Trump's drilling plan could put animals and people in jeopardy

The Trump administration wants to open up nearly all of American coastal waters — 4 million square kilometres — to oil and gas drilling. Environmentalists fear that would be disastrous to thousands of marine species, from whales to abalone.

The White House wants to open American coastal waters to drilling, but the threat of a oil spill looms

Kristin Aquilino attempts a "gonad massage" to help endangered abalone mate. Like many marine scientists, she is concerned Trumps's offshore drilling plan would threaten this species, and many others. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Nothing else has worked. Not the bath of stimulating chemicals, not even the Barry White soundtrack. Kristin Aquilino has one last resort, something she's never tried. She sticks her hand beneath the slimy, yellowish foot of an abalone, and, very gently, starts rubbing. 

"I'm attempting the gonad massage," Aquilino says.

When asked if there's any evidence that the abalone are enjoying it, she laughs. "I don't know," she says. "I know I'm not." 

Aquilino is part of a group of marine scientists in Long Beach, Calif., that is hoping to manually "encourage" some critically endangered white abalone to reproduce. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration​ estimates there are about 3,000 left in the wild. 

"There are so few white abalone left in the wild there that they are basically reproductively isolated," says Sandy Trautwein, Curator of Fish and Invertebrates at the Aquarium of the Pacific. "The chances of their eggs or sperm meeting in the ocean are very, very low."

But even if these scientists successfully breed new abalone, the marine species' fate, like that of countless others, may ultimately be decided in Washington, D.C.

The Trump administration wants to open up nearly all of American coastal waters  — 4 million square kilometres — to oil and gas drilling. Environmentalists fear that would be disastrous to thousands of marine species, from whales to the lowly abalone.

Alena Simon of Food & Water Watch points to the notorious Platform A in the distance off the coast of Santa Barbara, which responsible for one of the biggest oil spills in U.S. history. She fears another may be on the horizon if Trump's plan to open up the country's coasts to oil and gas drilling goes through. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"It's not a matter of if there's going to be an oil spill, it's a matter of when," says Alena Simon, an organizer with Food & Water Watch.

She's standing on a Santa Barbara beach, squinting in the bright sun and pointing off into the distance.

"Out there you can see about 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 offshore oil platforms," she says. One of them, barely visible in the haze, is "Platform A." In 1969, a blowout on that platform caused one of worst ecological disasters in U.S. history. Up to 16 million litres of oil gushed out, killing thousands of animals.

"Imagine where I'm standing today all of it covered in crude oil," Simon says. "A lot of people talk about that as the birth of the environmental movement."

Oil platforms are visible off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., the site of a 1969 oil spill that leaked up to 16 million litres of oil, killing thousands of animals. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Since then, most of the California coast has been off-limits to offshore exploration. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which leaked almost 800 million litres of oil, the Obama administration blocked future oil and gas leasing in most U.S. waters. But President Trump says that has cost the country billions in lost revenue. His administration's five-year plan would allow oil and gas companies to lease 47 areas off America's coastlines from 2019 to 2024, the first major proposed offshore drilling expansion since 1984.

The Trump administration says it will create jobs and reduce dependence on foreign oil. The Western States Petroleum Association applauded the move, saying in a statement: "This announcement could help California increase our domestic energy production."

But 15 governors of coastal states — one third of them Republican — oppose the expansion. They say it would threaten fisheries and tourism. On Jan. 18, more than 150 members of Congress sent Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke a letter calling the move "ill-conceived and short-sighted" and warning "where we drill, we eventually spill."

More than 150 members of Congress sent Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke a letter calling the move to expand offshore drilling "ill-conceived and short-sighted." (CBS)

Florida Gov. Rick Scott sought an exemption from Zinke, who subsequently released a statement saying Florida was "off the table." That was later refuted by the head of the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Amidst so much confusion, environmentalists say the solution may not be political but legal. Several Californian cities have already launched lawsuits against big oil companies for contributing to increased risk of climate change. 

Kristen Hislop, Marine Conservation Director with the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, Calif., says Trump's plans could be thwarted by lawsuits or state regulation. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

California Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement that he'd do "whatever it takes to stop this reckless, short-sighted action," which is reassuring for environmentalists like Kristen Hislop, Marine Conservation Director with the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara.

"The state of California can say, 'Well you can't bring that oil on to the state of California's land; you can't bring that into our waters.' And then that makes it very difficult for the federal government to actually pursue any new leases."

But even if the oil platforms don't leak they could still harm marine life.

"We know that at least 10 chemicals that are routinely used in offshore fracking and offshore oil development are lethal to marine mammals," says Simon of Food & Water Watch.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill, five years later

7 years ago
Duration 10:28
It's been nearly five years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. More than three million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Paul Hunter takes us back to Louisiana.

Other species like abalone are so sensitive, Trautwein says, that even a minor change in water temperature caused by increased fossil fuel production can kill them.

Back at the aquarium, finally, the abalone are getting as frisky as mollusks can get. 

In the bucket is a small, murky cloud.

"Those are eggs, we have eggs!" shouts Aquilino.

With that, their hopes for breeding new white abalone soar. So far the aquarium has been able to contribute about 2,500 white abalone juveniles to the recovery program, many of which they hope to set free in their natural habitat off the Southern California coast.

"These new animals represent the future," Aquilino says.

But their future is looking increasingly bleak. Even with a moratorium on oil leases, the mollusks are declining by about 10 per cent per year.


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.