Blue Marble - May 2010

"Green" Hand Sanitizer?

| Tue May. 25, 2010 11:23 AM PDT

Triple Pundit reports that Purell is now offering an eco-certified hand sanitizer:

...the watery gel everyone from Dick Cheney to Barack Obama uses to keep their hands “99.9%” germ-free now is now available in a biodegradable formula made from 100 percent renewable plant-based ethanol in a completely recyclable PET plastic container. Whew!

The whole package has been certified by Ecologo, which confirms that the product meets its recently released “Instant Hand Antiseptic Products standard.” Accord to Joe Kanfer, CEO of GOJO, maker of Purell, it is the world’s first hand sanitizer to received certification from an independent eco-labeling program.

The new product’s light-weight packaging uses 30 percent less material, saving 250 tons of plastic a year.

Purell certainly deserves props for producing a biodegradable product and greening its packaging. But as Mother Jones reported in "Germ Warfare," our national obsession with cleanliness has reached a fever pitch, and some scientists think being too clean has actually made us sicker. Proponents of the "hygiene hypothesis" blame allergies and other autoimmune diseases on a lack of certain germs: In the developing world, where gut parasites are much more common, autoimmune disorders are much less common.

As the Boston Globe reports, some doctors are even experimenting with infecting allergic people with hook worms in hopes of giving their immune systems something to do besides give them allergy attacks. Infecting yourself with a parasite might seem creepier than popping a Benadryl, but the process actually sounds fairly painless. If it works? Imagine the possibilities: Less sneezing=fewer allergy drugs=fewer antihistamines in our waterways, etc. 

As Triple Pundit's BC Upham points out, Purell isn't to blame for antibiotic-resistant superbugs—it's not made with antimicrobial agents, just alcohol. But it's still an awfully effective germ killer. So what do you think, Blue Marble readers? Should Purell be allowed to call a hand sanitizer green?

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Porn, Meth, and Oil Company Parties

| Tue May. 25, 2010 10:49 AM PDT

Instead of just inspecting offshore oil platforms, employees of the Minerals Management Service spent time trading links to Internet porn, shaking off crystal meth buzzes, and partying on the dime of the oil companies that they were supposed to be regulating, according to a new report released Monday by the Interior Department's Inspector General. The IG's investigation of MMS' Lake Charles office, in oil-ravaged Louisiana, found "a culture where the acceptance of gifts from oil and gas companies was widespread." Among IG findings:

  • Thirteen current and former MMS employees in the Lake Charles office used their MMS email accounts to forward links to Internet porn. Between 2005 and 2009, seven current MMS employees emailed porn 314 times.
  • Two MMS employees admitted to using crystal meth. In one instance, an MMS inspector admitted that he "might have been under the influence of the drug [at work] after using it the day before."
  • In 2005, two MMS inspectors and their families accepted tickets and a flight to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, which were provided at a steep discount by Carlos Kibodeaux, the owner of Contract Operator Production Services, an offshore oil service company. "The 40 to 3 ass whupping LSU put on Miami was a lot more impressive in person," an inspector wrote the next day. "My daughter and I had a blast."

Live-Tweeting the #BPhearing on Liability

| Tue May. 25, 2010 7:23 AM PDT

I'm at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on liability and the BP spill this morning, where senators are hearing testimony on how to ensure that the oil giant covers all the costs associated with the Gulf disaster.

Senate Democrats have put forward a bill to raise the liability cap to $10 billion. This would be significantly higher than the current cap of $75 million, set under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, though it still might be well below the estimated $14 billion in costs expected to accrue in the Gulf spill. Senate Democrats have tried twice to bring up the measure under unanimous consent, but were twice blocked -- first by Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and then by James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

I'll be live-tweeting the event below.

EPA Calls for BP to Slash Dispersant Use

| Mon May. 24, 2010 4:08 PM PDT

The Environmental Protection Agency is increasing the pressure on BP to ditch the dirty dispersant the company is using in the Gulf of Mexico—after the oil giant refused to observe its directive to switch to a less toxic chemical and disclose more information about its clean-up efforts.  

In a press conference with reporters Monday evening, EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson expressed disappointment with the company's response, and said her agency will start its own environmental monitoring on the dispersants in the Gulf. The agency also called on the oil company to "scale back" its use of chemical dispersants by at least 50 percent. Responders in the Gulf, she said, are "approaching a world record" in the amount of dispersants used for a single spill.

Jackson said that she was "not satisfied" that BP has done "an extensive enough analysis of other dispersant options." The agency, she added, would also begin its own tests to confirm whether BP's assertion that Corexit is best dispersant option available "is accurate and supported by science."

"We are still deeply concerned about the things we don't know," said Jackson. "We must make sure that the dispersants we use are as non-toxic as possible."

