Blue Marble - June 2010

Can Whale Poop Stop Climate Change?

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 2:51 PM EDT

Logic dictates that whales, being the largest mammals in the world, probably take the largest poops in the world. A sperm whale consumes about five times more food each day than does an elephant, which poops out some 150 pounds of dung daily. On land, animal turds can create environmental problems that go far beyond their stench: Methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide from livestock leavings contribute to 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. So besides humans, are whales the planet's biggest per-capita carbon culprits?

Far from it.

A new study by Australian biologists calculates that whale poop actually fights climate change. (No small discovery, given that Popular Science once ranked smelly "whale feces research" as one of the ten worst jobs in science). Soupy red doo-doo from the 12,000 sperm whales in the Southern Ocean helps suck up 200,000 tons of carbon from the atmospshere each year—the equivalent of taking 40,000 cars off the road. Which probably makes whales the most eco-friendly mammals on the planet.

Here's how it works: After gorging on squid and fish, whales return to the surface of the ocean to relieve themselves, leaving behind diarrhea-like plumes that are rich in iron—a nutrient in short supply on the high seas. The iron fertilizes phytoplankton that in turn sucks carbon out of the ocean, sequestering it for centuries to millennia.

A few years ago, the company Planktos used the same basic idea in a controversial scheme to seed the ocean with iron and sell the beneficial results as carbon offsets. But its plan was hamstrung by concerns about unintended side effects. As Mother Jones noted in its story about Planktos, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a maverick operation that harasses whaling vessels, even threatened to intercept Planktos' ship. We concluded that the Planktos debate boiled down to one uncomfortable question: "Whales vs polar bears, anyone?"

Yet the Australian whale poop study, published recently in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, points to an intriguing third path: Reviving whales as way to save those Polar Bears, along with the rest of us. The researchers point out that most whale species are now at a mere one to 10 percent of their historical population sizes. They calculate that restoring Southern Ocean sperm whales to their former numbers would sequester an additional 2 million tons of carbon each year.

That sounds like a clear win-win. The question is how to do it when overfishing and yes, climate change, has already thrown the whales' ocean ecosystem out of whack.

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BP: "We Can and Do Responsibly Operate"

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 2:20 PM EDT

President Obama met with the heads of BP today to kick some ass calmly discuss the state of the company's much criticized response to the oil disaster. But just a few months ago, the White House was soliciting input from BP and other stakeholders for its new Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, a panel of government agencies formed to oversee the "protection, maintenance, and restoration of oceans."

BP's September 14, 2009 letter to the Council on Environmental Quality includes a number of lines that we now know to be not all that true:

U.S. waters and coasts hold enormous natural resource wealth and we have demonstrated we can and do responsibly operate within these areas while supporting American jobs and contributing to energy security. Properly regulated and managed, these areas should and can continue to be available for multiple uses.

And this:

Effective controls are in place and being enforced to appropriately manage water resources in the ocean, lake, and coastal areas in the United States where we operate various industry and commercial operations.

The portions about the effective oversight of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which we now know has long neglected any meaningful environmental analysis of offshore development, is particularly striking:

The minerals Management Service (MMS) five-year leasing program development process takes into consideration multiple uses of US waters and provides balanced environmental stewardship and responsible development of the OCS. The MMS process should be used as a basis for regulatory efforts without realigning the agencies’ regulatory authorities.

The letter could be funny, if BP's well wasn't currently leaking up to 65,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf every day.

Obama's Disappointing Spill Speech

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 10:37 PM EDT

Kevin Drum asked earlier whether President Obama would "go big" in tonight's Oval Office address on the Gulf oil spill disaster. I hoped he would. But he didn't come close.

There was plenty of militaristic talk, with Obama outlining the "battle plan" for the spill and noting that "there will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done." But his speech was short on specifics concerning both the near-term response to the immediate crisis and the long-term energy policy that will curb the nation's dependence on oil.

On the Gulf disaster, Obama could have offered clear direction on several issues: for instance, by clarifying the administration's stance on eliminating the liability cap to protect oil companies from damages following a spill, or by offering a hard number for how much money BP must set aside for the independently administered fund the government has proposed.

Then there are the questions about wider energy and climate policy that remain unanswered. Obama largely avoided the issue of climate change, only uttering the word "climate" once as part of the phrase "a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill." He at least hit the right notes on clean energy, talking about solar power, wind, efficiency, and electric cars, an improvement over his State of the Union address this year, where nuclear power, "clean" coal, and offshore drilling figured heavily. But what his speech lacked was specific directives, which is what the Senate needs at this point. There wasn't even a clear call for a carbon cap, which I fear all but dooms its chances this year.

Take this key passage from the address:

I’m happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party -– as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development -– and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development. All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction.

Guidance from the White House is what moved health care reform and financial re-regulation, but Obama still hasn't asserted himself on climate and energy in the same way. Tonight was that opportunity. He didn't take it.

