Blue Marble - April 2010

Why Didn't BP Have a Plan in the Event of a Massive Spill?

Fri Apr. 30, 2010 7:02 PM EDT

Kate Sheppard appeared on Hardball With Chris Matthews to discuss the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and how a lack of regulations for BP and the rest of the oil industry has rendered the cleanup process ineffective.

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. For more of her stories, click here. She Tweets here.

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Obama's Offshore Nightmare

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 2:25 PM EDT

The giant patch of oil seeping onto Louisiana coast today is sure to have dire environmental consequences. But the explosion and subsequent spill are also spurring political pushback against the Obama administration's plans to vastly expand drilling off the shores of the United States, a scheme unveiled just one month ago.

The White House called together a press conference yesterday afternoon, lining up heads of the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, the Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency to discuss the state of the spill. The administration pledged an "all hands on deck" approach to the spill, but maintained its support of offshore expansion. "We need the increased production," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "The president still continues to believe the great majority of that can be done safely, securely, and without any harm to the environment."

But by Friday morning, the White House had shifted its stance a bit, with adviser David Axelrod announcing plans to pause drilling expansion in an appearance on Good Morning America. But Axelrod was clear that this isn't a permanent move. "All he has said is that he is not going to continue the moratorium on drilling but ... no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here."

Obama tried to strike a balance in a statement Friday between condemning the incident and holding the line on expansion. "I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security, but I've always said it must be done responsibly, for the safety of our workers and our environment," said Obama.

But the White House is under increasing pressure to permanently forestall its offshore plans. What was extended as an olive branch to moderate Democrats and Republicans in hopes of getting a comprehensive energy plan in place has quite literally blown up in Obama's face. Obama had opposed offshore drilling in the early days of his candidacy, before switching to support it amid the "drill, baby, drill" calls of the summer of 2008. It was at that time Congress also allowed the long-standing moratorium on drilling in the outer continental shelf to expire, paving the way for the administration's announcement of plans to open new areas to drilling last month.

Obama has been getting plenty of heat for the concession from coastal state Democrats. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenburg condemned Obama's expansion plan as "Kill, baby, kill," before the rig explosion claimed 11 human lives and imperiled sensitive Gulf Coast ecosystems. Yesterday, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson fired off a missive to Obama, calling for an "immediate halt" to new drilling and warning that he would introduce legislation that would prohibit the Interior Department from enacting its new lease plans. A group of New Jersey Democrats, led by Sen. Robert Menendez, also called on the White House to stand down on offshore drilling Friday, asking the administration to "suspend all action on expanding such exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf immediately and reverse any plans to drill off the Atlantic coast."

Fart Chart: Cow Emissions by State

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 6:10 AM EDT

The EPA has spent nearly $15 million and two years studying bovine emissions to assess how they affect climate change. So what's the result? This handy "fart chart" shows you exactly how much crap cows are putting into the air. Although the EPA's original chart, here, only gives you the top 10, we've crunched the rest of the data so you can see exactly how flatulent your state's cows are. Top 10 below, full list after the jump.

1. California  2. Wisonsin  3. New York  4. Pennsylvania  5. Minnesota  6. Idaho  7. Texas  8. Michigan  9. Ohio  10. Washington

Dairy Lobby Tries to Ban Soy 'Milk'

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 6:50 PM EDT

With soy milk sales soaring, the dairy lobby wants to stay top cow. Today, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) petitioned the FDA to ban words like "milk" and "cheese" from any products that aren't made from dairy milk. Now, both the soybean lobby and dairy lobby are powerful presences on the Hill, as the fracas over last year's climate bill showed. But this goes to a whole new level of ridiculous.

Firstly, even though NMPF president Jerry Kozak said that “...many products that use the term [milk] have never seen the inside of a barn,” he could have just as well have been talking about the NMPF's own products. Most of the milk produced in this country doesn't come from a bucolic barn: it comes from factory farms like this one run by Dean Foods, the nation's largest milk producer, where cows are confined in filth-filled pens and have their tails amputated. If that's what a "barn" looks like, I'll take the soy processing plant.

