Interview with John Deans, Greenpeace Arctic Campaigns Specialist

“It’s time to close off these waters to oil exploration”

September 14, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


This interview was aired on The Michael Slate Show, KPFK Pacifica Radio, in November 2014. We are publishing this because of its continued relevance in light of the fight against drilling for oil in the Arctic region. See “Obama’s Trip to Alaska: Talking Climate Change to Preserve the System That’s Destroying the Planet.”


Michael Slate: As people may have heard, Barack Obama has been in the forefront of paving the road for huge oil companies to dramatically step up the destruction of the planet: the continued and in fact increased drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the establishment of offshore drilling on the East Coast of the United States, and most horrifically, greasing the skids for all-out oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

Here to talk to us about that and the overall situation is John Deans, who recently wrote, “Federal agency said Arctic drilling would likely cause disaster. Here's what you can do.” John, welcome to the show.

John Deans: Thanks.

MS: What did this new government report reveal? What's significant about it?

John Deans: This report is something that is required by the court. An environmentalist sued a few years ago, that the federal government, when they offered this lease sale in 2008, under the Bush administration, had not properly considered the environmental impact. So this was their latest attempt to try to clean up their record on the environmental impact statement. This statement lays out a whole laundry list of impacts. A couple of the most shocking highlights are that the government is saying that if Shell finds oil, if oil production happens in the Chukchi Sea as part of these federal leases, there's a 75 percent chance of an oil spill—75 percent—of a large oil spill, that's over 1,000 barrels. And they assume that there will be 800 small oil spills. Now that's a massive impact on the local ecology. That will affect the food systems for marine mammals, for the fish. They talk about distinct species of salmon being destroyed. There are massive impacts on the local ecology, and of course, extracting more billions of barrels of oil out of the Arctic Ocean is only going to exacerbate the climate change that's destroying this sensitive area.

MS: One of the things they also said in the report was that the report was actually changed because it raised the amount of recoverable oil that they were saying was there in the Arctic. What's the significance of that? It went from 1 billion barrels to 4.3 billion barrels.

John Deans: That's correct. The problem is that the government has based their environmental impact statement on the potential spilling related to a billion barrels of oil being extracted from the Chukchi Sea, and as environmentalists argued, and the court agreed, it was an arbitrary and capricious estimate. And so in this newest report, they've gone through and said, well, we think that 4.3 billion barrels is how much economically recoverable oil will be taken out. And that's out of about 12 billion barrels that they estimate are economically recoverable in total. They just think that 4.3 billion is the likely estimate for what would be extracted. So we're taking a hard look at that and examining their methodology. This is a very complex report, so we're trying to poke the report any way we can to try to make sure that they are in fact giving a realistic estimate.

MS: Now, the difference between that and the original report which said 1 billion. What is the point here? Because I understand it was because, when they were putting the lower amount, it was basically meant to indicate or imply that there's really not that great a danger of some massive catastrophe.

John Deans: Yeah, that's right. They're trying to sort of brush this under the carpet. This is the second time they've been taken to court and it's the third round of this environmental statement that they've drafted, so hopefully they'll get it right this time. We'll see if the third time's a charm. But, yeah, that's basically it: the more oil that comes out of the ground, the higher the likelihood is for a spill, and the larger the impact would be of that spill. So those things need to be considered. So we saw the percentage jump from I think a 40 percent chance of an oil spill, up to 75 percent. At 75 percent—those are good odds, so you can basically expect that there would be an oil spill if production happens in the Chukchi Sea.

MS: I read a couple pieces that said, it's pretty much a given if drilling starts, there will be an oil spill.

John Deans: Yeah. That's certainly what we've said all along, and the government's finally catching up to that. The thing about the Arctic, as you said, it's horrifying. Look at what happened in 2010, with the deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico—a just absolutely horrific impact. And look at what happened in Prince William Sound with the Exxon Valdez. These spills are bad enough in areas that aren't iced in for the majority of the year. But when you go up to the Arctic Ocean, the National Academy of Sciences put out another report earlier that looked at what we could do about an oil spill, and essentially, the leading scientist on this said that we can't clean up an oil spill in the Arctic. We don't know the basic science behind how to do it, and we don’t have the equipment. So basically, the government knows that if 1,000 barrels of oil or above spills in the Arctic Ocean, most of it is going to stay trapped in the ice.

MS: I read somewhere where the U.S. Coast Guard has actually admitted that they have zero spill response capability in the Arctic.

John Deans: There's virtually no oil response capability. They've set up a couple of stations along the coast there, but there's not enough equipment, there's not enough training. And like I said, there's not enough understanding about what to actually do. The scientists were saying it's so bad that we want to go up there and burn oil to see what happens, which of course would be a disaster all in itself.

