Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Off world-class surfing beach, Kiwi protesters in small boats confront a Texas oil giant

Published in GlobalPost

New Zealand's government sides with Anadarko, legislating a protest-free zone around its rig.

PORTLAND, Maine — Located in the South Pacific, hundreds of miles from its nearest neighbor, New Zealand has a long history of peaceful protest — particularly at sea. And the country’s Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.
But earlier this year, multinational oil companies convinced lawmakers to restrict seaborne demonstrators who oppose oil drilling surrounding the island nation.
This week, the law is likely to get its first big test as the two sides approach direct confrontation.
A six-boat “Oil Free Seas Flotilla,” is sailing to stop deep-sea drilling 120 miles off some of New Zealand’s most iconic surfing beaches, Piha and Raglan. On Nov. 16 the vessels arrived at the site where Texas oil giant Anadarko was about to sink an exploratory well into the ocean floor 5,000 feet below the surface of the Tasman Sea.
The drilling ship Noble Bob Douglas arrived three days later and immediately declared, via radio, that the controversial new law applied, requiring the boats to stay 500 meters (1,640 feet) away from the drill rig. The flotilla responded that its boats would not comply. It has regularly radioed the Noble Bob Douglas with requests to leave New Zealand waters.
The oil-friendly law is opposed by figures as prominent as former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a legal scholar, as an unlawful limit on the rights of free navigation and free speech. 
It also defies historical precedent in enviro-friendly New Zealand, which once sent its navy to protect protesters at sea.
In the late 19th century, long before Mahatma Gandhi wielded nonviolence against Britain, native Maori people at Parihaka sent dancing children to face English soldiers attempting colonization.
In the 1970s and 1980s, private boats crossed the South Pacific to protest nuclear testing inFrench Polynesia. Closer to home, vessels blockaded Auckland Harbor against nuclear-powered US Navy ships.
This time around, leading the anti-drilling flotilla is the Vega, a 38-foot vessel that pioneered seaborne nuclear-testing protests and helped make New Zealand a nuclear-free nation. Vega is co-captained by the head of Greenpeace New Zealand, Bunny McDiarmid. Each boat in the flotilla is flying a white Parihaka pennant representing “peace, justice, resistance, and solidarity,” according to an accompanying letter from community elders.
The controversial law that Anadarko has invoked to repel the flotilla was hurriedly passed by the New Zealand Parliament after significant, and secretive, lobbying of government ministers by the oil industry. Allowing boarding and takeover of private boats by police, it is seen as a response by the conservative government to protests against a 2011 offshore expedition byBrazilian oil giant Petrobras, which soon thereafter scrapped all its New Zealand drilling plans.
Since the radio warning, the 38-foot-long Vega has stayed about 800 to 1,000 feet from the 756-foot Noble Bob Douglas. At times, according to Anadarko New Zealand manager Alan Seay, they have been within 330 feet of each other. The Vega is operating primarily under sail. To remain that close, it must tack about every eight minutes, according to Anna Horne, a flotilla spokeswoman who has sailed on the Vega to protest nukes.
According to Prime Minister John Key, drilling began early Tuesday morning, Nov. 26. Nonetheless, the Vega has remained within the exclusion zone.
Steve Abel, a Greenpeace New Zealand campaigner, says there has not been any sign of any authorities, nor any word from them. During the Petrobras protest two years ago, police arrived aboard navy vessels.
The protesters object to the environmental danger. New Zealand’s current ocean-drilling industry operates in very shallow waters. The deepest is about 400 feet. The country’s three small spill-response boats are not ready for operations beyond sight of land, they contend. “We are woefully underprepared,” Abel said.
Seay admits that the rig’s safety procedures have not yet been made public. That is to happen “shortly,” he said, noting that there is an “enormous amount of design and planning work that goes in up front to ensure that we have a safe and incident-free operation.”
The risk may be statistically low, but if a spill or blowout occurs, the damage will be “catastrophic,” Abel said, covering the entire west coast of the North Island within weeks,according to models of the spill. It would threaten tourism, fishing, and agriculture — all vital sectors of the New Zealand economy.
Abel also noted that the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico was also in roughly 5,000 feet of water — and that Anadarko was involved in that disaster, ultimately paying $4 billion as part of the legal settlements of that cleanup. “It’s the same company, the same depth,” Abel said. Anadarko is one of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas exploration corporations.
Sharing those concerns, more than 5,000 protesters thronged the western beaches of New Zealand on Nov. 23. The demonstrations included a significant Maori presence. In fact, the Tainui tribe may issue a legal trespass notice to the Noble Bob Douglas, which is in their traditional fishing waters.
“In many ways, [the Maori] hold the last line,” said Horne, noting not only their moral and cultural tradition of “kaitiakitanga,” or guardianship, but also their legal rights to many natural resources under the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, which shares sovereignty between the Crown and the Maori.
The 70-day drilling project was slated to begin Monday, but unspecified technical problems caused delays. Anadarko will leave enforcement of the exclusion zone to New Zealand authorities. Seay said “we respect the right to protest but ask in return that protesters respect our right to carry on our business free of interference.”
But the protesters have no desire for the oil giant to operate unobstructed.
New Zealand could be oil-free, and even the world’s first carbon-neutral nation, Abel said. The country already is home to the world’s biggest geothermal plant, Ngatamariki in the central North Island. It also has a strong forestry industry, whose byproducts could be used in place of petroleum derivatives, Abel said. “For us it’s not a hard ask” to get off fossil fuels.
In fact, Abel noted drily, “None of this oil, if it’s found, will ever land in New Zealand — unless there’s a spill.”
Jeff Inglis is managing editor of the Portland Phoenix. During the past 15 years, he has traveled extensively in New Zealand.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Balancing Rights: Council protects clinic patients, invites lawsuit

