Drilled S2Ep1: A Crisis, a Cover-up, and a Community on the Front Lines of Climate Change

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Ben Platt, a fisherman from Crescent City, California; and Lori French, a fisherwoman from Morro Bay, California; Tanya Beardon, fisherman’s wife in Crescent City, California; Larry Collins, founder of the fisherman’s co-op in San Francisco; and Peter Sinclair, at Yale Climate Connections.

Amy Westrevelt: In season one of Drilled, we examined the creation of climate denial. We talked to scientists and uncovered documents that outlined a decades long propaganda campaign launched by Big Oil. We dug into a lot, but there are still plenty that we didn’t quite get to. For one thing, climate scientist Ken Caldeira said something to me that I couldn’t get out of my mind.

Ken Caldeira: Eric Band was performing paleoclimate simulations and then running the model and trying to figure out where in ancient times the upwelling zones might have been in the oceans because those would be zones where oil might form and the oil companies were funding this work as part of their oil exploration. At the same time that they were kind of talking down the models in terms of their ability to have utility for current policy, they were using those very same models to help guide their oil prospecting.

Amy Westrevelt:  I don’t if you caught that but what he’s saying there is that during the same years that companies were saying that climate science was just too uncertain to inform regulations or for anyone to make decisions about the future based on it, they were using that exact same science to prospect for more oil. So obviously they they felt pretty confident about those models. And then when I started reading the full complaint filed in that legal case we mentioned at the end of season one, West Coast crab fishermen are suing oil companies. I came across this list of patents that oil companies started applying for in the 70s for all the various types of machinery and boats that you’d need to drill in a melting Arctic. Here’s a summary. In 1973, Exxon got a patent for a cargo ship capable of breaking through sea ice and for an oil tanker designed specifically for use in previously unreachable areas of the Arctic. The next year, Chevron got a patent for a mobile Arctic drilling platform that would allow for drilling in areas with increased ice flow movement due to warming temperatures. Then Texaco got 1 for an apparatus that would allow for drilling in previously unreachable Arctic areas. Shell picked up a similar pattern in 1984. As I was digging into all that, news broke about an ongoing case in Massachusetts focused on Exxon Mobil oil storage facility.

News cast: It’s a new twist on David versus Goliath as an environmental group begins legal action against Exxon Mobil. The Conservation Law Foundation is alleging petroleum giant knowingly worked to discredit climate change science more than three decades. Suit goes on to say the Fortune 500 companies caused extensive environmental damage, like in this area along the Mystic River in Chelsea and Everett.

Amy Westrevelt: The suit alleges that Exxon is putting several coastal towns at risk of toxic exposures by not adequately updating its facility in the face of rising sea levels and increased extreme weather. Exxon has filed multiple motions to dismiss the case, but the judges ruled in favor of the Conservation Law Foundation. Now Exxon spokespeople are saying the storage facility is prepared for sea level rise. The company says it has, quote, engineered its facilities robustly with extreme weather events in mind and can manage the risk. That all reminded me of a random job I had in my early 20s. I worked in the marketing department of an engineering firm. And, yeah, it was as interesting as it sounds. My job was to rate case studies and the firm just so happened to have done quite a bit of work for the oil and gas industry. I remembered writing about projects where they had helped to engineer offshore oil platforms to make them resilient to sea level rise. That job was a long time ago, so I reached out to the guy who had headed up that department to ask when exactly the oil companies had started to work on this stuff. He wrote back right away. Oh, oil and gas folks have always been big on this. I don’t have a specific date, but pretty much from the beginning of their existence. So while oil companies were protecting their assets, everyone else took a 30 year break from paying attention to climate change. And they did so in part because oil companies convinced them to not just through their own direct communications, but through an extensive decades long propaganda campaign that served to undermine the science and promote the message that climate science and climate models were just too uncertain to inform regulations or anyone’s future plans. Science at the oil companies themselves were at the same time relying on extensively. Now, as sea levels rise and the oceans warm up, some communities and industries are really feeling the consequences of those decades. One group in particular has decided to take matters into their own hands. That’s the story we’re going to follow this season. I’m Amy WESTERVELT. Welcome to the second season of Drilled. We’re calling it hot water.

