Blue Marble - July 2010

Kate Sheppard on Rachel Maddow Tonight

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 7:00 PM EDT

Ever wondered what your faithful Blue Marble blogger Kate Sheppard looks like? Tune in to The Rachel Maddow Show tonight at 9:30 p.m. EDT. Kate will be talking about Big Coal, Citizens United, and elections. Not to be missed!

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Andrew Revkin on the Death of the Climate Bill

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 5:56 PM EDT

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he will not bring a comprehensive climate bill before the Senate this session. A bill, which called for a cap-and-trade policy to regulate carbon emissions, was approved by the House in June 2009 but the measure lost momentum in the Senate. Is this the end of cap-and-trade? PBS Need to Know's Alison Stewart asks New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin to share his reporting on the subject to find out what happened and what might be next.

 

This podcast was produced by Need to Know for the Climate Desk collaboration.

Click here to watch an animation by Zina Saunders illustrating how Congress gambled with our future when they killed the climate bill.

Grunwald Responds to Spill Coverage Criticism

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 8:20 AM EDT

I fired off a piece yesterday criticizing Michael Grunwald's article in Time, which I feel significantly downplays what's happening in the Gulf. (I'm not alone in the criticism; others, including a fellow Time writer, have pointed out that it's far too early to tell the true extent of the damage, and we still don't really know where all the oil is.) This lead to an interesting email exchange with Grunwald, whose previous work, as I mentioned yesterday, I have quite admired.

We've agreed to disagree on the subject. We also agreed very much in other areas, like the greater significance of longterm threats to the Gulf Coast that have nothing to do with the oil. I also told him we'd run his response to the criticism, which I've posted below:

You’re right that “in reality, we have no idea yet how bad the damage in the Gulf is.” I said that in my piece. But as I’m being deluged by complaints that nobody knows how bad this will be, that it’s premature and irresponsible to speculate, I have to say: Now you tell me? I hadn’t been to the spill before last week, and I certainly didn’t expect to write a piece like this, because everything I read and heard over the last three months—from the media, environmentalists and everyone else—assured me this was the worst ecological catastrophe in U.S. history. I assumed there was evidence that this was the worst ecological catastrophe in U.S. history. But there isn’t. Quite the contrary. And once I pointed that out, everyone suddenly decided there’s no way to know how big a deal this is. I eagerly await the new TV chryons about the “Potential Disaster in the Gulf.”
Look: nobody has challenged any of the data in my piece. You quoted David Pettit complaining about “oiled marshes as far as the eye can see,” but let’s quantify it: shoreline assessment teams have found 253.9 miles of oiled marshes, 38.5 miles of them heavily oiled, but only 350 oiled acres, because in most cases the oil is only penetrating a few feet. Very little is getting into the soils. That’s why Dr. Turner—perhaps the oil industry’s worst enemy in Louisiana—thinks airboats cleaning up the spill will destroy more wetlands than the spill itself. And remember: Louisiana was already losing 15,000 acres of wetlands a year before this. It lost more than 200 square miles of wetlands in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. That’s why Dr. Kemp—of the Audubon Society, not BP!—called this “a sunburn on a cancer patient.” That’s why Gulf Restoration Network’s Aaron Viles—who you quoted in your piece, to show what a big deal this spill was—told me in an email today that “the coastal wetlands crisis makes the BP disaster look like a lovely day at Audubon Park."

Eco-News Roundup: Friday July 30

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 6:24 AM EDT

Safe! New poll shows there's enough support for health care reform to keep it in place.

Uncertain on Caps: Conservatives want a climate solution, but killed the surest option.

Summer Sun: Letting inmates bake in triple-digit heat is torture at GITMO, but not in US prisons.

Helping Hand: Media outlets are helping BP pretend there's no more oil to clean up.

Kid Speak: An interview between a state senator and advocates to help special needs kids.

Double Standard: Katy Perry's racy video is YouTube'd, but a gay parody gets banned.

 

Enviro Links: Wetlands Astroturf, Big Coal Loves Citizens United, and More

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Today in BP-related news:

America's Wetland Foundation might sound like your regular old conservation group, but it's actually a front-group funded by BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Citgo, Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute, and other polluters, Brendan DeMelle reports. The teamed with a Louisiana women's group called Women of the Storm to propagate the idea that taxpayers should pay to restore the Gulf Coast after the oil disaster. Sandra Bullock managed to get caught up in the greenwash by agreeing to be in their ads, but has now asked that they be taken down after the industry funding was revealed.

My personal favorite line from BP's SEC filing: "The incident has damaged BP’s reputation and brand, with adverse public and political sentiment evident. This could persist into the longer term, which could impede our ability to deliver long-term growth."

Turns out there have been a whole lot of spills in the Gulf over the past five decades.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced a bill this week that would require better testing of oil dispersants and confirmation that the chemicals are not hazardous to humans and the environment.

And in other environmental news:

The Hill reports that coal-friendly Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate want to protect the industry from the EPA's plans to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. They worry that doing so would be a "crippling blow" to industries that benefit from reuse of the byproduct, which happens to contain hazardous materials like arsenic and mercury.