Secondly, the word "milk" has lots of uses and has been used for non-dairy milks like coconut for a long time. Asking the FDA to only allow dairy products to contain the term "milk" is like asking it to make sure only the word "meat" is only used by products with beef in it. Consumers know that Silk soy milk isn't real dairy milk, just like they realize that Boca Burgers aren't real hamburger. Instead, the move to ban "milk" from non-dairy products is a transparent ploy by the NMPF to hurt the soybean industry that, thanks to increasingly health-conscious consumers and ethanol production quotas, is growing stronger every year. It's notable, also, that when not battling soybean farmers the dairy lobby works hard to keep its foot firmly on the throat of its own industry, to the point where they've been sued for being a monopoly and trying to drive small dairy farmers out of business: the same farmers whose milk might actually come from barns rather than football-field sized factories.

And thirdly, even though some products, like Coffee-Mate's powder creamer, are labeled as non-dairy but actually DO contain milk derivatives. So what would be the labeling change there?

Reid to Graham: We Don't Need You

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 6:50 PM EDT

Senate Democrats on Thursday evening unveiled an "framework" for immigration reform, calling on Republicans to work with them while at the same time indicating that they are willing to go it alone if they have to. The move comes after a week of bitter back and forth between Majority Leader Harry Reid and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina over whether immigration or climate should be next in line. Graham has so far been the lone Republican working with Democrats on both issues.

Reid yesterday indicated that energy would come next. But Graham has accused Democrats of "playing politics," and warns that moving on immigration at all this year would prompt him to abandon cooperation on both issues.

Reid addressed the Graham situation directly at the press conference, after fielding a question about whether their immigration work might imperil the climate bill. Graham, Reid said, "cannot logically use immigration as an excuse to not help with energy." He also said his calls for bipartisan work on immigration aren't necessarily directed at Graham. "There are 40 other Republicans," Reid said.

Reid also tried to downplay the tension over which issue should be next in line. "There's no one in this Congress in the House or Senate who believes in doing something about our environment more than I do," said Reid. "We need to do comprehensive energy legislation as soon as we can."

But the hurried roll out of their immigration framework seemed to be a clear indicator of where Reid is throwing his support. The planned introduction of draft legislation on climate change and energy has been delayed indefinitely as its co-authors scramble to deal with the Graham situation.

Exiting a meeting in the Republican Whip's office, Graham declined comment to reporters, saying only that a statement from he and Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) would be forthcoming. Here's their statement dismissing the framework as a "conceptual paper" and calling for a bipartisan effort. He did not say anything about where this leaves him on climate and energy.

Oil Spill Seeps Into Climate Bill Politics

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 1:14 PM EDT

The massive oil spill off the coast of Louisiana may hit land as early as tomorrow. The spill is much worse than initially thought, and is prompting some discomfort in Washington for proponents of offshore drilling—including the Obama administration.

Rig operator BP and the Coast Guard yesterday tried some test burns, lighting fire to the slick to burn off the oil in hopes of preventing landfall. But the remains of the rig are hemorrhaging five times more oil than the original estimate—officials now believe it's leaking 5,000 barrels a day of crude into the Gulf every day. Others estimate that the spill may actually be 20 times larger than original estimates. An Interior Department official said Thursday that the spill could continue for up to 90 days, and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice O'Hare said they are "prepared for the worst case."

The White House signaled that it is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to the disaster. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will travel to the Gulf, while Interior Sec. Ken Salazar is at BP headquarters in Houston. The two announced earlier this week that they are undertaking a "full investigation." The Energy and Commerce Committee also announced an investigation this week.

The spill has fueled the already contentious debate about the role of offshore drilling in energy policy. Enviros and a number of coastal state legislators have protested the Obama administration's announcement last month that they are opening new areas to drilling as part of a comprehensive energy strategy. There's also a hot debate about what drilling measures will be included in the Senate climate and energy bill.

At a White House press conference on Thursday, White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner acknowledged that, "Obviously this will become part of the debate."

"There were a lot of questions about opening the region’s waters even before this spill in the Gulf, because preliminary estimates were that the amount of oil and gas available off the East Coast didn't appear to be very large, unlike in the Gulf of Mexico," said Lincoln Pratson, a professor of energy and environment at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. "This reopens the issue: Is the risk worth the reward?"