Both Jackson and Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry stopped short of forcing BP to switch products, but said that the federal government reserves the ability to halt the use of dispersants altogether. Jackson said the decisions about dispersant use—and the resulting environmental trade-offs—have been among the toughest of her career. But she's also said she's reluctant to take them out of the toolbox, noting that "the number one enemy is the oil."

"The BP spill has thrust upon us what could potentially be one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time," said Jackson. "We live in a world where we're making tough decisions based on little science."

Fox in the Hen House: BP Exec at MMS

| Mon May. 24, 2010 3:02 PM PDT

In the weeks since BP's Deepwater Horizon well started spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, there's been increasing attention to the "cozy" relationship between the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and the oil industry it's supposed to regulate. How cozy? Just last summer the Obama administration tapped a BP executive to serve as a deputy administrator for land and minerals management.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last June appointed Sylvia V. Baca to the post, which did not require Senate confirmation. The appointment follows eight years at BP. From her MMS bio:

Baca had been general manager for Social Investment Programs and Strategic Partnerships at BP America Inc. in Houston, and had held several senior management positions with the company since 2001, focusing on environmental initiatives, overseeing cooperative projects with private and public organizations, developing health, safety, and emergency response programs and working on climate change, biodiversity and sustainability objectives.
As Director of Global Health, Safety, Environment & Emergency Response for BP Shipping Ltd. in London, Baca led a worldwide team to develop innovative and proactive energy and the environment initiatives. Among her accomplishments, she oversaw health, safety and environmental outcomes for an $8 billion ship building program, resulting in the youngest, greenest and most technically advanced fleet in the world. The project has received numerous awards for its safety and environmental advancements.

Baca is also an excellent example of the revolving door between government and industry that MMS has been accused of facilitating. From 1995 to 2001, she was an assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the Department of Interior before leaving to work for the oil giant.

Last week, Salazar unveiled plans to split MMS into three agencies—one that will focus on energy development, another on enforcement and the third on revenue collection. But that doesn't necessarily stop the spinning door between the beleaguered agency and the oil industry.

UPDATE: Salazar spokesperson Kendra Barkoff issued a statement noting that Baca, under federal government ethics standards, "has been and is recused from participating personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties in which BP is or represents a party, for a period of two years following her appointment." She also noted that Baca is not working on offshore drilling at the agency (her post deals with on-shore drilling).

Her appointment to the agency, however, doesn't do much to help its industry-friendly reputation.

How We Wrecked the Ocean

| Mon May. 24, 2010 2:27 PM PDT
In light of the minute-by-minute horror show underway in the Gulf of Mexico, it's worth taking a look at the the long view of human impacts on the ocean. And no one talks the long view better than coral reef ecologist Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In this TED talk he shares his passion, knowledge, concerns, and personal experience. Sadly, what's going on now in the Gulf adds intolerable stressors to already overstressed ecosystems. As Jackson asks:
"So the question is: How are we all going to respond to this? And we can do all sorts of things to fix it, but in the final analysis, the thing we really need to fix is ourselves; it's not about the fish; it's not about the pollution; it's not about the climate change. It's about us, and our greed and our need for growth and our inability to imagine a world which is different from the selfish world we live in today."
 I appreciate Jackson's willingness to share his despair.
 

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Obama's Missed Opportunity

| Mon May. 24, 2010 9:29 AM PDT

In his weekly address Saturday, President Obama announced the formation of "National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling." This new panel is "tasked with providing recommendations on how we can prevent–and mitigate the impact of–any future spills that result from offshore drilling."

It's about time Obama showed some actual anger about the spill and put some thrust behind calls to improve regulation and enforcement in offshore drilling. But Obama yet again missed an opportunity to talk about how the spill illustrates the need to end reliance on fossil fuels. Instead, he gave passing acknowledgment to clean energy, while maintaining that we need to drill for oil here in the US:

One of the reasons I ran for President was to put America on the path to energy independence, and I have not wavered from that commitment. To achieve that goal, we must pursue clean energy and energy efficiency, and we’ve taken significant steps to do so. And we must also pursue domestic sources of oil and gas. Because it represents 30 percent of our oil production, the Gulf of Mexico can play an important part in securing our energy future. But we can only pursue offshore oil drilling if we have assurances that a disaster like the BP oil spill will not happen again. This Commission will, I hope, help provide those assurances so we can continue to seek a secure energy future for the United States of America.

This would have been a perfect point to restate the need for Congress to pass a climate and energy bill this year. But Obama did not.

Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod took a stab at it on MSNBC this morning, but was also less than convincing. "I would like to think that this will increase the sense of urgency in Congress, because it underscores the value in developing alternative sources of energy," he said. "So I hope that it will give added impetus to Congress to come up with and pass a comprehensive plan."

