Blue Marble - June 2010

Eco-News Roundup: Friday June 4

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 6:21 AM EDT

BP spill news dominated this week, but there were some other highlights as well. Here's news on the spill, the environment, and health from our other blogs.

Stonewall: BP's press lockdown continues, denying access to MoJo and PBS, among others.

Number Cruncher: The New York Times challenges the veracity of the Dartmouth Atlas.

Little Thaw: Public opinion toward health care reform is warming, but slowly.

Face Off: David Corn and James Pinkerton discuss the BP spill.

Unspinnable: A PR expert says BP's disaster is pretty much "unspinnable."

Call and Response: Will FL Gov. Charlie Crist's Senate hopes be sunk by his BP response?

Hollywood Cares: Obama meets with James Cameron about the spill, and other tidbits.

Color of Anti-Choice: Anti-abortion forces target black women with billboards.

Comeback Kid: Bobby Jindal's stock is rising as he walks oily beaches and talks with residents.

Too Little: At a summit in Bonn, Germany, polluting nations aren't doing enough to reduce carbon.

Family Guilt: Some juggle flying to see family with the resulting eco-guilt. What to do?

Borderline: An anti-immigration group says immigration is bad for the environment.

Gender Police: With bribery, corruption, and sexual assaults, gays are the least of the military's problems.

 

 

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What Did Obama Know About the Spill Size, and When?

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

The government may still be low-balling the size of the Gulf oil disaster. And according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity from congressional investigators, the government may have been well aware of how bad it was long before admitting it publicly.

According to Coast Guard logs, within a day of the explosion, officials knew that at least 8,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking from the well. By April 23, the Coast Guard logs noted that the spill could actually reach 64,000 to 110,000 barrels per day should a full blowout occur. Officials also knew that the blowout preventer, which was supposed to stop the well in case of an accident, was not functioning.

The Center notes that President Obama's top aides advised him that the blowout had the potential to be much larger than the Exxon Valdez within three days of the blast, but that the White House timeline of events following the explosion omits these details about the spill estimates. For more than a week after the spill, BP was telling the public that just 1,000 barrels of oil was leaking each day. On April 29, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gave a revised figure of 5,000 barrels per day. It wasn't until May 27 (and after considerable public pressure) that the government-assembled flow rate team released a preliminary finding raising the estimate to 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day. Even that looks like a low-end estimate.

If you appreciate our BP coverage, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.

Meet Leroy Stick, the Guy Behind @BPGlobalPR

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 2:10 AM EDT

A few weeks ago in Twitterland, tweets from the satirical @BPGlobalPR began cropping up with the hashtag #bpcares. The @BPGlobalPR tweets—minor caricatures of whatever ham-handed approach to crisis management the real BP PR team was trying that day—include lines like:

You don't go drilling 5000 feet underwater with the tools you want, you do it with the tools you have. Very basic tool logic. #bpcares

and

We don't want to alarm anyone, but the robot didn't get stuck. It stopped on its own accord and grinned at us. #skynet

T-shirts were sold; all proceeds went to help clean up efforts in the Gulf. Now the pseudonymous @BPGlobalPR mastermind, Leroy Stick, has published his first press release. A few excerpts:

I’ve read a bunch of articles and blogs about this whole situation by publicists and marketing folk wondering what BP should do to save their brand from @BPGlobalPR. First of all, who cares? Second of all, what kind of business are you in? I’m trashing a company that is literally trashing the ocean, and these idiots are trying to figure out how to protect that company?...

BP seems to only care about maintaining their image so they can keep making money, two things we have blatantly avoided. I don’t have an image and I’m not making any money AT ALL for myself. Every penny we make from the t-shirts goes to the Gulf Restoration Network. Just a few hours ago, we made our first official $10,000 donation to healthygulf.org from the money we’ve made selling free “bp cares” t-shirts in one week.

So what is the point of all this? The point is, FORGET YOUR BRAND. You don’t own it because it is literally nothing. You can spend all sorts of time and money trying to manufacture public opinion, but ultimately, that’s up to the public, now isn’t it?