A group of 10 coastal state Democrats threatened to vote against the Senate measure if it includes more drilling well before this latest catastrophe. Now New Jersey senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez are calling attention to the spill as evidence that their worries are well founded. "The bottom line is that when you drill for oil, there is always a risk," the senators said in a joint statement.

Dan Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, agreed the spill will likely shape the debate over the Senate energy and climate bill. "This sad event demonstrates that the senators concerned about the impacts of offshore drilling have real concerns, not hypothetical ones," said Weiss.

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EPA Hasn't Seen Climate Bill Either

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 11:17 AM EDT

Senators have yet to see a full draft of the climate and energy legislation that Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) were slated to roll out this week, before Graham threatened to ditch the effort over a disagreement with Democratic leadership over their legislative agenda. And even though Kerry and Lieberman sent some details of the bill to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday for analysis, the agency hasn't seen a full draft, either.

According to the EPA, the senators submitted a "description of their draft bill" for economic modeling. The agency confirmed in a statement to Mother Jones the senators "have not sent EPA any actual legislative text." The agency is determining whether it has enough information about the bill to produce an analysis of its economic and environmental impacts.

Environmental advocates say that the EPA can begin modeling without the full text as long as it has the key details in hand, like the year a carbon cap would be put in place, how much of the economy would be covered, and an upper and lower restriction on the price of pollution permits. And if there are changes to those details, it would be fairly easy to tweak the agency's computer models accordingly and produce a new evaluation, they say.

The modeling is expected to take five to eight weeks, which means that even if the senators do roll out their bill sometime soon, it wouldn't go to the floor until the first week of June at the earliest.

Here's the full statement from the EPA:

Staffs of Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman today sent EPA a description of their draft bill, and they asked EPA to start the economic computer modeling effort. EPA's modelers are now examining the description to determine whether it contains all of the information that EPA needs in order to run its models. Once EPA starts the effort, it will take between 6 and 8 weeks to generate a modeling report. The offices have not sent EPA any actual legislative text.

Introducing a Better LEED

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 7:30 AM EDT

The US Green Building Council's LEED program is certainly an arbiter of eco-chic, but it's also criticized for pressuring builders to employ expensive bells and whistles, such as rooftop solar panels, over more effective and cheaper ways of cutting carbon, such as building tall apartments near urban cores. Today, LEED is rolling out a new ratings system that may start to change that. The LEED for Neighborhood Development program will certify entire subdivisions based on how they conform to smart growth principles such as walkability and proximity to transit.

Environmentalists and smart growthers have been hard at work on LEED-ND for more than six years; many have been frustrated that the program has taken so long to go live. Writing on his blog in January, the NRDC's smart growth czar, Kaid Benfield, complained that USGBC was still worshipping blingy technologies to the exclusion of simpler fixes such as building in a smarter location. "Perhaps this is not surprising," he wrote, "given the organization's membership, board, and committees are overwhelmingly populated by representatives of the building industry, their architects, and their consultants."

Sophie Lambert, the director of LEED-ND, says the delay in debuting the program shouldn't be surprising. It was designed by a sometimes touchy collaboration between USGBC, the NRDC, and the Congress for New Urbanism. "With three different groups that agree on a lot of things but do disagree on some issues," she told me yesterday, "there were a lot of philosophical conversations and that kind of thing that definitely added time."

New Urbanists hope LEED-ND will help preempt opposition to infill development among NIMBYs and local environmentalists who may have a reflexive fear of density (a common problem that I chronicled in Tall is Beautiful, an article in the May/June print magazine). Developers can get certified under LEED-ND before they actually start building, then use the award to help get permits and neighborhood approval.

Still, smart growthers wish LEED would go even further. LEED-ND is still just a voluntary supplement for LEED's regular set of building standards, which were updated last year to give more weight to urban design but still allow top-ranked "platinum" buildings to be in the suburbs, where driving to and from them probably cancels out most of their energy savings. Earning LEED's platinum seal should require also getting certified through LEED-ND, Doug Farr, the past chair of LEED-ND, has argued. I asked Lambert why that isn't happening. "I think USGBC is definitely intrigued by that idea," she said, "but still needs to figure out if that's something the marketplace is ready for."

