There was more evidence today that BP pushed drillers to break protocol and ignore warnings in the hours leading up the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. A congressional report released last night included a number of new disclosures, and in a hearing in Louisiana today, the rig's chief mechanic indicated that BP made decisions that may have lead to the deadly blast.

The Times-Picayune in New Orleans reports from today's joint hearing by the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service:

The chief mechanic on the Deepwater Horizon testified Wednesday that he was at a planning meeting 11 hours before the rig exploded at which the BP company man overruled drillers from rig owner Transocean and insisted on displacing protective drilling mud from the riser that connected the rig to the oil well.
"I recall a skirmish between the company man, the OIM (offshore installation manager), the tool-pusher and the driller," said Doug Brown, one of 115 rig workers who survived the April 20 disaster. "The driller was outlining what would be taking place, whereupon the company man stood up and said, 'No, we'll be having some changes to that.' It had to do with displacing the riser for later on. The OIM, tool-pusher and driller disagreed with that, but the company man said, 'Well, this is how it's gonna be,' and the tool-pusher, driller and OIM reluctantly agreed."

The more we hear, this looks less like a freak "accident" than the result of the choice by those in charge to cut corners and ignore glaring warning signs.

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Anecdotal reports are beginning to emerge that the chemical dispersants that BP is using to break up crude oil in the gulf are making clean-up workers sick. Pro Publica's Marian Wang (a former of Mojo intern) has been following the story, and points to reports in the LA Times and New Orleans TV station WDSU. Of course, drawing a direct link between the dispersants and the sicknesses will be tough.

It's worth noting that workers who cleaned up the Exxon Valdez spill also reported health problems, which scientists suspected were tied to exposure to the polyaromatic hydrocarbons and other substances found in crude oil. These same PAHs are also a suspected cause of health problems in communities around Canada's tar sands.

UPDATE: Due to concerns about the health of clean-up workers, the Coast Guard and BP have recalled all 125 private vessels that were helping to contain the spill around Louisiana's Breton Sound. Medical experts are being dispatched to evaluate them. While it's good to know that BP and the government are taking occupational hazards seriously, one has to wonder who, if anyone, is now cleaning up the oil.

Is Steven Chu too cozy with BP? The oil spill is casting a spotlight on the Energy Secretary's close ties with the oil company, which funded the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley that Chu founded a year before he joined the DOE. BP's decision to underwrite Chu's institute with a $500 million grant was made by its chief scientist, Steven Koonin, whom Chu last year named his DOE undersecretary for science.

"The fact that Steven Chu selected Steve Koonin, BP's chief scientist, to be his undersecretary would predispose them to think that they could maybe negotiate with BP, could be more like partners regarding the oil cleanup," Jennifer Washburn, the author of a forthcoming Center for American Progress report called, "Big Oil Goes to College," told the New York Times. While the DOE doesn't have jurisdiction over the spill, 150 people at its national laboratories have been working on it, and some consumer watchdogs have accused the department of reacting too slowly. Chu has also been an optimist regarding the clean-up and containment efforts, telling reporters two weeks ago that "things are looking up."

In late 2008, just after Obama appointed Chu to the Energy Secretary post, I explored his ties to BP and speculated on how they might influence him:

Chu's role in creating the Energy Biosciences Institute may inform his approach to governing the Department of Energy, a major governmental underwriter of research, and one that will face pressure to partner with corporations in pursuing technological solutions to climate change. As the incoming Obama administration prepares to spend liberally to develop cleaner sources of energy, the structure of corporate-government partnerships will determine how the profits of that research return to taxpayers, and how rigorously scientists evaluate the downsides of controversial technologies such as biofuels.

For now, at least, it remains unclear to what extent Chu has given BP favorable treatment, either in terms of crafting DOE's research agenda or its response to the oil spill. But what's clear is that the close ties are casting a shaddow over the agency, sowing doubt among the public that the government is truly an independent watchdog. The same concerns were raised by UC Berkeley professors regarding the Energy Biosciences Institute. At the time, biology professor Ignacio Chapela called the deal, "the coup de grace to the very idea of a university that can represent the best interest of the public."



There were a number of warning signs in the 24 hours before the blast that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon on April 20. Failed tests, concerns with equipment, and building pressure in the well indicated problems with the operation, according to a report released by a congressional committee investigating the disaster.

"[K]ey questions exist about whether proper procedures were followed for critical activities throughout the day" of the blast, the report concludes. While of their memo reaffirms information that has come out in hearings, it also raises new questions about some of the warning signs before the blast.

