Seven months before a deepwater oil well explosion brought an ecological catastrophe epicentered in the Gulf of Mexico, federal oceans administrator Jane Lubchenco identified off-shore drilling as an "underestimated" cause of harm to the seas.
But Lubchenco's September stand on the dangers of ocean oil drilling, documented in an interagency letter obtained by the Times, does not show in more recent public statements, made closer to the April 20 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling complex that killed 11 workers and began flooding the Gulf and Gulf coast with crude oil in a crisis that remains out of control.
In a prestigious address at the Smithsonian Institute, and in an environmental website interview, Lubchenco's analysis and listing of the "stressors" of the seas emphasizes "overfishing" and "destructive" fishing gear, while oil drilling does not warrant even a mention.
"Depleted fisheries, endangered turtles and marine mammals, dead zones, bleached corals and outbreaks of jellyfish, harmful algal blooms, and diseases are all symptoms of the population and ecosystem changes underway," Lubchenco and her co-author, Laura E. Petes, a former student of hers at Oregon State University, wrote in a footnoted March 2 lecture.
"These changes are the result of myriad interacting stressors, including overfishing, chemical and nutrient pollution, use of destructive fishing gear, climate change, ocean acidification, habitat loss, and introduction of invasive species."
The 11th annual Roger Revelle Commemorative Lecture — honoring a late scientist who performed early work on global warming — was delivered by Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Petes four weeks before President Obama, on March 31, announced an aggressive offshore drilling plan for all three coasts and Alaska.
Lubchenco's spokespeople Thursday did not provide an explanation for the absence of oil drilling in her March short list of ocean "stressors" — even though, in September, she conveyed to the Minerals Management Service a blunt critique and refutation of its claims that off-shore oil drilling had a clean record and was safe.
In that letter — her and NOAA's legal comment-response to the five-year drilling plan that, with few modifications, Obama made public in March — Lubchenco and NOAA staffers outlined detail the harm done to the Gulf by oil spills that preceded the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.
Lubchenco accused the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency with line authority over drilling, of minimizing and rationalizing dangers in searching and extracting oil and gas from the oceans.
Missed hurricane factors
For instance, the letter's 26 single-spaced pages pointed out to S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, then the agency director, that its oil spill analysis from 1973 stopped in 2004. Birnbaum resigned last month in a growing storm of anger over the agency's and the Obama administration's enabling of the industry's reach for oil under the seas.
Lubchenco's letter noted that the "draft proposed program" for offshore drilling to miss the spills caused by 2005's twin hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, and thus painted a distortedly rosy picture of how safely oil could be drawn up from under saltwater.
Citing the mineral agency's own, unused research, the NOAA response from Lubchenco noted that "more than 8 million gallons of oil were spilled from coastal oil facilities ... (and) approximately 3.3 million gallons were spilled from a tank barge when it struck a submerged oil platform that had been damaged during the storms."
"Over 600,000 gallons (including an estimated 84,000 gallons from one platform incident) were spilled from federal offshore oil platforms and associated pipelines," Lubchenco and NOAA noted.
"These incidents call into question the draft proposed program statement that: 'It has been many years since any substantial environmental impacts have been observed as a result of an oil spill caused by outer continental shelf production and transportation activities."
Moreover, the NOAA analysis went on to say that "the potential impacts of a spill on fishery resources are likely underestimated. This is particularly true with regard to the prosecution of sustainable fisheries.
"Minerals Management comments in the draft plan state that a spill would 'affect only a small proportion of a given fish population in a region,' and since fish populations are spread out over a given leasing area, that the adverse effects would be minimized," the response from Lubchenco stated.
"This may be partially true in terms of species extinction," NOAA wrote, "but for short- to medium-term damage to those resources, that may not be the case."
Despite all of that, in March public comments right up to the onset of the catastrophe in the Gulf, Lubchenco hewed closely to perspectives espoused by environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, where she had been a board vice chairman, and the Pew Environment Group.
Lubchenco was vice chairwoman of the EDF board when she was nominated by Obama to run NOAA. During her tenure at EDF, the non-government organization arranged a partnership with multiple big carbon producers, including BP, to lobby for a cap-and-trade approach to climate change policy. BP pulled out of the alliance when the threat of congressional action faded, according to oil industry blogs.
In April, days before BP's drilling operation exploded, she gave an interview to the environmental website Take Part, where she was asked to discuss the most serious threats to the ocean.
'Overfishing' and 'gear'
"Well, at the global scale, probably the one thing currently having the most impact is overfishing and destructive fishing gear," Lubchenco said, compressing her Smithsonian lecture into a sound byte.
Together, her Smithsonian lecture and TakePart interview echo the thesis she and a coterie of like-minded scientists produced for EDF during the transition between administrations in 2008. The paper, called "Oceans of Abundance," again used the image of expanding swarms of jellyfish to make claims — disputed by government and independent scientists — that overfishing threatened to bring about an ocean apocalypse.
"There is scientific consensus that fishing is fundamentally altering ocean ecosystems which are increasingly likely to yield massive swarms of jellyfish rather than food fish," Lubchenco and her colleagues wrote in Oceans of Abundance.
But there was no scientific consensus. Her own agency last month announced another year of progress in restoring the strength of fishing stocks, with swordfish and three other stocks no longer requiring special protection.
In "Status of U.S. Fisheries," NOAA scientists reported on May 10 that 85 percent of the stocks examined were free from overfishing, "or not fished at too high a level."
An industry in revolt
Lubchenco's continued insistence that fishing was the main threat to the oceans has driven the national fishing community, commercial and recreational, into revolt.
In October, in a peaceful protest in Gloucester against national fishing policy that drew some 300 people, Lubchenco — a MacArthur (genius) grant recipient — was hung in effigy in NOAA's own parking lot.
Four months later, a gathering estimated at up to 5,000 fishermen from all three coasts demonstrated outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington against policies that threaten to further devastate the fleet just as stocks were returning to health.
Bob Zales, a charter captain from Panama City, Fla., who helped organize the February "United We Fish" rally at the Capitol and serves on an advisory committee for the federal Marine Protected Areas Center, sees an anti-fishing political agenda in Lubchenco's actions.
"It is interesting that Dr. Lubchenco did not mention oil spills as one of the major threats to fisheries and fishing, but states a major threat is fishing," Zales said in a Thursday e-mail to the Times.
"The current BP spill has resulted in 37 percent of the Gulf being closed to fishing and increasing the area where most of the fishing occurs as closed. It is clear that an oil spill, especially of this magnitude, has serious affects on the resources and we see those impacts as far more disastrous than fishing."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.