PBS special about rural America: In rural communities across America, there’s a sense of being forgotten and left behind.

PBS special about rural America: Hard downtown used to be a precious place, had died, had died.

PBS special about rural America: What good does an insurance card do if there are any doctors in town? And this is the situation in much of rural America.

PBS special about rural America: Democrats really have failed to be in rural America.

Amy Westrevelt: When we talk about rural America these days, we don’t usually mean coastal towns. In fact, most people think coastal is the opposite of rural America. Coastal elites and all that.

But despite their size and cultural influence, L.A., San Francisco, Portland and Seattle are not all the coastal west has to offer. Between these big urban hubs are dozens of small fishing towns where life revolves around seasons and currents. Towns like Crescent City way up at the northern tip of California near the Oregon border. Crescent City has a few claims to fame. For one, it’s the tsunami capital of the continental United States. The town was pretty well destroyed by a tsunami in 1964 and the harbor was totaled by another one in 2011. It’s also absolutely covered in sea lions. Certain times of the year, like when I visited in March. And despite the fact that a tsunami could destroy your boat, its harbor is one of the biggest crap ports on the West Coast. Almost everyone in Crescent City has some connection to the harbor. I meet Ben Platt on the docks early on a Sunday morning. He’s running late because the time just changed. But he’s also anxious because that’s just the deal for travelers these days with his flannel shirt, his baseball cap and stubble. He looks like a fisherman straight out of central casting. But his story and his take on the world is a little less expected. Ben lives a few hundred miles south of here, but he keeps his boat in Crescent City because it allows him to not only crab out of Crescent City and Port South, but also head up to Washington in Alaska for tuna and when possible, salmon. He grew up in another coastal town, just like this one, but a few hundred miles south called Point Arena. It’s a tiny one dock town, the sort of place where kids could cut school early to fish.

Ben Platt: You could get out of school back. And my brother would get out like a month or so early. They’d let him get out. So you’d go work on a boat. So he started working on other boats other than the family boat when he was like, twelve.

Amy Westrevelt: Ben is in his 50s, so we’re not talking about something that happened 100 years ago. This is fairly recent history. He and his brother Dan started going out with their dad buzz on his boat when they were about nine. Dan eventually joined the Marines and spent the rest of his life on boats, but then liked school. He went off to college Humboldt State in Northern California and then made his way to L.A..

Ben Platt: I worked in the film business there in L.A. for about eight years, and I also was playing music, chosen rock bands, that was really why I was there. I was pursuing that dream and that was pretty good for a while, actually.

But I went from drinking to drugging and Deb became a big problem for me, so I have almost 22 years clean and sober now, but when I hit bottom, I was homeless in Los Angeles and I was in and out of jail and a lot of trouble.

And in my last day there, I almost died. I got in a fight and got stabbed and I almost bled out. So that was kind of my that was my wakeup call. And so I followed my dad’s suggestion and just kind of went back with them to Fort Bragg.

Amy Westrevelt: Ben went to what he describes as sort of a bargain basement rehab.

Ben Platt: There wasn’t even really counselors or anything, but it was a safe place to be for someone that was trying to recover from drug addiction.

Amy Westrevelt: On passes from rehab, he’d go fishing with his dad.

Ben Platt: I had been injured. I had very little use of my left hand and arm, had been going fishing with him a little bit. And you helped a lot to use my hand and stuff. And I loved spending time with my dad again because I’d been out of touch for quite a while.

So I stayed there, for a year and then my dad died pretty suddenly. He had a few different boats. He had a couple skiffs. He was doing like rock-hard. He was rebuilding his big boat, was doing a new repower on the engine. And so I moved into town at that point with a year clean and sober to help my step mom out. And so I was like, well, there’s this leaky old skiff with a outboard motor that doesn’t run very well in a trailer and it’s a little pickup truck. And so I tried it and did well at that. And then I actually sank that first put and was fishing out of a kayak for a while with a friend of my. We had a little live wells in the back of our pickup trucks with little air pumps and we were selling to a live Asian market like Rockhouse all hook line. And it was pretty cool. It was like sport fishing, but making money at it. And then I got a better boat. I got a Boston Whaler with a little bit better engine on it and eventually rented my own little alley house in Fort Bragg.