Published in the Portland Phoenix

On Monday evening, the Portland City Council voted unanimously to create the state’s first limited-speech buffer zone around a reproductive health-care facility, for the purpose of protecting patients at the Planned Parenthood of Northern New England clinic at 443 Congress Street from intimidation by anti-abortion protesters. The ordinance includes a last-minute amendment allowing it to take effect immediately.
The decision invites a legal challenge, such as those that have been brought against other states’ and towns’ buffer zones; a case before the US Supreme Court’s current session will test a very similar Massachusetts law.
Abortion opponents began demonstrating outside the PPNNE clinic last fall, after its move downtown from a Forest Avenue location that was never a site of significant or sustained protests. The new space’s improved access for patients also brought expanded publicity for people who oppose abortion rights, despite the fact that most of the clinic’s patients are not seeking abortions but other services such as birth-control medication, cervical-cancer screenings, and blood tests.
According to written testimony submitted to the council, patients have frequently felt intimidated when attempting to enter the clinic, but they also understand the underlying conflict, between the rights of the protesters to express themselves freely on public sidewalks, and the rights of the patients to have unfettered (and private) access to health-care services.
A woman identified as Jo described her experience entering the clinic on March 22: “I firmly believe in free speech and the free flow of ideas. This crosses the line with vile photos of aborted fetuses and scripture being chanted. The sidewalk is like walking a gauntlet [sic]. This poses an intentionally threatening and intimidating environment, encroaching on my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”
Maine law already prevents protesters from blocking a patient’s path to the door of a clinic, bans threats made toward clinic staff or patients (including by telephone), and outlaws excessive noise aimed at disturbing the occupants of a clinic or health-care facility. PPNNE has hired a Portland police officer to patrol the sidewalk nearby, to help enforce those laws, but problems remain. The buffer zone was proposed as a way to balance the competing rights, keeping protesters away from the entrances to the PPNNE clinic without forcing them so far away that their message would be utterly unable to reach its intended audience.
Decades of strife around Massachusetts reproductive-health clinics led to the 2000 passage of a statewide so-called “floating buffer,” requiring protesters to keep six feet away from patients and staff who are within 18 feet of the clinic entrance. Other states have similar laws; Colorado’s offers broader safety: an eight-foot “floating buffer” within 100 feet of clinic doors.
But a 2007 revision in Massachusetts exchanged the distance-from-people rule for one imposing a “hard” 35-foot buffer around clinic entrances — saying that protesters had to stay that far from clinic doorways and driveways, regardless of their distance from patients and staff.
The Portland ordinance imposes a hard buffer of 39 feet (expanded from an originally proposed 35 feet to prevent small gaps in coverage); effectively, the whole sidewalk around the PPNNE building will be off-limits to protesters, as well as short distances on the sidewalks of Elm and Congress streets beyond the extent of the PPNNE building.
Both supporters and opponents of the hard buffer law say its difference from a floating one is significant. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has argued that harassment and intimidation happened despite the previous floating buffer, which was also hard to measure and therefore enforce. (Most people do not want to bring a yardstick to their doctor’s appointments.) Protesters say their desire to simply give information to women approaching the clinics would be made too difficult by the hard buffers.
Another key element of the Massachusetts law, which is also included in Portland’s ordinance, is a specific provision protecting employees or volunteers at the clinic who seek to escort patients to or from the facility.
As described by Stephen Wermeil of SCOTUSblog, buffer-zone opponents claim this “allows viewpoint discrimination: advocates for abortion services may speak within the buffer zone, but anti-abortion protesters may not.” Massachusetts’s response, Wermeil writes, is that the provision “is part of the public safety rationale for the law, so that clinic workers may help women approaching clinics navigate their way past the protesters.”
Protesters suing Massachusetts also argue that the law is too narrow because it does not impact other health-care facilities, and that at three specific clinics in Massachusetts the specific locations have problems that prevent them from presenting their information to patients.
The 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Massachusetts law in January; its ruling also applies in Maine. And while the US Supreme Court upheld Colorado’s “floating” buffer-zone law in 2000, the Court is now considering the challenge to Massachusetts’s different restriction; some briefs were filed last week, oral arguments are slated for early 2014, and a decision is expected by the early summer.
Abortion-rights supporters are worried that the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito to the Court in the intervening years will tip the balance toward the protesters. If that is the case, Portland councilors were warned by city staff while considering the proposal, the local ordinance would likely be challenged and struck down as well.

