Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Fishman. P. A., R. S. Caldwell, and A. H. Vogel. 1985. Lethal and sublethal effects of oil on food organisms (Euphausiid: Thysanessa raschii) of the bowhead whale. U. S. Dep. Commer., NOAA, OCSEAP Final Rep. 43(1986): 617-702. 

My co-authors and I wrote the above report 30 years ago, under a contract between my consulting firm, Fishman Environmental Services (1983 - 2004), and the Outer Continental Shelf Environmental Assessment Program (OCSEAP). The report was published in Volume 43 of Final Reports of Principal Investigators, and included reports dealing with gray, Belukha and Bowhead whales in the oceans around Alaska. The OCSEAP spent many millions studying the environments of and potential ecological impacts on outer continental shelf areas under the future potential of oil and gas drilling and production.  

I thought about this project today as I looked at the news out of my city, Portland, Oregon, that a group of Greenpeace protesters are hanging by ropes from the St. Johns Bridge over the Willamette River in an effort to block the passage of a Royal Dutch Shell ice breaker that has been at a Portland shipyard for repairs. Shell intends to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic in an area between the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. This was the subject location of my 1985 report. 

So I guess I have a relationship with the protesters, Royal Dutch Shell, and drilling in the Arctic. Earlier today, in a short amount of internet search time, I found a 1990 environmental impact statement for an oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea that cited my report, and others, to support the conclusion that an oil spill from drilling for oil in the Arctic would not have significant effects on whales. OK, that’s cool. 

There is an adventure connected to the oil and euphausiid study my colleagues and I conducted. To do the research, I proposed collecting live euphausiids (or krill) in Alaska and transporting them to a laboratory in Newport, Oregon where tests could be conducted using Alaska crude oil. We arranged to have a barrel of Alaska crude oil shipped to Dick Caldwell’s lab in Newport where he set up the equipment to do the tests. I contracted with a graduate student in Juneau, Alaska to collect euphausiids with a plankton net towed behind a boat, pack plastic bags of seawater and the live animals in Coleman cooler chests with ice (might have been dry ice), and ship them to me in Portland on Alaska Airlines. I then drove the coolers to a meeting point about halfway between Portland and Newport, where Dick met me and took them to his lab. We did this 5 times between March and September of 1985.  

On one occasion, the euphausiids were put on a plane in Juneau and off-loaded in Seattle, as usual, to be then put on a plane from Seattle to Portland. I always called Alaska Airlines at each step to confirm that the coolers had been transferred and were on their way. On this trip, however, the coolers missed the flight to Portland. “Where are they?” I asked. “Sitting on the tarmac.” I was told. Me: “Can you put them in the cooler until the next flight?” Them: “We don’t have a walk-in cooler.” Me: “It is living material that is temperature sensitive, and it's a warm day, they will die!” Them: “Sorry, there is nothing we can do about it.” 

Well, in those days I didn’t have a corporate jet (I still don’t), so in desperation I did the next best thing; I called our friend Steve, a pilot with United Airlines. Me: “Hey Steve, are you busy?” Steve: “Not really, why?” Me: “How would you like to fly me to Seattle in your small private plane, pick up a bunch of Coleman coolers, and then we’ll fly them to Newport, Oregon?” Steve: “Sounds like fun; I’ll pick you up at your house and we’ll head to the airport.”  And so we did. The euphausiids were still alive when we got there, and they were fine when we got them to Newport and loaded them on Dick Caldwell’s pickup truck. 

By now you’re thinking, “OK, fine, nice story, but what does Fishman think about Royal Dutch Shell drilling in the Arctic Ocean?” Well, it’s a complex issue, and my answer isn’t definitive. If I had a choice, I would not drill for oil and gas in the Arctic if there were other sources for these hydrocarbons. If you do a bit of research, you will find that consumption of petroleum fuels (gasoline, jet fuel, etc.) is increasing in the United States and worldwide. To meet this demand, production of oil and gas is increasing. 

Here are some interesting data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (USEIA):

Shell, like the other players in the hydrocarbon industry, is looking at the long-term. If they find oil/gas beneath the Arctic ocean, it will take them about 15 years to get to the point of having production wells. Experts estimate that the resources beneath the Arctic oceans represent anywhere from 15-25% of untapped global oil reserves. As long as there is a market demand for petroleum, companies like Shell will find and produce it. Do we need petroleum hydrocarbons? Yes, and the demand for them is increasing. 

It all comes down to acceptable risk. Remember, one of the basic laws of ecology is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Wind and solar-generated power, electric and hybrid automobiles, LED light bulbs, recycling, LEED buildings, bicycles and all other sustainable things are the way to move forward, but each has a set of costs, including environmental ones. So we have to be smart. We have to think clearly about all of the connections (another basic law of ecology: everything is connected to everything else). We need to accept certain levels of risk in order to sustain human societies in an ever more modern and interconnected world.

The Greenpeace bridge-hangers are conducting a great stunt that is calling attention to the prospects of Arctic Ocean oil and gas development. Will their actions stop Royal Dutch Shell from drilling in the Arctic? Of course not. But I hope the stunt stimulates a wider conversation about energy consumption and sources, acceptable risk, and the bigger picture of human societies and the planet.


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