Amy Westrevelt: When I talked about on the phone before heading up to Crescent City, he told me that the fishing community had sort of been his salvation at a pretty dark point in his life, that if you work hard and you’re loyal, this community has your back. It’s one of those communities where you’re either part of it or you’re someone who’s never pissed in salt water.

Amy Westrevelt:  Just taking a little break here to tell you about a show that I have in regular rotation, Latina two Latina profiles, a different woman each week touching on everything from their personal histories to their professional triumphs. You might recognize host an ace interviewer Alicia Menendez from PBS as Amanpour and Company. She does a great job on this show. To listeners of Drilled Shaw particularly, check out the recent interview with climate scientist turned environmental justice advocate Nicole Hernandez. She’s really fascinating on everything from how her background has informed her work and how the Latino community in particular understands and is responding to climate change. Hernandez has been instrumental in getting people to understand what happens during, quote unquote, sunny days floods in Miami. And she’s just really, really interesting to listen to. So check that out. Rest. The episodes are great, too. You can subscribe on Apple’s Spotify Radio public, really wherever you get your podcasts. And it’s great to check it out.

I also want to recommend a Web site that does a great job of keeping track of all the various climate lawsuits happening right now. Climate liability news sent me to the courtroom climate science tutorial where I first got the idea to do Drilled. Their reporters are really on top of this stuff in a way that no one else’s. So it’s a great one stop shop if you want to know what’s happening with these cases.

Okay. Back to the show.

Amy Westrevelt: There are plenty of Fisher women up and down this coast, too, who are also integral parts of the community. Perhaps none more so than Lori French down in Morro Bay, about 500 miles south of Crescent City. Well, Ben fits a lot of the images you might have in your head about a fisherman. He’s also college educated, fairly left-leaning. And he told me…

Ben Platt: I come from a long line of Jewish liberal activists.

Amy Westrevelt: Politically, he’s representative of about half the fleet. Lori’s more conservative. More representative of the other half of the fleet. And over the past several months, at least a dozen people told me if I wanted to understand West Coast fishing, I had to talk to Lori French.

Lori French: You know, there’s only like six or seven crabbers down here now. And most of us are old school, 300 million a generation.

Amy Westrevelt: Lori’s husband, Jeff, has fished all his life. And now one of her sons, Lauren, is a commercial fisherman, too. When I asked to meet her in Jaff after talking to them on the phone, she said Jeff doesn’t talk to reporters, that he and his brother and her son had appointed her the family’s spokesperson. She suggested we meet at a Mexican restaurant in Morrow Bay because her friend owns it and she needed to coordinate with him around the annual crab feed.

Lori’s sort of a community caretaker. She’s big on gatherings and she does a lot to support the fishing community up and down the coast. She’s also fairly conservative politically, although she never identified herself as aligned with any particular political party.

But she says a lot of things like this, for example, when talking about the federal government.

Lori French: It was like the government got wind of it, and this is going to sound really bad. But it was like, oh, look, a new crisis.

Amy Westrevelt: She raised an eyebrow when she heard that my kids can’t really swim yet. Her sons have all been swimming since they could walk, of course, although they didn’t grow up fishing on their dad’s boat quite the way Ben and his brother did.

Lori French: They went out some. My husband’s policy was like his dad’s policy. The only kids wants to be a kid. They concentrated on being kids, which is fine.

Amy Westrevelt: Lori son Lauren went to school for architecture and still loves it, but graduated at the peak of the Great Recession and couldn’t find a job. So he started fishing with his dad. Lauir says he still moves between the two worlds, picking up jobs in the building industry between fishing seasons.

Lori French: He loves architecture still, but he likes fishing, too. He likes the freedom it affords. It’s the first time you actually work 9:00 to 5:00. You can’t. Mommy I’m exhausted. Yeah, this is hard. This Monday through Friday things is, I realize when you’re on the boat, you work 24/7 for Inglesby. It’s so totally different.

Amy Westrevelt: It is totally different. I saw that after just one day on a boat, just like lots of industries have their own shorthand, their own particular window onto the world. Fishermen tend to hang together because they understand each other’s lives in a way that other people just can’t really. And a big part of what makes them who they are is being able to weather storms literally and figuratively. Fishing for Dungeness crab is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. Even more so than that other type of crab fishing most Americans are familiar with.

