2010 - %3, June

Feds' Criminal Probe of BP, and More Oil Spill News

| Wed Jun. 2, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

We've been keeping close tabs on the environmental horror show unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. MoJo human rights reporter Mac McClelland and environment reporter Julia Whitty are on the scene at the oil spill, tweeting and blogging as run BP's corporate blockade, while Kate Sheppard reports on the politics of the spill. The big news yesterday was the Department of Justice's announcement that it's launching a criminal probe into the oil rig explosion, and that and that the federal government is weighing both criminal and civil penalties for the disaster. Read more here.

Sample tweets from our reporters in the Gulf:

@MacMcClelland: Even on the beach we're allowed on, there are tar piles big as a 5-yr-old. And this beach was already cleaned today. #BP

@JuliaWhitty: Remember the book On the Beach? Nuclear fallout wafting towards the last survivors? That's what today on the Mississippi coast felt like.

More coverage:

  • BP Hires Cheney's Press Flack: Anne Womack Kolton will serve as the new "head of U.S. media relations" as the company deals with the PR disaster of the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf. Kolton was Cheney's press secretary during the 2004 campaign, and then moved to a job in public affairs at the Department of Energy.
  • As Hurricane Season Kicks Off, Gulf Oil Worries Grow: Tuesday was the first day of what's expected to be a bad hurricane season. Especially worrisome, since 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.
  • How BP, MMS Ignored Spill Warning Signs: New documents 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.
  • Hollywood to the Rescue: Believe it or not, Kevin Costner and James Cameron have some interesting ideas. But, um, why didn't BP think of them first?

For more up-to-the-minute updates on the spill, check out our BP coverage and the Blue Marble blog. You can also follow Mac McClelland, Julia Whitty, Kate Sheppard, and the Blue Marble on Twitter.  

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BP's 10 Biggest Screw-Ups

| Wed Jun. 2, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

The BP oil disaster is now at day 43, and it's still not known how much longer this gusher will continue hemorrhaging oil into the Gulf of Mexico. But one fact has become clear beyond a doubt, and that's BP's incompetence and irresponsibility—both before and after the spill. Because it's getting hard to keep track of the company's screw-ups, here's a list of the top ten:

1. From the top hat to the top kill: In the past six weeks, it's become obvious that BP has no idea how to fix a hole a mile below the sea. First there was the failure of the containment dome (a contraption that had to be constructed after the blast, since BP didn't think to have one ready ahead of time). We waited for the second, smaller dome (the top-hat), which BP decided wouldn't work either. Next came "junk shots," in which BP unsuccessfully attempted to plug the hole with golf balls, chunks of rubber and other detritus. Then BP promised the so-called "top-kill" would be the best fix. That failed last weekend, and now BP is moving on to its next trick, another containment dome option that looks much like the others, except this method could actually increase the amount of oil leaking into the Gulf by 20 percent. And if that doesn't work, the spill will likely continue at least through August, until a relief well can be completed.

2. Tony Hayward, PR genius: BP's tousle-haired CEO has a remarkable penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. First, he attempted to argue that the spill was "tiny" compared to the "very big ocean." Last week, he said he wants the spill to end because, "I would like my life back." (Probably not as much as the 11 workers who died in the blast.) How long until this guy gets canned?

3. Dirty dispersants: In a desperate attempt to contain the growing disaster it has created in the Gulf, BP has been spreading chemical dispersants on the sea and at the spill site a mile below the surface. But BP's dispersant of choice, Corexit, has raised concerns at the Environmental Protection Agency about its potential harmful effects on marine life—and it's now being dumped in the Gulf in record volumes. The EPA ordered BP to find a safer option. But BP is sticking with Corexit, despite the fact that the EPA has a long list of approved, less harmful alternatives. 