Seeking high ground: Rising sea levels may affect future development

Published in the Portland Phoenix; sidebar to a larger feature by Deirdre Fulton on development in the Bayside area of Portland

As developers, residents, and city officials plan the future of Bayside, they’ll have to wrestle with some very difficult questions. A sense of the flavor of those discussions was on display at the Portland Society for Architecture “Waterfront Visions 2050” community workshop, held a couple weeks back at SPACE Gallery.
The first several minutes were spent defining common terms, such as what the phrase “100-year storm” means. (Confusing but true: It’s not a storm that happens every 100 years, but rather a storm that has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year. They can happen in back-to-back years, or with far more than 100 years between them.)
The basics are hard enough in a room of 50 people paying close attention; when dealing with public policy, it’s important to ensure the wider public is accurately informed, which also means ensuring journalists covering the process understand variations in terminology.
For example, maps and scientific disciplines discuss sea level in different terms, such as  measuring distance above the normal high-tide line or calculating a mean sea level that equals out tides and waves. So when one person talks about sea level rising four or five feet, another might need to translate that to as many as nine or 10 feet, depending on how each is measuring the changing water level.
But even after that is sorted out, it’s not enough to think about just the parcel of land being developed. In some cases, high ground may seem safe enough to build on, but a look at the surrounding land will reveal that new shopping center will one day be on an island with no road access.
And when multiple interconnected and interrelated properties are under consideration, owners’ differences can cause tension. One small group at the PSA event seemed focused on what to do about the piers on Commercial Street — raise them, protect them, convert them to floating platforms? — while another group simply moved their projected waterfront back far enough to surrender some property to the ocean. But that would mean consigning the piers to the deep, something the other group didn’t even discuss.
Of course, expense is a problem. Developers have to determine how much they’re willing to invest in a property — which, in places near sea level, means calculating how much it costs to raise the street levels, or how much profit can be squeezed from a development in the few remaining years or decades before it’s underwater . Public officials have to figure out what’s cost-effective to use taxpayer dollars for. (See “How Wet Will Portland Get?” by Jeff Inglis, October 4.)
Also making discussions challenging is the fact that some waterfront land is contaminated (or just plain made of trash used to fill in wetlands 150 years ago both on Commercial Street and the area around Back Cove) — if that land is submerged, the contaminants may leak out into the global seas.
And beyond that is a whole host of state and federal regulations about what can be built, with what restrictions, near the shoreline.
Even if an individual project seems straightforward (and they rarely do!), each new proposal will stir up these and other important questions, as we determine how to adapt to our changing planet.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Press Releases: Getting spun

