The Beacon: Andy Sharpless's blog

CEO Note: Big Win for Wind

Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless

If you’ve been paying attention to news out of the nation’s capital, it would seem that there’s little to be encouraged about. But what you might not have heard is the genuinely good news that emerged when the dust settled on the so-called “fiscal cliff” deal just after the New Year. Thanks to tireless campaigning by Oceana, an unheralded bit of legislation, crucial to the future of the country’s clean renewable energy future, was passed by Congress.

On December 31st the Investment Tax Credit, or ITC, expired. The tax credit is essential to attracting investment in the country’s promising offshore wind industry. Had it not been renewed, it would have dealt a devastating blow to an industry that is just getting off its feet here in the United States (though it is well established overseas). While subsidies for the oil and gas industry are permanent features of the U.S. tax code, the future of the wind industry truly hung in the balance as Congress looked to forge an economic deal.

Thankfully, our elected representatives recognized the crippling consequences of inaction and included the ITC in the contentious deal to avert the fiscal cliff.

If we gave up on our burgeoning offshore wind industry, what exactly would we be giving up on? Well, an economic analysis prepared for the Department of Energy found that by 2030 the domestic offshore wind industry could create 200,000 jobs, bring in over $70 billion in annual investments and create 4,000 gigawatts of clean power, enough to power the entire United States four times over.

And wind energy is good for the ocean. While the Department of the Interior mulls a proposal to test for oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean with seismic airguns that threaten tens of thousands of marine mammals, and as Shell continues to demonstrate the dangers of offshore drilling in ever more remote and hazardous locales, the need for developing our clean energy industry has never been clearer.

Thanks to Oceana, wind companies that had begun to scale back and even lay off workers in the face of fiscal and political uncertainty are hiring again. In the midst of a still sputtering economy, the renewal of the ITC means more manufacturing jobs and revitalized port industries.

But most importantly, it signals that the United States is serious about developing the untapped wealth of clean, renewable wind energy off its shores. Thanks to the work of our advocates and the wisdom of our representatives, a new wind blows in the country’s energy landscape.

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana


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CEO Note: Shell's Arctic Gamble

Coast Guard helicopter hoists crew members from the Kulluk. Photo: Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis

If you were paying attention over the winter break you might have heard about things going very awry up North. Shell, which last fall closed the books on a disastrous season trying to drill for oil in the Arctic, ran into even more serious trouble when its drill rig, the Kulluk, separated from the vessel towing it in 24-foot waves on December 27.

The incident kicked off a harrowing four-day struggle to bring the rig, carrying 140,000 gallons of diesel, and its crew to safety. On New Years Eve, the Kulluk ran aground just off of Kodiak Island in an area that is home to endangered Steller sea lions, threatened Steller’s eiders, threatened southwest sea otters, and salmon. Luckily, after a week salvage crews were able to pull the Kulluk off the rocks, and both the loss of life and an ecological disaster were averted—but barely.

In light of Shell’s activities in Alaska in the past year, which have progressed from comical to dire, the Department of the Interior has called for a 60-day review of the past season’s experience and an evaluation of whether activities like those Shell proposes in the Arctic Ocean are something this country can afford. In his role as the chief steward of the country’s environment President Obama has the chance to stand up for this country’s natural resources and put an end to this questionable venture, one that experience has proven will do nothing to lower prices at the pump.

Shell’s latest mishap in Alaskan waters was the culmination of a series of mishaps, problems, and near-disasters.  It required the heroic efforts of a fleet of salvage and rescue teams, by boat and by air, as the 266-foot drill rig went adrift in conditions that, although unforgiving, were hardly unusual for the region at this time of year. Shell’s decision to attempt to tow the rig, from Dutch Harbor, AK to Seattle in the dead of winter is just the latest reason to question Shell’s planning, preparedness, and capacity to operate in the inhospitable reaches of the far North.

Prior to the grounding of the Kulluk, the company had endured a Keystone Cops-like Arctic drilling season.  If it weren’t for the risk to life and our oceans, the bumbling would almost be funny: in June Shell lost control of its drillship, the Noble Discoverer, in Dutch Harbor, AK; the company later failed a test of its oil spill containment dome which was damaged in placid (un-Arctic like) conditions in Puget Sound off of Washington; Shell argued with the Coast Guard about the safety standards of its long-inactive oil spill response barge the Arctic Challenger;  it admitted it could not meet Clean Air Act standards; it reneged on a commitment to have the ability to clean up 95 percent of a major Arctic oil spill; and in November, there was an explosion and fire on the Noble Discoverer which is now reportedly under criminal investigation for safety and environmental violations. And just last Thursday the EPA announced that it was issuing air pollution citations to the oil giant for "multiple permit violations" during its foray in the Arctic last summer.

As Shell is learning the hard way, Alaska’s oceans can be unforgiving. The high wind and waves, unpredictable ice floes, near constant fog and an almost complete lack of infrastructure would make an oil spill impossible to clean up.  Shell’s disastrous year in the Arctic should be more than enough evidence to help the Department of the Interior reach the correct decision: oil companies are not prepared to drill in the Arctic.

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana


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CEO Note: Building a Better Baltic

Baltic in winter. Photo courtesy NASA

The Baltic Sea is in terrible shape. One of the most polluted seas in the world, more than 90% of commercially exploitable species in the Baltic and the adjacent Kattegat are fished without any limits.

That changed last Friday when the authorities of Uusimaa and the Southeast Finland Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment banned all wild sea trout fisheries in the Gulf of Finland. Wild sea trout is critically endangered in the Baltic Sea and has suffered under almost nonexistent management. Before the ban there was simply no limit to how much Baltic sea trout could be caught.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament recently announced that it would stake out a new, more responsible management strategy for Baltic Sea salmon, a fish hobbled, gravely in some areas, by similarly slipshod and unscientific management. Both developments are a validation of Oceana’s hard work in the region.

Earlier this year, Oceana’s research vessel, the Hanse Explorer, set off for a six-week expedition to the Baltic and Kattegat seas. The purpose of that trip was to document and map vulnerable areas and to study the marine life of these brackish waters through extensive sampling, as well as dives by remote operated vehicle and scuba divers (such as Oceana senior advisor Alexandra Cousteau who joined the cruise). This work will be crucial moving forward as the region works to rebuild its ailing fisheries, and it’s already started to pay off.

With the EU and Baltic countries signaling a renewed commitment to the stewardship of this unique but imperiled ecosystem there is very real hope that it can recover. But that will require the vigilance of Europe’s leaders and citizens, and of organizations like Oceana, which has been leading the charge in the effort to save the Baltic.

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana


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CEO Note: Health of the Oceans a Non-partisan Issue

©Wikimedia Commons

Election Day in the United States is here, and I often get asked – what are the politics of the ocean? Is one side better at protecting the oceans than the other? Where does Oceana stand?

The answer may surprise you: The oceans are truly a non-partisan issue and Oceana is, as a result, truly a non-partisan organization. We stand with the oceans, which requires working wherever there are ocean champions – and there are champions (and enemies) on all sides of the political spectrum around the world.  We have to be non-partisan to be effective and achieve our mission, which is to win policy victories for the seas in a three to five year time horizon.

Oceana’s ten plus years of campaigning for the oceans bears this out; our biggest victories have come from working with conservatives, liberals and middle of the roaders. President George W. Bush, along with his United States Trade Representative Rob Portman, were big champions behind our efforts to curb destructive fishing subsidies and helped us get the issue on the map at the World Trade Organization.  We worked with Senator John Kerry and Senator John McCain to protect sharks.  President Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s conservative leader, was a driving force behind Oceana’s historic victory in winning the designation of Sala y Gómez and Easter Island as one of the biggest protected areas in the world. We’ve had knock-down drag-out fights on fisheries regulation in New England with the liberal Congressman Barney Frank and then worked with him to combat seafood fraud. We both fought and worked closely with the late great Republican leader Senator Ted Stevens, who played a big role in helping Oceana protect over a million square miles of ocean. In Belize, we’ve worked with a liberal government on the protection of all Belizean waters, the home of the second largest barrier reef in the world, and with the conservative opposition on opposing offshore oil drilling. I could go on and on.

As a result, Oceana’s staff, board and supporters come from all parts of the political spectrum. If you look closely, you’ll find passionate supporters, in their personal lives, of President Obama, Governor Romney and others at all levels of the organization. And you will also find that all of us are very proud – and protective – of Oceana’s non-partisan status and success in working across the aisle. I hope that you, as an Oceana supporter and friend, share this pride in Oceana’s effectiveness and non-partisan nature.

So, where does that leave us with the election? Well, it means that we are very much NOT involved in elections. It is not only because of our non-profit status, it is also because we truly believe that ultimately we will need to work with any and all parties to win our campaigns. That said, I encourage all of you to go and vote for the candidate of your choice, and to help us engage whoever wins in the work needed to protect our seas.


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CEO Note: The Danger of Seismic Blasts

Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless

Sometime early next year the Department of the Interior will decide whether to approve seismic airgun testing to search for oil and gas deposits in a wide swath of ocean, from Delaware to Florida. If the Department goes ahead with the proposal, by their own conservative estimates, 138,500 whales and dolphins will be injured as a result.

Seismic airguns arrays work by discharging compressed air with dynamite-like intensity into the water column at 10 second intervals around the clock, for weeks on end. For marine mammals nearby the sound is literally deafening—and for animals that crucially rely on sound to navigate, find food and communicate, going deaf is tantamount to a death sentence.

