2010 - %3, May

BP Spill Officially Worst In US History

| Fri May 28, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

Now that we know that the BP's gushing well has likely dumped somewhere between 18.6 million and and 39 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the disaster certifiably tops the list as the worst in US history, eclipsing the Exxon Valdez.

It may even make it to the ranks of the worst oil spills in human history. Exxon Valdez didn't even make that list; as bad as that was, there have been 33 larger spills around the would. The idea that this Gulf spill might not even qualify for that list is perhaps the most scary prospect.

EnviroKnow's Josh Nelson put together a chart showing how this spill stacks up to the other notable oil incidents of the past:

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Twenty-Somethings on Elena Kagan

| Fri May 28, 2010 1:25 AM EDT

Hey, remember Elena Kagan? Dean of Harvard Law, Solicitor General for Barack Obama, nominated to the Supreme Court a few weeks ago? Yeah, that Elena Kagan. The one who's been the subject of endless speculation about her wardrobe, sexual identity, and judicial philosophy. Well, Dahlia Lithwick says that nobody under 30 gives a fig about two-thirds of that:

Young people reading Robin Givhan's article on Kagan's scandalously open knees think they're reading something hilarious from their grandparents' stack of dating magazines from the 1950s. When they hear us yelping about racial diversity at the court, they think about the fact that their classrooms are already incredibly diverse and their Facebook friendships span continents. When they hear us shrieking over women's softball, they shake their Title IX heads and figure we're just idiots for thinking straight women don't play sports. And when they hear us whispering behind our hands about whether someone is gay, most of them tell me they think we're just freaking idiots. Just as they embody Barack Obama's post-racial America, they identify almost completely with Kagan's post-gender America — in which womanhood simply isn't defined by skirts, babies, or boyfriends anymore.

Good job, young people! But we still have that whole judicial philosophy thing to hash out. It would sure be nice if we knew a little more about that.

Dear Rachel Carson,

| Thu May 27, 2010 9:18 PM EDT

Happy birthday on the 103rd anniversary of your birth. Wish you were here. There's so much to tell you about the oceans since you left this world 46 years ago.

Tens of thousands of young women and men have gone into science since your pioneering work. Their cumulative efforts have vastly increased our understanding of the marine world.

Exciting new technologies—deep-towed cameras, sonar, submarines, remotely operated underwater vehicles, free-swimming autonomous underwater vehicles—are illuminating the abyss in ways not even your fertile mind could have imagined.

Entire ecosystems you had no idea existed are now explored on a daily basis, including hydrothermal vents (discovered 1977), cold seeps (discovered 1984), and whale falls (discovered 1987).

One of the greatest scientific endeavors of all time, the Census of Marine Life—now drawing to a close after a decade of intensive effort to find as many lifeforms in the seas as possible—has added 17,500 new species to the catalogue of 230,000 species of marine animals known at the close of the 20th century.

The Census is also returning to the past—or what's left of it, captured in millions of forgotten specimens jars on dusty shelves in museums and universities. Swimming through these formaldehyde seas are urchins, eels, and cunners, including a few surely known to you—perhaps a jar held between your own hands. We know that one small mollusk, the eelgrass limpet, Lottia alveus, formerly abundant and common in tidepools in Cape Cod, succumbed to extinction around 1929—during your tenure on the Massachusetts shore. Limpets are humble creatures, slow-moving, mostly sedentary, able to clamp down onto rocks with enormous force. They survive the desiccation of low tide. They survive the burn of sunlight. Many return to the same home scar engineered in the rock to await the return of the waters.

Long after your time on this Earth, Rachel Carson, we still need your voice reminding us of the ocean we love, the ocean we are losing, the one we're clinging to and fighting for with limpetlike tenacity right now. Thanks for lighting the beacon.
 

