2010 - %3, June

Transparency in Politics

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 3:42 PM EDT

Carol Leonnig writes in the Washington Post today that many corporations are eager to start funding political ads now that the Supreme Court has ruled that this is legal:

These companies include firms on Wall Street and in the energy sector opposed to stricter regulations as well as fast-food franchise owners fearful of being forced to unionize their shops. They just don't want to be singled out — or have their corporate logo attached.

Some fear the rules on corporate election activities could change, leaving their company exposed; a White House-supported bill likely to be voted on by the House after the Memorial Day recess would require calling out by name the corporations that fund campaign ads. Republicans, who generally rely more heavily on donations from big-business executives, say that Democrats are trying to silence the political speech of corporations with the bill.

....Big corporations are the new whipping boys in the wake of taxpayer-financed bailouts, Republican operatives argue. They say chief executives can't take to the public square to share their unpopular views on legislation without being personally attacked or — worse — dismissed. "You want to speak your peace without political retribution," said David N. Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, whose fight to air its video critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton led to the Supreme Court's ruling.

This is ridiculous. If you're in the arena, you're in the arena — and that means your opponents get to fight back. If you're afraid of that, then you'd better stay out of politics. We already have too little transparency when it comes to political advertising, and the last thing we need is to allow even less.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

As Hurricane Season Kicks Off, Gulf Oil Worries Grow

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 3:18 PM EDT

As if the oil disaster weren't enough, today is the first day of hurricane season. As Julia Whitty noted last week, hurricanes imperil the thousands of miles of oil pipelines that snake across the Gulf. The storms also threaten to churn up the millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf, pushing the slick further on land and spreading it out over a larger area.

Forecasters have predicted an above average hurricane season this year, which lasts through November. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that 2010 will be an "active to extremely active" year. The agency forecasts between 14 and 23 named storms this year, and 8 to 14 of those will become hurricanes. Between 3 and 7 of those of those will qualify as major hurricanes—with sustained winds of 111 miles per hour or more. There's a 44 percent chance of a strong hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast this year.

"If this outlook holds true," warned NOAA head Jane Lubchenco, "this season could be one of the more active on record."

Unfortunately, the Deepwater Horizon site lies right in the middle of the paths previous Gulf hurricanes have taken to land, including Ivan, Katrina, and Dennis. The Pew Environment Group put together this map showing how the major hurricanes in the region in recent years and the BP spill would collide:

Obama's "Revelations" and the Oil Industry's Slimy History

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 3:05 PM EDT

UPDATE: Attorney General Eric Holder announced Tuesday that federal authorities have opened criminal and civil investigations into BP. Also today, Kate Sheppard notes that BP has hired Dick Cheney's former press flack, Anne Womack Kolton, to serve as their new "head of US media relations."

"What's been made clear from this disaster is that for years the oil and gas industry has leveraged such power that they have effectively been allowed to regulate themselves," President Obama said last week in his press conference on the BP oil spill. "I was wrong," he declared, "in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios."

Ya think? If this isn't a textbook example of closing the barn door after the horse is out, I don't know what is. In fact, it isn't even closing the door so much as acknowledging that the barn actually has a door, which we might want to consider using once in a while if we don't want the horses running wild. What the president's statement reminds me of most is Alan Greenspan's admission, after the economic meltdown took place, that there just might be a tiny "flaw" in his approach to financial regulation. "I made a mistake," Greenspan told Congress in October 2008, "in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms."

In the aftermath of his press conference, political pundits seem to be focused on whether Obama—and by implication the federal government—was taking too much responsibility for the spill, or not enough. Only a few have pointed out the patent absurdity of believing in the first place that the oil companies could be trusted to "have their act together" when it came to either preventing or dealing with massive spills. The history of global oil spills over the last half-century shows a pattern of carelessness and ineptitude on the part of the industry—and of failure on the part of governments who tried to intervene after the fact.

When the tanker Torrey Canyon drove straight into the rocks off Land’s End in Britain in 1967, spilling its 31-million-gallon cargo, chemical dispersants were spread on the expanding slick with no result. According to the "Report to the Committee of Scientists on the Scientific and Technological Aspects of the Torrey Canyon Disaster," the British Air Force was called in to set the oil afire by bombing it. Some of it eventually caught fire; most of it did not. A Dutch salvage team  thought they could fix things by pulling the ship off the rocks, but the tow cable broke. The spill ended up killing marine life and spreading glop all over the beaches of Southern England and some in France as well.

What To Do With Old Lightbulbs?

