Blue Marble - June 2010

The Strange Musings of Lindsey Graham

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 2:48 PM EDT

After taking a month-long pause from trying to scrutinize the utterances of Lindsey Graham (R-SC), I was forced to revisit the issue today when he made an appearance at a press conference on a measure to block Environmental Protection Agency regulation of carbon dioxide. I'll have more on that measure soon, but perhaps you, dear readers, will have better luck making out what Graham is trying to say here:

I'm in the wing of the Republican Party that has no problem with trying to find ways to clean up our air. We can have a debate about global warming, and I'm not in the camp that believes man-made emissions are contributing overwhelmingly to global climate change, but I do believe the planet is heating up. But I am in the camp of believing that clean air is a noble purpose for every Republican to pursue. The key is to make it business friendly.

So, he now says he doesn't think that man-made emissions are causing the planet to warm—but that the planet is warming. And that emissions are bad for us, just not bad in the way that most people who care about emissions think they're bad. Right? I give up.

Graham was the lone Republican working with John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on climate legislation for months, but walked away from the effort in mid-April, citing disagreements with Democratic leadership about legislative priorities. He's been one of the few Republicans who, for quite a while, has acknowledged that greenhouse gases are bad for the planet, even as he faced sharp criticism for that belief.

But ever since announcing his support for climate legislation in an op-ed with Kerry, he's been slowly stepping backwards from the idea that global warming is at the heart of the issue. He insisted that the climate bill was about energy independence–none of that environmental crap.

So what to make of today's latest statement? I have no idea. He also added this tidbit on the oil spill, which was at least the right sentiment, though it misinterprets the fundamental reason that fossil-fuel emissions are a threat to human health:

Would you let your kids go swimming in the Gulf now? Why do you think burning that stuff and breathing it is good for you?

UPDATE: The plot thickens: Now Graham tells Congress Daily that he would actually vote against the bill he helped write because he doesn't like the way it handles offshore drilling (which, of course, has become a very important issue in the past weeks). "What I have withdrawn from is a bill that basically restricts drilling in a way that is never going to happen in the future," Graham said. "I wanted it to safely occur in the future; I don't want to take it off the table."

Graham suggested that the senators he was working with up until a few weeks ago should "start over and scale down your ambitions."

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Senators Intro Bill to Give Oil Spill Panel Power of Subpoena

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 1:59 PM EDT

A group of 10 Democratic senators introduced legislation on Tuesday that would grant subpoena power to the oil spill commission that President Obama appointed last month. The power of subpoena would allow the panel to force witnesses to testify or produce evidence for the investigation. 

"Subpoena power is absolutely necessary to make sure that all responsible parties provide us with the information and evidence we need in order to prevent an economic and environmental disaster of this magnitude from ever happening again," said Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), one of the bill's cosponsors.

John Kerry (D-Mass.), another sponsor of the legislation, said that without subpoena power, "a commission is just window dressing."

Obama announced the formation of the panel on May 22, appointing former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham and former Republican EPA administrator William K. Reilly as the two co-chairs. The panel is charged with investigating what happened to lead up to the explosion and spill from the Deepwater Horizon, and how to move forward with offshore drilling. Additional members will be added to the panel in the coming weeks. The president, however, cannot grant the commission subpoena power, which would allow it to access crucial information -- documents, videos, witnesses and anything else that might be needed for the investigation.

In addition to Kerry and Shaheen, the bill's sponsors are: Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Begich (D-Ark.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

The commission is expected to issue a report on the Deepwater Horizon spill and recommendations for future of offshore drilling to the president by the end of the year. But as of last week, Graham said it still hadn't talked to BP. Meanwhile, some have criticized Reilly's ties to the oil industry as possibly affecting his ability to preside over the panel.

UPDATE: The White House issued a statement noting that while the president can't give the commission subpoena power, he "has committed the full cooperation of the federal government to the Commission and its mandate," said spokesman Ben LaBolt. "The President looks forward to working with Members of Congress to ensure that the Commission has the tools and resources it needs to get the job done and that nothing slows down the efforts to get the Commission up and running as soon as possible."

Gov't Confirms Existence of Underwater Oil Plumes

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 11:02 AM EDT

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday said that oil from the Deepwater Horizon is collecting in large, undersea plumes, confirming what independent scientists have been reporting for weeks. BP's CEO has denied their existence, but NOAA head Jane Lubchenco said Tuesday that a team of scientists from the University of South Florida have found plumes as far as 42 miles northeast and 142 miles southeast of the wellhead.

Other scientists studying the Gulf have estimated that one plume is as large as 22 miles long, six miles wide and more than a thousand feet deep, made up of globules of oil of varying sizes. Lubchenco said that NOAA's tests "indicate there is definitely oil sub surface," but that it is in "very low concentrations."

"We have always known there is oil under the surface," Lubchenco said. Several weeks ago, however,  the head of BP, Tony Hayward, argued that the oil "is on the surface," adding that the company's tests found "no evidence" of underwater plumes.

Hayward's comments not only contradicted scientists, but others from his company and the basic science of chemical dispersants, which BP has been using in unprecedented volumes in the Gulf. The chemicals are designed to break the oil into smaller globs so that it sinks below the surface, and to speed the process of biodegradation. 

Scientists have said the plumes may deplete the oxygen in the water, which would further threaten marine life. There's also concern about the toxicity of the dispersant BP has been using, and that the dispersed oil may travel farther and affect a larger region of the Gulf.

Two More Gulf Spills?

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 9:00 AM EDT

This story has been updated several times since it was originally posted. See updates at the bottom.

The BP oil spill is still dominating headlines, 50 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. But how much oil leaks into the Gulf on any other day of the year? Satellite images and photographs from the region indicate that there may be two other offshore drilling units leaking oil into the ocean.

John Amos, head of the West Virginia-based nonprofit SkyTruth, was looking at satellite images of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon site when he noticed what appeared to be another small slick of oil about 11 miles off the coast of Louisiana and about 40 miles from the major spill. Amos' group uses the images to assess environmental problems; he was among the first independent experts to point out that the spill estimates from BP and the government were far too low, which has now been confirmed. Amos reported a "small but persistent leak or oily discharge" at a second site in the Gulf, one that appeared to be coming from platform 23051 in the Gulf of Mexico. It can be seen on multiple satellite images of the region. Minerals Management Service (MMS) records indicate that the platform belongs to Taylor Energy Company.

Amos contacted J. Henry Fair, a New York-based photographer who specializes in artistic renderings of the human impact on the environment. Fair was in the Gulf last weekend taking aerial photos of the spill with the group Southwings, and at Amos' suggestion sought out platform 23051. Fair found a rig with an oily sheen extending out into the water and snapped a series of photos. But upon closer inspection, it was a different rig—the Ocean Saratoga rig owned by Diamond Offshore. In some of Fair's photos, a platform is visible in the background, possibly the one he was originally searching for, 23051. Amos couldn't give an estimate on how much oil might be coming out of either site, though he noted that it is a "very small" amount.

That would mean there are potentially two other operations in the Gulf leaking oil. So just how common are such leaks? The sad reality is, we really don't know.

Cute Endangered Animal: Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 5:19 AM EDT

Meet this uglorable lil' guy, a baby Kemp's Ridley sea turtle who I'll call Kurt. Kurt the turtle is in the middle of having his mouth washed out not because he said a swear word, but because BP decided to take a few safety "shortcuts." Named after Florida naturalist and fisherman Richard Kemp who discovered the species in 1880, the Kemp's Ridleys are the most endangered sea turtles in the world. Slight by nature, Kemp's are also the smallest marine turtles in the world: adults weigh only 100 lbs. A hundred pounds may seem like a lot until you learn that the Loggerhead sea turtle clocks in at about 300 lbs, and the Hawksbill sea turtle weighs around 200 lbs. Compared to them, the Kemp's is positively svelte.

Kurt the Kemp's Ridley (above) is just a juvie, though, and he's one of at least four Kemp's reportedly mired by the BP spill. However, there could be additional casualties obscured by Fish & Wildlife's large number of uncategorized wildlife. In addition, Kemp's Ridleys nest during the summer on the east coast of Mexico, in the state of Tamaulipas, meaning some will likely have to traverse the increasingly soiled Gulf to get there.

 

On Oiled Beaches, A Double Threat of Skin Cancer

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

If this looks bad, try throwing in some crude oilIf this looks bad, try throwing in some crude oilIf you're planning to hit the beach along the northern Gulf of Mexico, western Florida, or even much of the Eastern seaboard this summer, suntan lotion might not be enough to save you from an increased risk of skin cancer. Over the course of just a few hours on a sunny beach, crude oil can interact with UV rays on your body to cause a cancer risk similar to that of a strong sunburn. "It is going to cause a lot of oxidative damage to your skin cells," says Jeff Short, a retired research chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who spent years studying the toxic effects of the Valdez oil spill. "And you probaby aren't going to know it."