The report was compiled by the House Energy and Commerce Committee from internal documents from BP (the rig's operator), Transocean (the rig's owner), and Halliburton (the company that poured the cement for the well). It notes that there were signs that too much gas was entering the well and that the cement job on the well might have been faulty. But it appears that those problems may have been ignored and proper procedures were not followed.

From the committee's summary:

According to BP there were three flow indicators from the well before the explosion. One was 51 minutes before the explosion when more fluid began flowing out of the well than was being pumped in. Another flow indicator was 41 minutes before the explosion when the pump was shut down for a "sheen" test, yet the well continued to flow instead of stopping and drill pipe pressure also unexpectedly increased. Then, 18 minutes before the explosion, abnormal pressures and mud returns were observed and the pump was abruptly shut down. The data suggests that the crew may have attempted mechanical interventions at that point to control the pressure, but soon after, the flow out and pressure increased dramatically and the explosion took place. Further, BP’s preliminary findings indicate that there were other events in the 24 hours before the explosion that require further inquiry.

The report isn't conclusive; the information is drawn from company documents, and so far each company involved has pointed the finger at the others for failures on the rig that might have lead to the blast. Hearings on the explosion and spill continue today in Louisiana focusing on what happened on the rig that day. In Washington, the House Natural Resources Committee will hold hearings Wednesday with government regulators overseeing drilling, and on Thursday with the CEOs of companies involved in the accident.

After a third Republican block of a Democratic bill to raise the liability on oil spills, the GOP put forward its own bill on Tuesday afternoon. This one would eliminate the cap only for the current spill, but not change the cap set under the Oil Pollution Act for future spills, which stands at $75 million.

The new bill comes from Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and David Vitter (R-La.), and also contains provisions that would expedite the claims process for Gulf residents. Vitter said on the floor that their measure would hold BP to its pledge to cover all costs related to the current spill. "That's a contract offer," he said on the floor Tuesday. "We're saying we'll take it."

Murkowski blocked a first effort from Democrats to bring up a bill that would have raised the cap to $10 billion. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) blocked the same measure last week as well as a revised measure that would eliminate the cap outright on Tuesday. Murkowski said in a statement that she thinks the standard liability should be raised, but that "Congress needs to carefully consider what the appropriate cap should be" before proceeding.

Robert Menendez (D-NJ), cosponsor of Democratic effort to remove the cap, in turn blocked the Murkowski-Vitter bill Tuesday. "What happens when, God forbid, this happens again and the company doesn't make this kind of offer," Menendez said.

Both parties have accused the other of grandstanding on the issue. Meanwhile, oil is still gushing into the Gulf at an unknown rate and the liability cap remains a measly $75 million. Our Senate at work, folks! Never letting a good environmental disaster get in the way of partisan squabbling.

The Obama administration has been repeating the line about keeping the "boot on the neck" of BP to force the oil giant to take full responsibility for the Gulf disaster. But perhaps more attention needs to be paid to Deepwater Horizon owner Transocean, which has made several attempts evade liability in the wake of the oil spill. First, the company tried to invoke an obscure, 159-year-old maritime law to minimize the amount of money it might have to pay out resulting from the spill. Then it came to light that the company had transferred $1 billion to shareholders on May 14. Senators are growing concerned that the largest offshore drilling company in the world is quietly trying to shirk responsibility for the ongoing spill.

Eighteen senators, led by Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder Monday calling on the Department of Justice to investigate Transocean's actions in the weeks following the explosion of the oil rig. "We are concerned that such action to quickly move money out of corporate coffers to individual investors may make it more difficult to pursue liability claims against the company," the senators wrote. "Transocean's stockholders shouldn't take huge profits from polluting our country's Gulf Coast."

The Washington Post notes that while the plan for the dividend was released three weeks after the spill, the dividend itself had been announced back in February. But the large payout–with the company still under investigation for its role in the spill and the costs of that spill still mounting—has clearly drawn unwanted attention. Transocean's level of responsibility in the explosion and subsequent collapse of the rig is still not clear. At congressional hearings so far, the three main companies responsible for the rig and well have fingered each other as the guilty party.

Lawmakers say that the actions of Transocean point to the need to raise the liability cap on oil spills and ensure that those responsible –whether that's BP, Transocean, Halliburton, or some combination of the three—pay up.

Thomas Perrelli, an associate attorney general in the Department of Justice, told a Senate panel Tuesday that they have already informed Transocean that its invocation of Limitation of Shipowner's Liability Act of 1851, best know for its use by the owners of the Titanic, "is inappropriate." He declined to comment on any current or pending investigations the DOJ may be conducting on Transocean.