There will never be a better illustration of why our energy system is dirty and dangerous than the current disaster in the Gulf. But Congress needs Obama to step up and lead to prevent this opportunity from going to waste. So far, he hasn't.

Gov't Legally Required to Step Up Spill Efforts

| Mon May. 24, 2010 8:47 AM PDT

The federal government has so far left it up to BP to fix the well spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. But if BP's latest plan to stop the gushing Gulf well fails, the government may be obligated to take control of the situation, according to federal law.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, amends a portion of the Clean Water Act to not only allow but require the federal government to take over if discharge from a "vessel, offshore facility, or onshore facility" is determined to be "of such a size or character as to be a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United States." (I'm pretty sure the Gulf disaster more than qualifies as such at this point.)

"The President shall direct all Federal, State, and private actions to remove the discharge or to mitigate or prevent the threat of the discharge," the law states. It continues that the president may "remove and, if necessary, destroy a vessel discharging, or threatening to discharge, by whatever means are available."

David Pettit has more over on the Natural Resources Defense Council blog. Furthermore, he writes, under the National Contingency Plan developed by the EPA, the head of the Homeland Security Department is directed to appoint a federal incident commander charged with carrying out this obligation. In this case, the DHS head Janet Napolitano has appointed Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen (yes, the same guy who maintains that he still trusts BP to fix the issue).

The federal government wants to keep this ball in BP's court in hopes of minimizing the political implications for the administration should efforts to cap the well continue to fail. But it's clear that they have a legal, if not moral, obligation to do more.

BP Hiding Critical Dispersant Data

| Mon May. 24, 2010 8:07 AM PDT

BP continues to defy a directive from the Environmental Protection Agency to find a less toxic alternative for the chemicals the company is using to disperse oil in the Gulf. And despite a separate order from EPA and the Department of Homeland Security to make its operations more transparent, BP is still keeping crucial information about its activities in the Gulf under wraps.

BP sent a letter to the EPA Thursday saying that it was unable to find a replacement dispersant. The company redacts a number of critical pieces of data, which it claims are "confidential business information." An excerpt:

 

The EPA released a statement on Saturday saying that the agency it is working to get more information released:

BP and several of the dispersant manufacturers have claimed some sections of BP's response contain confidential business information (CBI). By law, CBI cannot be immediately made public except with the company's permission. EPA challenged these companies to make more information public and, as a result, several portions of the letter can now be made public. EPA is currently evaluating all legal options to ensure that the remaining redacted information is released to the public. EPA continues to strongly urge these companies to voluntarily make this information public so Americans can get a full picture of the potential environmental impact of these alternative dispersants.

I've asked EPA just how much the agency can do to force BP's hand on disclosure and moving to a less toxic dispersant option. I'll update as more information is available.

Coast Guard Admiral: "I Trust Tony Hayward."

| Mon May. 24, 2010 7:35 AM PDT

BP was going to try a so-called "top kill" of the gusher in the Gulf over the weekend—an attempt to plug the well that involved shooting heavy drilling liquids into the hole and then sealing it with cement. But now it looks like that won't happen until Wednesday. Tensions between the oil company and the government have been rising, and questions about why it's taking BP so long to stop the hemorrhaging well seemed to hit a new peak this weekend, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar complaining at a news conference Sunday that the oil giant has missed "deadline after deadline."

"If we find they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way appropriately," Salazar said.

But here's the issue. The federal government really, really doesn't want to push BP out of the way, because it doesn't have a better solution, either. The company's large containment dome idea failed, and it abandoned plans to try a smaller dome. Now they're trying this top kill, but no one knows if that will work. BP acknowledges that there are "uncertainties" with this plan. If it fails, it will probably take until August to drill a relief well, the next option.

Here's what Coast Guard spokesman Jim Hoeft told me in an email about control of the spill site:

At this moment in time, BP has the technology and the equipment to respond to this situation at the scene. As you're aware, the leak is nearly a mile under water, so use of their equipment is vital in ensuring that the leak is stopped. The most important step that everyone is working towards is stopping the leak.

It's one thing to acknowledge that BP has the technology to handle this (as regrettable as that might be). But over the weekend U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen maintained that they've still got full faith in BP's ability to fix this on CNN:

"When I give them direction or the federal on-scene coordinator gives them direction, we get a response. I've got [BP Chief Executive] Tony Hayward's personal cell phone number. If I have a problem, I call him. Some of the problems we have had that we've worked through are more logistics and coordination issues. ... I trust Tony Hayward. When I talk to him, I get an answer.

This is probably not the message the federal government should be sending at this point.