While sunlight can damage your skin cells directly (giving you a nice tan), adding crude oil to your skin catalyzes a different kind of unhealthy chemical reaction. Compounds in crude known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) acquire energy from UV light and transfer it to oxygen molecules inside your skin cells, heating them up. "It literally burns your cells from the inside out," says Short, who is now the Pacific science director for the environmental group Oceana. Chemists call the phenomenon "phyto-activated toxicity." The result doesn't look like a sunburn but can be equally damaging.

To date, studies of crude oil's link to skin cancer have been limited to animals. "But based on those results," Short says, "it's something that humans should pay attention to."

So how much crude on your skin is too much? Short says that if you don't see oil in the water, it's not going to cause significant sun damage to your skin. He's more concerned about people whose bare hands and feet come into contact with balls of crude on sandy beaches. "It's not that hard to get it all over you," he says. "Believe me, I've done it many times."

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3 Lessons Food Marketers Can Learn From BP

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

The tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico offers a management lesson to food marketers on how not to deal with a crisis. Specifically, I refer to the obesity epidemic. Here's what I mean.

First, there's the blame game. No one is taking responsibility for the Gulf disaster. BP points its fingers at Transocean who throws a hot potato to Halliburton who points back to BP as having ultimate responsibility. A similar dynamic persists in the obesity debate. Activists blame corporations for spewing excessive fuel (i.e., calories) on the consuming public; food corporations counter that they offer healthy options and decry that regulators are unfairly trying to tax them; and all the while consumers continue to chomp away at anything put in front of them.

Then there's this sticky matter of the unintended consequences of the spill on the health and wellbeing of all those affected: wildlife, the environment, the food supply, local economies, and laborers. It appears that none of the parties planned for this eventuality. So too with obesity. Food marketers did not intend that Americans get fat. Clever marketers simply discovered the formula for providing excellent value for their customers. And in turn consumers complied. Now two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese.

Could the Offshore Drilling Ban Make Things Worse?

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

The six-month ban on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico could encourage companies to move their rigs to other parts of the world, increasing the nation's reliance on imported oil. But it would also increase our reliance on long-distance shipping to bring that oil to the U.S. and increase the probability of oil being spilled at sea. Over the last half-century, transport vessels have been responsible for almost two-thirds of all marine oil spills, according to data arranged by Tulane University professors.

The moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf that was announced last Thursday affects

But there's an upside for the oil companies: there is some economic logic to moving rigs elsewhere. Oil companies lease rigs from their owners and the contracts governing those agreements can vary: some apply regionally, others are worldwide; some include harsh penalties for breaking a contract, others allow for it

Beachcombing an Oiled Beach

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 9:28 PM EDT
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Photos © Julia Whitty.
 
Elmer's Island, Louisiana. For reasons not entirely clear to me they're still only letting people who can procure a press pass out to Elmer's Island near Grand Isleand only with an escort from the sheriff's office. So yesterday I got the press pass and drove back to get my escort. Lucky for me, the guy was new to the job, it was late, almost dark, and he didn't know the drill. Have fun, he said as I drove past him and got the island all to myself.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
There was one security guard by the parking area who lamely tried to dissuade me. Most of all by saying I should be wearing rubber boots. Well I've already bought and left behind two pairs of rubber boots on boats. I was not going to buy any more. What don't you give me some? I suggested.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
And he did. Size 12 men's. These were for ostensibly my safety. But they were so big I stumbled around like Bozo on barbiturates.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Never mind. I still had the beach to myself.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Never beach-combed an oiled beach before. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Near the parking area, where the escort would doubtless have brought me, things looked pretty shipshape. Brand new clean hula skirts (well, that's what I called them), designed, I guess, to baffle the oil.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Jaunty. Sort of festive. I can almost hear (Ronald Reagan voice): You know, if you squint a little, it's kinda pretty at an oil spill.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
So quiet. Zen gardens of raked sand.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
But the farther I walked from the showcase oily beach, the nastier it got. The hula skirts started to look like they'd stayed too long at Mardi Gras. The "mud" on them is oil.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
These used to be white.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The absorbent white booms were saturated with oil.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
There were dead Portuguese man o'war jellies—one of the few species that weather the travails of the dead zone that afflicts these waters each summer. The dead zone is an area around the outflow of the Mississippi River made hypoxic by too many nutrients flowing downstream, mostly from farms and ranches. If you're a jellyfish, a dead zone is survivable. Apparently an oiled zone is not.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Oiled marine algae had been scraped off these oiled rocks.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I saw exactly one shorebird—this little sanderling (correct me, shorebirdarians)—an impoverishment of shorebirds. I saw exactly one crab that looked drunk. Sorry, no photo, it staggered into the waves before I could get a shot. I saw dolphins swimming offshore in greasy water.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
There were seabirds fishing offshore. I'm not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Mostly the beach felt dead. Scraped to the bone. More than once.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
And then there was the detritus of clean-up. Lots of it. Some of which will make its way into the waters. Yet more plastic/oil pollution.
 