You know the best way to get the public to respect your brand? Have a respectable brand. Offer a great, innovative product and make responsible, ethical business decisions. Lead the pack! Evolve! Don’t send hundreds of temp workers to the gulf to put on a show for the President. Hire those workers to actually work! Don’t dump toxic dispersant into the ocean just so the surface looks better. Collect the oil and get it out of the water! Don’t tell your employees that they can’t wear respirators while they work because it makes for a bad picture. Take a picture of those employees working safely to fix the problem. Lastly, don’t keep the press and the people trying to help you away from the disaster, open it up so people can see it and help fix it. This isn’t just your disaster, this is a human tragedy. Allow us to mourn so that we can stop being angry.

Read the whole release here.

Josh Harkinson notes that BP is Beyond Preservation brand-wise. But the gist is good advice for all big corporations, no?

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Alabama Awaits the Oil

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 1:54 AM EDT

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Photos © Julia Whitty.
 
Mobile Bay, Alabama. If only BP followed their own admonitions. This sign marks where their pipeline comes ashore at Pascagoula, Mississippi.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I was headed east today, chasing the latest likely oil landfall. Happened upon this pipeline. Didn't realize it was a restricted area, and came pretty close to getting arrested. Not because I was trying to monkeywrench the pipeline. Hell, BP's already done one version of that. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
But because I noticed that some plovers and nighthawks were taking advantage of the fenced enclosure around the pipeline to nest on the ground in there. I tried to give the deputy a short course in birdwatching. But he wasn't amused. Anyway, glad that pipeline's good for something.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Further east, out on Dauphin Island off the Alabama shoreline, where the offshore rigs stand as thick as mangrove islands, everyone I talked to wanted to make sure I understood these were natural gas not oil rigs. Oil, once a mainstay of the Gulf shore, is hated here now. Most of the folks on the island were trying to enjoy what they knew would be their last day of fishing, casting uneasy glances out to sea. Oil was forecast to make landfall here today.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The people I talked to were angry that all the orange boom—which had been stockpiled here by the mile a few weeks ago—and that is designed to keep the oil off the beaches and marshes, has since been deployed to Louisiana. (This was the only piece of boom I saw in Alabama, a short forgotten length left behind.) The people here wanted to know what was going to keep the oil off their beaches and marshes? They wanted to know why BP was hiring 19-year-old men in fast boats to spray dispersant offshore and not the local fishermen who have families to provide for and no work now?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Just across the road from the fishing pier, and pointed straight at the offshore rigs, lie the Civil War cannons of historic Fort Gaines, site of the Battle of Mobile Bay. Too bad these old blunderbusses can't defend against the oil that will probably wash ashore during darkness tonight.
 
 
 

 

Climate Bill Rebranded as BP Spill Bill?

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 4:34 PM EDT

Looking to use the Gulf oil spill as an impetus to act on climate and energy legislation, the Senate expects next week to start work on a revamped "BP spill bill" one that includes both tougher regulation of the industry and the climate and energy provisions outlined last month by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Mike Allen teased this out in this morning's email, noting that the new plan to combine the two issues operates "on the theory the bill will be hard to oppose." A Democratic Senate aide confirmed to Mother Jones that this is the anticipated plan: combine the standing legislation with the energy bill passed last summer and a new spill-specific package.

Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to committee chairs on Thursday signaling he intends to move a package in July, and expects relevant committee work to be completed by then. "I think it is extremely important that you each examine what could be included in a comprehensive energy bill that would address the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico," Reid wrote.

"Among the actions I think we need to explore are ensuring that the oil companies are held accountable for their actions and the damages caused by their operation," he continued. Reid is meeting with the chairs next Thursday, June 10, to discuss the legislative prospects.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee, lead by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, is expected to consider some oil-spill specific legislation in the coming weeks, likely looking at how to tighten regulations. "We're trying to address all of the key concerns," said committee spokesman Bill Wicker. "This is a work in progress. It's being written carefully, and that takes time." Wicker added, however, that Bingaman "fully expects the Senate to be considering this sometime this summer."