California's Jack Bauer Candidate

| Thu May 27, 2010 7:59 PM EDT

With California's Republican Senate primary less than three weeks away, the candidates are starting to make their closing arguments: former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina says she's the most electable; former Rep. Tom Campbell says, no, he's the most electable; and insurgent candidate Chuck DeVore wants voters to know that he, more than any other candidate, is the most qualified to impale a terrorist with a pair of scissors and find out where the bomb is. Hey, the Senate's a wild place!

Earlier this week, DeVore debuted a 24-style online ad, which runs through his national-security resume: Working in Afghanistan in the 1980s (Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a former mujahid, is a supporter), fact-finding missions to the Middle East, lengthy military service, and fancy-sounding quasi-covert operations he helped plan. Take a look:

That comes just one week after DeVore's campaign released decades-old audio of the candidate being shot at during a trip to  Lebanon, after the Los Angeles Times suggested he was being something less than truthful about the incident. The recent lurch into Tom Clancy territory shouldn't come as much of a surprise, though: DeVore enjoys military-strategy computer games, and in 1996 he co-wrote a novel, China Attacks, in which an imperialist Chinese bureaucrat sparks World War III. Yikes! I spoke with DeVore last month for a story I'm working on about the race, and somewhat unrelated to the story, I asked him about his book...which now seems strangely relevant.

Why BP is the Anti-Katrina

| Thu May 27, 2010 5:15 PM EDT

Yuval Levin today:

I think it’s actually right to say that the BP oil spill is something like Obama’s Katrina, but not in the sense in which most critics seem to mean it.

It’s like Katrina in that many people's attitudes regarding the response to it reveal completely unreasonable expectations of government. The fact is, accidents (not to mention storms) happen. We can work to prepare for them, we can have various preventive rules and measures in place. We can build the capacity for response and recovery in advance. But these things happen, and sometimes they happen on a scale that is just too great to be easily addressed. It is totally unreasonable to expect the government to be able to easily address them — and the kind of government that would be capable of that is not the kind of government that we should want.

This conflates two very different things. Katrina was an example of the type of disaster that the federal government is specifically tasked with handling. And for most of the 90s, it was very good at handling them. But when George Bush became president and Joe Allbaugh became director of FEMA, everything changed. Allbaugh neither knew nor cared about disaster preparedness. For ideological reasons, FEMA was downsized and much of its work outsourced. When Allbaugh left after less than two years on the job, he was replaced by the hapless Michael Brown and the agency was downgraded and broken up yet again. By the time Katrina hit, the upper levels of FEMA were populated largely with political appointees with no disaster preparedness experience and the agency was simply not up to the job of dealing with a huge storm anymore.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion is almost the exact opposite. There is no federal expertise in capping oil blowouts. There is no federal agency tasked specifically with repairing broken well pipes. There is no expectation that the federal government should be able to respond instantly to a disaster like this. There never has been. For better or worse, it's simply not something that's ever been considered the responsibility of the federal government.1

In the case of Katrina, you have the kind of disaster that, contra Levin, can be addressed by the federal government. In the case of the BP spill, we're faced with a technological challenge that can't be. They could hardly be more different.

But there is one way in which they're similar. As Levin says, Katrina would have been an immense disaster no matter what. But it was far worse than it had to be because a conservative administration, one that fundamentally disdained the mechanics of government for ideological reasons, decided that FEMA wasn't very important. Likewise, the BP blowout was made more likely because that same administration decided that government regulation of private industry wasn't very important and turned the relevant agency into a joke. If you believe that government is the problem, not the solution, and if you actually run the country that way for eight years, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we shouldn't pretend it's inevitable.

1Just to be clear: I'm talking here only about capping the leak itself. As T.R. Donoghue points out, the feds do have an overall plan for responding to and cleaning up spills.

UPDATE: I was only talking about the post-Katrina response by FEMA in this post, but John McQuaid usefully points out that none of the major damage would have happened in the first place if the federal government had done a decent job building the hurricane levee system in New Orleans. If you believe that this is just another example of why you shouldn't trust the government to do anything right, then that's a point in Levin's favor. If you believe that it's another example of why we should make sure government works better, then it's a point in mine.