 

 

Kerry Rallies Climate Bill Supporters

| Thu Apr. 29, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

The Senate's Democratic champion of the stalled climate and energy legislation called on supporters on Wednesday to keep the pressure on legislators to act this year. "[B]ottom line: we have to pass comprehensive legislation this year or I believe we never will," wrote John Kerry in an email.

The note compared reports of the bill's death to the famed "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline of 1948 (which, of course, was wrong), and assured supporters that he is working to keep the bill on track.

Here's the full letter to supporters:

Just a quick check-in as I know you've been reading and hearing a lot about the alleged "death" of comprehensive climate and energy legislation. Feels like it's practically a rite of passage for important legislation—how many times was health care reform declared "dead" before it passed?
But, bottom-line: we have to pass comprehensive legislation this year or I believe we never will. I am working this 24-7, and these past 72 hours I can tell you it quite literally feels 24-7—so let me assure you: these headlines are like the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline from 1948. And we need that Give Em Hell Harry spirit because there's one thing he knew - and one thing I remember from back in Iowa when the pundits wrote us off—if you fight hard enough and keep at it, you can get where you need to go.
Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman and I are talking every day—talked a few times yesterday - and I know we can get back on track. I will keep you in the loop on things, and to keep up with what's happening, follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JohnKerry. I'll be updating it real-time before reality gets bounced through the echo chamber of DC and spun a hundred different ways.
There's going to be more twists and turns ahead. There always are. But we're keeping our eye on the prize—ending our dependence on foreign oil that makes Iran $100 million dollaswrs richer each day and has our planet headed towards a catastrophic tipping point.
We're going to get there—and please follow me on Twitter for ways you can pitch in.
Thanks,
John Kerry

Mysterious Climate Bill Is "Like Sasquatch"

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 4:20 PM EDT

Senate majority leader Harry Reid has taken heat for suggesting that whether he moves energy or immigration legislation first depends on which bill looks most likely to pass. On Tuesday he suggested that climate legislation would have the edge because it's "much further down the road" than immigration. And on Wednesday he was even more firm: "I am going to move forward on energy first." But it remains far from clear that the climate and energy bill that was supposed to be unveiled this week by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has sufficient backing. That's because it appears that almost no-one except the co-authors has actually seen the bill.

Senators and advocates say they have seen outlines or heard summaries of what is expected to be called the "American Power Act." And the co-authors sent a draft of the bill to the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday for analysis, a process that takes five to six weeks and evaluates both the environmental and economic impacts of the bill. But senators have said they haven't seen the draft and can't declare a position on it.

"They were going to give me a draft, but they have not released a draft," said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) on Monday. Snowe is one of only a few Republicans who has voted for cap and trade bills in the past and could be a possible "yes" vote. "I can't make a decision on that. I'd like to, but I said I have to see the bill first."

"I don't know who's seen the entire bill. My understanding is that there's still moving pieces," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). "[Kerry] hasn't pressed the start button yet." Cardin has been a strong supporter of climate and energy legislation, though he listed concerns about how the bill would deal with offshore drilling and existing environmental laws.

Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is one of ten industrial state Democrats who recently outlined demands for the bill. She said she thinks some of their concerns have been covered, but "I'm not sure all of them have been addressed." She adds, "We have been briefed on summaries of what's in it, but we want to see the actual language."

Other fence-sitting senators who have said that they haven't seen the draft yet and thus can't say whether they could support it include Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Susan Collins (R-Maine). John McCain (R-Ariz.), once a champion of climate legislation before backing away from the issue, said he hadn't seen a bill or even talked to his close friend Graham or colleagues about it.

While the authors have touted the industry support they've drawn for the bill, it's not yet clear whether that will pay off in votes. And it's not just senators who are wondering what the draft will actually look like. Environmental advocates said they have yet to see legislative text. One compared the legislation to Sasquatch, quipping that people have heard talk of the details and glimpsed rough outlines of the bill, but no one has yet laid eyes on the real deal. The most detailed outline of the measure's contents to date has come from a call between Kerry and progressive business leaders just last week. Even before the drama over Graham's involvement, there were still numerous open questions about what the draft might contain. And with the release of the bill now delayed even further, the mystery surrounding the measure continues.