You may remember that opening montage from the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. Let me tell you, king crabs got nothing on Dungeness.

But lately, the tsunamis, market fluctuations and the daily grind are the least of their problems. In fact, Ben and Lori and hundreds of other California fishing families like them could be facing their biggest challenge yet.

And it started about four years ago.

Newscast: Our unseasonably warm weather is also feeding the biggest algae bloom on the West Coast in decades.

Newscast: This sea lion is having seizures and poisoned from domoic acid. A deadly natural talks and being found in very high levels from California to Washington state.

Peter Sinclair: It’s not unusual to have warm patches of ocean water, but this one’s much larger and hotter than normal. By up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit.

Amy Westrevelt: A patch of warm water, something scientists started calling very scientifically ‘The blob’ appeared on the Pacific Coast in the spring of 2015. Warm currents are normal, of course, but this was a huge mass of unusually warm water and it encouraged an abnormal amount of algae to grow and then to stick around. Algal blooms would typically start to dissipate in the summer. But these stuck around till fall when the crab season would usually start.

Newscast: In California, Fishing season for the Dungeness crab has been delayed due to high levels of a dangerous neurotoxin. It’s an environmental problem. Scientists blame warmer waters and an economic one. Dungeness crab is a $60 billion a year industry.

Amy Westrevelt: The season was delayed that year because the algae had led to a build up of what’s called domoic acid, a potent neurotoxin in crabs. It was particularly bad timing for Ben.

Ben Platt: We had just bought the house that year. So taking on the biggest debt of our life, I’d had a good crab season in the winter that we bought the home. But then I elected to take the whole summer off and spend all this money. And then we had the domoic acid closure. So I’d had my crew come to Windsor salavard yard out there. So we spent about a month doing gear work and then we had this shut down

Amy Westrevelt: And Lori was worried about both her own family and the broader community.

Lori French: We took a pretty hard hit and that’s money that will never make up again. Guys with families. The deckhand had no backup.

Amy Westrevelt: Domoic acid was first found in mussels off Canada’s Prince Edward Island in the late 1980s when it made a group of people violently ill. Summer vomiting excessively. Some experienced amnesia along with the intestinal issues. And four became so ill they died. Food safety regulations emerged after the outbreak, which quickly spread to all crustaceans and shellfish in North America. Since then, crab has been tested every year for domoic acid. But in and Lori’s neck of the woods, it had never been an issue before 2015. And it wasn’t just a brief delay or inconvenience. This was the beginning of a new reality for crabbers, one that would bring heavy losses, legal battles and a sort of persistent dread. The sense that no matter how hard they tried to hold on, their lives were slipping away from them.

Ben Platt: So what’s happening now lately? Three out of the last four years is we’re asking these guys to sit around and either make no money or make hardly any money doing part time jobs, but they have to be on call. We never know when the season is going to start. So it’s really hard for them to work during these closures and in our boats are sitting idle for three, four or five months at a time now.

Amy Westrevelt: Next time on Drilled, we’ll look back at that fateful 2015 crab season and the unexpected adversary that big oil created.

Tanya Beardon: It was just awful. I mean, we couldn’t pay the bills. It was just a nightmare. We almost lost equity.

Larry Collins: We need to start doing something. I see things, you know, I see the tides coming up higher. I mean, it’s squirten through the parking lot about the war. And I never saw that before.

Amy Westrevelt: Drilled is produced and distributed by Critical Frequency. The show was created and reported by me, Amy WESTERVELT Rekha Murthy is our editorial advisor. An additional editing for this series was done by Julia Richy. The series was mixed by Bill Lance. Our Season 2 theme song was composed by Elliot Peltzman. Additional music was contributed by Beamon and David Whited. Season 2 Cover Art was drawn by Angela Shay. Drilled is supported in part by a generous grant from the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. You can listen and subscribe to Drilled on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like the show, don’t forget to give us a five star rating. It helps us buy more listeners and combat pesky climate deniers. Visit our Web site Drilled podcast dot com for behind the scenes photos and additional information about this series. You can also drop us a tip or story idea there, and sign up for our newsletter. Or you can find me on Twitter. I’m at Amy WESTERVELT. Thanks for listening.