Blue Marble - July 2010

Senate Fail: Let's Name Names

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 1:25 PM EDT

Environmental groups are holding onto hope that the Senate will do something about climate change this year, or at least hope that they can shame senators for not acting on the issue. In a joint statement, 26 national groups and dozens of state and regional green and progressive groups yesterday condemned the failure to pass legislation in the Senate and pointed to the oil spill as evidence that "there’s never been a more urgent time to move forward with a clean energy and climate policy."

The statement is nice, but I wish they would have called out the specific Senators who remain a problem. I don't mean only Republicans; there are a number of Democrats who wouldn't have voted for a climate bill this year, either, which is why it didn't make its way into the Senate package.

From the letter:

There's no doubt that big oil, big coal, their army of lobbyists and their partners in Congress are cheering the obstruction that blocked Senate action on clean energy and climate legislation. Their cheers are cheers for China taking the lead in clean energy jobs, the Middle East getting more of our money, and America getting more pollution and fewer jobs.

At every opportunity, a minority of Senators who are in the pocket of America’s largest polluters in the coal and oil industries chose obstruction over working together to solve America’s energy and national security challenges. As a result of their actions, the big polluters will continue to reap record profits at the expense of Americans.

As we look forward, one thing is clear: the Senate’s job is not done. They must use every opportunity available to address clean energy and climate reform by working to limit carbon pollution and invest in new clean energy sources that are made in America, including protecting the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to crack down on polluters.

Disappointment in the Senate is justifiable. But activists should name names.

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Enviro Links: Gibbs Keeps Climate Hope Alive, BP Seeks $10 Billion Tax Deduction, and More

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 9:32 AM EDT

Today in climate news:

At yesterday's press conference, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered a little bit of hope that climate legislation could make a comeback this year. "I don’t think the bill is essentially dead for the year," said Gibbs. "The House passed a very strong and very comprehensive energy bill last year. The Senate is going to take up a version that is more scaled down but still has some important aspects, particularly dealing with how we deal with oil spills in the future. But I don't think that closes the door—once a bill passes, each House doesn’t close the door to having some sort of conference."

Nate Silver also argues that cap and trade legislation might be revived, but as a deficit-reduction measure.

Even if a federal cap and trade program faces an uncertain future, regional programs are trudging forward. On Tuesday, the Western Climate Initiative, a group of seven states and four Canadian provinces, rolled out a blueprint for its regional program, slated to begin in 2012.

And in oil disaster news:

This will go over well: BP wants a $10 billion tax deduction on what the company spends on oil spill clean up. The company said yesterday that it has set aside $32.2 billion to deal with the Gulf disaster.

A team of federal investigators—"the BP squad"—is focusing their Gulf probe on BP, Transocean, and Halliburton, as well as the relationship the companies had with regulators.

The Senate Foreign Relations hearing on BP's role in the freeing of the Lockerbie bomber scheduled for Wednesday had to be postponed because none of the current or former British and Scottish officials or the BP executives asked to testify would agree to show up.

Louisiana can't catch a break. On Tuesday morning, a tugboat hit a well head near Mud Lake, causing oil and natural gas to spew 100 feet into the air.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) is continuing his crusade to build barriers that are harmful to the long-term health of the Gulf Coast but good for his political career.

America's Top Mediator Heads to the Gulf

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Somewhere along the line, Kenneth Feinberg became the go-to mediator for the country. Most recently, he took a turn as executive pay czar, tapped by the Obama administration to oversee the compensation of executives at companies which received federal bailout money. He's officially done with that job at the end of this month. Then, he'll move into the job of Gulf oil fund czar full time, a role in which he'll be charged with making sure those hurt by the spill are properly compensated.

Add these two roles to an already lengthy list of high-profile mediations. After serving as special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, dispensing $7 billion to the more than 5,000 survivors and relatives of those lost in those attacks, Feinberg administrated the fund established in the wake of the April 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. In June, he was called in to help mediate disputes with Maricopa County, Ariz.'s infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio. All of this leads to an obvious question: Why him?

It's Spill Bill Time

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 4:00 PM EDT

It was spill bill day in Washington, as both House and Senate Democrats rolled out a suite of measures in response to the Gulf disaster.

