Parker Richards

Parker Richards is an editorial intern at The American Prospect

Recent Articles

Seismic Blasting in Whales’ Backyard

The North Atlantic’s marine life may soon be treated to near-constant seismic blasts as energy companies hunt for new oil and gas drilling sites.

A proposal from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), published last month, lays out a plan to allow five companies to use seismic air guns to conduct geological surveys in area ranging roughly from Florida to New Jersey. The companies, which provide geological information to larger drilling firms, claim that after roughly 30 years without comprehensive mapping, they might find new locations for offshore oil and gas wells.

The mapping itself is conducted by ships firing 180-decibel cannon blasts 24 hours a day, and proponents of the practice say adverse impacts are negligible. But environmental groups, fishing industry advocates, and residents of impacted areas are not convinced. The noises from the air guns—like a continual firework display, but at 1,000 times the volume—can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems by killing zooplankton. Most larger creatures, particularly marine mammals that rely on echolocation, would also experience harmful effects, according to scientists.

President Barack Obama had considered seismic blasting as a way to jump-start East Coast fossil fuel extraction, but ultimately bent to environmental, business, and community pressure and ordered a five-year moratorium on it in the final days of his presidency. The military also strongly opposed blasting, saying it threatened key training areas, and a bipartisan group of 103 U.S. House members signed a letter against it. But President Donald Trump put blasting back on the agenda in April, saying that overruling the ban was part of an “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” and ordering Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to consider granting new permits to companies conducting blasting.

During the public comment period for NOAA’s proposal, set to expire on July 15, industry voices, community leaders, and politicians all spoke out against blasting. The fishing community cites data showing that fish catches could decline by as much as 70 percent due to blasting, while the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast—which represents 41,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishermen—claims falling tourism and fishing revenue would devastate business.

Major oil companies are not scrambling for blasting, either. Most have shifted their attention away from offshore projects in recent years, motivated by the doubling of American crude oil production in the past decade and deterred by the dangers of offshore drilling. Royal Dutch Shell suspended its Arctic Ocean drilling in 2015, and ConocoPhillips will end deep-water exploration this year.  

Following the close of NOAA’s public comment period, permits could be issued almost immediately. Seismic blasting in the Atlantic would then be possibly as soon as this autumn. 

FEMA Loophole Leaves Communities at Risk

A disaster-relief program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) promises greater flexibility in rebuilding damaged towns and cities, but instead often allows for the diversion of resources from those communities.

FEMA’s Public Assistance Alternative Procedures pilot program, created by the 2013 Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, is designed to provide “substantially greater flexibility in use of federal funds,” with “far less administrative burden.” But a loophole allows essential public buildings to be rebuilt far from impacted areas, or abandoned entirely.

The first beneficiary of Alternative Procedures was Vermont’s state government, which utilized FEMA funding to rebuild offices for state employees outside a flood plain. But in Long Island and West Virginia, some residents claim that the misallocation of FEMA funds has jeopardized their communities’ livelihood and health.

In 2014, in Long Beach, New York, the South Nassau Communities Hospital acquired the Long Beach Medical Center for less than $12 million after the medical center filed for bankruptcy following its destruction in Hurricane Sandy. SNCH received $154 million from FEMA to rebuild the center and restore health services in the Long Beach area. Instead, SNCH put almost all the money into restoring its own facilities, five miles away from Long Beach. Long Beach residents have filed suit in federal court, claiming their equal protection rights were violated.

This past year, following massive flooding in West Virginia, the Nicholas County school board voted to consolidate the damaged middle and high schools of Richwood with schools in Summersville and Craigsville, a plan costing $130 million in FEMA funding. Some students from the three towns, which have a combined population of less than 8,000, would have to commute for almost an hour on twisting mountain roads to a new, centralized facility.

Many Richwood residents were angered by secret negotiations between the school board and FEMA that led to the decision to consolidate rather than rebuild local schools: Richwood High School, considered one of the best in West Virginia, is noted for its marching band and high graduation rate. “The whole town is hung on these schools,” says Mayor Bob Henry Baber.

“I think the flood and the fight for the schools has been such an intense struggle that it has … superseded any other political affiliations,” Baber adds, noting that Democratic Governor Jim Justice favors rebuilding the schools. In June, the West Virginia Board of Education sided with Richwood residents, rejecting the consolidation plan and ordering the county to consider alternatives. The Nicholas County school board promptly sued the state.

While some communities have sought Alternative Procedures funding because of its perceived flexibility, the reality for towns like Richwood and Long Beach can be a loss of local control—and essential funds.

How to End Our Dysfunctional Congressional Election System

The American electoral system is a holdout from another era. First-past-the-post elections, in which the top vote-getter in a single-member legislative seat wins, are now used in only two other developed countries—Britain and Canada—alongside a cadre of African, Asian, and Pacific countries, usually nations with strong ties to British colonial rule. Representative Don Beyer, a Democrat who represents northern Virginia, hopes to take the United States off the list by creating multi-member districts for the House of Representatives and instituting ranked-choice voting.

Beyer introduced the Fair Representation Act on Monday with support from Rep. Ro Khanna of California and Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, both Democrats. The bill would not only institute nonpartisan redistricting commissions and a new voting system designed to create a proportionally representational Congress, but also aims to dramatically reduce the number of safe seats for each party and eliminate the unopposed reelection of representatives.

“The country is divided along class, racial, and ideological lines as never before, and frustration with our brand of politics is at a tipping point,” Beyer said at a press conference announcing the bill.

The measure is backed by the electoral reform advocacy group FairVote, which claims it would end gerrymandering and lopsided representation by state. States like Oklahoma and Massachusetts currently have House delegations composed entirely of one party’s members, but a large minority of the voters in each typically back the minority party. The anomaly is so pronounced that, in the 2012 House elections, Democrats beat Republicans by 1.2 percent in the national popular vote, but won 33 fewer House seats than the GOP. Beyer’s legislation seeks to end that disparity while also creating opportunities for more women and underrepresented minorities, as well as third parties, to gain House seats.

The Fair Representation Act uses the single transferable vote system, similar to the one currently in place in Ireland. Each voter ranks all candidates standing for a particular seat. If a voter’s first preference is eliminated, his second preference vote would be counted instead, and so on. When a candidate reaches a quota and is elected, the next preferences of all voters who supported her are accounted for, and excess votes above the quota are distributed. States with just one member would still use a ranked system called instant-runoff voting, in which no candidate could be elected without a majority.

Currently, several states have multi-member districts for their state legislatures, but none use ranked-choice voting, meaning that a party that receives a majority of votes will likely receive all the seats.

In 2014, 31 congressional representatives were re-elected unopposed. In theory, a system of ranked-choice voting would end unopposed elections. The bill’s backers hope this would eliminate safe seats in Congress and encourage cooperation between members, rather than rewarding the ideological intransigence that ultra-partisan districts often foster.

“European monarchies turn over at a faster rate [than Congress],” Khanna said at the event, referencing an Economist article