But seismic airgun testing won’t only be detrimental to those below the water. The huge expanse of ocean where testing will take place is already home to a $12 billion fishing industry that employs 200,000 men and women. These fishermen are scared, and with good reason. Cod and haddock fisheries have seen catch plummet 40 to 80 percent after the use of a single airgun array and fishermen in Norway have had to seek compensation for a drop in catch in the wake of testing.

“It's a disaster waiting to happen,” said actress, environmentalist and Oceana donor Victoria Principal. Principal is supporting Oceana’s efforts to prevent seismic testing in the Atlantic, including the launch, in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, of a brand new Facebook application, where you can add your photo to sign our petition to the Department of the Interior.

As Oceana marine scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck recently told the New York Times about the proposal, “If they receive an environmental impact statement that says ‘go for it,’ they could start in 2013. This is coming down to the wire.”

If you are on Facebook, I encourage you to add your photo to our petition, and please spread the word.

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana


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The Real Reason for High Gas Prices, Redux

Oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. © Oceana/Soledad Esnaola

Editor's note: This post by Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless was originally posted last May on Politico.com. We think it couldn't be more relevant right now, especially considering that many media outlets are now making similar arguments to the one we've been making since last year - that gas prices aren't tied to offshore drilling.

Why do we take terrible risks to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere along our coasts?

Most people would say we drill to protect ourselves from big fluctuations in gasoline prices that are caused by major upheavals in the Middle East.

Their argument is that the more oil we can produce domestically, the lower the price we’ll pay at the pump. It’s not that they like the sight of oil wells off our beaches. The main reason they argue for more offshore oil drilling is they think it will save money — especially since gas prices approached $4 a gallon recently. (See: A chart of U.S. gas prices here.)

This idea is not only intuitively appealing. It is repeatedly and unambiguously promoted by important government officials from both the Democratic and the Republican parties. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) defended legislation that would expand offshore oil drilling, saying “this bill would do more to lower gas prices at the pump than any other plan.” Meanwhile, Sarah Palin criticized President Barack Obama, saying, “His war on domestic oil and gas exploration and production has caused us pain at the pump.”

Former President George W. Bush, who had private-sector oil industry experience, said it could “take pressure off gasoline prices over time by expanding the amount of American-made oil and gasoline.” And Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, insists, “Gas prices are closing in on $4 per gallon … because of the de facto moratorium on drilling permits.”

Pundits, like Steve Doocy of Fox, endorse the argument, saying that the solution to rising gas prices is to “just poke a hole in the ground.”

Yet during the past two years, the amount of oil pumped in the U.S. has been going up, not down — as one might infer from all these comments. So this strongly stated argument to increase domestic oil drilling is wrong.

Examine the facts. The Energy Information Administration data show the price at the pump closely mirrors the international price of oil, not the percentage of oil coming from imports. (A chart comparing the U.S. gasoline prices and the percent of oil we import can be found here.)
 
Now, consider the price of unleaded gasoline at the pump compared with the international price of crude oil (See: A chart comparing U.S. gasoline prices and international crude oil prices here.)

Which do you think does a better job of explaining the changes in the price of gasoline at the pump? Your common-sense reading of the charts is correct. The price of gasoline at the pump is not statistically correlated with the share of U.S. consumption of imported oil, but it is highly correlated with the international price of imported crude.

This seemingly counterintuitive result is consistent with how the world’s oil markets actually operate. Ask yourself this question: When BP or any other big oil company finds oil in the Gulf of Mexico, does it sell it to us at a discount because we were kind enough to let them drill in America?

No, it doesn’t. It sells it all over the world at the price set in the international oil market. As an international commodity, oil is priced on an international basis — according to global supply and demand. Global demand is the reason the price is going up now. The world’s economies are recovering from the slump of the past few years and the developing economies, like China, are increasing their demand.

Meanwhile, offshore drilling is simply too risky for our beaches and fisheries. Want proof? Oil company shareholders insist on having a law limiting their liability in the event of a disaster.

I don’t think these risks are worth it. You might disagree. But if you do, remember: Anyone who tells you we should do offshore oil drilling to lower our price at the pump doesn’t care about the facts.


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CEO Note: 30,000 Strong Against Drilling in Belize

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.

I have a dramatic update for you on our campaign to stop offshore drilling in Belize.
 
As I reported to you several weeks ago, the government shockingly rejected 8,000 of the 20,000 signatures we collected against offshore drilling, citing poor penmanship as a primary reason.
 
The 20,000 signatures we collected should have been more than plenty to trigger a national referendum on offshore drilling, but since the government refused to comply, we held our own referendum last week – a people’s referendum.  
 
And the results were astounding.  
 