Gulf Reps. Call for...More Drilling?

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 6:29 PM EDT

Even as oil continues to pour into the Gulf from BP's well a mile below the sea, some members of Congress are calling on the Obama administration to end the temporary moratorium on new drilling in the region. The group, which 17 Republicans and one Democrat from Gulf coast states, argues that the BP disaster and offshore drilling should be treated as separate issues entirely.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Ted Poe (R-Texas) said that "jobs will be lost, businesses will move someplace else" if the moratorium continues, and introduced a bill that would lift the administration's temporary pause on new drilling and exploration. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has introduced companion legislation in the Senate.

"This is about the Gulf coast and about America," said Louisiana's Charlie Melancon, the lone Democrat at the presser. His district in southern Louisiana has been the most affected by the oil disaster, but is also heavily dependent on income from the oil industry. "We are united in support of responsible offshore drilling … The last thing we need is a moratorium on offshore drilling that would result in thousands of workers laid of." He said while he understands that the moratorium is "well intentioned," it "would deliver a body blow to the economy."

It might seem counter-intuitive that the same representatives from states devastated by the Gulf spill are the ones calling on the government to move ahead full-bore on new drilling. But these are also states heavily dependent on income from the oil industry–16 percent of Louisiana's GDP is from the oil industry. That said, the current ban only affects new drilling and exploration, despite what the representatives argued. Rigs already in production have not been affected by the moratorium.

If I were a cynic, I might suspect the fact that all these representatives have taken quite a bit of money from the industry had something to do with it as well. Melancon, who broke down in tears at a hearing last month about the disaster, has taken $312,100 from the oil and gas industry in his career, and $65,500 this year alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Poe has raised $44,250 from the oil and gas industry this year and $208,450 over his lifetime. But surely that has nothing to do with it.

The moratorium, said Poe, is based is "based on unfounded science." He also told reporters that he thinks the current disaster and the future of offshore development should be treated as "separate issues." And yet, the press conference happened as oil executives were testifying before a House panel about their ability to respond to oil spills. The executives admitted that, should the worst happen again, they can't deal with it. "The fact of the matter is when these thing happen, we are not well equipped to handle them," said Rex Tillerson, head of ExxonMobil.

Many of the Republicans used the press conference as an occasion to bash Obama. "This moratorium the president has in place is a job killer," said Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.). "It will make a horrible disaster even worse."

"This is a knee-jerk reaction by the administration to address a problem that doesn't exist," said Pete Olson (R-Texas). Another Texas Republican, John Culberson, argued that the BP oil disaster "is an anomaly–like an airplane falling from the clear blue sky."

Others used it as an opportunity to gripe about all the other places we can't drill, with Ralph Hall (R-Texas) noting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Florida and California coasts as places he'd also like to see drilling. Others complained that Obama might use the oil spill to encourage Congress to pass cap and trade legislation.

Ridiculous arguments aside, I've got to admit, it takes some giant brass balls to stand up and call for more drilling even as your states drown in oil. The members said they are meeting with Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar tomorrow to make their case about why they believe the ban should be lifted.

How to Wean Our Cities From Oil

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 5:34 PM EDT

Here's some good news for anyone who wants the US to kick its oil addiction: Property values in outlying suburbs have been ravaged by the housting bust, 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."

A move towards denser living has huge potential to slash our oil use, 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 Phone Operator: Calls to BP Are Pointless

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 3:28 PM EDT

An anonymous operator from a BP call center in Houston tells a local TV station, KHOU, that the thousands of calls coming in are falling on deaf ears. "We take your information and then we have nothing to give them," the source says, adding that the call center, where 100 operators take spill cleanup suggestions and inquiries about the Vessels of Opportunity program, is "just a diversion to stop [callers] from getting to the corporate office, to the big people."

Some operators don't even bother taking notes: "And they just put down, type: 'Blah, blah, blah,'" the operator says.

Of course, BP denies those claims. Here's the full video:

 

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Live: Kate Sheppard and Grist's David Roberts Dissect Obama's BP Speech

Tue Jun. 15, 2010 2:12 PM EDT

Fresh from his fourth—and first overnight—trip to the Gulf, President Barack Obama will deliver his first ever Oval Office address to the nation tonight at 8pm EDT. The administration says Obama will unveil his plan to make BP compensate Gulf businesses and residents for their mounting, spill-related losses. But what else will the president say? Will he be bold and demand a price on carbon? Or will he stick with punishing BP and leave the larger energy-related issues to Congress. The suspense is killing us ...

Watch the speech at 8 pm EDT. A crew of us will be right there with you, chatting away: our own Kate Sheppard, Grist's David Roberts, Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune, and Josh Freed, Director of the Clean Energy Program.

 

This chat was produced by Grist as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Climate War: Is Tonight Obama's Big Chance?

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 1:36 PM EDT

President Obama will give a prime-time address on the oil disaster in the Gulf Tuesday evening. But will that message also focus on the need for energy reform and climate change policy? Might this be the break out moment for an issue that has stalled repeatedly in the past? Eric Pooley has had a front-row seat to the policy debate over this for years, covering the biggest dilemma of our time with prime access to some of the biggest players. I caught up with Pooley last week to discuss his new book on the fight, The Climate War.

Pooley, now deputy editor of Businessweek, has long been one of my favorite reporters on this beat. He not only breaks big stories, but he legitimately gets the issue, both its challenges and its promises. So I have been awaiting his book The Climate War for some time now, which was released last week. It's a policy book, but one driven by the characters who have been engaged in this war for years. I won't spoil it for those who haven't read it, but in it you'll get a peek at the letter Al Gore sent to President Obama last year about why he should pass a climate bill in 2009, as well as some inside dirt on White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's role in pushing climate to the back of the line.

We talked last week as the Senate was debating a measure from Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski that would effectively neuter the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate planet-warming emissions. For those who work closely on this issue, it was a frustrating morning. Here we've been waiting for the Senate to get around to acting on climate change, and their first significant action of this year ends up being an effort to block progress. "The senate has done everything in its power to avoid doing its job," said Pooley. "This is the next chapter in that."

This led to the more important second question: Is the Senate ever going to get around to acting? After all, Pooley's book remains essentially without a conclusion; it ends around the time of the Copenhagen climate conference, a summit that concluded with a non-binding agreement that leaves the hardest work on climate to future negotiations. At its conclusion, the US lacks its own climate policy, with several initiatives now stalled in the Senate. Right now, carbon regulations face an unclear path forward; they may be included in a broader energy and oil-spill bill, and they may be voted on in a lame-duck Congress post election this year. Or they could get shoved aside again.

The biggest impediment, we agree (and as he notes in an adaptation of the book we featured last week, is the glaring absence of Obama on this issue. "We're waiting to see if Obama means it," said Pooley. "The Senate is in need of adult supervision, somebody has to step in and say, 'I'm the leader of the Democratic party and this is what we're going to do.' There's only one person who can do that, and it's the president."

Interior Rejects Calls to Shut Down BP Atlantis

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 6:15 AM EDT

A whistleblower and an environmental group have asked a federal court to grant a temporary injunction to shut down BP's other big Gulf drilling operation, the BP Atlantis, arguing that it is operating without crucial safety documents. In its court filing responding to the suit, the Department of the Interior argues that shutting down the platform is a decision only the agency can make—the court doesn't have that power.

The agency rejects the legal challenge from Food & Water Watch and former BP contractor-turned-whistleblower Ken Abbott. The department also says it is conducting an "exhaustive investigation" in response to the request of members of Congress "to determine whether BP maintains a complete and accurate set of required engineering drawings for the BP Atlantis platform and its associated subsea components." The results of that investigation "will determine whether any enforcement action (including the very relief requested by Plaintiffs—suspension of production) is appropriate."

The Minerals Management Service was supposed to complete that review by the end of May, but the agency says that because of the Deepwater Horizon incident "the Atlantis investigation was temporarily suspended." The court filing says that because of the "quantity of records and need for MMS to focus on responding to the Deepwater Horizon accident," the investigation is only about 10 percent complete at this time, and should be finished in the next three months.

But in a statement on Monday, Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter accused the agency of "dragging its feet" in attending to the red flags at the BP Atlantis. "Their inability to close a rig that is operating without any evidence of safety, especially in light of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, has led us to conclude that Secretary Salazar is serving oil interests, not the public interest."

Salazar "Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic" Says Babbit

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Former Department of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt ripped on current Secretary Ken Salazar's plans to reform the beleaguered Minerals Management Service over the weekend. "I think Salazar is basically rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic," Babbitt, who served as secretary for eight years under Bill Clinton, told Platts Energy Week.

In the weeks since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, the Minerals Management Service has been blasted for years of lax oversight that likely contributed to the disaster. Salazar announced an overhaul of policies of the department last month, shortly after splitting MMS into separate divisions to oversee revenue collection and regulation. The head of MMS was pushed out as well as attention to the agency's failures grew.

But Babbitt says splitting the department doesn't go far enough. "You can walk down the hall and the environmental regulation will be a different office in the same agency," said Babbitt. "I think we need much more basic structural reform." Environmental oversight of offshore drilling should be handled by a separate agency altogether that can serve as an independent regulator, possibly the Environmental Protection Agency.

Babbitt also served on the presidential committee that Jimmy Carter created in 1979 to review the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Babbitt said he thinks the Gulf spill is "very comparable" in terms of serving as "a defining industrial accident," one that creates opportunity for meaningful reforms.

While the risks of drilling have increased as oil companies moved from land, to shallow waters, to deeper and deeper drilling sites, the regulatory process has not kept up, he said. "The industry has been essentially self-regulating," said Babbitt, and the changes and restructuring that are needed should be a top focus as President Obama's oil spill commission looks at the current disaster.