Other senators have introduced bills that would raise the liability cap for oil spills and eliminate some tax breaks for oil, and a number of senators have proposed legislation to protect areas from new drilling. It's not clear at this point which bills might make it into a final package.

In a speech on Wednesday, Obama signaled that he would also step up the push for legislation in the coming weeks. "I will make the case for a clean energy future wherever I can and I will work with anyone to get this done, and we will get it done." He acknowledged that getting a bill passed will be a struggle. "The votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months."

If you appreciate our BP coverage, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.

Pro-Life Movement Goes "Green"

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 3:28 PM EDT

The pro-life coalition American Life League has a new tactic for convincing women not to use birth control: The Pill Kills the Environment campaign, set to launch this Saturday, June 5. From the "Talking Points" section of the campaign website:

Q: What can we do to help save our environment?
A: Educate! Educate the women in your life about the dangerous consequences the birth control pill can have, not only on them but on their preborn baby and all of the people in their community as well. The very fact that scientists are finding "intersex" fish, that is male fish with eggs in their testes, should be enough to alarm the environmentalists in your area and others that are concerned about protecting our environment. Scientists are finding that the presence of female hormones in our water is making male fish, frogs and river otters less masculine.

Oy. It's true that the hormones from birth control are a problem in waterways, but ALL's take on the subject lacks some serious perspective, to say the least. As we reported in an Econundrum on the subject:

Long-lasting devices like diaphragms create less waste than single-use rubbers, which can end up in sewers, clog waste treatment plants, and potentially pose a threat to wildlife. The Pill, while waste free, sends small amounts of estrogen into waterways, possibly harming fish. But whatever works for you—the toll of a few prophylactics is nothing compared to the environmental consequences of population growth.

For more on the environmental consequences of overpopulation, read MoJo environment reporter Julia Whitty's excellent piece on the issue here.

In the meantime, if you're worried about the pill's effect on the environment, you might be just the kind of person who would enjoy this. Endangered species condom!

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Markey Intro's Bill to Fund Better Oil Spill Response R&D

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 2:22 PM EDT

BP CEO Tony Hayward admitted Thursday that it is "an entirely fair criticism" that the company was not prepared for a deepwater oil blowout of this magnitude. "We did not have the tools you would want in your tool-kit," he told the Financial Times. It was already clear that the company didn't take safety planning very seriously; now one lawmaker has put forward a bill to force better preparation for this kind of disaster.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said Thursday he intends to introduce a bill following the Memorial Day recess that would force companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to begin paying royalties on some lands that are currently free, and redirect that money to the research and development of safety and spill-response technology.

"From junk shots to top hats, this spill shows that BP and the oil industry paid more attention to drilling ultra-deep instead of creating ultra-safe technologies to prevent and respond to a crisis," said Markey. He's calling it the "Oil Safety for Offshore Spills Fund" (or the Oil SOS for short).

Under a 1995 law, the Deepwater Royalty Relief Act, some oil producers in the Gulf received leases between 1996 and 2000 free of charge. The bill would seek to recoup those funds, and Markey says that could add up to $53 billion dollars in future royalties from companies drilling in the Gulf. His bill would also repeal some of the royalty relief granted in the 2005 energy bill.

Endangered Animals in BP's Wake

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 12:36 PM EDT

As reporter Kate Sheppard blogged earlier, the growing, unphotographable wildlife death toll from the BP spill is incredible: 444 dead birds, 222 dead sea turtles, and 24 mammals (including dolphins). Some of the oil-slicked critters were already endangered, like this baby Kemp's Ridley sea turtle. Right now is nesting season for the endangered turtles, and they must swim through the Gulf of Mexico to get to their Mexican breeding grounds. But the Kemp's Ridley isn't the only endangered creature battling sticky oil: brown pelicans, who flew of the Endangered Species List in November, have nests and newborn hatchlings in the spill zone. Our reporter Julia Whitty has pics here.