The House bill, unveiled this morning, seeks to create better oversight of offshore oil and gas development, ensure that companies that cause spills are held accountable, and force drillers to pay royalties on the resources they extract. That bill combines the work of three committees—Transportation, Energy and Commerce, and Natural Resources—into one bill. Their package:

  • Eliminates the $75 million liability cap for offshore oil spills.
  • Amends the Death on High Seas Act to eliminate the cap on liability for workers who die at sea.
  • Repeals the Limitation of Shipowner's Liability Act of 1851, which Deepwater Horizon owner Transocean tried to use to curb its liability for the incident.
  • Holds oil company CEOs accountable for safety failures on rigs and drilling operations.
  • Sets tougher standards for inspection of blowout preventers and other equipment intended to shut off wells in the event of an emergency, and require independent certification by a third party.
  • Requires more layers of redundancy on safety equipment to close wells in case of an accident.
  • Sets new standards for the cementing and casing of wells.
  • Raises penalties for safety violations.
  • Requires all companies drilling in the outer continental shelf to pay royalties on oil and gas, a measure that sponsors say would bring in $53 billion dollars in lost revenue over 25 years.
  • Ends the practice of granting categorical exclusions to detailed environmental analysis for offshore operations.
  • Adds protections for whistleblowers who call attention to safety violations in oil and gas operations.
  • Bars companies with poor safety record from obtaining new leases.

"This is a game changer in the way we manage America's offshore energy resources," said Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. "This will ensure that oil and gas development on federal waters is done in a safe, fiscal, and environmentally sound manner."

The measure that would bar oil companies with a history of safety violations from bidding on new leases is among the most aggressive; the measure, sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), would essentially block BP from new drilling in the US for the foreseeable future. Any company that racks up more than $10 million in fines for air or water violations within seven years, has at least five times the industry average on worker safety violations, or more than 10 fatalities at an individual facility would be barred from bidding. This, of course, is very bad news for BP. "Their record on safety is egregious," said Miller. "We need to assure American people we're only allowing responsible bidders."

The Senate bill, rolled out this afternoon, includes several of the same provisions. It, too, would eliminate the liability cap on incidents, and would amend the Death on the High Seas Act and the Limitation of Shipowners Liabitlity Act. The bill also increases the amount of money oil companies have to pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (currently set at 8 cents per barrel), and raises the amount that the government can use for a single incident from $1 billion to $5 billion. It also mandates that companies spend more on oil spill response technologies, puts into law proposed reforms at the Department of Interior department charged with overseeing offshore oil and gas development.

The Senate bill also has a grab-bag of energy incentive programs, including roughly $6 billion in rebates and incentives for natural gas vehicles, $400 million for electric vehicle programs, and $5 billion for the HomeStar program to create a rebate program to retrofit houses. There's also $5 billion for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Responding to questions about why the Senate bill is not as aggressive on the energy front as some might have hoped, Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman blamed Republicans while acknowledging that the Democrats aren't all on board for certain measures. "The fact is he had to make some tough decisions working with the caucus," said spokesman Jim Manley. "In light of the Republican stalling tactics, this bill has the best chance possible of getting out of the Senate."

The bills will probably be voted on next week. The American Petroleum Institute, the main trade group of the oil industry, is already on the attack, accusing congressional Democrats of "malpractice" in instating the reforms while investigation into the Deepwater disaster continues. "We're going into surgery without a diagnosis," said API President Jack Gerard.

Coal's New Focus on California

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 1:42 PM EDT

Appalachian coal-mining interests have donated more than $60,000 to the US Senate campaign of Republican Carly Fiorina, the former HP chief executive who's said she's "not sure" that climate change is occurring. First reported by California Watch, the donations are the latest indication that California is a key battleground in the political war over climate change. While coal interests have virtually no business future in California (where existing laws are phasing out coal), they see the state's groundbreaking cap and trade law as key to their future. The successful implementation of the California law, which goes into effect later this year, could breathe new life into the US Senate's failed efforts to put a cap on carbon. As I've noted, Big Coal is bankrolling a ballot initiative that would suspend the California law, known as AB 32. Its donations to Fiorina go hand-in-hand with that effort: Unseating Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, the powerful chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, would drive another nail in cap and trade's coffin.

