2007 - %3, May

Deep Mud Seafloors Face Quiet Destruction

| Wed May 2, 2007 8:56 PM EDT

The first study ever done of the effects of bottom trawling on mud seafloors off the West Coast of North America suggests alarming environmental changes. The study by Mark Hixon of Oregon State University and Brian Tissot of Washington State University found that trawling not only reduces fish numbers, but also severely alters communities of organisms inhabiting these deep-sea habitats. Their research compared trawled to untrawled areas 600 to 1,200 feet deep off the southern Oregon coast, comprising thousands of square miles. They found nearly 20 percent fewer fish in the trawled areas, and 30 percent fewer fish species. Certain seafloor dwellers, including sea pens and crabs, were six times more abundant in areas that had not been trawled. Furthermore numerous scavenging species in trawled areas largely replaced the marine life common on undisturbed seafloors. This report is the first to examine the effects of a common fishing practice on a vast ocean floor ecosystem off Washington, Oregon, and California -- the mud flats that dominate more than 75 percent of the outer continental shelf.

Imagine bulldozing entire landscapes to collect a few rabbits and gophers. That's what bottom trawlers do in pursuit of sole, lingcod, rockfish and other common seafood staples, by dragging large nets along the seafloor and scooping up everything in their path. It's estimated that trawlers drag nets across every square inch of the bottom of the continental shelves every two years, trawling some regions many times a season.

Regulations, including gear modifications and closed areas, have actually steered trawl fisheries toward the mud seafloors, keeping them out of rock or coral areas, because trawls cause less environmental damage on mud. But the long-term implications of fishing with this technology over such a broad area are a concern, say Hixon and Tissot.

Wonder what's down there? Read about some Alvin dives in the current MoJo article Gone. And you may remember Mark Hixon's fascinating work on BOFFFs (big-old-fat-female-fish) reported in The Fate of The Ocean (Mar/Apr 2006).

Feel confident about what to eat from the sea? If not, check out this click. --JULIA WHITTY

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Hopeful George: Tortoise Might Not Be Lonesome Anymore

| Wed May 2, 2007 8:19 PM EDT

Please, John Tierney, say it isn't so. In your New York Times blog Lonesome George Isn't Looking So Lonesome you bring us the truly welcome news that Lonesome George, the Pinta Island tortoise from the Galapagos, may not be the last of his kind after all.

After analyzing the genes of 27 tortoises on another Galapagos island, Isabela, biologists discovered that one tortoise's father was a Pinta tortoise -- perhaps one who was removed from Pinta by some of the sailors who contributed to the decline of the species. Since there are between 2,000 and 7,000 tortoises on Isabela whose genes haven't yet been analyzed, it seems likely that one or more will turn out to be purebred Pinta tortoises, according to Michael Russello of the University of British Columbia.

But then you tell us you're worried about George's celebrity, his ability to raise money for efforts to slow down the sixth great extinction underway. Crikey, mate. I can't think of a better fundraiser. Let's rename him Hopeful George and watch the pesos roll in. --JULIA WHITTY

Scientists Protest Twisted Interpretation Of Endangered Species Act

| Wed May 2, 2007 7:39 PM EDT

More than three dozen scientists have signed a letter to protest a new Bush administration interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. The Associated Press reports their concerns that the twisted read jeopardizes animals such as wolves and grizzly bears. If Interior Department Solicitor David Bernhardt has his way, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to protect animals and plants only where they're actually battling for survival, not where they're in good shape. That means, for instance, that Bald Eagles would never have been protected decades ago since they were doing fine in Alaska, although practically extinct in the lower 48.

The proposed changes would "have real and profoundly detrimental impacts on the conservation of many species and the habitat upon which they depend," said the letter, signed by 38 prominent wildlife biologists and environmental ethics specialists. It was being sent this week to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and leaders of congressional committees that oversee the department. The scientists also fear the new policy would prevent new additions to the list, increasing the likelihood of extinctions.

Maybe someone should tell David Bernhardt how his miserly existence depends on a wealth of species on this Earth--and what'll happen to him and his kin when they're GONE. . . --JULIA WHITTY

The Real D.O.J. Scandal: Infringement of Voting Rights

| Wed May 2, 2007 7:29 PM EDT

An article on AlterNet today offers yet more proof that one of the major preoccupations of Bush's overzealous Department of Justice is voter fraud. Voter fraud is trying to vote when you're not eligible.

First, the background. The Bush D.O.J. has all but completely dropped the ball on voting rights cases, with only a single case alleging that black voters were disenfranchised. As Leigh blogged last week, Justice has also neglected civil rights cases in general. But the department did find the time—and I'm sure it took a while to find this case—to prosecute the first ever "reverse discrimination" case, alleging that Noxubee County, Mississippi, has systematically tried to disenfranchise white voters.