One big beneficiary of the Citizens United ruling: Big Coal. Major coal companies are planning to pool their cash in a to defeat "anti-coal" Democrats, the Kentucky Herald-Leader reports. Forming a 527 means companies like Massey Energy won't have to disclose how much they've spent until next year's tax filings.

Murkowski vs. the Clean Air Act: Round 2

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

The Senate voted down an attempt to take away the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate carbon dioxide pollution last month, but the fight isn't over. In fact, it's only beginning.

That measure, offered by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, was premised (rather shakily, considering its source) on the idea that Congress, not the EPA, should act on climate change. But now that the Senate has made it clear that it's not doing anything anytime soon, Murkowski is planning to take another jab at the Clean Air Act.

Now Murkowski is considering whether to take it upon herself to offer the measure that Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) floated, which would set a two-year time-out on new regulations on planet-warming gases from the EPA, set to begin phasing in next year. Rockefeller says he has been promised a floor vote on that measure. Murkowski says she's just "helping" Democrats get around to voting on Rockefeller's measure.

So far, she's floated the idea of pinning it to the small business bill currently under consideration, since it doesn't look like Majority Leader Harry Reid will allow amendments on that bill.

More on her plans, via The Hill:

Murkowski said that it would be more natural to offer Rockefeller’s amendment to an upcoming oil-spill response and energy package, but that "it doesn’t look like we’ll have any opportunity to have any amendments [to that package]. Which I find quite stunning."
"So at this point in time, I'm helping the majority leader keep his commitment to bringing the Rockefeller bill up for a vote."

The vote on Murkowski's last measure was uncomfortably close, with six Democrats siding with the entirety of the Republican Party against the EPA. A vote on Rockefeller could be even closer, especially now that regulations under the Clean Air Act loom on the horizon in 2011. Now that the Senate has punted on climate action, expect these EPA attacks to become more potent in the coming months.

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Media Runs Defense for BP, Again

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

First there was the bizarre AFP report asking where all the oil in the Gulf could have possibly gone. Then a breaking news alert from the New York Times landed in my inbox Tuesday night declaring "Gulf of Mexico Oil Slick Appears to Vanish Quickly," which seemed to imply that because a few reporters hadn't noticed much crude on a flyover, it must have magically disappeared. (The alert failed to mention the 1.8 million gallons of dispersant that BP dumped on the spill to do exactly that).

Today we have yet another example of the news media promoting the idea that the Gulf disaster might not be all that bad after all, with Time's big piece, "The BP Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?"

The story starts out by offering Rush Limbaugh as a voice of reason on the disaster against all the "end-is-nigh eco-hype," even while calling him an "obnoxious anti-environmentalist." That should give you a sense of where the story is heading. And then it goes there:

Well, Rush has a point. The Deepwater explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it's no leak; it's the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It's also inflicting serious economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it's important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. "The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared," says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana.

In short, the story is classic man-bites-dog, knee-jerk counterintuitivism. In reality, we have no idea yet how bad the damage in the Gulf is. The federal government is still only in the early stages of a natural resources damage assessment, a process to determine the full extent of the destruction. The government hasn't even come up with an estime of how much oil leaked into the Gulf. And BP hasn't yet finished the relief wells, meaning the disaster isn't over yet. Meanwhile, the environmental impacts of the natural gas that has also been seeping into the Gulf remain unclear. And the article gives scant attention to the nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant applied by BP to break up the spill, which the country's top environmental official has acknowledged is a science experiment of monumental proportions.

"The amount of oil and toxic dispersant pumped into the Gulf is unprecedented, and we know the marine impacts will be massive, we simply don't know how long it will take for the ecosystem to rebound, and how significant the decrease in productivity will be until it recovers," says Aaron Viles, campaign director at the Gulf Restoration Network.

Referring to the Time article's author, Michael Grunwald, National Resources Defense Council lawyer David Pettit says, "I'm not sure what boats he's been out on. When I went out from Plaquemines Parish two weeks ago, there were oiled marshes as far as the eye could see, plus all the islands we saw were oiled. I would agree that it's too early to say what the long-term effect of that oiling will be, but by the same token I don't think anyone can credibly say that there will be little or no effect."

"Disasters are Just a Normal Part of Doing Business for These Oil Companies"

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 9:39 AM EDT

This week alone a pipeline in Michigan dumped up to 1 million gallons of oil into a river and a tugboat hit a wellhead in a Louisiana marsh causing a 100-foot geyser of oil and gas to erupt—and this, of course, on top of BP's massive spill. Due to the Gulf disaster, oil catastrophes are getting some more ink now, but this obscures the fact that minor (and sometimes major) disasters go unnoticed in the US all the time.

A new report, released today by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), details a number of these accidents over the past years. While the Deepwater Horizon disaster has surpassed previous spills to become the worst in US history, thousands of smaller spills, explosions at oil drilling or refining facilities, fires, and leaks have claimed dozens of lives and wreaked havoc on the environment in the past decade alone alone. Most of these accidents have never made national headlines, but serve as a reminder that oil and gas is a dirty (and deadly) business.

