Blue Marble - June 2010

Gulf Spill Conspiracy Watch: Locusts Coming Soon?

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 1:01 PM PDT

At day 64, the Gulf spill could surely be described as a catastrophe "of biblical proportions." But apparently there are those out there who believe it is, in fact, a sign that the end is nigh.

Today I stumbled on The World Prophecy website, which from what I gather is a conspiracy-themed site with a special focus on the end of the world. The site's "apocalypse" section asks and then answers the important question:

Is the oil spill in the bible?
Yes it is:
Revelation 16:3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became blood like that of a dead man; and every living thing in the sea died.

I've been trying to keep on top of the various conspiracies related to the spill, and there are quite a few. The Bermuda Triangle? Check. FEMA trailers? Check. BP caused the spill on purpose? Check. Environmentalists blew up the Deepwater Horizon? Check.

But with lightning striking the ship capturing oil last week and robotic vehicles wrecking the containment dome today, even I am starting to wonder if these doomsayers are on to something.

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Breaking: Gulf Geyser Uncapped

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 10:06 AM PDT

After an accident involving the containment system, the Gulf gusher is spewing oil at full force yet again. Here's the breaking news blast from the Washington Post:

Adm. Thad Allen said Wednesday that an accident triggered the removal of a containment cap on the oil geyser. Officials are examining the cap to look for hydrate formation and hope to replace it on the gushing well.

The Associated Press reports that a robotic vehicle hit the containment dome's venting system, which caused gas to rise through the vent. The system cares warm water through the dome to keep ice-like crystals from forming, which is what foiled previous capping attempts.

BP said that between the containment dome and burning off the oil at the surface, they captured 27,100 barrels yesterday. Now all that oil is gushing unrestrained into the Gulf again, as the video feed shows.

How much oil? We still don't know for sure. The last official government estimate said it could be as high as 60,000 barrels per day. But Allen also said earlier this week that BP and the Coast Guard have set a goal of raising their siphoning capacity to 60,000 to 80,000 barrels a day by mid-July, which would indicate to me that the latest official estimate is still lowballing the total flow.

UPDATE: Here's what the official press release from Unified Command says:

This morning at approximately 8:45 a.m. CDT, a discharge of liquids was observed from a diverter valve on the drill ship Discoverer Enterprise,which is on station at the MC252 well-site. As a precautionary measure,the lower marine riser package (LMRP) containment cap system, attached to the Discover Enterprise, has been moved off the Deepwater Horizon's failed blow-out preventer to ensure the safety of operations and allow the unexpected release of liquids to be analyzed.
Capture of oil and gas through the LMRP cap is therefore temporarily suspended until such time that the cap can be re-installed. Capture of oil and gas through the BOP's choke line to the Q4000 vessel on the surface continues.

UPDATE 2: More horrifying news: Allen also said that two cleanup workers have died. Reuters reports: "The deaths did not appear work-related but were under investigation, he said."

Did Barton Just Unapologize?

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 9:29 AM PDT

Which is more ridiculous: Republicans pardoning Joe Barton's apology to BP last week and letting him keep his prized seat as Ranking Member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, or Barton taking to Twitter this morning to validate himself in the third person?

Barton's feed linked to this piece, titled "Joe Barton Was Right," which Barton posted to his page on the social networking site Amplify. That post reprints a portion of an American Spectator piece on the same subject.

The real question though, is what this says about Barton's apology for the apology last week. Which one did he actually mean to offer?

UPDATE: Now it looks like Barton deleted the Tweet. Good thing David Weigel got a screen shot. Does this mean he's apologizing for un-apologizing?

Enviro News Round-Up: Barton Keeps His Seat, BP Ruins Weddings, and More

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 5:05 AM PDT

Today in oil disaster news:

After a federal judge threw out the Obama administration's 6-month moratorium on new offshore drilling and exploration yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he will issue a new one.

The much-maligned Minerals Management Service got a new boss, Michael Bromwich, and a new, more wordy name: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Apparently they're going to call it the "Bureau of Ocean Energy" or BOE, for short.

The oil disaster is upending plans for beach weddings along the Gulf Coast, as brides and grooms decide to relocate to places where they won't have to leap tar balls as they say "I do." It's inconvenient for couples, but a major problem for the wedding planners, DJs, caterers, photographers, and hotel owners in the region.

Republicans have been busy bashing President Obama's spill response, but as The Hill reports, very few have actually visited the region most affected by the oil disaster.

BP says it will donate the money from the sales of oil siphoned off the Gulf gusher to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, with an initial donation of $5 million. How charitable!

Speaking of collecting oil, BP now says it's now collecting more than 23,000 barrels of oil per day.

BP's shares hit a 13-year low yesterday.

The House is expected to vote today on a bill to grant the power of subpoena to the presidential oil spill commission.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is expected to keep his post as Ranking Member on the Energy and Commerce Committee despite his apology to BP last week, which rankled a number of his colleagues.