The AlterNet article traces a straight line from New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias's determination that voter fraud cases filed against ACORN weren't substantial enough to prosecute to his appearance on the D.O.J.'s "buh-bye" list. First, State Republican Chairman David Weh encouraged Iglesias over coffee to reconsider. Iglesias held firm. Then Weh went to a Rove staffer he knew and said, "Man, you guys need to get a new U.S. attorney. This guy is hopeless." The next time Weh saw Rove, he asked again about Iglesias. And Rove replied, "He's gone."

Indeed he was. Washington U.S.A. David McKay was also fired shortly after Republican officials complained that he was unwilling to prosecute voter fraud. Both Iglesias and McKay worked in potential swing states. Stricter voter requirements—purportedly to ward off voter fraud—result in lower turnout among minorities and the poor, who usually vote Democrat.

Despite repeated Republican assertions that voter fraud is a widespread problem, the D.O.J. has only convicted 86 people in 5 years. Most of them mistakenly filled out forms or misunderstood the eligibility requirements. These honest mistakes have resulted in serious punishments. Kimberly Prude, 43, has been jailed in Milwaukee for more than a year for voting while on probation. Usman Ali was deported to Pakistan from Florida, where he had lived legally for more than 10 years, for incorrectly filling out a voter-registration card while renewing his driver's license.

Efficiency Boost Should Make Solar Cheaper

| Wed May 2, 2007 7:20 PM EDT

Solar energy could become more affordable following a technological breakthrough. Scientists at Australia's University of New South Wales have boosted the efficiency of solar cell technology, potentially dropping the price of an installed solar system for an average house from around $16,500 to $12,000. (Tax breaks and other incentives would reduce it further.) Currently, up to 45 percent of the cost of solar cell technology is due to the high cost of the silicon used to convert sunlight to electricity.

Now, researchers at UNSW's ARC Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence, led by PhD student Supriya Pillai report a 16-fold enhancement in light absorption in 1.25-micron thin-film cells for light with a wavelength of 1050 nm. They also report a seven-fold enhancement in light absorption in the more expensive wafer type cells light wavelengths of 1200 nm. The breakthrough is reported in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Physics.

May it come to market faster than catastrophe.--JULIA WHITTY

All Quiet on the Digital Front

| Wed May 2, 2007 5:50 PM EDT

With the bounty of cell-phone-camera footage and blog accounts uploaded out of Iraq (see here and here), the accumulating online absurdities of war feel like a Vonnegut novel being written in real time.

Samantha Shapiro, in a profile of teen anti-war animator Ava Lowery in Mother Jones, describes the new phenomenon:

If the innovation of cable news shaped the representation of the first Gulf War, then this war is partly being defined by another new form of media, one practiced by amateur diarists and commentators. Soldiers blog and upload their footage to Google Video or YouTube more quickly than the government can pull it down.

No one understands this better than the Army, which felt the need to enact stricter rules, effective as of April 19, governing what soldiers can put up on the web.

Since 2005--when the Army first tried to reign in the explosion of unofficial "mili-blogs" citing their potential to reveal classified, and otherwise unflattering, information--active duty soldiers in Iraq have been required to register their blogs with a commanding officer. A special unit of the Virginia National Guard is tasked with monitoring "official and unofficial Army Web sites for operational security violations." Meanwhile, in March, the Army started its own YouTube channel so its version of the "boots on the ground perspective" could reach cyberspace.

The language of the most recent regulations require that soldiers' posts go through an operational security review prior to being published. The previous policy only required soldiers to consult with their commanding officer before launching a blog, not posting. Moreover, the new restriction extends the same level of scrutiny to soldiers who have returned home, whose web sites, blog postings, and message board discussions will now come under review, essentially putting the kabbash on the most honest accounts of a war where politicized proclamations of success and failure tend to wander from reality.

-Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

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It's Over: Obama Gets Oprah's Endorsement (Again)

| Wed May 2, 2007 4:20 PM EDT

Oprah Winfrey, appearing on the Larry King Live show, threw her support behind Barack Obama. Her explanation: "I know him personally; I think that what he stands for, what he has proven that he can stand for, was worth me going out on a limb for him. I haven't done it in the past; I haven't felt that I knew anybody well enough to be able to say I believe in this person."

She wishes no ill will on anyone, especially Hillary. "I have great respect for Hillary Clinton. I have said before that because I am for Barack, does not mean that I am against Hillary or anybody else. . . . I have not one negative thing to say about Hillary Clinton."