What BP Knows About the Size of Gulf Disaster

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 10:43 AM EDT

While BP publicly stuck to claims that its blow-out well was leaking at rate of 5,000 gallons of oil per day, the company was privately operating under the assumption that at least five times that amount was gushing into the Gulf, according to documents released today by congressional investigators.

BP's internal estimate of 53,000 barrels per day is buried in one of the company's requests to use more than the maximum threshold of dispersants established by the EPA, which the Coast Guard released earlier this month. In letters dated July 6 and 11 to the government's on-scene coordinator in the Gulf, at that time Coast Guard Admiral James Watson, BP Chief Operating Office Doug Suttles cited the 53,000 figure in justifying the company's request to use 25,200 gallons of dispersant per day to break up the oil.

The official per-day estimate of the spill's size is still a large range. The government's flow rate team has said that during the three months that oil was spewing into the Gulf anywhere from 35,000 to 60,000 barrels may have leaked daily. But BP, after first claiming oil was entering the Gulf at a rate of 1,000 barrels per day and then later adopting the initial, extremely low government estimate of 5,000 barrels, hasn't offered another estimate of its own in weeks.

The government team is expected to come up with a more concrete estimate, though there's some concern that we'll never get a truly accurate figure, which is crucial to levying fines against BP and assessing damages in the Gulf.

"In the case of BP's financial liability and the flow rate of this spill, ambiguity is BP's ally, and precision is the government's," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the Energy and Environment Subcommittee and the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which released the BP document. "This document turns the tables on BP by exposing their own assumptions about the size of the spill."

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BP Lies (Again), This Time on Drilling "Mud"

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 4:40 PM EDT

With the Gulf storm Bonnie now dissipated, work has resumed on plugging BP's gushing well once and for all. The company and federal government responders expect to start pumping drilling mud in from the top next week in an operation known as a "static kill," and then begin injecting mud via the relief well in order to close off and cement the hole permanently. But even though the oil is no longer spewing into the Gulf, this "mud" they're planning to pump into the well is actually a highly toxic chemical potion.

BP has been dodgy about the mud, much like they've been about everything else in the Gulf (see: dispersants, flow rate, underwater plumes).

BP dumped tens of thousands of gallons of the sludge into the well as part of the failed "top-kill" attempt in May, most of which ended up in the ocean. They are expected to use hundreds of thousands of gallons in these next attempts to kill the well. Asked about the toxicity of the mud at a hearing last month, BP CEO Tony Hayward told a congressional panel, "I believe all of the mud that had gone into the ocean is water-based mud with no toxicity whatsoever."

Except, it's not. According to written responses released to congressional investigators on Friday, the mud contains ethylene glycol, a highly toxic chemical commonly used in anti-freeze, and caustic soda, a compound more commonly known as lye that is is also toxic.

This, of course, also raises the question of how much of this stuff is pumped into the ocean on a regular basis. Drilling companies use about 100,000 gallons of this sludge for each operation. It's a question that Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Lois Capps (D-Calif.) raised in a statement over the weekend, following BP's disclosure of the ingredients of the mud.

"Do all drilling activities involve the use of highly toxic formulations?" asked Markey. "If so, how many tens of thousands of barrels more may have been sent into our waters or onshore wells in even the most standard of operations?"

Oceans advocates have raised the question as well, noting that companies regularly dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of this stuff into the ocean, and we have no idea of its impact. Richard Charter, a policy advisor for Defenders of Wildlife, says "drilling discharges have always been a dirty secret." Using these chemicals is also perfectly legal under current law. Most of the time, companies don't even have to disclose the chemicals they're using.

In a statement, Capps also points to this as another good reason to give the power of subpoena to the oil spill commission. A bill to do that stalled in the Senate. But as Capps notes, "Time and time again, BP has failed to disclose critical data and information that is essential to our ability to track the long term effects of this spill."