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Another Affordable Housing Default

| Thu May 27, 2010 5:06 PM EDT

In yet another blow to the nation's affordable-housing stock, Stellar Management, star of our July/August 2009 story "Mortage Default: Landlord Edition," announced that it will go into default on Parkmerced, a 3,000-unit San Francisco housing project that Stellar purchased a few years back with the goal of remodeling and building new market-rate units.

Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, Stellar's management presented a $1.3 billion long-term proposal to triple the number of units at Parkmerced—but the company also faces October debt payments estimated at more than $500 million.

"We will be facing challenges in the next couple of months," Stellar spokesman PJ Johnston told the Chron. "This may cause some anxiety to some residents. But we are reassuring them this will not impact their daily lives here. We're still committed to this project."

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Congressmen Press BP for More Answers

| Thu May 27, 2010 3:38 PM EDT

New evidence has emerged in the past days about the events leading up to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. A congressional committee released a report on its findings about what happened on the rig before the blast, but today they want to know what BP might have been keeping from them.

In a tersely worded letter to Lamar McKay, president of BP America, Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) demanded that the company turn over more information related to its internal investigation:

We are concerned about issues that were omitted from BP's presentation and letter. In today’s New York Times and Wall Street Journal, questions are raised about several decisions made by BP that could have led to well failure, including the decisions to use a type of casing that could allow gas to flow up the annular space to the wellhead, to limit the number of spacers centering the casing despite objections by Halliburton, and to curtail the length of time that drilling fluids were circulated to clean gas out of the well. Neither BP's presentation nor its letter contains any discussion of these issues.
This raises the possibility that BP's internal investigation is not examining the consequences of BP’s own decisions and conduct.
The Committee's investigation is examining all potential causes of the blowout, including those that are the responsibility of BP. To assist the Committee in this investigation, we ask that you provide the Committee with additional information about the issues raised by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Specifically, we request that you provide the Committee:
  1. All documents related to BP’s casing strategy for the Macondo well, including the decision to use a single casing line comprised of sections attached to one another from the sea floor to the oil reservoir;
  2. All documents related to BP’s decisions regarding the use and number of spacers centering the casing line prior to cementing; and
  3. All documents related to BP’s decision concerning how long to circulate drilling mud through the well on April 19, 2010, prior to cementing.

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Oil Spill Kabuki

| Thu May 27, 2010 3:15 PM EDT

I feel like I should say something about the big press conference Obama just held. It's not like he does a whole lot of them. But it seemed pretty soporific to me. On the one hand, it's true that when he said he was "angry and frustrated" about the BP oil spill, he sure didn't seem very angry or frustrated. On the other hand, watching the CNN dimwits after the conference solemnly advising us one after one that Obama really needed to be more emotional because that's what the American people want — well, screw that. I have no idea what the American people want, and neither do they.

Honestly, this is just one of those lose-lose situations where Obama's long view of politics will hopefully serve him well. It's pretty plain, after all, that there really isn't much the federal government can do. All the expertise for dealing with stuff like this lies with the big oil companies. And every big oil company is working on it already. The problem isn't a lack of effort on their part or on the part of the government.

But Major Garrett wants to know if Obama really has his "boot on BP's neck," and everyone else seems to be nodding along. I guess it's the kabuki of our times. The president has to be In Charge whether he can actually do anything or not.

Of course, what everyone should be asking is not what the feds are going to do about capping the leak, but what they're going to do to make sure all the oil is cleaned up afterward. That's finally starting to get some attention now that oil is onshore, but the story is much bigger than that. There's 20 million or more gallons of oil sitting in a huge underwater plume off the shore of Louisiana right now, and the big question is what BP is going to do about that. And what we're going to do to make deepwater platforms safer in the future. If the "top kill" effort to stop the spill works, the dramatic part of this story will finally be over. The real part will just be starting.

