Blue Marble - June 2010

Will Climate Legislation Get Shoved Aside Again?

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 5:59 PM EDT

There was talk late last week that the climate and energy package might be revamped and rebranded as the "BP Spill Bill," a package that combines the energy bill passed last summer, the carbon-reduction provisions in the bill from John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and new rules governing the oil industry. But the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate today suggested that climate provisions would have to come in the form of an amendment – making their future this year even more bleak.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said Monday that he expects that the energy bill that passed last summer will likely serve as the starting point for the package. That measure, authored by Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), has been criticize as a "flashback to Bush energy policy," since it lacks any kind of cap on carbon and contains many concessions to the oil, coal, gas, and nuclear industries. That bill, said Schumer in an appearance on MSNBC, would be "the base bill upon which John Kerry will seek to add his bill," likely in the form of an amendment.

"Kerry has a proposal that has pretty broad support," said Schumer. "He's going, in my opinion, going to get a chance to offer it in the form of an amendment."

Schumer tried to put a positive spin on it, but making climate a mere add-on would be a major setback for Kerry's drive to get the bill passed this year. Combining it with the oil spill-related provisions created an opportunity for an issue that has been less than palatable for many Democrats this year. "Of course, the extreme people on each side say it's not good enough," said Schumer. "But he's done a damn good job, and he's going to, in my opinion, get a chance to offer that amendment, and we'll see if it has the votes."

A Schumer spokesman walked back from the comments in an email to the National Journal, saying that "no decisions have been made yet on the floor strategy for legislation." Kerry and Schumer are supposed to meet later this week to discuss plans. Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will ultimately be responsible for uniting legislation into a single package, is slated to meet with Kerry, Bingaman, and other committee chairs on Thursday to discuss the measure.

There's a lot going on this week in climate-related news. This morning, Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) was slated to introduce his own energy package, an alternative to the Kerry-Lieberman bill, at a press conference, but it was delayed due to a flight cancellation. Lugar outlined the measure back in March, which mostly relies on improved fuel economy standards and a massive expansion of nuclear power, with no firm limits on carbon pollution. There was a range of reactions from environmental groups on the Lugar effort, noting basically that his measure doesn't do enough on climate, but that it should be taken as a positive sign that he wants to engage on the subject. Ever since Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) walked away from the Kerry-Lieberman effort, the bill has been lacking any Republican support.

Also this week, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is planning to offer her measure to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. As of last count, she had 41 votes lined up for the measure, which requires 51 votes to pass.

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How Is BP Putting Its Clean-up Dollars to Work?

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 4:34 PM EDT

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Photos © Julia Whitty.
 
East Bay, Louisiana. As Kate Sheppard reported earlier today, the government has spent $93 million on the Gulf clean-up so far, and BP has yet to pay any of it back. Here's what I found BP crews working on Saturday near the end of South Pass, the shipping channel closest to the spill site, in the remote southernmost reach of the Mississippi River. 
 
 
 
For reference, the lat-long marker on the bottom right of the map indicates the approximate location of the beach in the above photograph. The three lat-long markers to the left mark (from left to right): Elmer's Island, Grand Isle, and Barataria Bay. These three are some of the places most heavily hit by oil and also most accessible by car or boat and therefore most heavily covered by the media.
 
But what about the more remote places that are actually closer to the spill site?
 
The lat-long marker in this map shows the approximate location of Mississippi Canyon 252, the site of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. I've guestimated this location from the NOAA oill spill forecast maps. You can see how the closest landfall is at the end of South Pass, on the remote beach in the photograph above.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
There was an intense hub of activity around these beaches at the end of South Pass. Probably 100 or more men in upwards of two dozen boats.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Every kind of boat known to southern Louisiana—airboats, pirogues, pole boats, trawlers, skiffs, crew boats, river barges—were assembled here laying boom, ferrying men back and forth (have yet to see a single woman working any crew anywhere), ferrying bagged sand from the beaches to the barges, dragging absorbent boom.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
This shrimp trawler is rigged to drag the orange booms to collect surface oil before it makes landfall. It may also drag a white absorbent boom. But this one wasn't working, just anchored with its outriggers open and the boom at rest in the water.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Here's a guy napping in his boat. Not sure if he's holding the boom in place or what.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
You can see this boom has been heavily oiled.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The guys scraping the oil—and probably some kind of absorbent chemical—off the beach (top photograph) were shoveling the contaminated stuff into plastic bags. These bags were ferried offshore by airboats, whose crews tossed them onto this barge.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It was an efficient operation. But the vast majority of the wetlands around these beaches were left more or less untended. Maybe they have a boom around them. Maybe not.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The fishermen we talked to out here who were working the spill, and who did not want their names used because they have been warned against talking to the media for fear of their clean-up jobs, were angry. BP was forcing them to run back into port at the first sign of summer squalls. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We're used to this weather, the fishermen said. We know how to run behind an island for shelter and wait it out. Then we want to come right back out and clean again. That's all we want to do is clean and get this place clean so that we can fish again. At the rate BP is going, it'll never happen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
They may have stayed, but we ran like hell when this waterspout came after us, tearing waterand oil?off the top of the ocean, carrying it further into the marshes.