How Reid's Parliamentary Maneuvering Could Doom Reforms to the Oil Industry

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 3:45 PM EDT

With hopes for a comprehensive climate bill dead, the latest question for climate-watchers is whether or not Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid will offer a vote on Sen. Jay Rockefeller's amendment to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases for two years. Without a carbon pricing scheme or even a renewable electricity standard, the EPA is the only remaining avenue to restrict carbon emissions. The agency has drafted a slew of new regulations that would begin in January, but Republican senators and some moderate Democrats who fear the economic effects of unwieldy new restrictions have mounted a campaign to halt or stall these rules.

President Obama came out against Sen. Lisa Murkowski's bid to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases altogether, and a White House official said on Friday that the President would veto legislation that included Rockefeller's two-year delay. Reid is in a tricky position because in order to convince moderate Dems to vote against Murkowski's measure, he promised them a later vote on Rockefeller's watered down version. But now, with the White House firmly opposed to a bill that includes this delay, Reid would risk losing otherwise viable oil industry reform if he lets EPA opponents tack on the stalling measure as an amendment.

As a solution, Reid will most likely not allow amendments on the oil bill he is introducing this week. His office has not yet announced this decision, but rumors are circulating to that effect. Reid's procedural history shows a fondness for this tactic, which he used to squeeze the health care bill through the Senate. When a Senate majority leader does not accept amendments, he is said to be "filling the tree." This phrase refers to a diagram in the Senate rule book that maps out how many amendments members can attach to a bill. The majority leader proposes amendments first, so if he fills all the branches of this tree with inane, place-holding proposals, other senators can't introduce amendments of their own. This tactic, however, does not preclude a filibuster and therefore must be used in tandem with cloture.

A Congressional Research Service report (PDF) from January found that Reid has resorted to this procedure more than any other Senate majority leader going back to 1985, though Republican majorities have relied heavily on it as well. Reid's habit of "filling the tree" demonstrates the paralyzing partisanship that characterizes this Congress. Reid fills the tree in order to prevent petty minority obstructionsim, but in doing so he does not allow for bipartisan formation of bills. 

If Reid does decide to go this route with the oil bill, here's what the process would look like: he introduces the bill this week with a series of inconsequential amendments that prevent other senators—including Rockefeller—from proposing amendments of their own. He would then invoke a cloture vote and hope to round up 60 "yea"'s to push the bill through. After recess, he could consider granting floor time to Rockefeller's measure as a bill rather than an amendment, all the while knowing that Obama would veto it if it reached his desk.

The risk of "filling the tree," though, is that Reid's strong-armed tactics could piss off the senators whose votes he needs for cloture. The CRS report (PDF) found that between 2005 and 2008, the majority of amendment tree-filling attempts did not work. Over 50 percent of the time, the majority leader ended up pulling the bill from the floor or opening it to other amendments. 

The oil bill, now that it's been stripped of its more contentious energy measures, is a fairly bipartisan measure. But alienating Democrats on an energy vote is never a good idea. If Rockefeller and his supporters interpret Reid's amendment-blocking as a reneging on his previous promise, they could decline to grant cloture, essentially dooming what should be a slam-dunk bill.       

This post was produced by The Atlantic as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Sam Brownback to the Rescue?

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 2:29 PM EDT

Renewable energy advocates are making a last-ditch effort to get Majority Leader Harry Reid to include a renewable electricity standard (RES) in the oil-spill and energy bill he's bringing to the floor this week. And they got a hand today from an unexpected source: Kansas Republican Sam Brownback.

Brownback is better known to progressives for his aggressive pro-life positions and his opposition to manimals. But he voted for the bipartisan energy bill that included a 15-percent-by-2020 RES in committee last year. His home state of Kansas also happens to have quite a bit of wind power to harness.

To be sure, Brownback didn't let the opportunity to bash cap-and-trade legislation pass. But he was clear in a statement today that an RES should be part of the bill debated this week:

As we begin consideration of comprehensive energy legislation, it's essential we include ideas that will help drive our national energy production in the direction of more clean, renewable energy. The RES title passed out of the Energy Committee requires by 2020 that 15% of our country's energy be produced using agreed upon forms of renewable energy, such as wind, solar, and biomass. Under this proposal, utilities are allowed to meet up to 4% of the requirement through energy efficiency.