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Did 9/11 Cause More Male Miscarriages?

| Thu May 27, 2010 2:55 PM EDT

More male fetuses than female were miscarried in the year after 9/11, a new UC Irvine study finds. According to a lead researcher, here's why:

In this case, women across the country were undergoing a process of "communal bereavement" -- empathizing with others, even if they hadn't experienced a direct loss during 9/11.

"It's a situation where witnessing harm, even if you don't actually suffer yourself, can actually induce harm," Bruckner said.

Female fetuses are hardier than males, because women have adapted to produce what Bruckner describes as "the alpha male." In times of prosperity and security, male fetuses are more likely to be brought to term, because there's a greater chance that they'll be healthy and robust. During periods of scarcity, however, male miscarriages are much more common.

"A woman's body faces a decision -- evolutionary, not cognitive -- of whether to carry her male baby to term, or abort the fetus," Bruckner said. "If you're pregnant in a time of low resources, there's less impetus for your body to bear that child."

So: Women were emotionally drained by 9/11, so somehow their bodies knew it'd be harder to raise an "alpha male" in such a stressful environment. Therefore, their wombs rejected the male fetuses.

I'm skeptical. For starters, how could you ever prove such a theory? For a while now another MoJo editor and I have been collecting examples of folks taking the general principle of natural selection and really just running with it, using it to explain all sorts of things. For example: Why do men prefer blondes? "Typically, young girls with light blond hair become women with brown hair. Thus, men who prefer to mate with blond women are unconsciously attempting to mate with younger women."  Why do women like the color pink? "Being drawn to men with rosy, rather than pale, complexions may also have helped them bear healthy children."

These are fun to think about, since the have a sort of a creation-myth feel about them. That's probably because we've evolved to wonder about human nature, don't you think? But seriously, this isn't science, it's speculation. And in the wrong hands, it could actually be used to undermine real evolutionary science. That could be dangerous.


Obama Faces Tough Questions on BP Spill

| Thu May 27, 2010 2:46 PM EDT

President Barack Obama faced tough questions from the press on Thursday about the administration's response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And in a press conference that lasted for more than an hour, he attempted to strike a delicate balance between defending the administration's response, blaming BP, and asserting that the federal government has taken the lead in the response effort.

"The day the rig collapsed and fell to the bottom of the ocean, I had my team in the Oval Office that first day," said Obama. "Those who think we were slow on our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts."

But after repeated questions from reporters which highlighted the public's frustration with the administration's handling of the disaster, Obama was more conciliatory. "I take responsibility," he said. "It is my job to make sure everything is done to shut this down."

The president did admit that on at least one front—forcing BP to release video and other information related to the spill—the government's response had been sluggish. "The administration pushed them to release it, but they should have pushed them sooner," he said. "There was a lag of several weeks that I think shouldn't have happened."

Obama's admission came on the day—five weeks since the explosion—that the administration released a new estimate of the spill that was two to five times higher than the earlier assessment.

Obama also announced new plans on offshore development intended to quell concerns about other drilling activities in the wake of the Gulf disaster. He extended all new drilling operations for six months or until a commission that he announced last week to study the question completes its report. He suspended planned exploration in the Arctic that was to begin in July and a proposed lease sale off the Virginia coast. Operations at 33 deep-water rigs in the Gulf are also on hold until further evaluation of their safety and planning can be done. The president also took aim at the "cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship" between the industry and the government agencies intended to regulate it.

This walk-back from offshore drilling also prompted some probing questions from reporters. Pressed on whether he regrets his March 31 announcement of a major expansion of offshore drilling, Obama held firm. "I believe what I said at that time, which was that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall energy mix," he said. "It has to be part of our overall energy strategy." He pushed the blame back on oil companies. "Where I was wrong was in the belief that the oil companies had their acts together when it came to worst-case-scenario," he said.

Obama also emphasized that the spill highlights the need for Congress to pass a broader climate and energy agenda—which was at least part of the reason drilling was offered as an olive branch to moderates in the first place. "If nothing else this disaster should serve as a wake up call that it's time to move forward with this legislation," he said.

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