Obama Snakes Surfers?

Not so fast, brah. Getty Images

In January, it will be one year since President Obama took office. For most surfers, many of whom consider themselves environmentalists on some level, it was a momentous occasion. And if, in the intervening year, he hasn't eliminated green house gas from the atmosphere, converted the U.S. economy to 100-percent renewable energy, cured cancer and gotten the Wu Tang Clan back together, most of us are confident it's not for lack of trying. But a recent decision by one of his hand-picked officials has the Hope Squad's ecowarriors worried.

Last month, acting Maritime Administrator, David T. Matsuda approved the construction of the Port Dolphin LLLC deepwater liquified natural gas (LNG) port off Florida's Gulf Coast. LNG is an energy source derived from natural gas that's been cooled to liquid form. The U.S. Energy Information Agency contends that demand for natural gas will grow 10 percent between 2009 and 2035 -- growth that domestic supplies will not necessarily be able to keep with. In turn, there is a growing push to develop facilities like Port Dolphin, which can receive and convert NLG imported from other countries. As you might imagine, these facilities aren't exactly surf-friendly.

"Make no mistake. LNG will adversely affect the water quality where you surf. Surfers are the canaries in the coal mines so to speak," says Chris Wade, of the Surfrider Foundation's New York City chapter. Wade has fought tirelessly for the past 18 months to block the building of a man-made island off the the New York/New Jersey coast (dubbed "Insanity Island"), which would be used as an LNG port. "This signifies a tremendous industrialization of fragile littoral environments. There is potential for major ecological impact in fairly shallow water."

According to Wade, laying the Insanity Island pipeline in New York Harbor would unearth toxic sediment from dumping done in past decades, which was not regulated and which the ocean has naturally capped over. It would require suspending a minimum of 7.27 million cubic feet of sediment and then 7.3 million tons of unspecified "quarry-run" fill dirt. Then there's the issue of the anchoring cables which would drag along the bottom in a 38-acre radius, killing whatever lie in thier paths. All of this would contribute to less healthy lineups.

Susan Clark, of the Maritime Administratoin, contends that such fears aren't necessarily warranted. "In the case of the Port Dolphin Energy project, the Maritime Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard, working in conjunction with public and private entities, carefully examined the environmental impacts of the proposed port," she says. "As part of the forthcoming deepwater port license, Port Dolphin Energy will be required to conduct pre-construction fisheries studies and develop and implement prevention, monitoring, and mitigation measures to reduce impacts to local marine resources."

But environmentalists remain vigilant about the immediate and long-term degradation such terminals create. They also see a bigger picture: the shaping of policy that allows private enterprise to obtain large exclusion zones in the public spaces where recreating (surfing included) is done.

"This could lead to a domino effect for a couple of reasons. First, an agency's decisions sets precedent, which in turn influences how future decisions are made," says David Byer, Water Policy Attorney for Clean Ocean Action, a group that has diligently opposed LNG, "With this decision, Matsuda had to define what the national interest was and address other important matters such as energy independence."

And that raises a question more important than those raised by the individual proposals at Insanity Island or Port Dolphin: is LNG necessarily in our best interests? While it's claimed to be a cleaner burning alternative to coal or oil, the overall carbon footprint created by importing LNG makes it a tough option to defend by anyone who takes alternative energy seriously. And the fact that it's being imported at all means it does nothing for our energy independence. Finally, the environmental risks created by the LNG facilities have sparked broad opposition, and not just from environmental groups. Local politicians object to the Insanity Island project on the grounds that it could negatively effect tourism.

"We're beginning to find that the Obama Administration might have a snake in its midst," says Wade, referring to Matsuda.

Matsuda's appointment by Obama -- our great ecologically-minded hope, the guy who's trying to put teeth into the Clean Air Act and cut global warming emissions by 80 percent -- raises the most important question of all: Has our man sold out? Is his hand-picked administration choosing short term economic gains over long-term sustainability?

When Obama talks "green," we assumed he learned about it from the Green Room of Hawaii's Sandy Beach, where he is a proficient bodysurfer. But replacing our domestic coal and imported oil with imported LNG is like replacing nicotine addition with huffing glue. So whether you look at the big picture (climate change, corporate ownership of free space, and energy independence) or you're simply concerned about catching some toxic disease on your next closed out barrel, we all need to be aware and keep Obama honest.

Obama brought us all a lot of hope one year ago. Today, we're still hoping he keeps our beaches safe.