Blue Marble - June 2010

As Hurricane Season Kicks Off, Gulf Oil Worries Grow

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 3:18 PM EDT

As if the oil disaster weren't enough, today is the first day of hurricane season. As Julia Whitty noted last week, hurricanes imperil the thousands of miles of oil pipelines that snake across the Gulf. The storms also threaten to churn up the millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf, pushing the slick further on land and spreading it out over a larger area.

Forecasters have predicted an above average hurricane season this year, which lasts through November. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that 2010 will be an "active to extremely active" year. The agency forecasts between 14 and 23 named storms this year, and 8 to 14 of those will become hurricanes. Between 3 and 7 of those of those will qualify as major hurricanes—with sustained winds of 111 miles per hour or more. There's a 44 percent chance of a strong hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast this year.

"If this outlook holds true," warned NOAA head Jane Lubchenco, "this season could be one of the more active on record."

Unfortunately, the Deepwater Horizon site lies right in the middle of the paths previous Gulf hurricanes have taken to land, including Ivan, Katrina, and Dennis. The Pew Environment Group put together this map showing how the major hurricanes in the region in recent years and the BP spill would collide:

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What To Do With Old Lightbulbs?

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 2:47 PM EDT

Recently switched all the lights in your house over to CFLs? Inhabitat has an idea for giving your old incandescents new life: Make them into vases. Only challenge is to support the bulbs so they stand up. Pictured left is a stand called a Potus Pot, but I imagine it wouldn't be too hard to make your own bulb support. If you filled an old tray with a bed of pebbles a few inches deep, I'm guessing you could nestle a few bulbs in there. Readymade has another idea.

Readers, have any of you found other ways to reuse old lightbulbs?

How BP, MMS Ignored Spill Warning Signs

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 2:30 PM EDT

New documents released over the weekend to the New York Times show that both BP and federal regulators at the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service had plenty of warning that the drilling operation at the Macondo well site was plauged with problems—dating as far back as June 2009. But despite known issues with the well and the blowout preventers, the operation continued until the April 20 blast.

One document reveals that on June 22, 2009, BP engineers noted concerns that the metal casing the company wanted to use on the well could collapse under high pressure. BP used the casing anyway, after overriding its own design and safety standards. Other documents released this week reveal that the company knew that there was "unlikely to be a successful cement job" on the site and that the casing would be "unable to fulfill M.M.S. regulations."

BP also knew that there were problems with the blowout preventer, or BOP, which was supposed to shut off the well in the event of an emergency. The BOP clearly failed to function following the explosion of the well, which has now spewed oil into the Gulf for 43 days. As the documents note, the BOP was found to be leaking fluids on at least three occasions prior to the blast, which would impair its ability to function. But because of the other known problems with the well casing—drilling mud falling into the well, sudden gas releases, and loss of "well control"—the company asked federal regulators at the Minerals Management Service to delay a mandatory test of the BOP.

The MMS first rejected their request for a delay, but then relented. Here's the email issued to BP granting the request:

It's becoming more and more evident that BP knew about numerous problems with this drilling operation, but chose to proceed anyway. But it's also apparent that MMS also knew about these risks and allowed to the company to operate. The Times piece also highlights the fact that federal regulators gave little scrutiny to an April 15 request from BP to revise its plan to deal with a blockage in the well, approving it in under 10 minutes. That was just days before the blast—but it doesn't appear that MMS attempted to question what was going wrong with the well.

BP vs. BP on Dispersants

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 1:45 PM EDT

Independent scientists have reported that giant plumes of oil are forming beneath the waves in the Gulf of Mexico, with one reported to be 22 miles long, six miles wide and more than a thousand feet deep. But according to BP CEO Tony Hayward, those plumes don't exist. That's despite the fact that the company has spread hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants in the Gulf, with the sole purpose of keeping the oil under the surface.

Hayward's own BP colleagues have explained as much. Here's chief operating officer Doug Suttles talking about dispersants two weeks ago:

Let me start with explaining what these dispersants do ... if it works as we have seen in the test, it should mean that there's much less oil on the surface, which means our total dispersant usage will drop significantly and we should be able to monitor or report on that over the next few days.

And here's David Horsup, vice-president for research and development at Nalco, the company that manufactures BP's dispersant of choice, Corexit, explaining how the chemicals work in Nature:

"Aerial observations indicated that the slick on the surface was significantly reduced once you inject the chemical right at the well head," Horsup says. "You get very rapid dispersion of the oil into the water column."

This is also the very reason the EPA authorized the use of subsea dispersants, which has never been done previously:

Preliminary testing results indicate that subsurface use of the dispersant is effective at reducing the amount of oil from reaching the surface – and can do so with the use of less dispersant than is needed when the oil does reach the surface.

The reason these chemicals were designed was to keep oil below the surface. Doing so prevents the problems of oil hitting land, where it affects coastal wetlands and wildlife. Keeping it in the water column means fewer media images of oil-soaked pelicans and sea turtles, but creates its own set of problems for fish, shellfish, and the entire Gulf ecosystem. BP's head apparently wants us to believe that if the oil is out of sight, it should be out of mind.