And in climate news:

A bipartisan group of senators is meeting with President Obama at the White House this morning at 9:30. On the invite list: Democrats: Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), John Kerry (Mass.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), and Joe Lieberman (Conn.). Republicans: George Voinovich (Ohio), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Susan Collins (Maine). UPDATE: This morning's meeting has been canceled due to the president's meeting with General Stanley McChrystal, and willl likely be rescheduled for next week.

A reporter for The Sunday Times in London who in February alledged that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published "bogus" data about the impact of climate change on rainforests has apologized to the scientist he maligned. A win for science, but not so much for rainforests: the scientist, Simon Lewis of the University of Leeds, was validated in his estimation that 40 percent of the Amazonian rainforest could die as temperatures rise.

The Coming Era of Energy Disasters

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

Isn't it strange that, no matter how terrible the news from the Gulf, the media still can't help offering a lurking, BP-influenced narrative of hope? Here's a recent headline from my hometown paper, for instance: "Signs of Hope as BP Captures Record Oil Amounts."  The piece is based on a BP report that, last Thursday, its woefully inadequate, ill-fitting "top hat" had captured more than 25,000 barrels of the gushing oil—that is, five times more than it long claimed was spewing from its busted well (25 times more than it originally suggested). 

With semi-official estimates in the range of 35,000-60,000 barrels escaping a day (and those numbers regularly on the rise), this represents a strange version of hopeful news. Ominously enough, by the end of July, with a new, larger, "tighter" cap theoretically in place, BP is aiming to capture up to 80,000 barrels a day (that is, 20,000 barrels more than it has publicly acknowledged might possibly be spewing from the floor of the Gulf). In all such articles, the real narrative of hope, however, involves the relief wells, the first of which is now within "200 feet" of the busted well. Usually, the date for one of those wells to plug the leak is given as "early August" or "mid-August" and it's regularly said that the drilling of those wells is advancing "ahead of schedule."

Judge Who Struck Down Gulf Drilling Moratorium Owned Transocean Stock

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 11:51 AM PDT

A federal judge in New Orleans on Tuesday sided with the oil industry, striking down the temporary moratorium on new offshore exploration and deepwater drilling the Obama administration imposed last month. That judge, it turns out, has in recent years had interests in Transocean—the world's largest offshore drilling company and the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig—as well as other energy companies engaged in offshore oil extraction.

According to the most recently available financial disclosure form for US District Court Judge Martin Feldman, he had holdings of up to $15,000 in Transocean in 2008. He has also recently owned stock in offshore drilling or oilfield service providers Halliburton, Prospect Energy, Hercules Offshore, Parker Drilling Co., and ATP Oil & Gas. Feldman was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

Obama's six-month moratorium put the brakes on the approval of new permits for deepwater drilling and suspended work at 33 exploratory wells in the Gulf and Pacific. A group of oil and gas companies, with the support of the state of Louisiana, asked the court to throw out the moratorium so they can continue drilling. Feldman heard two hours of arguments Monday on whether to grant an injunction to lift the moratorium before rendering his decision today. Describing the moratorium as "arbitrary and capricous," Feldman wrote in his opinion: "If some drilling equipment parts are flawed, is it rational to say all are? Are all airplanes a danger because one was? All oil tankers like Exxon Valdez? All trains? All mines? That sort of thinking seems heavy-handed, and rather overbearing."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the Obama administration would immediately appeal Feldman's ruling.

The plaintiffs in the suit included Hornbeck Offshore Services, Bollinger Shipyards Inc., Bee Mar Deepwater Vessel Companies and Chouest Shore Side, Vessel, and Shipyard Companies. The Sierra Club, the Florida Wildlife Federation, and several other environmental groups filed briefs in support of the administration.

While not party to the lawsuit, Transocean has been highly critical of the moratorium. Speaking at an industry conference in London on Tuesday, CEO Steven Newman called the moratorium "arbitrary."

Feldman's most recent financial disclosures are not yet available online, so it remains unclear whether he still has holdings in Transocean and a host of other firms with a stake in the verdict he rendered on Tuesday. If he does, that raises the question of whether he should have been barred from hearing the case because of his financial interests. But in Louisiana it's hard to find a judge without ties to the industry. In the Gulf region, 37 of 64 federal judges have some ties to the oil sector.

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Unchartered Waters: The Spill and Human Health

Tue Jun. 22, 2010 11:46 AM PDT

Fisherman George Jackson fell ill in May while working to clean up the oil spill for BP. Now he's waiting for approval from his doctor to get back to work.

"My eyes started burning and I started getting dizzy, dizziness and nausea," he said.

According to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, more than 100 people have complained about health problems they believe were caused by the oil spill.

"The headaches, the dizziness, the shortness of breath… these are common symptoms we would see around dispersants, common symptoms we would see around the burning of crude or any hydrocarbon for that matter," said Damon Dietrich, a doctor at the West Jefferson Medical Center in Louisiana where seven clean up workers were decontaminated in a hazmat unit before being admitted to the ER.

The health and safety of the more than 20,000 clean up workers is a growing concern, given the amount of oil and the length of time workers are exposed to it. Fresh crude oil contains volatile organic compounds, some of which are known to cause cancer.

How serious are the short- and long-term health risks for clean-up workers? How should they be protected? And who is ultimately in charge of their safety?

Need to Know correspondent Dr. Emily Senay talks to BP, leading scientists and Louisiana state health officials to find answers.

But with little hard science about the long-term health effects on spill workers—and dispersants used in unprecedented quantities—there are more questions than answers.

This piece was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Why Has Obama's Approval Held Steady Despite the Oil Spill?

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 11:23 AM PDT

A recent batch of polls reveal that President Obama's job approval has remained steady over the last two months despite his presiding over the biggest environmental catastrophe in our nation's history. Why might that be?

First, consider the evidence. Checking realclearpolitics.com's presidential job approval index of major polls, Obama's job approval on June 18 stood at 48.1 percent, virtually equal to his 47.9 percent rating on April 23, the day of the spill. His disapproval rating has also changed very little on average, moving to 47.4 on June 18 from 46.9 on April 23.

Tom Bevan at realcearpolitics.com notes that on specific questions regarding the oil spill, Obama's rating has shifted recently in a decidedly negative direction. So why isn't that reflected in his overall job approval ratings?

Two reasons suggest themselves. First, Obama has BP to thank for his job approval stability. BP has primary responsibility for the spill and response, and the blame is readily shifted to them—as Obama has done. A large multinational corporation is a convenient presidential punching bag. The public has by now learned much about the spill and apparently had decided that Obama does not merit sufficient blame to deserve lower job approval.

'Reasonably High' Chance BP Files for Bankruptcy

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 11:14 AM PDT

There is a reasonably high chance that BP could file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the next few years, or even months, and the result would be an "absolute horror" for the government, according to a bankruptcy expert.

Peter S. Kaufman, the President of investment bank Gordian Group and head of the firm's Restructuring and Distressed M&A practice, told me that if he had BP's ear, "I'd advise them to explore the option of bankruptcy." If he had the government's ear, he'd tell them to stop berating the company to the point where BP would find it appealing to use bankruptcy to limit its liabilities.

The specter of Chapter 11 bankruptcy terrifies Gulf residents because it could allow BP to delay, or even avoid, paying billions of dollars to businesses and individuals affected by the Gulf spill. The chapter is specifically for companies in temporary financial trouble who can reemerge as viable if they receive new funding, cancel burdensome contracts and delay, restructure, or wall off repayment obligations.

I spoke with Kaufman about the possibility of a BP bankruptcy yesterday. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation yesterday, which includes further clarifications from an email follow-up with Kaufman this morning:

Valdez Spill: Three Times Bigger Than We Thought?

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 8:20 AM PDT

We've watched the size of the Gulf catastrophe balloon over the past few weeks, from BP's early claim of 1,000 barrels per day to the government flow rate team's latest estimate that as much as 60,000 barrels could be spewing into the Gulf every day. Throughout the disaster, it's been repeatedly compared to the 10.8-million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill, the last major oil catastrophe in the US. But was the 1989 Valdez spill actually three times bigger than the figure often repeated in the press?

Dr. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and fisherman in Alaska at the time of the Exxon disaster, says that the 10.8 million gallon number the media has cited for the past two decades is likely dramatically less than was actually spilled. She told NPR's "On The Media" this week that the actual figure was probably more like 30 to 35 million gallons, according to independent surveyors. But the media has simply parroted Exxon's estimates:

RIKI OTT: Right off the bat, day one, uh, when I was in Cordova flying over to Valdez, we heard that there was a low-end estimate of 10.4 million gallons and a high end estimate of 38 million gallons. And the next day it was nudged up to 10.8 million gallons, and the media just captured that number. Already, 10.8 million gallons was horrific. It was the biggest oil spill in our nation's history. It was big enough for the media.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you saying that the media simply ignored the high end estimate, or Exxon stopped repeating it?

RIKI OTT: Exxon never said it in a press conference. Just when the media started to ask questions, where did that 10.8 million gallons come from, has it been independently verified, Frank Iarossi, the owner of Exxon Shipping, at a press conference said, alcohol may be involved. And I kid you not, I witnessed the entire international media just switch tracks, and that was how we got 10.8 million gallons, rounded up to 11.

A couple years later, when I saw the movie Wag the Dog, I saw that scene where the president was just about to get nailed, and a plant in the audience says, well, what about the bombs in Albania? And the whole media switched to bombs in Albania. And I rose up out of my seat, and I said, that is how we got 11 million gallons. And my two friends each grabbed a wrist and pulled me back down into my chair. And I just swore that I would never forget 38 million gallons.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’re essentially saying that the media have the attention span of a puppy. In other words, they ask a question and then uh the uh Exxon Valdez managers go, look, a squirrel, and then they're off and running and they forgot what they asked.

RIKI OTT: That’s pretty much exactly what happened.

This is important in light of the Gulf spill. If we believed BP's early estimate that only 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, worth of oil was leaking every day, that would mean that about 2.6 million gallons of oil had spilled into the Gulf since the disaster began two months ago. If we believe the latest high-end figure from the federal government's spill team, that figure could be closer to 160 million gallons.