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Oil Wars, Clean Ports, Climate Kelp and a Sea/Sun of Giving

December 13, 2007
By David Helvarg

Tracking Oil to its Source

A week after a relatively “minor” spill of 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel that killed over 2,000 seabirds and despoiled beaches and wetlands on the San Francisco Bay and along the coast (see Blue Notes #40) I headed overseas to work on my book on the U.S. Coast Guard.

Two more red flares go arching over the water. “Motor Vessel, this is the Coalition Warship. Turn immediately or you may be subject to defensive action including warning shots. Come Starboard 30 degrees immediately,” warns the CO of the 110-foot Coast Guard Cutter Monomoy to the freighter now crossing our T a few hundred yards out. This is the second time today the 400-foot North Korean built O Un Chong Nyon Ho has headed towards the 2-mile security zone around one of Iraq’s two big offshore oil terminals and tolerance is growing short.

Gunnery Mate “Thunder” Dann Merrick exposes the 25-milimeter Bushmaster chain gun on the bow loaded with high-explosive incendiary rounds. The double .50s off the bridge are uncowled and cocked. The freighter begins to turn to starboard.

“He’s gonna get boarded,” someone behind me predicts. Not an untypical day in the North Arabian Gulf or NAG as Coalition forces call it. The Iranians, just a few miles away call it the Persian Gulf.

Of the six Coast Guard Cutters in theater there are usually 2 in the NAG, each covering a slice of the no-go sectors around the al-Basrah (ABOT) and Khawr al-Amaya (KAOT) terminals that pump over $100,000 of oil a minute, over 1.5 million barrels a day, accounting for 80 percent of Iraq’s GDP. The security sector around KAOT overlaps with waters claimed by Iran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp Navy (IRGCN) has been active in the area. In March 2007 they seized 15 British sailors and marines who were inspecting a ship without their usual helicopter backup.

While I’ll see one poorly maintained Iraqi patrol boat during my visit to the NAG it quickly becomes apparent that long after the last ground troops have left Iraq U.S. sponsored Coalition forces will still be guarding these oil terminals.

We visit one of the mile long artificial islands bristling with guns but devoid of sea life. When I’ve visited oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico they were swarming with fish. We board Iraqi fishing dhows to gather intelligence (a Coast Guardsmen and two Navy sailors were killed here by a suicide boater in 2004) and also do a security check on a supertanker before it’s allowed to fill up.

Fully loaded the red and green BW Noto weighs 286,000 tons. Right now, empty it stands 7 stories high with its white superstructure rising another 6 stories above its deck. At 1,100 feet from bow to stern it’s more than 3 football fields in length.

I talk to the bald British Captain John Bardsley. He’s wearing a white uniform shirt, white shorts and running shoes. He says the Panamanian registered BW Noto is owned by a Singapore Shipping Company. Its next stop after loading up will be Korea (that’s now been hit by a massive oil spill). The Coasties question and frisk the Noto’s mostly Filipino crew of 27. The only ship I’ve been on of similar size was the U.S. Aircraft Carrier Stennis with a crew of 5,000. Redundancy in personnel is not a safety feature of the world’s tanker fleet.

They’ll be loading 2 million barrels of oil beginning tomorrow. That’s close to $200 million dollars of product or 8 Exxon Valdez oil spills or a hellacious amount of C02 pumped into the atmosphere depending on how you look at it.

“We’re looking at the pain and war that surrounds oil, but still when people say it’s a war for oil I don’t think it’s that simple because most of these supertankers are not going from here to the States. They’re going all over the world,” explains 24-year old Lt. JG Gordon Hood, Executive Officer of the Wrangell, the 2nd Coast Guard Cutter I travel with.

He’s right. It’s not that simple, although most of this Iraqi oil will in fact find its way to the United States. The production and distribution of fossil fuel has at the beginning of the 21st century become the largest industrial combine in human history. The armed protection of that global system of energy commerce is the largely unquestioned reflex of a U.S. foreign policy that all too often undermines the very principles of democracy the young men and women I’m meeting have pledged to defend.