Immigration Raids on Oil-Spill Workers, and Other News From the Gulf

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 1:41 PM EDT

MoJo reporter Mac McClelland is reporting from the Gulf Coast, tweeting, blogging, and snapping pictures of the BP disaster. Over at her blog, The Rights Stuff, Mac reports on ICE's crackdown on undocumented oil spill workers. Last week, a BP mole spilled the beans to Mac about what's really going on behind BP's beach blockades. Finally, watch Mac on PBS' Need to Know:

 

BP's $93 Million Tab

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 11:16 AM EDT

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano sent a letter to congressional leaders Friday warning that the government is in danger of running out of money for the emergency response to the Gulf disaster. Unless Congress acts to free up other money from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF), currents funds "will be insufficient to sustain Federal response operations within two weeks," they warned.

As of June 1, the administration has spent $93 million responding to the Gulf disaster, and BP has yet to reimburse the federal government. The letter notes that the government believes the money will ultimately be recovered from "responsible parties" and deposited into the fund, but that just hasn't happened yet. Thus, wrote Allen and Napolitano, there is an "urgent need" for Congress to allow them to tap into additional money within the trust fund.

So far, the money has been used to pay for the responders from the National Guard, Department of Defense, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior, and the Department of Agriculture. In the letter, they warn that "depleting all currently available funds puts at risk the Nation's ability to address any new spills unrelated to BP/Deepwater Horizon."

Sure, Congress could act to make more money available, and it probably will. More importantly though, BP should start paying up what it owes the federal government. After all, that $93 million just happens to be exactly the same amount of money the oil giant reaps in profits in a single day.

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Why Does BP Get to Keep the Oil?

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 10:03 AM EDT

Why does BP get to keep the approximately 10,000 barrels of oil it's siphoning from the gusher in the Gulf? Considering the ongoing disaster they've created, it seems absurd that the company should get to profit from the crude they're capturing (especially considering there's a criminal investigation into the company underway).

Andrew Revkin suggests BP give the oil to the government:

Along with all of its other obligations and penalties, perhaps BP should be required—if only for symbolic value — to contribute to the United States Strategic Petroleum Reserve an amount of oil equal to every barrel now being salvaged from the seabed gusher at its Macondo Prospect well.
Heck, why not the entire estimated flow, given that the company’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, has acknowledged its failure to prepare for worst-case risks. That momentous lapse has resulted not only in 11 deaths and spreading environmental and economic disruption, but also the loss of a resource owned by the American people.

Oil is currently selling at about $75 a barrel. That means the company could be making $750,000 per day from what they're siphoning. It's a drop in the bucket compared to what it's shelling out to pay for the disaster, but there's no reason BP should get to keep it considering how much they owe Gulf Coast residents and the federal government.

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"The Rig's on Fire! I Told You This Was Gonna Happen!"

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

A prominent Houston attorney with a long record of winning settlements from oil companies says he has new evidence suggesting that the Deepwater Horizon's top managers knew of problems with the rig before it exploded last month, causing the worst oil spill in US history.

Tony Buzbee, a lawyer representing 15 rig workers and dozens of shrimpers, seafood restaurants, and dock workers, says he has obtained a three-page signed statement from a crew member on the boat that rescued the burning rig's workers. The sailor, whom Buzbee refuses to name for fear of costing him his job, was on the ship's bridge when Deepwater Horizon installation manager Jimmy Harrell, a top employee of rig owner Transocean, was speaking with someone in Houston via satellite phone. Buzbee told Mother Jones that, according to this witness account, Harrell was screaming, "Are you fucking happy? Are you fucking happy? The rig's on fire! I told you this was gonna happen."

Whoever was on the other end of the line was apparently trying to calm Harrell down. "I am fucking calm," he went on, according to Buzbee. "You realize the rig is burning?"

At that point, the boat's captain asked Harrell to leave the bridge. It wasn't clear whether Harrell had been talking to Transocean, BP, or someone else.