4. Oil? What oil?  The dispersants that BP has pumped into the Gulf prevent the oil from hitting land, where it can cover coastal critters and sensitive wetlands—not to mention cause a massive PR crisis for the oil firm. But by driving the oil under water, the dispersants are creating a different kind of environmental disaster in the sea. Independent scientists have discovered massive plumes of dispersed oil forming under the water, extending up to 22 miles long. Nevertheless, Hayward is doing his best to convince us that if we can't see the plumes on the ocean's surface, they can't possibly be real.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 2, 2010

Wed Jun. 2, 2010 2:00 AM PDT

 

A CH-47 Chinook helicopter flown by aviators from Task Force Falcon carry a sling-loaded I-beam from the World Trade Center and display an American flag above Parwan province, Afghanistan, on March 31. The beam, which is nine-feet long and two-feet wide and weighs more than 950 pounds, was donated to the U.S. military by the residents of Breezy Point, N.Y., through an organization called Sons and Daughters of America, Breezy Point. Photo via the US Army by Sgt. Spencer Case.

"Ignore Her": The BP Press Lockdown Continues

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 11:01 PM PDT

If you happen to be wondering whether it's easier to get access to an oil-befouled public beach or wildlife refuge near Grand Isle, Louisiana, if you're teamed up with a fancypants PBS producer, I scouted out the answer today: No. 

You already know the story of how BP is trying to stymie press efforts to report on the oil spill, and all the combined credentials and charms of my colleague and I couldn't overcome the blockade. BP's reason for not letting us through last time? Safety. The reason for not letting us through today? The one road in to Elmer's Island Wildlife Refugewhich, after a lot of drama, I took just last week—needs to be re-graveled or something before we can drive on it. Which might take a couple of days.

I asked today's BP liaison/public-beach gatekeeper, Jason, who really seemed like a doll, if we could talk to the cleanup workers in the meantime. We can't, he said with an apologetic face—but not because BP forbids them from talking to the press. It's the subcontractors who've threatened to fire the workers for any media interaction.

Twenty minutes later, when I ran into some workers packing up on the Grand Isle beach, I asked them only if they were done working for the day, and they refused to tell me. One woman said, "I can't talk to you," and then another worker ran up to her and grabbed her arm and said, "Just ignore her, ignore her," and the whole interaction was unsettlingly rude and sort of sad.

The workers who were staying next to me in my Grand Isle motel last week told me that when BP (not, in this case, and for the record, a subcontractor) had instructed them that they couldn't talk to the press, it had involved a warning that media organizations would go so far as to dub audio propaganda over their videotaped commentary, putting unflattering words in their mouths. 

But my awesome sleuthing powers led me to conclude that they were in fact wrapping up for the evening. Grand Isle beach, which is now open to the public and in way better shape than Elmer's, was completely deserted but for the cops patrolling it on ATVs—and the giant blobs of oil that'd washed up all over the place in the short time since the workers had cleaned the sand. Oh, the impossibility, and interminability. That's why residents are painting murals like this:



And putting up depressing art installments like this:



And having to announce things like this:



The cleanup effort continues. So many workers are being put up on Grand Isle that there was no room at any inn. Lucky for me and the PBS producer from Need to Know (a Climate Desk partner), some incredibly generous Grand Isle residents had let me know via Twitter that if I ever needed a place to stay or a drink, I was welcome to show up at their beach house. Which I did. However compromised our reporting endeavors today, attempts to land Amy and Rahlyn's gorgeous guest bedrooms and be plied with Crown Royal and sweet-tea vodka were a stunning success. The four of us took in the breeze on the back deck, talked in the darkness about the uniqueness of the town. And after the discussion about how these hospitality opportunities and lifestyles might go down with the environment around us reached an awkward and earnest weight, we got refills.

Read Julia Whitty's account of how the spill is affecting the fishing industry. And if you appreciate our BP coverage, consider making a tax-free donation.

No More Fish, No Fishermen

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 10:52 PM PDT

Barataria Bay, Louisiana. Captain Dave Marino took me out today to have a look at the oil spill zone in the Mississippi River Delta.

