This is what Democracy looks like: The People’s Hearing on Offshore Drilling

Tim DeChristopher

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming to the People’s Hearing on Offshore Oil and Gas development,” said Tim DeChristopher, Co-Founder of the Climate Disobedience Center, stepping onto a small, portable footstool. ”Since public discourse is the bedrock of any Democracy, we’re excited to create this space where our voices can be heard, can be shared, where we can listen to other people in our community, and we can actually get to know how Rhode Islanders feel about offshore drilling here and everywhere else on our coastal waters around the country.”

DeChristopher was speaking near the center of the Providence Marriott Downtown’s Grand Ballroom where the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was holding a “science fair” type event to reach out to the public and sell them on President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke‘s idea to open up offshore oil drilling, by 2020 (2021 off Rhode Island), in vast new ocean areas, including the entire coast of New England.

Well over a hundred people crowded into the room, amplifying the voices of the speakers with the “people’s microphone.” (If you watch the first video above you’ll get the idea.) In all, 42 people spoke, including scientists, politicians, religious leaders, children, moms, dads and more. No one spoke in favor of offshore drilling.

“There is absolutely no sane or reasonable response to the climate crisis that involves new offshore drilling anywhere in the United States, and we here in Rhode Island will simply not allow offshore drilling on our coast under any circumstances,” said DeChristopher. “We intend to make it clear to the federal government that we will do whatever is necessary to protect our communities from this threat.”

Justin Boyan, co-founder of Climate Action Rhode Island – 350 Rhode Island, called BOEM’s meeting “a sham.”

“We planned The People’s Hearing to allow civic leaders, experts, and residents to voice their concerns for all to hear,” said Boyan. “We will defend not only our coast and our climate, but also our democracy and our freedoms.”

Rhode Island State Representative Aaron Regunberg (Democrat, District 4, Providence) was the first elected official to speak. Other elected officials who addressed the crowd were Senator Jeanine Calkin (Democrat, District 30, Warwick) and Carol Hagan McEntee (Democrat, District 33, South Kingstown and Narragansett). Governor Gina Raimondo sent Rosemary Powers, her deputy chief-of-staff, to address the People’s Hearing.

“Donald Trump may want to hand over our coasts and our bay and our economy and our children’s future to Big Oil. But we’re not going to let that happen,” said Regunberg. “This is the Ocean State. We believe in a clean energy future. We will defend our coastal communities. And we will not sacrifice our lives or our livelihoods for Trump’s Big Oil billionaires.”

“Leave it in the ground!” said Peter Nightingale is a physics teacher at the University of Rhode Island. “Further drilling will be seen as a crime, a crime against life on Earth… This will be the law: Leave it in the ground.”

“I don’t want the beaches to disappear because of sea level rise,” said Carmen Boyan, a 12-year-old seventh grader at Nathan Bishop Middle School. “I don’t want the beaches to turn black because of oil spills. I don’t want the birds and fish to die. Oil drilling is a really bad idea.”

Baylor Fox-Kemper, a climate scientist and oceanographer at Brown University’s Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences objected to the fact that the BOEM’s proposed plan to open up waters to offshore drilling was being made “without input from scientists or even any acknowledgment that relevant science exists.”

Mary Pendergast of the Sisters of Mercy led with a series of facts, and ended with a song.

Justin Boyan led the crowd in a poem.

Kate Schapira spoke about Rhode Island’s fisheries, considered to be some of the best in the world. “But they are also in trouble,” said Schapira. “If you talk with people who have fished off Rhode Island for years, they will tell you that their catches are worse and their profits are lower than they have been in years.”

“Once there was a mad leader named Ahab who exploited the ocean for oil…” said Jen Long, constructing an analogy between Moby Dick and our present circumstance. “…Today, a mad leader named Trump is exploiting the ocean for oil, but we won’t follow, like Ahab’s crew…”

“I want to witness today, like you, against the corruption of the ocean, ” said self-described agitator Duane Clinker. “And I also want to witness against the corruption of Democracy. I come from a time, like some of the brothers and sisters here, when we had actual, official public hearings. We met together, in a room, we debated with each other [and] it was put down on official transcripts. We were a body public. We were a community.

“Now this system,” continued Clinker, referring to BOEM’s “sham” meeting, “Requires us to write little messages on pieces off paper and hand it in to the teacher, believing that it will be read. But we don’t get to hear each other. We don’t get a sense of our power. These bogus hearings are meant to convince us of their power. So I thank God for what the organizers here did today. Let this be a beginning.

“Clean oceans! People’s power! And a new future!”

There were so many terrific testimony’s presented. My selection above does not do it justice. Here is the video of all of them, chronologically:

The last speaker, Marie, engaged Bill Brown, chief environmental officer of BOEM, in a dialog that ended up taking nearly an hour.

“What have you learned from what we said?” asked Marie. “What did we say that could possibly make a difference?”

Brown, a bureaucrat, was quiet, unassuming, and for all intents and purposes, speaking a language entirely different form that of the concerned people in the room.

“No one could mistake the fact that most of those who come do not want oil and gas development off the coast,” said Brown. “One could not miss that point.”

He thought the points made about the form of the meeting, which is designed to quiet opposition and deter public involvement (though Brown maintains the meetings are designed to allow long discussions between interested people and BOEM experts) were interesting.

BOEM, in Brown’s view, has no duty to the environment and no duty to do what is right. They simply follow their congressional mandate. You can watch the entire exchange below:

Those unable to attend BOEM’s meeting can still submit comments online here. BOEM’s public comment period is scheduled to close on March 9, 2018.

BOEM is encouraging “participants to submit written comments to inform BOEM of specific issues, impacting factors, environmental resources, alternatives to the proposed action, and mitigation measures to consider in its analyses.”

See also:

Rhode Island environmentalists and elected officials say ‘No’ to Trump’s offshore drilling proposal

Protesters march from State House to Marriott in opposition to offshore drilling

This is what Democracy looks like: The People’s Hearing on Offshore Drilling

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About Steve Ahlquist 272 Articles
Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading.

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