On Friday a spokesman for Transocean said he couldn't confirm or deny whether the conversation took place. He was unable to make Harrell available for an interview.

During hearings held late last month by the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service, Harrell denied any conflicts with his BP or Transocean bosses. He said that he did not feel pressured to rush the completion of the well, even though the rig had fallen behind schedule.

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BP's Trouble With Numbers

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

As of Sunday evening, BP was reporting more success with the latest method of containing the well that has now been gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 48 days. The company says its new dome is diverting 10,500 barrels of oil to a tanker above. But the number again raises the still unanswered question of just how much is actually coming out of that well.

A new containment dome was successfully lowered over the site last Thursday. There are four vents in this dome, and the company has been closing them very slowly, for fear that too much pressure may build up in the cap or that it could cause the formation of icy hydrates that caused a previous capping effort to fail. They've only closed one vent so far, which means quite a bit of oil is still gushing into the Gulf, as you can see vividly on the live video feed.

The high figure that they've reported capturing would indicate that the larger estimates of how much oil is coming out of the well may be correct. Up until May 27, both BP and the federal government maintained that the release was just 5,000 barrels per day. The team of experts assembled by the federal government then offered an estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day. But a closer inspection of the government's actual report reveals that the figure is probably closer to the high-end estimate offered by the team studying video of the release site, which estimated that as much as 25,000 barrels has gushed from this well every day for almost seven weeks now. It could be even higher now; before placing the new dome last week, the riser from the well had to be cut off, which may have increased the flow by as much as 20 percent.

The improved capture rate from the well is a positive sign, but the cap is not expected to siphon all of the oil even if or when they get it operating at full capacity. And there are already worries about the capacity to collect the oil at the surface; the boat holding the oil now only has the capacity for 15,000 barrels a day.

Meanwhile, BP CEO Tony Hayward is still pedaling specious claims about the spill, saying Sunday that the cap is siphoning "probably the vast majority" of the oil. We've known for quite a while now that BP has a problem with math. The live video indicates the company is still not being upfront about the true extent of the disaster.

In response to Hayward's most recent comment, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) send the company a letter requesting some clarity on just how much oil it actually thinks is coming out of the well at this point. Markey also asked what the company intends to do with all this oil, a separate but equally important question that I'll visit in a future post.

So the question remains: When will BP be honest about just how much oil they're responsible for releasing into the Gulf?

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Is Greek Yogurt Better Than Regular?

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

A few years back, when I lived in the predominantly Greek NYC neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, I got hooked on two foods: 1) flaky, cheesy spinach pie, and 2) yogurt from the local Mediterranean specialty market. Thick, creamy, and tangy, it bore little resemblance to the gelatinous American stuff I was used to. I bought big containers of it and ate it every day for breakfast with fruit. Sadly, since moving to California, I have yet to find a spinach pie as delicious as those in Astoria. (Bay Area readers, your tips are welcome.) But happily, at around the time that I moved, American yogurt manufacturers started making Greek-style yogurt, and since then it's exploded in popularity: All my local supermarkets carry it now. I still think it tastes better than American style. But it's also pricier. Which got me wondering: Which kind of yogurt is more nutritious? And which is better for the environment?

Ohio State University nutritionist Julie Kennel Shertzer explained to me that both Greek- and American-style yogurt are made by fermenting milk with live bacteria cultures—the only difference is that Greek yogurt is strained to remove the liquid whey, hence its thicker consistency. (The Greek yogurt company Fage has a good explanation of the process here.) Both are nutritional superstars: They're excellent sources of calcium and good sources of protein, their bacteria cultures aid digestion, and the unsweetened low- and nonfat varieties are low in calories. But according to Shertzer, Greek yogurt does have a few nutritional advantages over regular yogurt: "Since it's a more concentrated product, it packs a few more grams of protein per serving," she says. It's also a bit lower in sugar and carbohydrates, since lactose, a form of sugar present in all dairy products, is removed with the whey.

But Greek yogurt is not better for the environment than American-style yogurt, for one simple reason: It requires much more milk to make. For American-style yogurt, the ratio of milk to final yogurt product is about 1:1 (sometimes more like 1.3:1, since many manufacturers add in a little bit of condensed skim milk to improve the texture and protein content), while for Greek yogurt it's often as high as 4:1. Considering that dairy farms take quite a toll on the environment and produce a large amount of greenhouse gases (a recent United Nations study found that 3 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from milk production, including shipping) the environmental difference between Greek and American yogurt is fairly significant.