She's kind of done this before. In the past, though, Oprah avoided saying directly "I endorse Barack Obama." Instead she would say things like Obama is "her guy," or "her choice," or "her favorite senator." Now it's more official.

I'm not kidding around folks. If Obama uses Oprah to chip away at Clinton's base amongst women, it's over. Obama should just start campaign for re-election.

Presidents and Palm Trees: What to Take on a Desert Island

| Wed May 2, 2007 1:57 PM EDT

The AP recently asked the presidential candidates what item they would want with them if they were stranded on a desert island. The answers, and their subtexts:

Democrats:

- Sen. Joe Biden: "Jill, my wife." ("Someone has to be around to hear me talk.")

- Sen. Hillary Clinton: "A good book." ("I am unwilling to commit to any particular book. I will focus group Crime and Punishment versus Ulysses and get back to you.")

- Sen. Chris Dodd: "Coffee with cream and sugar." ("Why didn't I choose water? Because I really love coffee. And because I am too short-sighted to be president.")

John Edwards: "A book." ("I don't have time for this question.")

Rep. Dennis Kucinich: His wife, Elizabeth. ("Have you seen my wife? You'd take her too.")

Sen. Barack Obama: "Other than my wife and my kids, an inanimate object I would have to have would probably be a good book." ("Please note, Hillary didn't mention her family. I did.")

Gov. Bill Richardson: "Blackberry and a Davidoff cigar." ("I am an old-style political boss. I am the fattest of fat cats.")

Republicans:

Sen. Sam Brownback: "Tarp." ("I would surely be America's most practical president.") Ed. Note: Hahahahahaha. A tarp!

Rudy Giuliani: "Books and music." ("If terrorists attacked my desert island's palm tree, I would stand strong. 9/11. 9/11. 9/11 9/111/1/1/9/1/1//11.")

Mike Huckabee: "Laptop with satellite reception." ("I don't understand the spirit of the question.")

Rep. Duncan Hunter: "Mrs. Hunter." ("I have strong family values, as proven by the fact that I awkwardly refuse to use my wife's first name. I call her Mrs. Hunter at all times. However, in an ironic twist, I have left no one to care for our children.")

Sen. John McCain: "Books." ("I am a flip-flopper. In 2000, I chose sun-screen.")

Mitt Romney: "My wife, Ann." ("I'll need something to eat, after all.")

Rep. Tom Tancredo: "Boat." ("I will be president because all the other candidates will be stuck on that damn island.")

Spotted on Political Wire.

Road to Ruin?

| Wed May 2, 2007 1:10 PM EDT

In its latest issue, Business Week weighs in with a cover story on the push to privatize the nation's highways, bridges, and airports, among other public infrastructure. This growing trend, which Jim Ridgeway and I explored in MoJo's January/February issue, is now moving along at a feverish clip, propelled by investment banks and foreign companies who see in these low-risk assets the prospect of enormous and steady returns, not to mention, as Business Week puts it, "monopolistic advantages that keep those cash flows as steady as a beating heart." For would-be privateers, it doesn't hurt that this model is enthusiastically backed by the Bush administration and a cadre of ardent free marketeers within the Department of Transportation.

With cash-strapped states struggling as it is, the time is ripe for private firms to offer large upfront payments in exchange for long-term leases on public infrastructure (a foreign consortium, for instance, paid $3.8 billion for a 75-year concession on Indiana's 157-mile toll road last summer). "All told," Business Week reports, "some $100 billion worth of public property could change hands in the next two years, up from less than $7 billion over the past two years; a lease for the Pennsylvania Turnpike could go for more than $30 billion all by itself." As Mark Florian, the COO of Goldman Sachs' North American infrastructure division told the magazine, "There's a lot of value trapped in these assets." You'll often hear privatization proponents like Florian -- who has canvassed the nation pitching this concept to state and local governments -- speak of the value that's locked up in public infrastructure. Left unsaid, however, is that upon being "liberated" the majority of this value will flow directly into the pockets of the investors who are lobbying so aggressively for privatization, not to the taxpayers who technically own these assets and who have funded their construction and operation.

While there is certainly a case to be made for public-private partnerships, as these arrangements are often called, there are numerous public policy questions that have yet to be adequately addressed. One, as Business Week points out, has to do with the "quality of service on deals that can span 100 years."

The newly private toll roads are being managed well now, but owners could sell them to other parties that might not operate them as capably in the future. Already, the experience outside of toll roads has been mixed: The Atlanta city water system, for example, was so poorly managed by private owners that the government reclaimed it.

Then there's the issue of pricing, since the companies who have thus far secured leases on U.S. infrastructure, particularly toll roads, have been give wide latitude to hike tolls.

