In the weeks following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, regulators at the federal Minerals Management Service granted approval for 27 new drilling plans in the region—and exempted 26 projects from environmental review. While the Obama administration has put the brakes on new drilling, a number of exploration plans already in the works appear to have been green-lighted.

MMS, the division of the Department of Interior responsible for overseeing oil and gas development, has been criticized in recent weeks for its many regulatory failures that may have contributed to the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon spill. Last week, documents emerged that revealed that the agency waived environmental review for BP's Deepwater exploration plan, a finding that has alarmed environmental advocates.

The Center for Biological Diversity scoured 27 offshore projects that have received a seal of approval from MMS after the April 20 explosion, and found that environmental reviews were waived in all but one of them. Twenty-six of the 27 plans were granted a "categorical exclusion" from review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

MMS granted approval for another BP exploration project in the Gulf, even after the Deepwater disaster was underway. On May 6, MMS approved BP's exploration plan for the Green Canyon area of the Gulf, a site approximately 124 miles from the coast of Terrebonne Parish, La.

BP's plans indicate that it had not planned for a potential incident like the one currently unfolding in the Gulf. Under the section for "blowout scenario," BP's plan indicates that the information was "not required." The plan also indicates that, "No alternatives to the proposed activities were considered to reduce environmental impacts."

With the Deepwater Horizon leak pumping 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico and the outer edges of the slick now hitting Louisiana, the state has a lot on its plate. Including a new proposal to immobilize the legal clinics that could help residents bring suit against BP or other parties involved in the spill.

Tomorrow, the Louisiana State Legislature is scheduled to hold a hearing on Senate Bill 549, the baby of Sen. Robert Adley (R-Benton), who wants to stymie the work of university law clinics that represent low-income clients while providing hands-on training for future lawyers. Under the measure, the clinics would be barred from filing suits against government agencies, suits seeking monetary damages, or suits that raise state constitutional challenges. Adley has admitted that a key target of the bill is the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC), whose students and attorneys have successfully litigated dozens of suits against industrial polluters and other environmental offenders on behalf of Louisiana citizens.

The timing couldn't be more crucial—or absurd. In fact, the hearing on SB 549 was originally scheduled for last Wednesday, but was postponed while the state government was busy trying to figure out how to deal with the disaster. When I asked Stephen Griffin, the interim dean of Tulane Law School, if TELC might play some role in post-spill litigation, he said it's definitely a possibility. "Suppose local citizens got upset about their beach being fouled, or their shrimp grounds being destroyed, the shrimpers getting upset." Suppose they did.

As part of the effort to mitigate the more than 3 million gallons of oil that have been released into the Gulf of Mexico, BP is using chemical dispersants to break down the oil and prevent it from hitting land. But the exact make-up of those chemical compounds is unknown, and some environmentalists believe that BP's solution might actually be worse than the problem.

The chemical compounds break down the oil into smaller globs, causing it to sink and biodegrade faster. In the past week, more information has been released out about what BP and the Coast Guard are dumping into the Gulf. And while it's a relief to have some information, what we're hearing is less than reassuring. The combination of oil and chemicals, say critics, is creating a "toxic soup" in the Gulf.

The Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center, the unified command office set up to deal with the spill, reports that 308,885 gallons of dispersant have been spread over the spill site as of Sunday. The two main chemicals being used in the clean-up effort are Corexit 9500 and Corexit(R) EC9527A. BP has reportedly ordered 15 million gallons of Corexit (and says it has stockpiled a third of the world's supply of dispersants). While BP won't disclose the make-up of these compounds, arguing that this is proprietary information, the Coast Guard has posted the safety data sheets for both the 9500 and (R) EC9527A varieties online. And the documents raise serious questions about the environmental impact of the chemicals being used to clean up the spill.

