Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
After the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded in June 2010, killing 11 workers and sending roughly five million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, much of the media coverage featured sludge-covered seabirds, empty shrimp baskets, and other environmental impacts. But for Doug Brown, the catastrophe was even more immediate. He was the rig's chief engineer, standing in the control room when a deafening blast sent him flying and turned his workplace into a fiery, oil-soaked hell.
Brown, the rig's chief engineer, breaks into tears as he recalls the "incoherent screamings of pain...I saw men completely lose control."
In The Great Invisible, a documentary about the blowout and its aftermath that premieres today in Los Angeles and New York, Brown breaks into tears as he recalls the "incoherent screamings of pain" of his coworkers: "I saw men completely lose control."
This virtually untold side of the Deepwater Horizon story emergesfrom a melange of archival footage (including home videos shot onboard the rig) and original interviews with rig workers and family members of men who died in the disaster. They speak of pride at working on one of the world's most advanced drilling rigs, terror at the explosion, and the post-traumatic stress and guilt that still haunt them.
Above all, they tell of their betrayal by Transocean, the rig's owner, and BP, its operator—companies to which they gave their best years, and which they now blame for systematically walking back basic precautions in the months preceding the explosion. The film is equally critical of the federal government, which has resumed selling offshore drilling leases while offering no new rig-safety regulations.
The Great Invisible also paints a vivid portrait of life in the bayou fishing communities where filmmaker Margaret Brown (no relation to Doug) grew up—communities still reeling four years after the spill. I spoke with Brown about producing a film that is as much an exploration of America's love-hate relationship with the oil industry as it is a critique of a few miscreant companies—and about how she encouraged her emotionally scarred central characters to speak out for the first time.
Climate Desk: You grew up in southern Alabama. How did your own background affect your filmmaking approach?
Margaret Brown: That's pretty much why I made the film. My dad was sending me pictures of his house with the orange oil booms they put out during the spill. It was weird to see your home surrounded by the booms. It was really emotional. And then I started talking to people in the area, and everyone was super depressed. It's not like a hurricane where people know how to respond. In a hurricane, there's a drill if you grow up down there. With this, nobody knew what to do. There was a lot of uncertainty and depression. And that was what I responded to.
Filmmaker Margaret Brown
When we first went down there, there were so many cameras on the beach for like two or three months. And then it went away. I was curious about what would happen when all the other cameras left—when that image went off the news of the plume of oil leaking. The minute that was gone, all the reporters were gone. I stayed four years. I was curious what it would be like to make a film about something everyone knows about. How do you make that novel and fresh?
The film changed. It started with me wanting me to make something about where I grew up, and turned into something about the larger question of how Americans relate to petroleum. I wanted to see if I could make something personal, but also where people can watch it and understand a little more about what happens when we fill up our car. Hopefully people would have the same kind of thought process that I did, learning about how deeply entrenched the government is, how it makes so much money off offshore leases—which is probably a big answer to why things aren't changing.
CD: Which of your initial assumptions were challenged or changed as you made the film?
MB: I think just the scope of what we talk about when we talk about oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. And after watching all the grandstanding in Congress, I really did think something might change in terms of safety regulations. Maybe that's naïve. But this is the first major oil spill where something hasn't changed. It made me a little more cynical.
But I think it's a timely moment. People are realizing [climate change] is real in a way they didn't 10 years ago. I think the film is part of the conversation, but it's not the answer. I think people see it in a really simple way, like it's either "Boycott BP!" or "Drill baby drill!" There's no real understanding of the huge expanse in between, and that's frustrating to me. We are all connected to what BP is giving us.
The spill happened, and then nothing happened. I hope the film can address why nothing happened, and I think a lot of that is Congress. But also that, the minute it got off the news, people stopped thinking about. It seemed like, "Okay, they capped it. It's gone." But actually, there are no new safety regulations. It's not gone.
Doug Brown was chief engineer on the Deepwater Horizon when the rig exploded in 2010. Courtesy Margaret Brown
CD: How did you get the workers and their families to open up?
MB: That was the hardest part, actually, those interviews. [Rig hand] Stephen Stone and Doug Brown were absolutely the hardest people to get to agree to be in the film. I think that was mainly because of the PTSD they'd suffered from the accident, and they and their wives weren't sure if being in the film would be better or worse for them. I think they're still not sure. We still talk about it. But I think mainly the consensus has been that it's been cathartic and positive to share their story. Those stories of how their lives have changed, and how they haven't gotten paid, and what happens when you witness this—the guilt and the troubling feelings, the suicidal feelings. It's some of the scariest stuff there is. They were super brave to be in the movie, because in that industry I think people sort of follow the leader, and those guys decided to speak out and be whistle blowers.