Chicago's Skyway could see car tolls rise from $2 in 2005 to $5 by 2017. For some perspective, if a similar scheme were applied to the Pennsylvania Turnpike during its 67 years of existence, the toll for traveling from the Delaware River to the Ohio border would be as much as $553 now instead of $22.75. Macquarie, which teamed up with Spain's Cintra to purchase the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road, underscored the governmental trade-off during a presentation at the recent White House Surface Transportation Legislative Leadership Summit: "More Money or Lower Tolls." In an extreme scenario, governments could begin to sell properties that aren't tolled to private owners who will impose fees.

Of course, tolls won't go to the moon if they result in dramatic reductions in traffic. For example, investment firm NW Financial Group estimates that if the Chicago Skyway pricing scheme were applied to New York's Holland Tunnel over its 80 years, it would cost $185 to travel through it instead of the current $6. "No one will pay that much," says Murray E. Bleach, president of Macquarie Holdings (USA) Inc. "It's just not going to happen."

I agree with Bleach that charging $553 and $185 for passage on a toll road is unrealistic. That said, you can bet that the companies who take over toll roads are going to seriously push the envelope in order to maximize returns to their investors, which is one of the ways that the inherent value of these roads is "unlocked."

In the states where privatization is on the table, including Texas and Pennsylvania, there's strong resistance among citizens as well as public officials. In Texas, as Business Week reports, the state House of Representatives voted in April, by an overwhelming margin, to place a two-year moratorium on privatizing the state's toll road. But it's unlikely that local opposition will fend off the privatizers who have power, money, and influence to spare. For some time now investment banks have been raising multi-billion dollar infrastructure funds in order to take advantage of opportunities in North America. We reported in January that Goldman's fledgling fund had generated such an outpouring of investor interest that it had surpassed its $3 billion target. According to Business Week, Goldman's fund now holds some $6.5 billion. That money won't be sitting idle for long.

While the Business Week piece provides a comprehensive and appropriately skeptical take on the privatization push, it fails to mention a key issue. These deals are rife with the possibility of corruption and cronyism and conflicts of interest. On the latter, Goldman is a prime example. Beyond its persistent lobbying efforts to open U.S. infrastructure to private investment, the firm has acted as an outside financial advisor to states considering public-private partnerships (ostensibly providing disinterested advice to their clients), while simultaneously raising a $6.5 billion fund whose sole purpose is to buy infrastructure on the cheap. Last fall, at a privatization conference in New York, I had the opportunity to ask Goldman's Mark Florian about the firm's various roles in the emerging infrastructure market. When I asked him whether Goldman wants to be an adviser or an investor in the road business, he replied, simply, "both."

Obama's Selective Memory on His Anti-War Stance

| Wed May 2, 2007 11:51 AM EDT

An old friend writes in on Obama:

I arrived home late last night in somewhat of a glum mood thanks to gray skies, constant drizzle and stress from work to find a Barack Obama fundraising letter in my mailbox. (I've given a small donation, so it wasn't a surprise that they had my address and were trying to hit me up for more.)
Included with the plea for continued donations was the text of his October 2002 speech against the war in Iraq. Like many fundraising letters, key portions were highlighted, yet I noticed two occasions of ellipses used in one of the paragraphs about Saddam Hussein. What's Obama trying to hide? I wondered.
Here's the text from the letter:
"Now let me be clear: I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butcher his own people to secure his own power.... The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors... and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls into the dustbin of history."
I haven't tracked this to an authentic primary source, but here's what Wikisource says is missing:
The first ellipse: "He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy."
The second: "that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength"
The first omission, particularly, is a bit striking. The thrust of his speech is still on point. His foresight was still an exercise in good judgment. Thankfully, he was not parroting stronger anti-Saddam talking points about WMDs as many Democrats did, but still... why the omission?

Why the omission indeed? I'd bet the first the omission is all about one phrase: "developed chemical and biological weapons." Now, that could be referring to Iraq's production of WMDs in the late 80's and early 90's or the alleged production in recent years that turned out to be false, but either way it looks like Obama bought the administration's line about Iraq possessing WMD but wanted to avoid war anyway. Does America want a leader that is okay with rogue states possessing weapons of mass destruction? Obama obviously thinks it doesn't.

The second omission might just be one of economy; keeping the quote short and all that. Perhaps Obama views it as embarrassing that he said the "Iraqi military [is] a fraction of its former strength" when the insurgency continues to rage, but pretty much every American knows the Iraqi military and the insurgency are different things.

Is Obama still the only major candidate who opposed the war from the beginning? Of course. Is he being a bit of a politician here? Again, of course. I'll forgive him this one. I'd say it's interesting, but not a major sin.