Published in the Portland Phoenix

News is far more than just what government officials say. That’s hard enough for many of Maine’s daily papers to remember on a good day, much less late on a sleepy post-Halloween Sunday production night. Which is when 2nd District Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, who is running for governor in the 2014 election, submitted an opinion piece to the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald declaring that he is gay.
The sequence of subsequent events shows not only how good Michaud and his team are at co-opting the news cycle, but also how vulnerable Maine’s mainstream media is to a professional operation.
The reaction was almost exclusively political — talking about the significance of Maine’s first openly gay member of Congress, the historic nature of the nation’s first openly gay gubernatorial candidate, whether the move would help or hurt Michaud in fundraising and voter support, commentary from pundits about whether anyone cared about Michaud’s sexuality anyway, reaction from lunch-counter occupants that gayness doesn’t matter to them (because of course they’d tell a reporter if it did), and so on. (For a deeper analysis of the politics of Michaud’s move, see Al Diamon’s column on this page.)
Of course, some of this was unavoidable: According to Press Herald reporter Steve Mistler’s story on the revelation, “Michaud’s campaign did not take questions about his announcement or its timing . . . Terms of the embargo also prohibited reporters from seeking reaction until after 12:01 am Monday. The campaign required that the newspapers agree to the terms in advance, while refusing to disclose the topic of the column until Sunday.” With little advance notice, and agreement not to make any follow-up calls until the middle of the night, reporters were completely hamstrung.
Even in the days that followed, though, two important things were missing, both of which were no doubt just as Michaud hoped. First, even a short couple of years ago, any politician’s announcement of gayness would have merited a reporter’s phone call to Michael Heath, Maine’s loony-tunes rabid-knee-jerk gay-hater-in-chief of the state’s fringe commentariat. But times have changed in Maine’s media environment. Despite looking closely at all the reporting on the matter, I didn’t detect any attempts to find someone who might be morally opposed to Michaud’s self-identified sexual orientation. Avoiding intolerant demonization is commendable, of course, though no less noteworthy for being positive.
The other thing missing was any sense of Michaud’s humanity, or any recognition of the fact that coming out in 2013 is still an emotionally fraught process — even if the person doing the coming out is younger than Michaud’s 58 years, and even if the audience is someone more likely to be accommodating than that man’s septuagenarian Catholic mother. Sure, there were a couple of videos letting him speak his mind, but he didn’t take those opportunities to speak about himself as a person. (A November 12 Press Heraldpiece about the challenges of coming out didn’t even interview Michaud.)
The congressman/would-be governor specifically diverted any attention of that nature by asking rhetorically “Why does it matter?” and then moving right on to his policies and his legislative record. The reason it matters, of course, is not that being gay is anything bad or to be ashamed of. It matters because the process of coming out can be life-altering. It matters because voters want to elect people, not politicians.
Michaud has glossed over his own narrative, going so far as to claim that he’s “the same person today that I was last week, last year, and the year before.”
But that’s actually hard to believe. Coming to terms with one’s own sexuality and sexual orientation, and then telling family members (and the public!) is not simple or minor — particularly for someone who has spent decades in the closet and who, during that time, voted against multiple gay-rights proposals.
This is not a call for reporters to dig into Michaud’s sexual history or personal life — but it’s worth asking Michaud if he has learned anything from this process that might affect his views on certain public policies. So far, his grip on the media narrative has prevented even that basic question from arising.