Senators, though, want blood. "This company is working pretty hard to insulate itself from being held responsible," Wyden said Tuesday.

The DOJ also issued a separate letter to senators Tuesday responding to a request that the attorney general look into whether BP made false claims about its ability to respond to a disaster. In the letter, the DOJ assured senators that they are "examining the full range of affirmative legal options that may be available to the United States" in dealing with the companies at fault in the Gulf. Ronald Weich, an assistant attorney general, wrote that the DOJ has issued formal demands to BP, Transocean and other companies to "ensure the preservation of potentially relevant information" and has outlined the "legal requirements for preserving evidence in anticipation of litigation."

There's an incredible slide show on the BBC's Earth News of polar bears on Canada's Coats Island climbing sea cliffs in search of nesting seabirds and their eggs.

Not something anyone has seen before, even though researchers have been studying this breeding site since the 1980s.

The researchers surmise the bears are opportunistically looking for new food sources, perhaps as their old ones, notably ringed seals, recede alongside the ice.

A new study disputes a widely-held assumption that protecting forest resources exacerbates poverty for people living nearby.

Instead, this novel research shows that saving rainforests and protecting land in national parks and reserves reduced poverty in Costa Rica and Thailand. The researchers looked at the long term impacts of poor people living near parks and reserves established in 1985 or earlier. From the abstract:

"As global efforts to protect ecosystems expand, the socioeconomic impact of protected areas on neighboring human communities continues to be a source of intense debate. The debate persists because previous studies do not directly measure socioeconomic outcomes and do not use appropriate comparison groups to account for potential confounders. We illustrate an approach using comprehensive national datasets and quasi-experimental matching methods. We estimate impacts of protected area systems on poverty in Costa Rica and Thailand and find that although communities near protected areas are indeed substantially poorer than national averages, an analysis based on comparison with appropriate controls does not support the hypothesis that these differences can be attributed to protected areas. In contrast, the results indicate that the net impact of ecosystem protection was to alleviate poverty."

Coauthor and economist Paul J. Ferraro tells Georgia State University the results are counterintuitive:

"Most people might expect that if you restrict resources, people on average will be worse off."

The authors speculate that conservation of biodiverse areas may help poor people through tourism and infrastructure, notably new roads providing new economic opportunities.

The paper is open access at PNAS;

The Obama administration on Tuesday finally weighed in on how high to set the oil spill liability cap, after offering conflicting remarks on the subject last week. But although an administration official argued that no "arbitrary limit" should be placed on how much an oil company should be forced to pay in damages, Republicans once again blocked a measure to move the cap in the Senate.

Speaking before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Thomas Perrelli, an associate attorney general in the Department of Justice, made it clear that the administration was only referring to the liability for future spills resulting from deep water drilling operations. The administration declined to offer explicit guidance on whether to legislation should act retroactively to cover the current Gulf spill. But he left the door open for such a possibility. "Congress legislates retroactively all the time," he said. "I think we would have a very strong argument."

Perrelli also affirmed that BP will pay the full costs for the spill. But he admitted, in an occasionally heated exchange with Senate Democrats, that he "cannot say whether" BP's verbal and written commitments "will be binding in a court of law in the future."

"You might be the last person in America to believe what BP says," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "Do we lift the cap or not?"

"It's not a matter of belief," replied Perrelli. "We are committed to recovering every cent."

Sanders wasn't satisfied with this response. "The idea that we can simply trust BP because they say that they will cover all the damages is not enough," Sanders later told reporters in the Capitol Tuesday. "We've got to lift the cap, we've got to lift it now."

Senators have now tried three times to pass a bill that would raise the liability cap. Two attempts to raise it to $10 billion from its current level of $75 million were blocked in recent weeks—first by Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and then by James Inhofe (R-Okla.). Senators tried again Tuesday, this time offering a bill that had no cap on the liability, in accordance with the administration's directive. But Inhofe blocked the effort again.

The Department of Interior is expected to release a report this week that will offer guidance on how to move forward on offshore drilling operations, in the wake of the ongoing Gulf disaster. But anxieties are high about the most imminent new project: drilling in the Arctic. Environmental groups believe this exploration project may be even more dangerous than the Gulf.

Unless the Obama administration officially calls off the project, Royal Dutch Shell could begin exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the northern coast of Alaska as early as July. The Minerals Management Service--the subject of much scrutiny these days for failing to do its job--did an inadequate evaluation of the potential environmental threats posed by drilling in these seas, the groups say, and the project should be suspended indefinitely.

The World Wildlife Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, The Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society and Alaska Wilderness League are running these new ads on national television urging the Obama administration to reconsider Arctic drilling: