legs. I giggled, JYC looked insulted. Yet, theoretically, it might have worked with smaller lobsters.

The most serious issue that JYC shared with me happened on our plane trip back to Miami. We got to talking about ocean protection and the need to salvage fisheries, prevent habitat loss, reduce pollution, and other weighty topics. I might have brought the subject up, as I was concerned that if I “solved” the migration questions that commercial fishers might exploit the predictability in time and location, thus trawling up an entire migratory population throughout the species range. Whatever, JYC grew morose and told me that it was his belief and deep fear that ruination of the marine environment was inevitable. I literally felt a cold chill then I blurted out that, for the sake of the younger generations he had awakened to love the sea and it’s lifeforms, he should not make that admission. It is our calling to soldier on.

Bill Herrnkind

Copyright © text 2015 by Dr. William Herrnkind
All rights reserved.