The compounds contain 2-butoxyethanol, which can cause headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems at high doses. The "Human Health Hazards" section of the document on (R) EC9527A notes:

  • Can cause moderate irritation. Harmful if absorbed through skin.
  • May be harmful if swallowed. May cause liver and kidney effects and/or damage. There may be irritation to the gastro-intestinal tract.
  • Excessive exposure may cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects.
  • Repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver.

The form also characterizes the chemical's potential impact on sea life in the Gulf as "moderate," and notes, "No toxicity studies have been conducted on this product." So, according to BP's own documents, it appears that the company has not analyzed the potential environmental effects of the dispersant—or is not disclosing them on the safety sheet. (Hat tip to Andy Rowell at Oil Change International for catching this).

Executives from BP, Transocean, and Halliburton will be on the hot seat in Washington this week, facing three separate congressional panels on the massive oil spill still underway in the Gulf of Mexico.

The week kicks off with a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday at 10 a.m. President and chairman of BP America Lamar McKay, Transocean CEO Steven Newman, and Halliburton chief health, safety and environmental officer Tim Probert are slated to testify. That committee plans to hold another hearing on May 18 with administration officials on the spill.

On Tuesday afternoon at 2:30, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold another hearing, which is expected to feature the same officials. That committee is also holding a morning hearing with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and oceans advocates on protecting the health of oceans, which is expected to focus on the impacts of the spill and clean-up efforts.

On Wednesday morning at 10 a.m., the House Energy and Commerce Committee will grill McKay, Newman, Probert and Jack Moore, CEO of Cameron International, the oil field services company that built the "blowout preventer" technology, the failure of which that has been pointed to as a possible cause of Deepwater Horizon spill.

Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Lois Capps (D-Calif.) also announced last week that they plan to introduce legislation that would form an "independent, non-partisan 'blue-ribbon' commission" to investigate the causes of the spill.

The Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service will also launch a formal probe this week to “identify the factors leading to the explosion, loss of life, sinking, and subsequent oil spill." The investigation begins with public hearings in Kenner, La. Tuesday and Wednesday.

The investigations come as the situation in the Gulf continues to look more hopeless. BP's plan to place a giant dome over the leaking well failed on Saturday as ice-like crystals clogged the inside of the containment box. The dome was supposed to be the best short-term option for stemming the flow of 210,000 gallons of oil per day.

Click for largerClick for largerA new report by the Guttmacher Institute shows that poor women in the US make up a higher proportion of those getting abortions than they did eight years ago. From 2000 to 2008, the number of poor women in the general population (which is defined as having a family income that's 100 to 199 percent of the federal poverty level) has increased 25 percent, but the number of poor women getting abortions has risen 56 percent. Currently, 42 percent of all women getting abortions are poor. "Because of financial constraints, women want to delay childbearing or limit the number of children they have," the report said, "but these same financial constraints have made it harder for them to access contraceptives and to use them consistently." The entire results of the study are summarized by the chart, left.

Sadly, this is a familiar tale not just in the US but around the world, as Julia Whitty reported in her May/June cover story for Mother Jones. More than 200 million women worldwide do not have access to contraceptives, many of them in developing countries. In the largely Catholic Philippines, for example, the government stopped providing contraceptives to poor women in a country where the average yearly wage is around $3000. As Whitty wrote

"Easy access to contraception would reduce those births by 800,000 and abortions by half a million each year. Furthermore, it would deliver a net savings to the government on the order of $16.5 million a year in reduced health costs from unwanted pregnancies, including the brutal medical consequences of illegal back-alley abortions."

A few months back, Cactus, one of my favorite local burrito places, announced that from now on, it would begin serving sustainably caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. I was impressed that this scrappy little taqueria had resisted the temptation of ridiculously cheap imported shrimp: 90 percent of all shrimp consumed in the US comes from notoriously ecologically disastrous farms in Asia. (Red Lobster Festival of Shrimp, I'm looking at you.) But last week I noticed a new sign up: Cactus' shrimp supplier was reassuring customers that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico hadn't affected the shrimp, that so far they were perfectly safe to eat. I was skeptical: Oil is nasty stuff. Which got me wondering: For the time being, wouldn't it be safer to stay away from Gulf shrimp, at least until the spill is under control?