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 2:47 PM EDT

Recently switched all the lights in your house over to CFLs? Inhabitat has an idea for giving your old incandescents new life: Make them into vases. Only challenge is to support the bulbs so they stand up. Pictured left is a stand called a Potus Pot, but I imagine it wouldn't be too hard to make your own bulb support. If you filled an old tray with a bed of pebbles a few inches deep, I'm guessing you could nestle a few bulbs in there. Readymade has another idea.

Readers, have any of you found other ways to reuse old lightbulbs?

How BP, MMS Ignored Spill Warning Signs

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 2:30 PM EDT

New documents released over the weekend to the New York Times show that both BP and federal regulators at the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service had plenty of warning that the drilling operation at the Macondo well site was plauged with problems—dating as far back as June 2009. But despite known issues with the well and the blowout preventers, the operation continued until the April 20 blast.

One document reveals that on June 22, 2009, BP engineers noted concerns that the metal casing the company wanted to use on the well could collapse under high pressure. BP used the casing anyway, after overriding its own design and safety standards. Other documents released this week reveal that the company knew that there was "unlikely to be a successful cement job" on the site and that the casing would be "unable to fulfill M.M.S. regulations."

BP also knew that there were problems with the blowout preventer, or BOP, which was supposed to shut off the well in the event of an emergency. The BOP clearly failed to function following the explosion of the well, which has now spewed oil into the Gulf for 43 days. As the documents note, the BOP was found to be leaking fluids on at least three occasions prior to the blast, which would impair its ability to function. But because of the other known problems with the well casing—drilling mud falling into the well, sudden gas releases, and loss of "well control"—the company asked federal regulators at the Minerals Management Service to delay a mandatory test of the BOP.

The MMS first rejected their request for a delay, but then relented. Here's the email issued to BP granting the request:

It's becoming more and more evident that BP knew about numerous problems with this drilling operation, but chose to proceed anyway. But it's also apparent that MMS also knew about these risks and allowed to the company to operate. The Times piece also highlights the fact that federal regulators gave little scrutiny to an April 15 request from BP to revise its plan to deal with a blockage in the well, approving it in under 10 minutes. That was just days before the blast—but it doesn't appear that MMS attempted to question what was going wrong with the well.

BP vs. BP on Dispersants

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 1:45 PM EDT

Independent scientists have reported that giant plumes of oil are forming beneath the waves in the Gulf of Mexico, with one reported to be 22 miles long, six miles wide and more than a thousand feet deep. But according to BP CEO Tony Hayward, those plumes don't exist. That's despite the fact that the company has spread hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants in the Gulf, with the sole purpose of keeping the oil under the surface.

Hayward's own BP colleagues have explained as much. Here's chief operating officer Doug Suttles talking about dispersants two weeks ago:

Let me start with explaining what these dispersants do ... if it works as we have seen in the test, it should mean that there's much less oil on the surface, which means our total dispersant usage will drop significantly and we should be able to monitor or report on that over the next few days.

And here's David Horsup, vice-president for research and development at Nalco, the company that manufactures BP's dispersant of choice, Corexit, explaining how the chemicals work in Nature:

"Aerial observations indicated that the slick on the surface was significantly reduced once you inject the chemical right at the well head," Horsup says. "You get very rapid dispersion of the oil into the water column."

This is also the very reason the EPA authorized the use of subsea dispersants, which has never been done previously:

Preliminary testing results indicate that subsurface use of the dispersant is effective at reducing the amount of oil from reaching the surface – and can do so with the use of less dispersant than is needed when the oil does reach the surface.

The reason these chemicals were designed was to keep oil below the surface. Doing so prevents the problems of oil hitting land, where it affects coastal wetlands and wildlife. Keeping it in the water column means fewer media images of oil-soaked pelicans and sea turtles, but creates its own set of problems for fish, shellfish, and the entire Gulf ecosystem. BP's head apparently wants us to believe that if the oil is out of sight, it should be out of mind.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Healthcare Reform Warms Up

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 1:22 PM EDT

Igor Volsky reports that public opinion toward healthcare reform is starting to thaw a bit:

Just days after Republicans released their third "bill" to repeal the health care law, a new 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll finds that "given the option to name the sections of the healthcare law they would most like to see the GOP repeal, 42 percent [of Americans] said they would leave the bill alone and repeal no parts." 

....Polling for the new health care law doesn’t show the kind of "bump" Democrats had expected, but the numbers are slowly improving. For instance, according to a May 2010 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 55% of Americans said health reform should have a chance to work, versus 42% who said repeal and start over.