Memo to Alameda's NIMBYs

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

Many folks in Alameda aren't pleased with "Tall is Beautiful," a story of mine in the May/June issue that chides the liberal Bay Area suburb for rejecting dense, eco-friendly housing. After all, the project was opposed by the mayor, much of the city council, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a bevvy of respectable citizens groups. Now that the story is online, I'm anticipating a barrage of angry comments from Alamedans who think I ignored the downsides of the billion-dollar project to prove my broader point about the advantages of urban density. In reality, debunking every critique of Alameda Point would have made my article as exciting as a court brief. But here on the web, there's plenty of space to bore you with all the details. Forthwith, a granular takedown of the case against Alameda Point.

BP Security Block Boat Ramps, Order US Troops Around

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 10:59 AM EDT
New Orleans, LA. So who's running the Gulf coast of the United States? Or BP security forces? I spent all day yesterday looking for available boat ramps so I could go look at the devastation of the spill first hand. Almost all have been commandeered by the spill police.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
At one checkpoint a young US Army soldier chated with us in a friendly way. The old dudes in hardhats growled at him that he's not supposed to talk to media. He looked at them like WTF?
 
I went over to the old dudes and asked them who they work for. They wouldn't say. I asked them why not. They wouldn't say. One got a pained look in his eyes and said he works for his family. I hear what he's trying to say.
 
I'm hearing reports: huge spike in domestic violence in the spill zone. The men are getting fracked by BP. They come home and take out their frustration, helplessness, and anger in the bottle, and then on their wives and kids.
 
The effects are rippling far beyond the water.

 

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Building the Neighborhoods of the Future

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 9:28 AM EDT

A quick look at the aftermath of the housing bust reveals a clear lesson for real estate developers: Property values in outlying suburbs have been ravaged, but closer to downtown, not so much. On the fringes of the District of Columbia, for instance, suburban homes are now worth half their peak values, yet in DC's walkable inner suburbs and densely built urban neighborhoods, prices are off just 20 percent. Most housing experts now agree that the outer suburbs have been overbuilt and that it's redevelopment in older urban neighborhoods, places not long ago out of favor, that will lead the eventual housing recovery.

The reason for this is primarily demographic. Between now and 2025, Baby Boomers whose kids have moved out will be looking to move into smaller homes at the same time that their kids, members of Gen Y, the huge "Echo Boom," start renting their first apartments. As a result, households without children are expected to account for 90 percent of new housing demand. "Our consumer research shows that all of these consumers want to be in a higher density environment than they currently live in," Shyam Kannan, a real estate consultant with Robert Charles Lesser & Co, told me. "There is a huge pent-up demand for walkable environments."

This is good news for the environment, of course, but it also raises some interesting new challenges that environmentalists should care about. As Christopher Leinberger points out in Atlantic Monthly's new Future of the City issue, we'll need to find creative new ways to fund the kind of public transportation that dense cities require. He proposes bringing back a model, common before WWII, in which developers and governments partner to fund rail lines that then boost private property values. But that's not the only kind of partnership that we'll need. It's also time for environmentalists to set aside their old animosities towards developers and help them win local approval for denser housing, housing that is often fiercely opposed by NIMBYs. I make this case in detail in "Tall is Beautiful," an article in the May/June issue which is now online.

BP Faces Civil Penalties, Among Other Costs

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

We're now on Day 43 of the Gulf oil spill, and it looks increasingly likely that the end won't come for months, if then. Much attention has been paid to whether Congress will raise the liablity cap to ensure that BP pays those affected by the havoc the company unleashed in the Gulf. But the company will also face civil, and possibly criminal, penalties for the disaster.

This is one major reason it's important that we know just how big the spill actually is. The government team assembled to figure out the size of the spill gave a likely range of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day leaking from the well; one team put the high end at 25,000 barrels. Even the low end is far higher than BP's first estimated rate of spill, which was 1,000 barrels per day, and more than twice as large as than the government's initial estimate of 5,000 barrels per day.

While the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 set the liability cap at a paltry $75 million, it also amended the Clean Water Act to set civil penalties per barrel spilled. The base fine for a spill is $1,100 per barrel, but it can go as high as $4,300 a barrel if a federal court determines that the spill was the result of gross negligence by the responsible party. So how do those numbers stack up?

If BP is found to be negligent and we believed their initial 1,000-barrel-per day figure, they'd only owe the American people $184.9 million. If we stuck with the initial government estimate, the company would owe just $924.5 million. If the low end of the updated government estimate is right, they'd owe $2.2 billion. And if the high end is right? They'd owe $4.6 billion at this point.

Looking at the figures, it begins to come more clear why the company tried so hard for so long to downplay the size of the spill. But as we prepare for what looks like an entire summer of this well gushing into the Gulf, it won't be able to keep up that charade.

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