 

Big Oil's Chernobyl?

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 6:00 PM EDT

PBS Need to Know's Jon Meacham recently interviewed Carl Safina, president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, on the dirty dispersants BP is using on the spill, the long-term forecast for the Gulf, and why the spill is shaping up to be the oil industry's Chernobyl. The segment (below) is really worth watching in its entirety, but here are a few highlights:

Jon Meacham: You testified last week that the dispersant was an out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy.

Carl Safina: A good way of thinking about it is you have a greasy pan, you put the detergent on it and it starts dissolving the oil. So it’s no longer sticking in a concentrated way, it’s creating a bowl of dirty dishwater. That’s what a dispersant does. It doesn’t neutralize the oil. It doesn’t make the oil go away. In fact, the dispersant makes the oil more toxic to living things...The toxic parts don’t evaporate, because they’re not at the surface. They can get into the gills, into the mouths of fish, and they bathe all the larval eggs, all the baby fish, and all the little baby crustaceans...And the dispersant itself is also toxic.

...

JM: What are your views on the long-term effects on ocean life?

CS: No one knows exactly what the long-term effects will be, but we have quite a bit to draw on. We know the oil is toxic, we know the dispersant is toxic, and it makes the oil more toxic, and we know there is more of it in this semi-enclosed body of water than has ever happened in history. So there is almost certainly a very large die-off of fish eggs, fish larvae, and plankton communities. We also know that turtles eat oil. They just tend to ingest these blobs, because they eat jellyfish usually. And it kills them. We also know it kills dolphins and whales. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground it killed about 40 percent of the killer whales there. That population has not recovered in 20 years. The herring population has also not recovered in 20 years. So we knows it kills wildlife at the moment of the event, and that the long-term effects can linger for decades.

JM: Characterize this. Is this a Katrina-like event? What are the analogies in history that you’re thinking of?

CS: In talking to people in the Gulf, they are saying this is going to make Katrina look like a bad day...I think that rather than this being something like Katrina, this is Big Oil’s Chernobyl. I think it’s a catastrophe that shows the enormous risk this industry poses to public health, and to the health of communities.

JM: Who do you blame for the spill? Is it BP? Is it lax regulation? And what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

CS: I think we have a culture of irresponsibility and a culture that makes us think about ourselves first, instead of our safety first, or our community first, or our country first. BP has been irresponsible. They had indications of trouble, they went ahead. They didn’t want to spend more money on a better backup system. They didn’t have backup plans. On the other hand, we have a government whose job is supposed to be to insulate our interest—the public interest and the interest of the future and the country—from the narrow interest of a few people, and that failed, too.
...

JM: Is there any good that can come from this?

CS: I’m not sure any good can come out of this, but there is a very important lesson t be learned. People have said that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of rocks. We’re trying to wring the last drops out of oil that we’re depleting. Ever since I was in high school we have known that what we need is a diverse array of fuel sources that focuses mainly on clean, renewable sources of energey…We need to move that way by building a grid that can carry that energy around the country from wherever it’s abundant to wherever it’s needed.

...

JM: What can ordinary Americans who are concerned about this actually do to help reverse course?

CS: One of the things that we hear is that we are all responsible because we all use petroleum. That’s not really why we’re all responsible. We’re all responsible because we haven’t insisted on an energy policy that gets us beyond fossil fuels. Ever since we’ve lived in caves, every time we want energy we light something on fire. We’re still doing that. I think it’s time for us to get out of our caves and use the clean, eternal, renewable energy.
 

This PBS Need to Know interview with Carl Safina comes courtesy of the Climate Desk collaboration.