Wildlife tolls can only be expected to climb, especially as endangered manatees continue migrating to the Gulf's warm waters. One manatee in particular, named "Bama," is worrying wildlife biologists as she makes her way back to the Gulf. Bama's tagged, so biologists can watch her movements and her proximity to the spill zone. "We know that she's not the only animal out there... But we think it's very likely that she's just reflective of other animals that are also making the same regular seasonal migration," Dr. Carmichael of the Alabama Dauphin Island Sea Lab told a Florida news station. Aside from manatees, the Gulf is home to dozens of threatened or endangered species, from the gulf sturgeon to the wood stork, not to mention plants and insects. Some of these animals live nearly exclusively in wildlife preserves, but that won't keep the oil out: there are 34 national wildlife refuges at risk from spill-related pollution, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.


 

Is the Government Low-Balling the Spill Size?

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 12:15 PM EDT

Last week, experts assembled by the federal government announced the preliminary findings of efforts to analyze the amount of oil gushing out of the Gulf well. The head of the effort announced at a press briefing that the scientists' best estimate is that 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil are spewing into the ocean each day—two to four times more than the government's initial assessment. But the group's own preliminary report on the spill size, which was provided to Mother Jones by congressional investigators, indicates that the range announced to the press may still be significantly understating the scale of the spill.

The head of the spill rate team, US Geological Survey Director Dr. Marcia McNutt, explained in a call with reporters last week that the 12,000 to 19,000 barrel figure was based on the "area of overlap" between estimates from several teams who had separately assessed satellite images of the spill area and video footage of the spill site.

But a close reading of the preliminary report (which was posted online, but is more detailed than what was sent to reporters last week) indicates that the figures were drawn from just one team—which was only analyzing oil on the surface of the water, via satellite images and remote sensing equipment. We already know that the unprecedented volume of chemical dispersants used by BP has pushed massive quantities of oil under water. Other oil has been burned off, skimmed from the top, and evaporated. McNutt said the group attempted to correct for dispersed oil, but the report indicates that the process for doing so was far from precise; the team just doubled the total from the amount that sensors and satellites show. Using video footage—which can capture oil both on and below the surface of the ocean—would be far more accurate. And indeed, the team using video footage to analyze the spill estimated that 12,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil were leaking from the site each day.

Even worse, that analysis could still be under-reporting the real size of the spill. Some of the experts on that team said their analysis had been compromised by the poor quality of the video footage provided by BP, which was little better than a You-Tube clip. Higher quality video, as one team member testified to Congress, is essential to producing an accurate calculation.

The preliminary report also suggests that the government has not come up with a precise way to account for oil that could be hard to measure due to BP's heavy dispersant use (993,000 gallons as of yesterday). Here's a description of the methodology from the team that came up with the 12,000 to 19,000 figure (which includes a Rumsfeldian reference to "unknown unknowns"):

Corrections are then made for the amount of oil that was evaporated, skimmed, burned, and dispersed either subsea or on the sea surface. These corrections nearly double the total amount of oil as of May 17th. The total oil is then divided by the number of days to get an average rate. This method is not without its biases that might not be captured by formal uncertainty bounds as well. For example, all of the corrections made to the surface oil were to add in losses of oil to the system. To the extent that there are other unknown processes that remove oil naturally from the system that are unaccounted for, there may be “unknown unknowns” in this analysis as well.

"I have no clue what it means mathematically to say 'unknown unknowns,'" the congressional investigator tells Mother Jones—adding that the 12,000-19,000 range is likely "low-balling" the size of the spill.

Like the 5,000-barrel-per-day estimate that came before it, the media has now latched onto the 12,000 to 19,000 figure. But if this report is any indication, the real size of the spill remains the biggest known unknown of all.

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Native Americans Fear their Future in the Oil Zone

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 11:41 AM EDT

Check out this Natural Resources Defense Council OnEarth magazine video about the impacts of the oil spill on the Native American Atakapa-Ishak people who call Louisiana's Grand Bayou home. For generations the Philippe family has relied on these lands and waters for fish, shrimp, crabs, and oysters. Now they don't know what they're going to do.