MS: There were four companies that were originally involved in this whole scene; only Shell Oil has attempted to develop their leases, and they were forced to stop. And I think it's important for people to understand why they were forced to stop, because it indicates what is possibly the outcome of beginning to drill for oil there. Why were they forced to stop? And what's the current status?

John Deans: Shell Oil is essentially the icebreaker for the industry in the U.S. Arctic waters. All the other companies, ConocoPhillips and others, have said, well, we'll see what Shell can do. And so far, Shell hasn't done a whole lot except to mess up. They've spent over $6 billion pursuing oil in the U.S. Arctic in 2012. Both of those drill ships ran aground. One of them, they had to scrap. One of them caught fire. It was just a complete mess. And that was just to drill some exploratory, what they call top holes, where they're not even getting to the layers of the rock under the sea floor that have oil in them. So, we've already seen that the company has a 100 percent success rate in completely messing up their operation. So we're going to use that as one of the things the government should take under serious consideration and say, look, you've got a perfect example of major oil going up, completely messing up their operations, so it's likely the environmental impact is really huge.

MS: Now one of the things I'd like to get into, it's kind of heavy because of the environmental impact. I want to talk about it in general first, because it involves so many things, including the increased shipping. I read that ships will end up discharging ballast waters with microbes or whatever, from other oceans, other sea waters, and what that would do to the ecology in the Arctic, but the impact of drilling in general and the damage that would do. Let's talk about that for a minute.

John Deans: Sure. In 2012, as Shell was making their way up to the Chukchi Sea, we actually sent our ship up there, and we did some exploring. Our campaigners and scientists went overboard in submersibles and surveyed the ocean floor, and we actually found higher numbers than anybody had predicted of the sea floor being covered in corals and brittle stars. That whole ocean floor ecology was much more vibrant than had been previously documented.

So it's a very vibrant area, but it's also very sensitive. Everything up there relies on everything else. So if you start destroying the ocean floor and you start harassing animals with increasing ship traffic, and even having a small oil spill—all of that adds up to a really huge impact. In fact, one of the things we've also done, Greenpeace and other environmental organizations, we’ve now sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Because they're basically going to give Shell Oil carte blanche to harass walruses and polar bears. And the drilling site is right near a critical habitat for walruses in particular called Hanna Shoal. It's the ship traffic, the noise, the harassment that could really lead to some very horrible consequences. And in the case of walruses, you can see they're already scrambling to find places to haul out [a behavior of pinnipeds—seals, sea lions and walruses—which involves leaving the water to regulate body heat, reproduce, and escape predators]. 35,000 just a few months ago hauled out on one beach. It was a huge story. And they had to come out on land when usually they're trying to haul out on ice. So there's multiple impacts when they add up.

MS: Let's move on to the impact of a major spill. That's the thing we've been talking about. We started off the conversation about that. What makes it so dangerous in these waters? What makes it so dangerous that you could actually say, well, there's going to be a spill if they start drilling? What is it that makes it so dangerous? I've read things about floating icebergs, the freezing conditions. Can we talk about that for a minute?

John Deans: Absolutely. The central issue is that climate change is affecting the planet. We all know that. There's no disputing that. But when you look at the Arctic, the effects are so much more extreme and so much more rapid. Temperature is rising multiple degrees, and what they're saying is that opens up waters. And that's true to a certain extent. But that doesn't mean that they're ice free. So you have these massive floating chunks of ice in the summertime, which is the drilling season, and these rigs have to be designed so that they can pick up and leave at a moment's notice and be towed away, or float out of the way of an iceberg. It's just a very hard place to work from that angle.

Also, there's a really short drilling season. You basically have from July through October, four months, to drill. So, what happens if a spill occurs in October? You don’t have much time before the ice starts coming, and before that equipment needs to get out of there for fear of being destroyed. The water is colder. Oil reacts differently. The specific type of oil that they might find acts differently than, say, how it might act in the Gulf of Mexico. So it's a very unique environment. It's very harsh weather. And a perfect example is when they moved their drill rig out, called the Kulluk, it ran aground because it went right through a winter storm, and the seas—I mean, we've all seen Deadliest Catch [a cable TV reality show about a fishing vessel in the Bering Sea], and what the oceans are like off the coast of Alaska. So that's what you should be picturing when you're picturing trying to drill for oil in Arctic waters.

MS: It's very heavy when I was reading up on this, the point about if spilled oil got under these large bodies of ice, there's just no way to contain or clean that up. Toxic traces can last a very long time, and travel very long distances on ice floes.

John Deans: Absolutely. And the document the government released looking at the environmental impact is really shocking. You look at the impact of the oil, and they talk about whales inhaling toxic gases that are coming out of the oil. They talk about polar bears being saturated in oil, losing flotation and the ability to stay warm. And this stuff lingers. We were in Alaska just a few years ago with some scientists, digging into the layers of sand in the waters surrounding the Exxon Valdez spill. And there's a layer of oil there. So yeah, this stuff sticks around. It volatilizes so you get emissions into the air. It sinks into different parts of the water column and gets spread all over the place. It coats marine mammals. It kills their food, the microorganisms and fish the feed on. So it spreads everywhere and it's a horrible disaster to imagine.

