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Oceana Magazine Spring 2009: Q&A Jeffrey Short

Dr. Jeffrey Short was the leading chemist for the governments of Alaska and the United States following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and has guided numerous studies about the distribution, persistence and effects of oil on the ecosystem. He worked for the National Marine Fisheries Service for three decades before coming to Oceana, where he now serves as the Pacific science director. Online editor Emily Fisher spoke with him soon after he joined Oceana earlier this year.

Have you always been interested in the oceans/marine issues?

I have. I have been drawn to water since I was very young. I grew up in the Mojave Desert in southern California, which didn't have much water. Something about that experience just made me long to be in a place that had a lot more, part of which lured me here and allowed me to stay in an environment that most people find very unpleasant and can't stand to live for more than a few months.

Can you summarize what you learned/concluded working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill?

Scientifically, the most noteworthy findings that came out of it from my perspective was the discovery of a new toxicity mechanism through which oil poisons marine life, and as a result of this mechanism we appreciate that it was 100 to 1,000 times more toxic than had been previously recognized. And then I led a series of studies on the unexpected persistence of the oil.  We found that it lasted a lot longer than we thought in some locations and it was much better preserved than we thought it would be. In some places the oil hadn't degraded much beyond the first couple months after it had spilled.

Did your experience working on the spill lead you to conservation?

Very much so. I grew increasingly appalled at how Exxon Corporation was dealing with the situation, particularly the extreme length of intellectual dishonesty to which they would go to portray the conditions that were prevalent in the sound, and impacts and likely recovery rates. I was particularly appalled at how effective they had been at subverting the scientific process, and it got me into conversations that made my fellow scientists extraordinarily uncomfortable because no one likes to talk about how the system maybe systematically rigged. Nonetheless, I am sure of that. 

When I got into climate change more, which was about 6 or 7 years ago, I started reading the primary literature on the issue seriously just to initially satisfy my curiosity on what all the controversy was about, I could see exactly the same thing going on there, and I was also horrified at what was happening to the planet. I increasingly came to the conclusion that the work I was doing on oil pollution while certainly valuable, was not in the same ballpark as to what needed to be done regarding climate change and ocean acidification. I was very much drawn toward the end of my career to conservation work and efforts.

What are the specific risks of offshore drilling to marine life and habitat?

Oh, well there's a slew of them, beginning with the risk of catastrophic blow-outs. The biggest oil pollution accident in the world was associated with an oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico called IxtocI, it happened I think in the mid-60s. It just really made a mess of the beaches in northern Mexico and southern Texas.

The way that kind of accident happens is you have this drilling platform that taps into an oil reservoir that's under high pressure, and it starts moving oil through the pipeline back up to the platform.   If something breaks between the seafloor and the platform, you get this oil spewing out in the environment that's very difficult to cap. It's underwater, and there's all this oil gushing out, and people don't like going down there. That's the most catastrophic sort of accident that's associated with offshore drilling, and in fact played a leading role in the moratoria against offshore drilling in the United States.

The reason that California didn't want anything to do with it was the Santa Barbara blw-out, a similar situation to the Ixtoc I. That's the worst of it, but then you've got smaller spills that are associated with oil production platforms, the marine traffic to service the platforms and maintain them, you can have collisions, if they're in remote areas where there's lots of marine mammals you can have increased risk of them hitting the marine mammals. The noise associated with exploration can be deleterious to lots of things in the ocean.

What about those who argue that platforms create habitats for fish?

That's an interesting point. They do provide space for what we call biogenic habitat, which is encrusting algae and barnacles and other things that can provide a community for rearing fish. It's not so clear that they increase productivity, in part because of this toxicity mechanism I alluded to earlier. It's very difficult to spot when and how it's happening in the environment because it doesn't kill things right off the bat. It takes a while for the symptoms to show up. The oil platforms may provide habitat for fish that survive to adulthood, but it's an open question still as to whether it's better for the population overall or worse given that it may be poisoning them through this toxicity mechanism at the same time because we can't tell if they are reproducing successfully there or not.

March 24, 2009 was the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Do you think we learned our lesson from Exxon Valdez? Are you concerned about the potential for another similar incident?

Oil tanker accident rates have declined substantially since the Exxon Valdez, and the increasing use of double-hulled tankers reduces the likelihood of catastrophic consequences from accidents.  Also, safety procedures and oil spill response readiness are dramatically improved since the Exxon Valdez incident.  Nevertheless, human error is by far the greatest factor responsible for oil spills, so as long as we rely so heavily on shipping oil in tanker vessels, I'll worry about accidents like the Exxon Valdez happening in the future.

Are you hopeful that the moratorium on offshore drilling will be re-instated? Do you think it will happen this year?

I sure hope so. It's hard to foresee the political process and what it's going to do. I'm hopeful in the sense that I really hope it happens.

What are your hopes/goals/objectives for Oceana's campaign in the Arctic?

My goals are to arrest development until we know enough about how the ecosystem's responding to the extraordinary stresses imposed by rapid climate change, and to not increasingly jeopardize the marine resources that we all care about.  

As a former NOAA guy, what do you think are the most pressing concerns for incoming chief Jane Lubchenco?

I'm a former NOAA employees, so I guess I have a different perspective. I think one of the major challenges that will confront Jane is reversing the erosion of the science culture within the agency. It's a sad fact that over the 30 years that I was there, there's been a steady erosion of the importance placed on science despite any protestations that they might come up with. And that needs to be reversed. I really wish her luck.

How did you find your way to Oceana?

I reached a point in my career of professional frustration with things on the science front. At the same time I was growing increasingly frustrated with things within NOAA.

I got into ocean acidification almost immediately after it became widely circulated within the scientific community. I started making a lot of noise right away within the Alaska Fisheries Science Center to the effect of, "Hey we gotta pay attention to this, this is a really big deal, and could be very, very bad, we should get on this." And it just went nowhere, and continues to go nowhere despite a lot of hot air and lip service. It's not a standstill, there are individual scientists, both in NOAA and in academia, who are doing heroic work under very difficult circumstances, and are seriously constrained with regard to funding. But they are nonetheless making substantial progress.

Anything else people should know about you?

I don't like people very much. I've pretty much always been like that. I like being in really remote places for long periods of time. I'm very comfortable being out in the Alaskan bush.

Have you seen "Into the Wild"?

I've heard of it. What a dope. He should have gone into investment law or something. He had no business even thinking about what he was doing. You know, things like that happen up here quite routinely. I think just about every year I've been here, there's been some sad story in the paper in southeast Alaska along those lines. Somebody who took the wilderness very lightly and went into it unprepared and died.

We never went by ourselves, that would be really stupid. That was one of the first indications that that guy who went into the wild had no business being there. It's spectacularly beautiful when you do that, and it's quiet. You can hear nature as God made it, it's spiritually a very moving experience for me. But it's no place to take lightly. You just don't do stuff like that. You don't ask for trouble, there's plenty of it already.