We passed a lot of boats full of men wearing life jackets. Everyone wearing a life jacket is working for BP, said Dave. Because no one around here ever wears one normally.

We saw lots of fishing boats—everything from shrimp trawlers on down in size—all deployed in the "lakes," as they call the open bays of water here. They were working the spill. But they weren't working. Just waiting, many tied companionably alongside each other.

The men were seriously unhappy they can't fish right now. It's the best year for brown shrimp ever, they said. They wondered when they'd get to fish again. Some guessed it could be 20 or 30 years. If that's true, they all know that means they won't ever fish again. Not here.

The oil has invaded the waters and the marshy islands. It's killing the grasses and sedges one row at a time. You can see the difference between dead (gray), dying (brown), and living (green) marsh in this photo. As the dying vegetation becomes the dead it gets ripped away by the waves and the islands start to crumble and disappear.

The marshy islands are home to nesting birds and mammals like muskrats. They're also spawning and nursery grounds for fish and shrimp.

The satellite image courtesy of NASA shows the way the spill came into the region of the Mississippi River Delta on May 24th.

Captain Dave surveyed the dying marshes, the disappearing islands, and asked over and over how they're going to save any of this. He said he didn't know if he'd fish right now even if they lifted the ban. It just wouldn't feel right. The fish need to recover. I can't believe I'm saying that, he said. I'm a fisherman.

You get the feeling that all the fishermen here are starting to think of themselves as fishermen in the past tense.

The title of the blog post, "No More Fish, No Fishermen," is taken from a song of the same name, written by Canadian Shelley Posen about the death of the cod fishery in Newfoundland.

Read about Mac's latest attempts to try and run the BP press blockade here. And if you appreciate our BP coverage, consider making a tax-free donation.

"God Help Us All!": Photos From the Gulf Coast

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 10:03 PM PDT

MoJo reporter MacMcClelland is back on the Gulf Coast reporting on the oil disaster. She's tweeting and sending back photos from the road. Here are some visual highlights, read her full post here.

Another seafood shack shut down from the spill.

On the way back to Grand Isle, Louisiana. Residents painted this mural for Obama's visit.

This roadside sculpture pretty well encapsulates local feelings.

Grand Isle graveyard: "In memory of all that is lost, courtesy of BP and our federal government."

If you appreciate our BP coverage, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.

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Hollywood to the Rescue?

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 3:48 PM PDT

As hopes of a Hollywood ending to the BP oil disaster have all but faded, AP reports that Avatar director James Cameron has met with federal officials to offer his help in terminating the leak. No, he's not proposing a junk shot of useless Avatar merchandise. Rather, according to the UK Telegraph, Cameron has already offered BP use of some of his private submersibles, big toys inspired by his big-budget bathtub epics The Abyss and Titantic. Meanwhile, Waterworld survivor Kevin Costner has gotten a surge of positive buzz for his Ocean Therapy device, a centrifuge that cleanses oil-contaminated water; BP is reportedly testing the invention. Who's next, Sting?

Certainly, BP could use all the help it can get. Beyond the failed top kill and flimsy containment barriers, there have to be more ideas out there for a last-ditch effforts to stop, contain, or clean up the spill. BP says it's already received more than 7,800 ideas via its suggestions hotline and a special page on its disaster response website. InnoCentive, a crowdsourcing project linked with NASA and the Rockefeller Foundation, has issued a challenge to innovators to come up with bright ideas ASAP. Even if the vast majority are worthless or wacky (like the notion of nuking the leak into oblivion), there ought to be a couple solid ideas in there. Let's see what happens—and then figure out why these plans weren't on oil-industry and regulators' drawing boards years ago. 

If you appreciate our BP coverage, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.

Feds Launch Criminal Probe Into BP Spill

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 2:50 PM PDT

Also: James Ridgeway writes about the oil industry's slimy history—and why no oil exec has ever gone to jail for environmental devastation.

The Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it is conducting a criminal probe into the explosion, and that the federal government is weighing both criminal and civil penalties for the disaster. The administration, Holder said, wants to "make sure the American people don't foot the bill for this" and will be "meticulous, comprehensive and aggressive" in doing so.

"We have begun both a criminal as well as a civil investigation as is our obligation under the law," Holder told reporters following a meeting with state and federal prosecutors in New Orleans. "Our environmental laws are very clear."

He also said that the government will be "forceful" in its response if "evidence of illegal behavior is found. He added, however, that they believe there is "sufficient basis" to begin a criminal probe. In the past days, more evidence has come to light that BP ignored warning signs at the well and cut corners.

There are a variety of laws at their disposal in coming after BP: The Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act, and the Endangered Species Act. As I reported earlier, the company could already face up to $4.6 billion in civil penalties for Clean Water Act violations alone. Senators have also asked the DOJ to look into whether the company made false claims about its ability to respond to a disaster.

Last week, Ronald Weich, an assistant attorney general, informed senators that the DOJ has issued formal demands to BP, Transocean and other companies to "ensure the preservation of potentially relevant information." The demands also outlined the "legal requirements for preserving evidence in anticipation of litigation," Weich wrote.

Does Flying Kill Your Green Karma?

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 2:50 PM PDT

So, you recycle. You drive a Prius. You commute by train. You buy CFLs. You line-dry your clothes and bring cloth bags to the grocery store.

And you also fly, so all those other efforts go down the tubes.

It's hard to reconcile an ecoconscious lifestyle with air travel: How can we give up flying, which those who can afford it have come to consider almost a birthright, a familial duty, the key to our freedom and even to our identity? That's what Christie Aschwanden was struggling with when she resolved—by choice, not lack of means—to spend a year within 100 miles of her home. (The year is up, and she's still within that radius.) Her story "Jet Blues" is inspiring yet also disturbing; given our selfish natures, you wonder, will we ever be able to turn the climate around? After all, if people who fancy themselves environmentalists can't make the necessary sacrifices, what hope is there for those who don't?

The piece is thought-provoking, and its commenters have raised some questions worth addressing. What about trains and buses? And what about diet? Christie's story ran with this chart, which illustrates how the carbon cost of a family's cross-country flight can wipe out steps they've taken to reduce their footprint. This, of course, was a sampling used to make a point. There are indeed other ways a family could go further to counterbalance its travel. Here's a few more:

Lower thermostat 8 degrees on winter nights: 802 lbs carbon
Replace standard forced-air gas furnace with high-efficiency model: 1,325 lbs
Switch all your windows from single pane to double pane: 2,952 lbs
Line-dry all your laundry: 1,523 lbs
Wash clothes in cold water instead of hot: 793 lbs

These annual numbers, from various sources, depend upon assumptions such as size of house (living in a smaller house is another way to save) and frequency of doing laundry. They don't account for the carbon cost of, say, manufacturing the new windows/furnace.

BP Hires Cheney's Press Flack

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 12:59 PM PDT

BP has hired Dick Cheney's former press flack, Anne Womack Kolton, to serve as the new "head of U.S. media relations" as the company deals with the PR disaster of the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf. Kolton was Cheney's press secretary during the 2004 campaign, and then moved to a job in public affairs at the Department of Energy.

One of her tasks in her previous job was defending the administration's secret meetings with energy officials, even as courts were telling the White House to turn over documents about the task force: "We are ready to defend our principles in court. This goes to the heart of the presidency and to the ability of the president and vice president to receive candid, discreet advice."

Not a lot is known about the task force, since the administration succeeded in shielding it from the public. But it is known that BP officials were among the oil chiefs involved in the secret meetings.

BP had contracted with Womack-Kolton's current employer, Brunswick Group, for crisis management following the spill. Womack-Kolton joined the company in 2007 to "focus on high stakes communications surrounding public affairs issues and political risk management for domestic and global corporate clients."