MS: I also want to read this part about the wholly inadequate response from oil companies to this danger. I read where one senior official in a Canadian oil company said that there really is no solution or method today that we're aware of that can actually recover spilled oil from the Arctic. And yet Shell says it can clean up 95 percent of a spill. The U.S. Geologic Survey says one percent to 20 percent, and they point out that with the Exxon Valdez, the recovery was only nine percent, and Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico was only 17 percent.

John Deans: Right. And consider that Deepwater Horizon was in warm, relatively mild waters of the Gulf of Mexico, compared to the harsh, cold and stormy waters of the Arctic. So, yeah, those claims are absurd, and they're couched in very feeble science. And like I said, in April of 2014, the National Academy of Sciences, the best scientists that we've got, their national research council said, yeah, we don't know enough. The leading scientists trying to deal with oil in different conditions don't know enough about how it will act in the Arctic. So having a company say, oh, we can clean up 95 percent of it is just absurd, and nobody really believes that.

But the thing is, this is a moment when the Obama administration could take a real stand. Obama's just made very big claims on climate. He's starting to enact a lot of things. This is one area where they can say, look, our own research, the court made us go back, we had to look at this, and our research is saying there's a 75 percent chance of a spill, we could be decimating populations of sensitive animals, like threatened ducks that are protected under the Endangered Species Act, this project doesn't need to go forward. This is too dangerous.

There is an opportunity here for the president and his administration to step up and put their money where their mouth is and say, you know what, this area is off limits. We're not going to drill. It's too dangerous, and we can't afford to have more hydrocarbons and carbon going into the atmosphere.

MS: Of course, then he'd have to deal with the situation that he's just opened up all this oil drilling off the East Coast and he increased deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

John Deans: It's absurd to think of opening up areas on the East Coast. And we have a chance to stop that, too. People really need to get engaged on this. There's a very good opportunity right now for people to engage on these issues and say, no, look, we're going to draw a line in the sand, we're going to draw a line in the ice and say, no, you can't go any further. This is enough. There's plentiful renewable energy, there's a whole new way we can charge our economy. We don't need these fossil fuels.

MS: I want to ask you one question around that because it's very important that people know that Greenpeace is actually out there fighting this, on the front lines of this. I was reading recently where you had the Arctic 30, a group of Greenpeace volunteers who were out there fighting the same sort of drilling, I think it was in Russian waters.

John Deans: The area of the Arctic that's most under development right now is the Russian Arctic. A state-owned oil company called Gazprom, who partners with companies like Shell. There are all these partnerships between corporate oil companies and the Russian state-owned companies. They have a drilling rig in Russian Arctic waters, and they still do. Our activists approached the oil rig and attempted to climb it, were approached by Russian authorities who fired warning shots into the water around them from their guns, held them at knife point, dropped from a helicopter onto our ship, arrested the ship and its entire crew and threw them in jail for a few months. Thankfully, they were granted amnesty as millions of people around the world cried out for justice on that. But it's a horrifying experience trying to suppress free speech. Our activists were incredibly brave and went right up against the threat, because who else was going to do it? That's why we're out there. We need to confront the sources of these problems. We need to bring the world's attention to what's happening. Because the oil companies and the governments they've bought and paid for want to keep this stuff in the dark and want to just keep on making billions of dollars.

MS: Yeah, and a final thing for you to comment on if you want to. I'm just reading [Greenpeace's assessment of] Shell's spill response plan for an accident in the Chukchi Sea waters, and it was recently approved by the U.S. government, and here's what it says. The assessment says, “Even a quick read shows that the company would be entirely unable to respond to an accident in the High North. In fact, it's more like a negligence plan than a spill plan, depending on a capping and containment system that hasn't even been built, on deflection barriers that will not work properly on ice, and with onshore clean-up plans that look like they've been drawn by children. At the same time, we hear that Shell is also paying to train Dachshunds to hunt out oil trapped under the thick layers of ice. Need I say any more?”

John Deans: Well, I'll give you more, which is that in 2012, their oil spill containment device, which is basically something they put over the hole which is intended to shut things down if anything goes wrong, tested in calm water, not up in the Arctic even, crushed like a beer can. So the device that they're relying on to be able to stop a blowout doesn't even work, let alone in Arctic conditions. So it's absurd. We've challenged their oil spill response plan. But the problem that we have here is that a lot of these decisions are political. Under law, the government can rubber-stamp these projects, even if they're going to have massive environmental impact. That's why it's so important for people to send a message to the Obama administration's Department of the Interior and say, look, you know now bad these environmental impacts are. It's time to cancel this. It's time to close off these waters to oil exploration.


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