"It was really hard to get them to open up...I think they thought at first that I was a spy from Transocean."
Doug had tried to kill himself, and it was really hard to get them to open up. I spent hours with his, Meccah, on the phone talking, and crying sometimes, because I think they thought at first that I was a spy from Transocean. They had such a level of mistrust and being messed around with by those companies that they didn't believe that I was an independent filmmaker. So I went from being a spy to someone you would talk to. They felt that Doug had been so loyal to that company, and was so proud of his job. To go from that to feeling like—I mean, Doug struggles with a lot of guilt for something that he had little to no control over. And it's interesting to me who feels guilt in this film—and who should feel guilty.
The workers are proud of what they're doing. There's a sense of bringing oil to the American people and providing energy. If you just look at it from the left, and how bad BP is, you're going to miss a lot of what's really going on.
A shell stained by oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.
We all saw the images of oil-coated birds and shorelines in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. These were the most visible impacts of the catastrophe, but much of the oil that gushed from the busted Macondo wellhead 5,000 feet underwater never made it to the surface. Of the estimated 5 million barrels that spilled, approximately 2 million stayed trapped in the deep ocean. And up to 31 percent of that oil is now lying on the ocean floor, according to a new study.
Based on an analysis of sea-floor sediment samples collected from the the Gulf of Mexico, geochemists at the University of California-Santa Barbara were able to offer the first clues about the final resting place of hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil. Their results were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The data, which was gathered as part of the ongoing federal damage assessment, shows "a smokingly clear signal, like a bulls-eye" around the Macondo well, said lead author David Valentine.
When oil first began to shoot out of the broken well, some 2 million barrels' worth broke up into microscopic droplets before reaching the surface and became suspended in the deep ocean, Valentine said. His goal was to discover the fate of that oil, beyond the reach of any cleanup efforts, four years after the spill. The researchers combed through the sediment samples for traces of hopane, a chemical compound found in crude oil that doesn't break down over time. Hopane was also used as a indicator of oil distribution following the Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989.
To test whether traces of hopane originated from the Macondo blowout—rather than from a natural seep or some other well—Valentine scrutinized both where they appeared in individual sediment cores and how concentrations changed at varying distances from the well. Both indicators strongly implicate the Macondo well, the study found. Close to the well, hopane concentrations were very high in the top half-inch of sediment, a sign that the chemical had been deposited recently and in great volumes. Even more telling was the spacial distribution: Within 25 miles of the well, hopane concentrations were 10 times higher than outside that boundary, Valentine said. A further clue was the distinctive splatter pattern in which hopane concentrations were found, which matched the pattern that would be expected from oil leaking from a well.
Add it all up, the study finds, and between 4 and 31 percent of the oil that originally was suspended in the deep ocean (roughly 80,000 to 620,000 barrels) has now come to rest on the ocean floor. The remainder, Valentine said, is still unaccounted for: It could still be suspended in the water column; it could have risen to the surface; it could have been eaten by bacteria, etc.
But the prospect of a deadly disease outbreak in the Big Apple is still pretty scary, and the city hasn't always dodged the pathogen bullet. Here are a few epidemics in New York that were far worse than Ebola is likely to be.
Yellow fever (1795-1803):
The wharf in Philadelphia where yellow fever cases were first identified. Wikimedia Commons
The city's first health department was created in 1793 to block boats from Philadelphia, which at the time was in the grips of a yellow fever epidemic that left 5,000 dead. The tactic didn't work: By 1795 cases began to appear in Manhattan, and by 1798 the disease had reached epidemic proportions there, with 800 deaths that year. Several thousand more died over the next few years. (The disease causes victims' to vomit black bile and their skin to turn yellowish, and the fatality rate without treatment is as high as 50 percent.) This was no small blow for a city that at the time had only about 60,000 residents. As is the case today with Ebola in West Africa, misinformation was a big part of the problem: Doctors at the time had only just begun to speculate that the virus was carried by mosquitoes (other theorized sources included unsanitary conditions in slums and rotting coffee). Little effort was made to publicize the epidemic for fear of a mass exodus from the city, according to Baruch College. Today yellow fever is extremely rare in the United States but still kills 30,000 people every year, 90 percent of whom are in Africa.