There's another problem, too: What to do with the whey that's left over from the Greek yogurt straining process? Rolf Carlson, vice president of sourcing and development at the yogurt manufacturer Stonyfield Farm explained that there are two kinds of whey: Sweet whey can be used as a food additive, but acid whey isn't as useful. Many major yogurt manufacturers give their acid whey to farmers to be used as animal feed or fertilizer, but according to Carlson, farmers must be careful when applying it to cropland, since whey runoff can pollute waterways (PDF). "It can affect the microbiology of the water," says Carlson. Some good news: Both Stonyfield Farm and the Greek yogurt company Chobani told me they are in the process building pricey anaerobic digesters to convert their waste whey into energy to power the factories.

If you're worried about Greek yogurt's environmental problems, you might consider making your own at home, and using the leftover whey: Simply pour American-style yogurt into cheesecloth and strain it for several hours over a container. The yogurt in the cheesecloth will be thicker and creamier when it's done. Use the whey left in the container instead of water to make rice—or in biscuits or just about any baking recipe in place of water. Supposedly you can also drink it. (I've never tried it, but Mother Jones co-editor-in-chief Monika Bauerlein swears it's delicious.)

Corrections appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that lactose is created during the fermentation process. It's actually present in all dairy products. An earlier version also stated that acid whey was inedible; it's actually just less desirable as a food additive.

Oil Threatens Gulf's Sargassum

| Sun Jun. 6, 2010 10:56 AM EDT

The Gulf of Mexico's sargassum, known locally as Gulfweed, is a marine seaweed that floats at the surface, providing vital nursery grounds for much of the marine life of these waters. The Gulf's sargassum sea is the second largest on Earth after the Sargasso Sea, which circulates in the center of the North Atlantic Gyre. This video and article from the Mobile Press-Register tells the story of sargassum, and its terrible vulnerability to oil.

The floating seaweed amounts to the most ephemeral of the Gulf's aquatic habitats, gathering in patches that range from the size of a backyard pool to swaths measured in hundreds of acres. It drifts at the mercy of wind and tides and collects along the offshore rip lines where different currents meet. Sometimes, it gets pushed ashore, where it rots and stinks, upsetting beachgoers. The same forces that push sargassum patches around in the Gulf are now pushing oil slicks and emulsified goop the consistency of Hershey's syrup. It is inevitable that the two will meet. When they do, scientists say, the sargassum will die.

A day in the sargassum

BP Pays for Oiled Bird Cleaning

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 2:39 PM EDT

By now, some of you have probably seen the same heartwrenching pictures of oil-slicked birds that I have. These creatures are so bogged down by brown gunk that they can barely move. To counter those images (which have been stuck on repeat in my head) I present the picture at left: the same brown pelican before and after cleaning, showing that although an oiled animal may look awful, recovery is possible. As our reporter Mac McClelland has told us (along with other sources) Audubon is on the scene in Louisiana, as is the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) and the Delaware Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research. The agencies are working to capture, clean, and rehabilitate birds who can no longer swim or fly due to oily feathers, and many of whom are sick from ingesting the toxic crude. IBRRC has a 20-person team at the scene. Head Jay Holcomb wrote today

"I am sure by now you have all seen the pictures of the oiled birds that were captured in Grande Isle, Louisiana. We are busy today with those birds... Please know that we are all doing well here, unhappy like you that this is happening, but we have a great master plan to offset as much damage to the birds as we can... I also want you all to understand that this entire oiled bird rehabilitation effort is being paid for by BP. This is appropriate as they are the Responsible Party for this spill."

The process of cleaning a bird seems fairly straightforward, but laborious. First, animals must be identified, treated for immediate health concerns, tagged, and stabilized. Birds (already stressed from the oil) do not like being handled, so the cleaning process itself is stressful for them. After an initial medical examination is made, the birds are usually rehydrated manually through a rubber tube. (As a former wildlife volunteer, I can tell you that this rubber tube business usually goes smoothly: you pry open the beak and gently guide the tube down the throat into the stomach. But the birds do not like it, and when they bite, they bite hard.)

After all this, the cleaning can finally begin. Using a solution of Dawn dishwashing soap and warm water, workers put birds through a series of baths, using attachments to "aerate" the solution through the feathers. After one bath gets dirty, they move the bird to the next one and do the process again. IBRRC says that using 10 to 15 tubs is "not uncommon." After the oil is finally off, the bird is rinsed thoroughly and put under special air-dryers. After that, it's off to the water pools where the bird can paddle around, and experts can observe it before release.