Activists Break Through at Offshore Drilling Protest

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Activists didn’t like the format at the Feb. 28 public hearing for offshore drilling, so they changed it. And it had positive results, at least for one evening.

The four-hour meeting, one of 23 to be held around the country, was criticized beforehand for not providing a town hall-like question-and-answer open forum. Instead, the recent meeting resembled a trade show, where visitors would speak one-on-one with engineers and scientists at separate booths about topics related to the proposal to open the outer continental shelf to oil and natural-gas drilling. Such configurations are designed to quell group outcry and have become a favored format in recent years at public meetings for controversial projects such as natural-gas pipelines and other fossil-fuel infrastructure projects.

Outside the Marriott hotel on Orms Street, environmental groups Save The Bay and the Environmental Council of Rhode Island responded to the slight by holding a sidewalk rally during the meeting. The event was preceded by a Statehouse press event, with Gov. Gina Raimondo, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., members of the Rhode Island House and Senate, and a representative from the fishing industry. All spoke of the potential cost to tourism, the environment and the economy. They all vowed to fight the Trump administration's offshore drilling plan.

Environmental groups Resist Hate RI and Climate Action RI took a different approach. An hour into the meeting, organizers Justin Boyan and renowned activist Tim DeChirstopher placed a small footstool in the middle of the meeting room and launched a 90-minute "open mic" speaking session. Their tactic wasn't a well-kept secret, as security and staff from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) stood by and listened as some 40 people voiced their opposition to offshore drilling. The open mic energized the crowd of about 100 attendees, many of whom were wearing “Drilling is Killing" paraphernalia. Speakers ended their talks with a resounding “Keep it in the ground.”

With a half-hour remaining in the meeting, BOEM’s chief environmental officer, William Brown, stepped in to take questions, giving the remaining 30 or so protesters a measure of the engagement they sought.

Brown maintained his composure as he replied to impassioned shouting and blunt questions about the meeting format and the failure of BOEM experts to oppose the proposal and the indifference of the Trump administration to public opposition.

“I’m glad you are here. I do wish you’d given us more time to interact,” Brown said.

“Why didn't you give us more time to interact with you,” replied local activist Kate Shapira. “Why didn’t you let us speak publicly with everyone here. That’s why we wanted this hearing so that everyone could hear each other.”

On one level, the protest and debate with Brown was a breakthrough in that it offered a dialogue and shared understanding about respect for a democratic process and the need for greater discourse, especially with senior officials at the Department of Interior.

“Your voice does matter,” Brown said.

Brown noted that he and other BOEM employees aren't political appointees. The Trump administration, he said, initiated the offshore drilling effort and the approval lies with the Department of Interior.

“I’m not the decision-maker," he said. "On the next round it is the Secretary of Interior.”

DeChristoher and Boyan urged Brown to recognize that BOEM employees have a responsibility to stand up to something they know is wrong.

“Taking on some risk is an appropriate response when you are facing a calamity that actually affects the future of human life and all the like on Earth,” Boyan said.

DeChristopher, who spent two years in prison for disrupting a federal land auction, said whistleblowers are protected by law.

“When you know the federal government is doing something that threatens public safety you have a responsibility to object and speak out against that," he said. "How could you not know that at this point?”

Brown responded, “It’s the job a good public servant, in my view, whether it’s the military or civilian life, to respect the democratic order. While you’re in that, in a lawful situation, respecting it and doing what you can. And I’m not sure its appreciated how much influence people who work with me here actually have on that.”

Brown recognized that the trade-show format blunted public discourse and said he would reconsider using it at future meetings. He said there may be another public meeting later this year when a draft of the environmental impact statement is released and open for public comment.

Of the 16 public workshops held so far for the offshore drilling proposal, this was the first with a demonstration inside the venue.

Boyan was encouraged by the unique protest and the discussion with Brown.

“I understand that BOEM's experts are civil servants and not oil-industry flacks like Secretary (Ryan) Zinke,” Boyan said after the event. But he noted that “the science-fair format,” the narrow scope of the review, and the lack of open dialogue miss the point.

“The government is deeply corrupt for even entertaining a debate on offshore oil drilling in 2018. Therefore, we won't play on their terms,” Boyan said.

Boyan wished Brown had the courage to say he was humbled by the appeal. He wanted him to admit the value of open testimony to civic discourse and even offer public speaking at the remaining meetings. 

DeChirstopher, who participates in and facilitates climate protests around the country, said the experience was unlike any other.

“In the end, I feel like we weren’t really protesting, but rather, we were governing," he said. "By that I mean that we were facilitating public discourse, creating the space for people to be heard, and collectively wielding the authority to shape our future.”

The protest showed the vacuum in public leadership and the desire by the attendees, as well as BOEM staff, to embrace and find relevance in their government, especially at the federal level, DeChristopher said.

“Last night was evidence that a broad swath of our society acknowledges this reality and is willing to engage in the work of building our own democracy from the ground up," he said. "Even the BOEM staff, who were so desperately clinging to a hope in the relevance of the systems to which they have dedicated their lives, still seemed to be hungry for some public leadership and embraced our authority."