An 1865 poster from the New York City Sanitary Commission offers advice on how to avoid contracting cholera. Wikimedia Commons
By the 1830s New York was a booming metropolis of 200,000, with swarms of newcomers arriving daily on boats from Europe. When word of a raging cholera epidemic in Europe reached the city's Board of Health, it instituted quarantines on incoming ships and tried to clean up the filthy streets. But again the board was reluctant to make public announcements, this time to avoid disrupting trade, according to city records. One resident claimed the board was "more afraid of merchants than of lying." By June 1832, the disease, which causes severe diarrhea and can kill within hours if untreated, arrived in New York via boats traveling down the Hudson River from Quebec. Within two months, 3,500 people were dead—mostly poor Irish immigrants and blacks living in the city's slums. Outbreaks occurred again in 1849, with some 5,000 deaths, and in 1866, with 1,100 deaths.
A physical therapist works with two children with polio in 1963. Charles Farmer/CDC
In 1918, soldiers with influenza are treated at an Army hospital in Kansas. Wikimedia Commons
In August 1918, a Norwegian ship called the Bergensfjord pulled into New York Harbor carrying 21 people infected with a new and virulent strain of the flu. Over the next several weeks, dozens more arrived, mostly on ships from Europe, and sick passengers were quarantined in a hospital just blocks from the modern-day Bellevue, where Spencer is currently being treated. Those unfortunate sailors were just the first in what would become the deadliest disease outbreak in the city's history to that date. Over 30,000 deaths were recorded by November—the actual number was likely much higher—including 12,300 during the first week of November alone. One health worker visited a family in lower Manhattan and found an infant dead in its crib and all seven other family members severely ill.
Other nearby cities fared even worse: The death rate in New York was 4.7 per 1,000 cases, compared to 6.5 in Boston and 7.3 in Philadelphia, according to the National Institutes of Health. That may not sound like a lot, given that the Ebola death rate is closer to 50 percent, but because influenza is so easily spread it can infect a much greater number of people. Globally, the 1918 flu killed between 50100 million people, the worst public health crisis in modern times. Today, the flu is still considered the greatest infectious disease risk for Americans, killing between 3,000 and 50,000 every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, it's possible that more people could die from the flu this year in America than have died worldwide from Ebola during this outbreak. And yet only 1 in 3 Americans get a flu shot. Get a flu shot, people!
An AIDS poster from New York City in the 1980s US National Library of Medicine
The scourge of HIV/AIDS is the most familiar epidemic for modern New Yorkers, beginning with the June 1981 discovery of 41 cases of a rare cancer among gay men across the country. Throughout the 1980s, campaigns by the city encouraged New Yorkers to use protection during sex and not to share needles or use intravenous drugs. By 1987, according to city records, $400 million had been spent on AIDS services. But activists for AIDS rights groups like ACT UP accused city officials, led by Mayor Ed Koch, of dragging their feet and ignoring the true scale of the crisis. It took until the mid-'90s for anti-retroviral drugs to become widely available. Today, for people who have access to adequate health care, HIV is often manageable. But to date, more than 100,000 New Yorkers have been killed by AIDS-related maladies, according to state health statistics. Despite recent advances in medical treatment, infection rates are still high in New York, disproportionately affecting racial minorities and gay men.
That could become an increasingly common story, according to the largest-ever survey of how insurance companies are dealing with climate change, released today. Global warming is increasing the risk of damage to lives and property from natural disasters beyond what many insurers are willing to shoulder. And most insurance companies aren't taking adequate steps to change that trend, the survey found. That's a problem even if you don't live by the coast: When private insurers back out, the government is left to pick up much of the damage costs; already, the federal flood insurance program is one of the nation's largest fiscal liabilities.
Ceres, an environmental nonprofit, evaluated the climate risk management policies of 330 large insurance companies operating in the United States. The results are worrying. Only nine companies, 3 percent of the total, earned the highest ranking.
"As a regulator, it's very bad to see markets being abandoned because of the threat that exists."
The insurers that scored highly on the survey (including several of the world's biggest, such as Munich Re, Swiss Re, and Prudential) were those that have adopted a broad range of climate-conscious products and services, such as rate pricing plans that account for potential climate impacts like storms and fires. Some insurers are also investing in high-end climate modeling software to better understand where their risks really are. Others offer environmentally friendly plans like mileage-based car insurance and encourage their customers to rebuild damaged homes using green technologies. And some insurance companies are making significant efforts to monitor and reduce their own carbon footprint.