Stay tuned. I expect these numbers to get slowly better over time. They might or might not shift enough to make a difference in November's election, but they're going to shift.

Memo to Alameda's NIMBYs

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

Many folks in Alameda aren't pleased with "Tall is Beautiful," a story of mine in the May/June issue that chides the liberal Bay Area suburb for rejecting dense, eco-friendly housing. After all, the project was opposed by the mayor, much of the city council, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a bevvy of respectable citizens groups. Now that the story is online, I'm anticipating a barrage of angry comments from Alamedans who think I ignored the downsides of the billion-dollar project to prove my broader point about the advantages of urban density. In reality, debunking every critique of Alameda Point would have made my article as exciting as a court brief. But here on the web, there's plenty of space to bore you with all the details. Forthwith, a granular takedown of the case against Alameda Point.

How Does It End?

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 12:47 PM EDT

Jeffrey Goldberg on the Israeli flotilla raid:

What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before. The Jewish people have survived this long in part because of the vision of their leaders, men and women who were able to intuit what was possible and what was impossible. Where is this vision today?

This is a subject I don't write about often, but I pretty much feel the same way. I guess the difference between Goldberg and me is that I've felt this way for quite some time. Several years, at the least; maybe a decade, ever since the Camp David accords broke down; and maybe ever since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. It's a little hard to say at this point.

It's also a little hard to write about since I don't have anything original to say. A million people have already said it. Fanatics on both sides have been in control of the region for years — the hardline Orthodox population relentlessly gaining influence in Israel and Hamas terrorists among the Palestinians — both convinced that they can win if they can only provoke enough insane overreactions from the other side. Which they do with depressing regularity. Hamas's rocket attacks are indefensible, the Gaza embargo in return is indefensible, the blockade runners in their turn were plainly hoping to provoke an overreaction that would force Israel's hand, and the Israelis then went insanely beyond anyone's expectations by landing commandos on one of the ships and killing nine people while it was still far off in international waters. And now, there are rumors that the Turkish navy might escort the next ship that tries to run the blockade.

In David Petraeus's famous phrase, How does this end? Unless something dramatic happens, it ends with Israel as a nuclear-armed pariah state. Where else can it go? Hamas and Hezbollah are never going to stop attacking, Israel's responses will continue to get deadlier and more hysterical, the West Bank will never be freed because no Israeli government can any longer cobble together the public support it would require to take on the most extremist elements among the settlers, and like it or not, Israel eventually becomes a permanently armed camp and an apartheid state. Israelis may have hated it when that's what Jimmy Carter called it, but even if it's arguably not quite accurate today there's very little question that it will be before long.

Unless something changes. But what? I guess it's possible that a crisis like this can prompt both sides to get serious in a way they haven't been for a long time, but there have been crises like this before and they haven't prompted anything of the sort.

So help me out here. Is there any glimmer of hope on the horizon at all? Or is despair the only rational response to all this?

The Anti-Immigration Movement Goes Green

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 12:28 PM EDT

Emboldened by the broad public support for Arizona's harsh immigration law, anti-immigrant advocates are trying to drum up support from an unexpected source: socially conscious young liberals more concerned with fighting global warming than sealing off the southern border. According to the American Prospect, a new group called Progressives for Immigration Reform (PFIR) is trying to convince liberal environmentalists that reducing America’s carbon footprint means restricting immigration as well.

“PFIR, which launched in 2009, bills itself as an environmentalist group and argues that immigration ‘will only lead to more sprawl, more congestion, more pollution, and more degradation,’” the Prospect reports. On its website, the group has a video enlists a scruffy, hipster type to raise the alarm:

The argument isn’t new: John Tanton, the godfather of the anti-immigration movement, kicked off his efforts in the 1970s by presenting himself as an environmental conservationist who was “concerned about what an unstemmed tide of refugees will do to the nation's resources,” according to one press account quoted by the story. Tanton helped launch a network of anti-immigration organizations that are now the core of the movement, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

But the environmental argument for immigration controls failed to gain much traction the first time: the links between overpopulation and immigration were tenuous, and anti-immigrant activsts found they got farther by presenting immigration as “an affront on American culture [that] contributes to rising crime rates, and steals jobs from American workers,” the Prospect writes.

PFIR is part of the same Tanton network—the head of the group is a former lawyer for FAIR, though PFIR tries to downplay such ties. And PFIR activists are facing the same hard sell this time around, as environmentalists have accused them of finding a convenient scapegoat for environmental hazards when immigrants actually tend to consume and drive less than the average American citizen.