Not yet, says Micahel Massimi, a scientist at Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. "So far, we’re looking at fairly significant fishing closures but still plenty of coastal estuary and good shrimping to the west of the spill." Right now, only 23 percent of the Gulf shrimping waters are closed because of the spill. That could change with winds or currents, but the Louisiana Department of Fish and Wildlife (LDFW) has announced the spring shrimp season will officially start today in most open areas, and at the end of the month in others. (It's too early to say yet how the oil spill will affect the second shrimp season, which typically lasts from August through December.) 

But oil moves, and so do shrimp. So is there any chance that oil-contaminated shrimp could make it to your local fishmonger (or my taqueria)? It's extremely unlikely, since all US seafood is subject to fairly rigorous inspections by food scientists before it can be sold. Martin Reed is the founder of the online sustainable seafood supplier I Love Blue Sea. "Most people who eat shrimp—they don't know it's coming from a farm abroad where they pump them full of antibiotics," says Reed. "I'd be much more worried about that than eating anything out of the Gulf." (More on imported farmed shrimp below.)

So for now wild Gulf shrimp is still the better choice, but it doesn't come cheap: It's already more expensive than farmed shrimp, and the spill will only drive the price up, likely by about 20 percent says Lance Nacio, a third generation Gulf coast shrimper. Aside from closures, another major reason for the price spike is a shortage of labor: Many Gulf fishermen and shrimpers have been hired by a BP subcontractor to help clean up the spill. "But the biggest thing now is actually stopping the leak," says Nacio. "Until they stop it, who knows how much we'll have to deal with."

A quick guide to some of the varieties of shrimp you might encounter on a menu:


It appears we have an answer to the "with or without Graham" question. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) just issued a statement announcing that they plan to unveil their much-anticipated climate and energy legislation next Wednesday without their Republican ally, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Since the postponement of the roll out, originally scheduled for April 26, the senators say that they've "continued working, moving forward, and talking in great detail with our Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and with the environmental and business communities." They added, "we believe we've made new progress on the path to 60 votes" and "are more encouraged today that we can secure the necessary votes to pass this legislation this year."

Their statement continued to thank Graham for his support, even as he, just this morning, took yet another step back from endorsing action on the measure this year. Yet they say that they will pass the bill this year "with the support of Senator Graham and other Republicans, Democrats and Independents."

They note that "we all understand Lindsey has been busy with the immigration issue." ("Busy," of course, has consisted of him throwing a wrench in the climate effort because he's mad at Harry Reid about the legislative calendar, and then bashing the Democratic immigration plan released last week.) But even if Graham won't be with them at next week's introduction, Kerry and Lieberman lauded his participation in the effort to date:

We appreciate Senator Graham's statement of his continued commitment to passing comprehensive energy independence legislation. Over the past several months we have worked with Senator Graham and he has made a significant contribution to construct balanced legislation that will make our country energy independent, create jobs and curb pollution. Senator Graham has been our partner in building a broad-based coalition of support for legislation that can pass the Senate this year.

In the very least, we have a new due date for the climate bill. Additional details are supposed to be released next week.

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that is Lindsey Graham and his work on climate and energy legislation. At this point though, I basically give up.

Graham gave a lengthy interview to ClimateWire yesterday, in which he noted that he has merely "paused" in his work on the measure, and could vote for "our bill" as long as it isn't "substantially changed."

This morning, his office blasted out a list of quotes from Graham which includes, among other things, his belief that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico means it "has become impossible" to pass that legislation this year, because there's too much conflict over drilling. Apparently it didn't occur to him that millions of gallons of oil polluting the Gulf might be an opportune moment to argue for ending America's fossil fuel dependence.