However, the report finds that one major way insurance companies are adjusting to climate change is by not insuring properties that are threatened by it, said Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, a lead author of the report.
"As a regulator, it's very bad to see markets being abandoned because of the threat that exists," he said.
Certainly the threat is real. Globally, average annual weather-related losses have increased more than tenfold in the last several decades, from $10 billion per year in the period 1974-1983 to $131 billion in 2004-2013, according to the report. The insurance industry is not keeping pace: The proportion of those damages that are insured is steadily declining:
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has led an unprecedented investigation into the scientific operations of the National Science Foundation.
When scientists across the country need money for research projects, one place they often turn is the National Science Foundation. The NSF is an independent federal agency with an annual budget of about $7 billion, which it doles out to fund about a quarter of all federally supported science research.
Of course, the agency doesn't just give money away to anyone who asks. Proposals have to survive a rigorous review process that includes close scrutiny by a panel of top scientists in the relevant field. Competition is fierce: Of the 49,000 proposals submitted in 2013, only a fifth were ultimately funded. So as far as most scientists are concerned, an NSF grant is about the highest mark of scientific legitimacy a research project can get.
Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) apparently disagrees. Over the last 18 months, Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has launched an aggressive campaign against what he sees as misguided money management at NSF that fritters funds away on frivolous research. Research on ridiculous things like, you know, climate change.
Smith's committee is responsible for setting the NSF's budget. But in the last year, the Congressman has gone to unprecedented lengths to scrutinize the agency's scientific operations. His staffers are sifting through the archives of NSF grant proposal materials, which are normally kept strictly confidential to preserve scientific objectivity. They're looking for projects to highlight as evidence that NSF is wasting money on research that, from their view, aren't in the "national interest."
Four times this past summer, in a spare room on the top floor of the headquarters of the National Science Foundation (NSF) outside of Washington, D.C., two congressional staffers spent hours poring over material relating to 20 research projects that NSF has funded over the past decade…
The peculiar exercise is part of a long-running and bitter battle that is pitting Smith and many of his panel's Republican members against [Rep. Eddie Bernice] Johnson [the committee's ranking Democrat] and the panel's Democrats, NSF's leadership, and the academic research community…
Smith, however, argues he is simply taking seriously Congress's oversight responsibility. And he promises to stay the course: "Our efforts will continue until NSF agrees to only award grants that are in the national interest," he wrote in a 2 October e-mail to ScienceInsider.
The tally of projects under scrutiny by Smith's team has now grown to 47 (a listing of them is linked to in the Science story above). On one hand, that's a lot. The confidentiality of the NSF review process is a long-established, sacred scientific practice that protects research from bias and makes sure only the cream rises to the top. So any cracks in that firewall, and certainly any whiff of political interference, are of great concern to the scientific community.
On the other hand, the 47 grants represent only a tiny fraction of the NSF's total operation; together, they amount to about $26 million, or 0.37 percent of NSF's budget. Which raises the questions of why Smith would (a) throw himself into an investigation of spending that, all things considered, is barely a drop in the federal bucket and (b) pick these specific projects to focus on. A spokesperson from Smith's committee—who provided a statement on behalf of Smith's office (the same statement quoted by Science above)—did not respond to these questions.
Many of the studies at issue involve social sciences (a study of caste systems in Ethiopia, for example, and one about rural sanitation in India) that fall outside the core areas of engineering, mathematics, computer science, and biology that Smith, in a press release this spring, singled out as "the primary drivers of our economic future."
But some of the biggest-ticket items up for public dissection focus on climate change. They include a $3 million grant awarded in 2008 to study how federal agencies can better communicate climate science to the public and a $5.6 million award to a Columbia University team to carry out public education work on the impacts of climate change at the poles. You know, totally frivolous questions that have nothing to do with the "national interest" on things like rising sea levels, epic releases of methane, US military engagement in the Arctic, new areas for offshore oil drilling, and 35,000 stranded walruses. Definitely not stuff you need to worry about, or have our top scientists investigate and explain.
"NSF's investment in meritorious research projects enables new and transformative discoveries within and among those fields and disciplines, resulting in the expansion of our scientific knowledge and understanding," she wrote to him on May 19.
In other words, basic science shouldn't be judged by how closely it hews to a predetermined, profitable advance. The Large Hadron Collider probably isn't ever going to do much for the US economy, but that doesn't mean it's not in the "national interest" for us to understand the basic physics of the universe. Sometimes, even research on the mechanics of corkscrew-shaped duck penises can be a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars.