Blue Marble - June 2010

Gulf Disaster: Already More Than 100 Million Gallons?

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 3:07 PM PDT

It wasn't so long ago the notion of 25,000 barrels of oil spewing from the Gulf well each day was a worst-case estimate, compared to the 12,000 to 19,000 figure that the government had deemed reasonable. On Thursday, the government announced that it believes the spill is likely between 20,000 and 40,000. One group's figures, though, put it as high as 50,000 barrels per day. That highest estimate means that as many as 2.1 million gallons of oil could be gushing into the Gulf every day.

Thursday is the 52nd day since the disaster started. If you take the upper estimate, that would mean 109.2 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf—already roughly 10 times more than the Exxon Valdez spill. Even if you used the lower bound, 54 million gallons have poured out—almost five times more than Exxon Valdez.

And it gets worse. These figures are from before the riser leading from the well was cut to put in place the cap that is now funneling a portion of the oil to the surface. Cutting the riser may have increased the flow by 20 percent. The company reports that it's siphoning 15,000 barrels per day using the cap, but much of the total flow it's catching.

In a call with reporters, Marcia McNutt, director of the US Geological Survey and head of the flow rate team, chose her words carefully, stating that they believe the "credible" estimate now is somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels. But McNutt added a qualifier, saying that the higher-end estimate was "somewhere around there, maybe a little bit more." The last time the government rolled out a new estimate, it was criticized for underestimating the size.

The latest report pulls together estimates from three separate teams. An additional team, headed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, has yet to release figures. The highest estimate is drawn from the work of team of experts lead by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Georgia and MIT, which used acoustic technologies to measure flow rates.

Peppered with questions from reporters about why the range remains so large, McNutt acknowledged that before this disaster, not a lot of attention had been paid to this area of research. Evaluating this spill will help improve their methods, she said.  "We will be able to do a much better job next time."

I'm kind of hoping we don't have a "next time." But maybe that's just me.

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Senate Votes Down Murkowski EPA Block

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 2:24 PM PDT

The Senate defeated a bid by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski to neuter the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions by a vote of 53-47 vote on Thursday afternoon. Advocates for action on climate change chalked it up as a win—but it wasn't without some blood.

Six Democrats crossed over and sided with Republicans on the bill: Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Evan Bayh (Ind.) , and Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.).

The vote came after six hours of debate. Murkowski painted the effort as move to protect the economy from regulations she thinks would be crippling. It would just take away the EPA's ability to act "while we work on a more responsible solution," said Murkowski. Other Republicans chose to stick with the argument that greenhouse gases aren't a problem and anyone who believes they are is perpetrating a hoax on the public.

Most among the Democrats portrayed the resolution of disapproval as a bid to protect big polluters. "This is the moment," said California Democrat Barbara Boxer. "Two sides: protecting polluters or protecting our families."

But among the Democrats, there was also Rockefeller, who stated, among other things, that he doesn't care about the Environmental Protection Agency or the Supreme Court, whose 2007 decision directed the EPA to reach a determination about whether or not greenhouse gases pose a threat to humans.

Enviro groups cheered the win, while casting scorn upon the "yes" voters. "The Senators who voted for this resolution should be ashamed of themselves," said Gillian Caldwell, campaign director for 1Sky.

Although some enviro groups, and even Murkowski, insisted that this is "not a referendum on any other legislation pending in the Senate" (i.e., a climate and energy package that may or may not come to a vote later this year), it could still be cast that way. Senators may yet decide to move forward with a bill regulating carbon dioxide. That is what the Obama administration and many others have repeatedly stated would be the ideal situation anyway.

But very few of those voting for today's resolution have expressed much enthusiasm about the Senate passing a new law this year. While Murkowski's loss might make some folks optimistic, it still means that there are 41 Republicans and six Democrats who think that it's okay to tell the EPA that science doesn't matter, and neither does the Supreme Court.  It depends on how you want to look at it.

Senate to Vote on Murkowski EPA Block Today

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 8:17 AM PDT

The Senate is debating the measure from Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that would block the Environmental Protection Agency's conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions threaten public health.

So far, a number of Democrats whose votes were in question have come forward and said they would vote against it. Jim Webb (D-Va.) just said in a statement that he would vote against it. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) yesterday indicated that they are likely to vote against it as well.

But there are still four Democrats likely to vote for it: Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Lincoln just gave a speech on the floor declaring that "Congress, not unelected bureaucrats, should be making the decisions."

The majority of Democrats, however, are opposing the measure. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), speaking for the majority, called the move to block an agency's scientific conclusion "unprecedented." "We have no right to do this," said Boxer. "What we going to do next, repeal the law of gravity?"

Debate limited to six hours, so it will likely end with a vote somewhere around 3:30 p.m. EST. It needs only a simple majority to pass. Right now it looks like Murkowski has at least 42 votes. It probably won't pass, but it could be a close one. I'm live-Tweeting the debate, which you can follow below:

Oil, Oiled Animals Fill Barataria Bay, Louisiana.

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 10:12 PM PDT

 Photos © Julia Whitty

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Barataria Bay, Louisiana. There was a lot of oil when I traveled into the bay today. Sadly.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
In the waters bottlenose dolphins favor—the turbulent waters running between islands and through passes, where rip tides set up lots of crazy seas—the oil collected in frothy current lines.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The dolphins congregated in these waters—even though fouled (the brown muck lines behind this dolphin were oil)—probably because it's what these dolphins have always done. And probably also because it's where the fish still were. These dolphins were swimming in poisonous water, inhaling particles and mist, certainly getting it in their eyes, ears, mouths, and internally. Truth is, there was nowhere else for them to go. All the waters around as far as we could see were oiled.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Brown pelicans—just recently removed from the endangered species list—were returning to their nesting islands even though the shorelines were covered in oil. Note the shiny oiled rocks and the saturated absorbent boom laying across the rocks. The pelican on the right was heavily oiled and struggling to preen himself/herself.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Only one white pelican remained out of about 15 healthy birds I saw on this same spit on this same island about a week ago. But since then, heavy oil has come back through. White pelicans are not solitary birds. They fish cooperatively and hang out together. This pelican was still looking white—even though the water all around Queen Bess Island was oiled.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
But just around the corner there was another unusual solitary white pelican and, even from a distance (the containment booms were keeping us away), we could see this bird was oiled on the chest feathers and the gular sack. Which makes sense, since white pelicans don't dive, but fish by scooping prey from the water while floating on it. Most of the pelicans we saw on Queen Bess had visible oil at least on their chest feathers. Even a relatively small amount of oil may well prove lethal since the birds will ingest it while preening. And all an oiled bird wants to do is preen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Many of the oiled pelicans were obviously stressed, with their wings open, or obsessively preening. You can just make out the  two pelican chicks in the background on the black rocks. They were also oiled.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The rocky shorelines on all the islands around here were covered with oil that had pooled up between the rocks.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
This was the Hersey's syrup variety of oil.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Very nasty.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The shallow waters and sandy beaches on the eastern end of Grand Isle were also badly oiled today.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Some of it was still volatile, bubbling with methane. Even though it probably seeped out of the well a month ago.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
On one beach alone hermit crabs by the hundreds were fleeing the waters. You can see this one's tracks up the beach. They were fleeing but it was no good. They were all dying from exposure to oil or dispersant or both.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Many, many thanks to the Greenpeace crew—Dan, Katie, Kate, Rick, and Molly—for allowing me to join them on the water today. It was a privilege to sail with them.
 
 
 
 

If You Spill It, He Will Come

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 3:36 PM PDT

Kevin Costner is definitely not an oil spill expert. Flanked by four seasoned marine scientists with doctoral degrees in the subject, he was the least likely member of a panel testifying to a House subcommittee about oil spill clean ups on Wednesday. He acknowledged as much in opening remarks. "There's been some question as to why I'm here," he said. "It's not because I heard a voice in a cornfield."

But over three hours of hearings Wednesday, Costner became the unlikely voice expressing the heart of an issue that has become very clear in the past 7 weeks. Neither oil companies nor the government were adequately prepared for a major oil spill. In fact, no one really believed that one would ever happen, and for years under-invested in and under-planned response technology.

Costner seems to have developed somewhat of an obsession with oil spill clean up. He got interested in the subject in 1995, and although he says he was inspired by the Exxon Valdez spill, some have pointed out that the interest also arose right around the time he released the post-apocalypse epic Waterworld. Since then, he's spent $24 million funding Ocean Therapy Solutions, a company that has created a centrifuge device that separates oil from water.

"I have spent all my profits on oil spill clean up," Costner told the panel. The amount of money he has personally spent becomes even more significant when you consider that an official from the Minerals Management Service told the panel yesterday that it only receives between $6 million and $7 million in government funding for the research and development of oil spill clean-up technology every year.

For more than a decade now, he's presented the contraption to oil companies and government agencies, but his enthusiasm was "met with apathy," he said. "I was told it was too expensive, that spills were becoming less frequent."

The contraption is best described as a portable, vacuum-like metal unit that spins the oil out of the water. They have five different models, the largest of which can separate 210,000 gallons of water and oil per day. The company says it leaves the water 99 percent clean. BP has run several tests on the technology since the leak began, and approved it for use last month. Since then, BP has placed an order for 32 machines, the company reports, and ten machines are already out working in the Gulf. Ocean Therapy Solutions CEO John W. Houghtaling said he believes that when all these are in use, they will be able to clean 6 million gallons of water per day. (It's not clear how much of a dent this could put in the spill, the total volume of which has not been determined. And since much of the oil has been dispersed into the Gulf using chemicals, it may be harder to do much with Costner's contraption). The company envisions hundreds of these mobile units deployed around the world, ready for the next spill wherever it may occur.

Like many, I at first thought the idea of Kevin Costner as Gulf savior sounded absurd. But unlike BP or the federal government, he's actually been thinking about this issue for the past 15 years. Meanwhile, the government's response plans have remained essentially unchanged in the two decades since our last big oil spill. The two panels of independent scientists and government officials more than made that clear on Wednesday.

Costner, at least, may finally see his work validated after all these years: "If we're going to continue to see oil coming up on shore and the best we can do is hay and rubber boots," he told the committee, "maybe we can do better."

Lindsey Graham Said What About Climate Change?

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 1:20 PM PDT

On Tuesday, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham told reporters that he would vote against the climate bill he helped author. Now he's going one step further. Graham, one of the few Republicans who claimed to care about climate change, now says global warming is no big deal.

Graham appeared on Wednesday at a press conference with Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who was rolling out his own energy bill, a measure that relies heavily on expanding nuclear power and raising fuel economy standards without putting a cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Yesterday, Graham said he didn’t think any energy bill could get 60 votes this year because oil drilling has become too controversial. Today he decided, at the last minute, to back Lugar's bill.

Reporters asked Graham several times about why he was supporting Lugar's bill, when just a few months ago he had argued that the Senate shouldn't pass a "half-assed" bill that lacked hard restrictions on carbon emissions. Graham replied that he now doesn't think pricing carbon is that important. "The science about global warming has changed," he noted, offhandedly. "I think they've oversold this stuff, quite frankly. I think they've been alarmist and the science is in question," Graham told reporters. "The whole movement has taken a giant step backward."

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Waterworld Meets BP Spill

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 7:00 AM PDT

Kevin Costner, best known for his role in Bull Durham (or Dances with Wolves, or Waterworld, depending on whom you ask), will appear before a House panel today to discuss the need for research and development of technologies to clean up oil spills, in light of the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

At first blush, it might seem rather strange to invite Costner to this hearing, rather than, I don't know, one of the 92,000 members of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. But Costner has invested $24 million in oil-spill technology over the last 15 years. And yes, 15 years ago was when the post-apocalypse epic Waterworld was released. The research he funded for Ocean Therapy Solutions has created a centrifuge that can separate oil from water (see a demonstration here). In fact, his solution seems a lot more credible than some of the bizarre ideas we've heard from BP in the past seven weeks, a company that clearly was not prepared to deal with this catastrophe. Costner, meanwhile, has been preparing for this for years. BP approved the device last month for use in the Gulf.

I'll be live-Tweeting from this morning's hearing, which you can follow here:

Which Dems Are Backing Murkowski's Attack on Carbon Regs?

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

Thursday is D-Day for a play by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski to kneecap the Environmental Protection Agency's power to curb carbon dioxide emissions. Murkowski's measure has the support of at least four Democrats, which has many environmental advocates on edge.

Murkowski has been threatening this gambit since January, shortly after the EPA finalized its conclusion that greenhouse gases endanger human health. That finding, which came in response to a 2007 Supreme Court decision, compels the agency to regulate such pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

The senator is using what's called a resolution of disapproval, an obscure procedural tool that enables Congress to overturn regulations set by the executive branch. Because a resolution of disapproval requires only 51 votes to pass and is not susceptible to a filibuster, Murkowski's move presents a sizeable threat. So far, she has 40 co-sponsors, including three Democrats: Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who previously offered a bill that would have delayed EPA regulations for two years, said on Tuesday night that he'll vote for Murkowski's bill. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia has also expressed support for her effort. Several other coal-state Democrats, like Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, have remained studiously quiet on Murkowski's bill, though they cosponsored Rockefeller's proposal.

Majority Leader Harry Reid's office has gone on the offensive against Murkowski and her Republican supporters. Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, calling the measure a "giveaway to big oil companies" in a statement Tuesday. But Reid's office hasn't mentioned the measure's Democratic backers.

Does the Senate Climate Bill "Gut" the Clean Air Act?

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 4:06 PM PDT

This post is part of a Grist series on the Senate climate bill.

Does the Senate climate bill tie the EPA's hands? You increasingly hear from progressives that the American Power Act—the energy and climate bill introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.)—"guts" the Clean Air Act. Some groups have put this critique at the center of a campaign to improve the bill. If blog comments and email chatter are any indication, lots of grassroots greens have adopted it as a red line—reason to oppose the bill entirely.

So what would the bill do to the Clean Air Act, and how bad would it be? Let's explore!

A smidgen of backstory

In a landmark 2007 judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA possesses the authority to regulate climate pollution under the Clean Air Act. The justices noted that the power and scope of that law have been gradually expanded by Congress over the last 40 years. As dangerous air pollutants have been identified—or the danger of known pollutants has been better understood—the Clean Air Act has been extended to address them.

And it has been wildly successful. The Clean Air Act requires that EPA periodically assess the overall ratio of costs to benefits of the program. Its first report, covering 1970 to 1990, estimated that "the actual costs of achieving the pollution reductions observed over the 20 year period were $523 billion." Meanwhile, the benefits to health, welfare, and the environment were “estimated to range from about $6 trillion to about $50 trillion, with a mean estimate of about $22 trillion”—between 11 and 95 times the costs. Between 1990 and 2010, the benefits were four times the cost.

Is the Climate Bill Going to Pass?

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 3:44 PM PDT

People are constantly asking me, "Is the climate bill going to pass?" The answer is: I don't know. No one knows. Confident predictions either way are mostly posing. The situation, like so much in politics right now, is incredibly fluid.

There are five things to watch in coming months that will give us a better sense of how the bill might fare.

1. The Murkowski resolution

On Thursday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will introduce a "resolution of disapproval" that would short-circuit EPA's ability to regulate carbon pollution. By the mysterious alchemy of Beltway media, the vote has become a bellwether for the climate bill's chances.

Murkowski's resolution is filed under the authority of the Congressional Review Act, a rarely used law that allows Congress to overturn the actions of an executive branch agency. (It's only been used successfully once, to overturn some Clinton-era ergonomics regulations in 2001.) It would reverse EPA's "endangerment finding," the key legal document that establishes the agency's obligation to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

Whatever Murkowski says—and her rhetoric behind this has been an exercise is grotesque bad faith—the resolution is entirely nihilistic. All the endangerment finding says is that climate change is a danger to public health. To protest that finding is to protest climate change science.