The day I get back from Bahrain and the Northern Arabian Gulf, there are 20 mostly Mexican men in hazmat suits cleaning oil of the rocky shore behind my home in the Richmond Marina section of the Bay.

Greening the Ports?

That’s what the California Air Resource Board wants to do judging by its December 6 vote for a $1.8 billion dollar program that will have oil tankers and container ships plug into pier-based electric power sources rather than burn more polluting diesel fuel while unloading. It would also require thousands of old diesel-belching trucks moving goods from the ports to distribution centers be replaced with newer cleaner electric or low-emission trucks. Groups as diverse as the environmental Blue Water Network and the ILWU, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have long fought to clean up our ports. America’s largest port LA-Long Beach has already begun the process.

But at the same time we’re seeing unprecedented growth in global shipping and trade with expected port expansions of 20-50 percent in the next decade. Every shipyard in the world (that builds large commercial ships) is now booked to capacity and many of these new ships under construction are still designed to burn toxic, highly polluting bunker fuel. What we gain in quality (in California) we may lose in polluting quantity (worldwide).

Flexible as a hundred dollar bill

On December 12 the Marine Fish Conservation Network put out a report that destructive overfishing continues in the U.S. despite the Magnuson Stevens fishing act reforms they championed in 2006 (See Blue Notes #31).

Now in an example of bipartisan myopia Representative Walter Jones (R. NC) and others have introduced a bill to extend the 10-year limit for rebuilding depleted stocks of fish into an indeterminate future. “Without flexibility, fisheries managers may be forced to impose dramatic reduction in the amount of these species harvested,” Jones complained.

Less than a decade ago Congressman Jones won a different kind of flexibility by inserting ‘technical corrections’ into the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) so that federal subsidies like flood insurance could be restored to his real-estate developer constituents on coastal flood plains deemed too dangerous for human habitation. Along with a cavalier attitude towards placing people in harm’s way, the Congressman apparently doesn’t believe that building over key habitats such as salt marshes that act as the breeding ground and nurseries of the sea might have the kind of “devastating impacts on fishermen,” that he claims science-based conservation has. Then again fish don’t vote or make campaign contributions (of more than a fin or two).

Seaweed find an alternative if we looked

Thanks to Seaweed Rebel Alison Loomis for passing on an AP story out of the Climate Conference in Bali where scientists and seaweed harvesters are pointing to an expansion of the 8 million ton annual farming of sea veggies as a potential way to sequester carbon. Algae in the ocean already extract some 2.5 billion tons of organic carbon out of the atmosphere every year. Of course it’s unclear how you’d keep the sequestered carbon from re-entering the atmosphere once you’d harvested the seaweed. Converting it to bio-fuel is one proposal we’ve seen before (see Blue Notes # 12). Obviously when it comes to climate change solutions we can use all the kelp we can get.

And A Happy Sea/Sun of Giving Please

Like our T-shirt says, ‘Blue is the New Green’ but we really can’t get along without the green. It’s now 5 years since I founded the Blue Frontier Campaign, and though we’ve yet to restore our public seas we have accomplished quite a bit:

  • We’ve held regional and national conferences for over 1,000 Seaweed Activists to promote unity and shared strategies for the Blue Movement
  • Produced two books The Ocean and Coastal Conservation Guide and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean
  • Done extensive articles, editorials, public speaking, and worked with elected officials to promote ocean protection legislation. “I commend the Blue Frontier Campaign and its continuous efforts to strengthen ocean and coastal conservation,” writes House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi.
  • Worked with grassroots (seaweed) groups to promote their issues and provide useful tools, guides, training, fish beads, etc.
  • Launched Roz Savage on her quest to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific to raise awareness of ocean pollution and solutions
  • And of course gotten out Blue Notes to 1,500 leading seaweed activists, scientists, writers and policy-makers. That’s you.
  • So if you’re willing to help us do more and better in the coming years please send a tax-deductible contribution made out to: Blue Frontier Campaign, PO Box 19367 Washington DC 20036, or go to and contribute online. Best Fishes, David


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