"When it comes to getting 60 votes for legislation that includes additional oil and gas drilling with revenue sharing, the climb has gotten steeper because of the oil spill," said Graham. He added, "I think it makes sense to find out what happened, enact safety measures to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future, and then build consensus for the expanded offshore drilling our nation needs."

Here's more from Graham's statement:

When it comes to our nation's policy on energy independence and pollution control, I don't believe any American finds the status quo acceptable. Many senators from both parties have stated that Congress should set energy and carbon pollution policy, not the EPA. I could not agree more. Therefore, we should move forward in a reasoned, thoughtful manner and in a political climate which gives us the best chance at success. Regrettably, in my view, this has become impossible in the current environment.
I believe there could be more than 60 votes for this bipartisan concept in the future. But there are not nearly 60 votes today and I do not see them materializing until we deal with the uncertainty of the immigration debate and the consequences of the oil spill.

He's absolutely right that the offshore drilling question is is driving a wedge between supporters of the overall effort. Senators generally counted as a solid "yes" vote are floating the possibility of a filibuster. But the idea that this means the Senate should abandon efforts on climate and energy legislation this year is, I think, just another example of Graham looking for an exit as the politics get tougher.

That said, I do think Graham honestly cares about the climate and energy challenge. Unlike others, I don't believe he's been negotiating "in bad faith." But his latest search for an excuse to get out of the effort is probably a sign that Kerry and Lieberman need to move on without him.

I've got a new piece up today looking back at 2008 and the expiration of the long-standing moratorium on offshore drilling. Basically, it's a reminder that public pressure (egged on by the Republicans' chants of "Drill, baby, drill") succeeded in freaking out congressional Democrats, who let the 27-year-old ban on new drilling expire. Had that moratorium been renewed, we wouldn't be caught up in such a grueling debate on the issue now.

But with millions of gallons of crude flooding the Gulf of Mexico, public opinion is changing. A new Rasmussen poll released Thursday finds that while the majority of the public still favors drilling, that majority is declining. Fifty-eight percent of voters believe offshore drilling should be allowed. But that's down 14 points since the end of March, when Obama announced his plans to expand drilling. And while most still approve of drilling, 69 percent say they are "somewhat concerned" that offshore drilling may cause environmental problems. (Hmm, you think?)

The decline is across political parties, though Republicans are still much more enthusiastic about drilling than Democrats, with 77 percent favoring it. EnviroKnow put together a chart documenting public opinion on the subject dating back to June 2008:

The Obama administration put the brakes on drilling expansion last week as the true scope of disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was becoming clear. And on Thursday, the Department of Interior called off plans to lease areas off the coast of Virginia to new oil and gas production. But unless the administration intervenes in the coming weeks, drilling could start in new tracts of the Arctic as soon as July.

A coalition of 15 conservation groups and Alaska Native communities this week urged Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to reconsider approval he issued in late 2009 for Royal Dutch Shell to begin exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the northern coast of Alaska. The groups say that these areas would be particularly vulnerable should a spill occur, and that the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service did an inadequate job of evaluating the potential environmental threats posed by drilling in these seas.

"MMS did not analyze or disclose the effects of a large oil spill from Shell's activities before approving the plans, even though it acknowledges that such a spill could have devastating consequences and could be difficult to clean up in the Arctic Ocean's icy waters," wrote the groups, which include the Alaska Wilderness League, Greenpeace, Earthjustice, and the village of Point Hope.

They may have good reason to be concerned. In the MMS evaluation of the Chukchi application issued last December, the agency concluded that a large spill was "too remote and speculative an occurrence to be considered a reasonably foreseeable occurrence." The MMS evaluation also states that "since 1971, no large crude or condensate spills have occurred from well-control incidents while drilling approximately 14,000 [outer continental shelf] exploration wells." Clearly, the situation in the Gulf upends that.