Nearly 30,000 registered Belizeans – that’s almost 20% of the country’s voting population – cast a ballot on the issue of offshore drilling. The results? 96% to 4% voted against offshore drilling. We think this is irrefutable evidence that the Belizean government needs to act responsibly, and either end plans to allow drilling in its reef, or allow a public referendum to determine the national policy.

Oceana is the leading voice in Belize against offshore drilling. Belize is home to the magnificent Belize Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which we simply cannot sacrifice for oil.

I’ll keep you posted as this important story continues to unfold.


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CEO Note: The Real Economics of Offshore Drilling

oil rig in the gulf of mexico

© Oceana/Eduardo Sorensen

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.

If you watched this week’s State of the Union address, you may have heard President Obama announce that he was opening 75 percent of our “potential offshore oil and gas resources.”

The good news is that this isn’t news; it’s simply a reiteration of the administration’s current five-year drilling plan that fully protects the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as much of the U.S. Arctic. The bad news, however, is that plan expands offshore drilling to include much more of the Gulf of Mexico than ever before – and worse yet, some of the Arctic. It’s as if the massive 2010 spill never happened.

In other good news, the President expressed his wish to reduce subsidies for oil companies. The oil companies receive about $10 billion a year in tax breaks, and the Obama administration has proposed cutting $4 billion.

I applaud the President’s commitment to reducing subsidies for the big oil companies, although I wish he would go further and eliminate them completely.

Unfortunately, the State of the Union address, as well as this week’s Republican primary debate in Florida, reiterated that our political leaders still fail to grasp a basic economic fact: that increasing our domestic supply of oil will not lower our prices at the gas pump.

Oil is a global commodity, and prices are set on a world market. Multinational companies who drill for oil – like Shell, B.P. and Exxon – will sell to the highest bidder. That may be the U.S. It may just as well be India or China.

As we learned during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, there’s more at stake. National Journal writer Beth Reinhard asked the right question at Monday’s Republican debate when she noted drilling in Florida will create at most 5,000 jobs, while an oil spill threatens the 1 million jobs that depend upon tourism, which contributes $40 billion each year to Florida’s economy.

That’s a high price to pay to help oil companies continue to make record profits. And yet Rick Santorum, on the receiving end of her question, reiterated his support for more domestic drilling.

Unfortunately, oil companies are powerful players in the election season. They dole out enormous contributions to the candidates, which may explain why we see misinformation on both sides of the political aisle.

Here at Oceana, we’ll stick to the facts. More offshore drilling won’t lower your price at the pump, and we’ll continue to fight to protect our beaches and seafood from dirty and dangerous drilling.


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Another Victory: Protecting Sea Lions in the Pacific

A Steller sea lion. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.

I’m pleased to report two victories this week for some of the oceans’ most threatened creatures.

First, Oceana and its allies won protections for endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles with the establishment of the first permanent safe haven for leatherbacks in the continental U.S. The area, nearly 42,000 square miles off the U.S. West Coast, protects the places where leatherbacks feed on jellyfish after swimming 6,000 miles across the ocean from Indonesia in one of the world’s greatest migrations.

Second, the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of protections for endangered Steller sea lions. These majestic marine mammals compete with large-scale industrial fisheries for food and continue to struggle for survival in the western Aleutian Islands.

The court decision came after Oceana and our allies pressured the federal government to address the declining Steller sea lions’ population by limiting bottom trawling in important areas. In 2010, the government agreed that existing protections were not adequate and put in place new rules to allow more food for sea lions in the Aleutian Islands.

Naturally, the fishing industry was displeased and sued to invalidate the closure. Oceana, Greenpeace and Earthjustice teamed up with the government to uphold the protections, and we learned yesterday that we won.

Thanks to this decision, Steller sea lions will continue to have a chance to rebound. There is still more work to be done, though, because the court required the government to conduct a new analysis of the impacts of its decision. This process should help us better understand the effects of large-scale commercial fishing on sea lions and other ocean resources.

Thanks you for the support that makes these victories possible.


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Ocean Victories of 2011: Thank You!

© Oceana/Eduardo Sorensen

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.

As we enter the last weeks of 2011, I’d like to thank you again for your support this year. Even as we continue to face global economic insecurity, your support has made it possible for Oceana to win important victories for the oceans.

Here are just a few of the victories you helped us achieve in 2011:

This is a special year for Oceana, because it’s also our 10th anniversary year. In 2001, our founders decided that the world needed a conservation organization that could win real policy changes for the oceans on an international scale.

Since then, Oceana has expanded to six countries, garnered more than half a million supporters and protected 1.2 million square miles of ocean, including innumerable sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and the people who depend upon and enjoy the oceans. Our founders are pleased with the results, and we hope you are as well.

We continue to have ambitious goals, not just for 2012, but the next decade. I hope you’ll continue to join us for the ride. Thank you again.


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