From 2000 to 2009, onshore pipeline accidents caused 2,554 major incidents, including 161 deaths and 576 injuries. Offshore, 1,443 incidents caused 41 fatalities, 302 injuries, 476 fires, and 356 releases of pollution into the waters. "These things happen nearly every day," said NWF's Tim Warman, director of the organization's global warming solutions program. "Disasters are just a normal part of doing business for these oil companies."

The report includes vivid, tragic details of many of these accidents. Some of the lowlights:

Pelosi on Climate: "This Is An Issue the Senate Can't Walk Away From"

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Think you're frustrated by the Senate's inability to act on climate change? Try being Nancy Pelosi. The House climate and energy measure that she worked so hard to pass was attacked by many on the left as a half-measure. Then she had to watch as the bill, which she will admit was, at best, a "compromise" by the time it passed in the House, was watered down even more and eventually burried in the Senate.

When Pelosi took the reins as Speaker of the House following the 2006 election, one of her first actions was the creation of the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming. And within the first two years of Pelosi taking over as Speaker, the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACES, a landmark climate and energy package. It was a tough vote, by all accounts, passing by a narrow margin and incurring a good deal of "cap and tax" rhetoric from opponents on the right.

So it has been particularly painful to watch what was already a "compromise bill," as Pelosi calls it, in the House die repeatedly in the Senate. First, there was a bill from Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), which looked much like ACES. That died in November. Then Kerry teamed up with Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to pen yet another bill. They finally rolled out a bill more than seven months later, but only after losing the lone Republican cosponsor and bending over backward to please big oil and other interest groups. When that died, there was fleeting hope that maybe a pared down, utility-focused cap could pass, but that soon died too.

Pelosi has tried to remain positive. "This is an issue the Senate can't walk away from," Pelosi told the crowd of liberal activists at Netroots Nation last Saturday. Even if the Senate has, for now, Pelosi is optimistic. "It cannot be ignored," she tells Mother Jones. "I have confidence in the issue."

Despite her confidence that the issue resonates with voters, the bill has caused electoral angst for some House members. ACES was demonized by the right as an "energy tax" and dismissed by plenty of moderate Senate Democrats, not a good signal for those House members who face an uncertain future this November. But Pelosi says her members aren't too worried.  "I'm very proud of House members for taking the bold stand they did," she said. "Our members are proud of their vote. They know why they voted for it."

She called on advocates of climate action to create a stronger grassroots push that will ensure that members of Congress know this issue is important. "There really has to be a stronger outside mobilization on all of these, because members are asked to take many tough votes, and we want to give priority to certain ones over others," she said. "They have to hear from the outside how important this is."

Pelosi was hesitant to be too critical of the Senate bill, which includes oil-spill response and some pared-down energy incentives. "I would like them to have a stronger bill coming out, but whatever they're doing if we're making progress going in a forward direction, I welcome it … I would have liked to have seen a better bill, but we're not giving up on this."

She held out the hope that ACES, the various oil spill measures, and the Senate's energy provisions could be reconciled in conference at some point—and the House's tougher energy and climate measures could be included. (Though at this point, even the Senate's spill bill might be in jeopardy.) "We will go to conference on the bill," said Pelosi. "There isn't a chance that we won't." She didn't rule out the possibility of dealing with it in a lame-duck session, though she said she hopes they don't have to have one.

But to get anything dealing with energy signed into law, she continued, "they have to pass something first."

Yet Another Oil Disaster ... in Michigan

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 2:16 PM EDT

The Gulf disaster is still far from over, even if members of the national press apparently need help finding the oil. But now there's another oil disaster to worry about. Calhoun County, Michigan is in the midst of what might be the worst oil spill ever in the Midwest.

At least 19,000 barrels of crude leaked from an oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy of Canada into the Talmadge Creek sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning. The creek leads to the Kalamazoo River, a major waterway that feeds into Lake Michigan. Already, the spill has spread 16 miles downriver. Gov. Jennifer Granholm declared the area a disaster zone on Tuesday night.

The Michigan Messenger is on the story, reporting that there seems to have been a significant lag time between when local residents first reported the spill and when the company officially acknowledged it. There's also some discrepancy between the company's estimate of the spill (19,000 barrels) and the Environmental Protection Agency's (23,800 barrels). Imagine that ...

More disturbing? Apparently this is a regular event for Enbridge:

This is not the first time the Canadian oil company has had contact with PHMSA officials. Documents from the agency show that Enbridge Energy pipelines have leaked oil on 12 different occasions in Michigan since 2002.
Most of those leaks were very small, between one and 25 barrels of oil (each barrel contains 42 gallons). But in three cases the company's pipeline spewed 100, 120 and 500 barrels into the surrounding area. None of the spills caused injuries or death, PHMSA documents show. Those 12 cases caused a total of more than $810,000 in property damage.

Mind you, Louisiana also had to deal with another gusher yesterday as a tug boat struck a wellhead, spewing oil and natural gas 100 feet into the air.