#SEJ2014 Day 1 – Wednesday

Shortly after landing in Louisiana (my 43rd state visited in the US!), the Society of Environmental Journalists conference started in full swing.

My friend Kasey and I, both traveling from the University of Montana, registered and picked up information packets. We had time to stroll down the Riverwalk outside our hotel along the Mississippi River and take a short walk to the French Quarter.

Boat on the Riverwalk by Canal Street in New Orleans
Boat on the Riverwalk by Canal Street in New Orleans

We then dressed up and headed down to the opening reception/dinner, first networking with some journalists and non-profit leaders in the environmental community.

After dinner (fish, of course), the awards ceremony began, with a few speakers in between, the first of which being Senior Vice President of U.S. Communications and External Affairs for BP (yes, that BP) Geoff Morrell.

Morrell started off his talk with praise of journalists who covered parts of the BP oil spill of 2010 correctly, in his mind. Then the chaos began. After insulting almost all other news coverage, insinuating that journalists don’t question “expert scientists” enough, and asserting that journalists don’t get the facts right, the room exploded with chatter.

Some of his points he made were as follows:

  • news networks “asserted incorrect facts” that the populations of crucial animals in the Gulf have continually been receding (which is claims is the opposite – and that most Gulf populations are coming back with exponential numbers)
  • four years of environmental studies have been done, yet journalists neglect to show that data in their studies (but completely forgetting to tell us that the data is not necessarily ready to be released yet)
  • the oil spill did not have a significant impact (because it was only light crude oil, not the worst crude oil that could have been leaked)
  • scientific studies don’t work (because finding that oil affects sea life and marine birds is only a finding, not a conclusion about the populations in tact today)
  • and the kicker: that there is only 1.4 miles of shoreline left that still has residual oil and therefore still affected by the BP oil spill (despite the hundreds of miles of coastline still clearly covered in oil to this day)

During the question and answer period, Morrell continued on his rant, dodging questions and explaining calmly that we did not understand his statements or he simply did not say the statements he did say.

He did point to a new website on Gulf research and data that seems quite interesting, so I will have to take a look at that later.

French Quarter
French Quarter

After the room calmed down a bit and Morrell left the stage, Michael Blum, director of the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research, took the microphone.

Blum is a coastal research scientist working with NOAA, BP and other entities in cataloging the damage and figuring out remediation and restoration strategies for those areas still affected. He stressed that it is hard for researchers to pump out scientific data and studies under pressure, and that the cycles in which scientific funding are granted make it hard for results to show right away.

While administering slight digs at BP throughout his speech, Blum did credit the oil giant with giving $500 million (and more) to an independent research team to assess continuing damage of the spill.

The last speaker, but certainly not least, was retired Lieutenant General Russel Honoré. He is known around New Orleans and the South for spearheading the Joint Task Force for Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in affected areas when the storm hit in 2005.

Perhaps the most inspirational of the night, Honoré spoke about all of the opportunities for environmental journalism around New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Pens scribbled as he talked about possible story ideas pertaining to water issues, chemical mine issues and the 6,000 remaining abandoned wells in the Gulf. His mantra? “You don’t have to go far for a story.”

The retired general was level-headed as he talked about oil’s monopoly on our democracy. He said we will use oil and gas as a resource until we find something different that works, but “that does not give [the oil industry] a right to destroy where we live.”

At the end of his talk, he makes light of BP’s Morrell, saying that the oil spill did have a significant impact on the Gulf (duh).

Some of his last words perhaps shine light on how much he believes the media can help shed light on these problems: “You are the limbs. You are the saviors of the people.”


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