Last Tuesday evening, as the sun sank into the Cape Fear River, hundreds gathered at CFCC’s Wilson Center to hear two international experts debate whether or not North Carolina should pursue oil-drilling off of our coast. Jean-Michel Cousteau—son of famed explorer Jacques Cousteau and president of the Ocean Futures Society—and John Hofmeister—former president of the Shell Oil Company—led a moderated discussion “To Drill or Not to Drill?” with WECT anchor Jon Evans guiding the questions.
Hosted by The Public Square, a self-described “collaborative [whose] effort [is] to grow civility in the region by addressing relevant, controversial issues in a respectful forum,” outside protesters from Save Our Sea waved “Protect Our Coast” signs at passing traffic on Third Street. They rallied around a steamer-trunk-sized, black model oil rig, in order to gather signatures against offshore drilling. The clouds glowed pink as the daylight died in the west.
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Before the debate began, encore was able to ask Mr. Cousteau two questions in a private one-on-one discussion.
encore: What is the biggest problem facing our oceans today, both globally and locally?
Jean-Michel Cousteau: Well, it’s the emission of CO2, which is responsible for the increase of the temperature of the ocean which rises as a result of the temperature; the amount of acidification which is affecting coral reefs and many other species; and the fact energy, which is accumulating in the ocean, is now being transferred into hurricanes—storms which, instead of being, let’s say a hurricane number three, becomes a hurricane number four or five. We just lived [through them], we just experienced [them]. If we’re not learning from that, I don’t know what to believe. We know where [carbon emissions are] coming from. I’m not accusing or pointing fingers, but I’m saying to industries and government: There are huge other opportunities to get energy—which has nothing to do with the oil industry. And we know what to do.
When it comes to North Carolina, we want to protect tourism, we want to protect the fishing industry, we want to protect the people. Strictly from an economical point of view, drilling oil would put out of business a lot of people. If you measure the gain and loss, we are losing if the oil goes.
e: Any thoughts on what an individual person can do to help protect our ocean and natural resources?
JMC: Talk to your mayor! Talk to your neighbors! Talk to your representatives! And never never point a finger. Ask for a dialogue—to sit down, to make them realize they have family, they have children, they have grandchildren. Do they care [about] making the voyage between [their] moment of obligation [and] the future? And people say, ‘Oh yeah! You’re right.’ And it works. I’ve done it with many people.
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The public debate was civil. In his opening remarks, Mr. Cousteau spoke of how our health was tied directly to the health of the ocean. It is in the water (or wine) we drink. It is not a “universal sewer,” but a medium through which we are all connected.
He spoke of new technologies now being developed, which could move us toward a future without fossil fuels. Solar and wind energy, of course, rates high, but also the use of ocean and tidal currents to generate energy using the difference in temperature between the deep and shallow ocean.
Mr. Hofmeister opened by speaking of thousands of people the oil industry employs in the Gulf. Everyday, America depends on the energy found in 7 million barrels of oil; it does not produce itself. He called the waters off the coast a “frontier area,” meaning “we don’t know what’s there,” So before a drill bit goes into the sea floor, there’s about a 10-year period of exploration and research. No one will build a rig if it’s not economically feasible, according to Hofmeister. Yet, he admitted no one in the industry loves oil (calling it “the devil’s excrement”), but it works.
Both men agreed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was a tragedy. Mr. Hofmeister lobbied against the use of a dispersant, which entrenched toxic chemicals deeper into the ecosystem, out of sight but not out. The decision to use them was political, he said. Cousteau noted the devastation was still ongoing, and spoke of dolphins he saw giving birth and breastfeeding their young in oil.
Debate moved to the effects of sonar exploration on marine mammals. While oil companies can track whales, Hofmeister said they wouldn’t explore during times the marine life were in the area. Cousteau said whales communicate with each other up to 1,000 miles away; sound waves bounce between water layers, sending disruptive noises extraordinarily far.
There was a moment during the debate when Evans posed the question: “If we were to drill, how would we do it safely?” Hofmeister answered by building our knowledge base andtaking nothing for granted; therefore, nothing would happen until the government issues the oil company an “environmental impact statement.” When the question was asked of Cousteau, he looked at Evans incredulously, speechless for a moment, as if to say, We can’t; haven’t you been listening? And in that moment of stunned silence, the crowd burst spontaneously into applause.
“I worry about the money spent to find out [if there is oil,]” he said. “That money should be put into renewable energy.”
More applause erupted.
In his closing remarks, Cousteau encouraged oil companies to invest in renewable energy, and mentioned how much we depend on the ocean. “If you protect the ocean, you protect yourself,” he said.
Hofmeister spoke about time, and claimed Americans can’t remember tomorrow what happened yesterday. Often, we make instant decisions based on opinion from slogans or pictures. If we do drill, he said, we need to take the time to do it right. They are complex decisions, which have the potential to employ tens of thousands, and keep the price of fuel affordable to the average citizen.
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After the debate, the members of the audience I spoke with were perturbed climate change was not given a larger portion of the discussion. Dr. Alena Szmant, a professor at UNCW, who has studied coral reefs for 50 years and seen firsthand the damage anthropogenic climate change is wreaking on that vital habitat, says while she is against oiled coastlines and deafened marine mammals as much as the next environmentalist, these issues “pale in comparison” to what climate change is doing to local and global environments. She listed a sobering fact, referencing a 2012 Rolling Stone article by well-respected climate writer Bill McKibben:
The carbon contained in the world’s known oil reserves—the carbon we are already planning to release into the atmosphere by burning for energy—was 2,795 gigatons.
The 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, a gathering of scientists and policymakers from 187 countries, responsible for 87 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, formally recognized “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.” To raise the global temperature by more than this “tipping point” would invite disaster.
I say this without hyperbole.
We could expect rising seas, more frequent and intense hurricanes, and staple crops failing due to heat. We are already beginning to see the evidence: Puerto Rico, the Virgin Island, Houston. To stay below the 2-degree Celsius limit, scientists estimate humanity would need to emit fewer than 565 gigatons of carbon by 2050. For English majors like myself who decipher words better than numbers, Dr. Szmant laid it out: We already know the whereabouts of enough oil to exceed the 2-degree Celsius limit (and cook the planet like a Sunday roast), five times over.
So why even consider looking for more?
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Permit me, if you will, to engage in a thought experiment about the realities of anthropogenic climate change I think Mr. Cousteau, as a fellow mariner, might appreciate. Say we’re on a ship, and we’re sailing along across the sea. Everyone we love is onboard—friends, family, offspring, pets. It’s a little foggy out, and the visibility is reduced. We can’t see with our own eyes where we will be in a few minutes. But the scientific instruments—radar, charts, depth sounder, tools we use to see what we can’t with our own eyes—point toward a rocky coastline. We have built up momentum, and are moving at such a speed toward the obstacle that if we don’t make a change in course right now, it will be too late to avoid it.
What should we do? Turn immediately, to be cautious and safe, to protect the lives onboard and trust what our scientific instruments say? Or ignore the mounting evidence and carry on in blissful ignorance, asking, if there are rocks ahead, how can we hit them gently?