I think it was wise that Senate leadership decided against including any form of cap and tax in the proposal. With unemployment still hovering close to 10%, the American people have no appetite for legislation that would hurt our economy, while doing little to reduce global temperatures. I would argue that most Americans believe that in addressing any challenge, it's necessary to adopt a balanced, pragmatic strategy. In this case, a moderate RES would be an important step towards a cleaner energy future, but without the job-killing provisions that come with cap and tax.

With Brownback is out there rallying for an RES, it will be extra pitiful if Democrats can't get their act together in support of even a bare-minimum standard.

A Renewable Energy Hail Mary?

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 1:14 PM EDT

Climate legislation is now officially dead in the Senate, but does that mean that we can't accomplish anything on clean energy this year? With Majority Leader Harry Reid set to bring what's left of the energy package to the floor this week, environmental and labor groups, along with a number of clean technology companies, are making a last-ditch effort to get a renewable electricity standard attached to the bill.

Reid said Saturday that he doesn't think he can pass even a bare-minimum renewable electricity standard, or RES, which would mandate that every state draw a specific portion of their power from renewable resources. "Right now, I don't think I have 60 votes to get that done," Reid told a crowd at the Netroots Nation conference Saturday.

But advocates of the RES say he's mistaken. "I certainly know that finding 60 votes in the Senate on the verge of an important election is no easy task," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. "But the votes are there for an RES."

A Senate Democratic aide told me that leadership is concerned about including the RES now that the other climate provisions have been axed, because the RES "would replace the cap in terms of scare tactics from the right."

But some Senate Democrats are pushing back on the idea that the votes aren't there, including some moderate Midwestern Dems who were considered "no" votes on a carbon cap like Byron Dorgan (N.D.). Dorgan, Mark Udall (Colo.) and Tom Udall (N.M.) took the lead on a letter to Reid on the issue, which at least 17 other Democrats have reportedly signed as well so far.

The sad thing is, an RES really shouldn't be a tough measure to pass. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have one in place. Most importantly, both the House and the Senate have passed an RES multiple times in the past decade, though it still has not made it into law.

The Senate actually passed a renewable energy standard calling for 10 percent of power to come from renewables by 2020 for the first time back in 2002, and passed it again in both the 108th and 109th Congresses. Then the House got its act together and, during the prolonged debate over the 2007 energy bill, the twice passed versions of the bill that included an RES. But then the Senate couldn't muster enough votes and it didn't make it into the conference bill, either, after the Bush White House pledged to veto the measure.

The House managed to pass an even more ambitious RES last June as part of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, one that requires 20 percent of electricity to come from renewables by 2020 (though it gave states an out if they couldn't meet the target). But now the Senate can't seem to muster support for even a minimal RES right now, like the 15 percent by 2021 RES that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed last June with bipartisan support.

Solar and wind advocates say that even the House-passed standard is actually less ambitious than the path that the industry is already on, and have advocated for a 25 perecent standard by 2025. But at this point, they'll take anything to put the US government on record in support of a renewables mandate. "Getting a signal in place that we're open for business is going to be critical to build the base in the US and attract manufacturing," said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) in a call with reporters Monday. "In this political climate we have to do what we can do."

AWEA, United Steelworkers, Sierra Club, Xcel Energy, and 11 other groups representing labor, environmental, and green business interests sent a letter to Reid asking him to include an RES in the package. "Without immediate passage, hundreds of thousands of future jobs in the clean energy sector could be lost and surrendered to other countries forever," the groups wrote to the leader.

Governors are also joining the drumbeat for an RES, including Iowa's Chet Culver (D), who extolled the value the state portfolio rule has had for Iowa, bringing the state to 20 percent renewables from just 5 percent four years ago. "Our energy future in this country depends on it," said Culver.

For environmental groups, the RES has become the last best hope for anything resembling a clean energy requirement in a bill this year. "While we are deeply disappointed that the Senate is not moving a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill at this time, we think it would be a huge missed opportunity if this package did not include a strong renewable electricity standard, which creates jobs and has bipartisan support," said Sara Chieffo, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters.

It's still anybody's guess whether the RES stands a chance of making it into the package this year. The RES could be the last hope for calling the Senate energy bill meaningful movement forward, or it could go down in flames along with the idea of mandatory carbon reductions this year.