Blue Marble - July 2010

Enviro Links: The Climate Bill Dies (Again), BP Admits Doctoring Photos, and More

| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 2:26 PM EDT

Today in climate news:

Majority Leader Harry Reid is not going to include a cap on carbon dioxide pollution, reports The Hill. We'll have more on the rest of the bill soon.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in her weekly press conference that she remains proud of the House's effort to pass a carbon cap last summer, and will push for it to be included in a conference bill this year.

In oil disaster news:

Response workers are preparing to evacuate the area around the spill site as a tropical storm approaches. Evacuation would put work on the relief wells on hold for 10 to 14 days, according to incident commander Thad Allen.

BP admits to doctoring a photo of the command center to make its response team look more busy.

BP hates puppies and kittens.

The other big four oil companies are forming a $1 billion joint venture to plan rapid response to potential future spills. BP is not a part of this new party.

China is dealing with its own catastrophic oil spill.

And in other environmental news:

Big Oil has been lobbying to weaken sanctions against Iran.

The Washington Independent reports on how the nuclear licensing process is raising the risks of proliferation.

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After the BP Catastrophe: Gauging the Impact for 10 Politicians

| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 1:54 PM EDT

The local environment has been ruined and the regional economy has been decimated. Now, some elected officials are finding that the Gulf oil spill is a political catastrophe, too. But for every Joe Barton who managed to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, there are officials who may come out of this crisis without so much as a drop of oil on their careers. The Atlantic takes a look at the fortunes of 10 politicians affected by the incident in this slide show.

This post was produced by The Atlantic for the Climate Desk collaboration.

How To Make Energy Programs Work Better (for Free!)

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 7:21 PM EDT

I've written before (more than once) that energy reformers should pay more attention to behavior. Instead there is an almost universal obsession with technology and economic cost, narrowly construed. If you think of people as rational interest maximizers, as per reigning economic folk theory, price is all that matters. You want to change behavior, you change prices. Want to change prices, make technology better. Thus the techno-obsessed American energy discussion.

No one behaves in their day-to-day life as though they or those around them are rational interest maximizers. We all recognize one another as flawed and complex, but for some reason when we talk economics or policy, we assume greedy robots. It's baffling.

API's Recycled Astroturf

| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Have you heard about the massive public uprising to protect Big Oil's tax breaks? No? Oh, probably because it doesn't exist. But that doesn't mean the American Petroleum Institute won't try to convince you it does!

API has launched a "new" Energy Citizens campaign to convince you, the average American, to help the oil industry trade group protect the lavish tax loopholes they currently enjoy. With that whole oil disaster in the Gulf, it looks like Congress might cut off the gravy train for oil companies when it comes to billions of dollars in tax breaks and direct subsidies every year. Now API has launched a new ad campaign to protect the handouts, as well as a new "grassroots" campaign to protect them. One big problem: Their latest astroturf effort looks a whole lot like their last astroturf effort.

Let us recall last summer's Energy Citizens campaign, wherein the oil industry trade group (and No. 5 on our list of the top dozen organizations supporting climate change denial) took the liberty of organizing "citizen" rallies around the country in protest of cap and trade legislation. Turns out, as I reported last summer, nearly all of the rallies were directly organized lobbyists for API and its state affiliates.

API's newest effort, also called "Energy Citizens," introduced itself in an email blast on Tuesday as a "new movement of citizens focused on countering reactionary policies and restoring a common-sense perspective." The email claims to come from an organization called Partnership for America's Energy Security, and it's signed by Deryck Spooner, the executive director of Energy Citizens. (Spooner also happens to be the "external mobilization director" that API hired away from the Nature Conservancy earlier this year.)

The Energy Citizens website (the "new online headquarters of our nationwide movement") doesn't make much mention of API, other than to note that it is "supported by" the trade group. The site warns that Congress is considering "crippling tax hikes that will threaten thousands of jobs and hurt investments in new technologies"—without mentioning anywhere which "job-killing energy taxes" they mean, specifically. They're also endorsing an anti-moratorium rally in Louisiana taking place tomorrow, as Josh notes on the MoJo blog.

Here's what the letter they sent out Tuesday has to say about the oil spill:

Nonetheless, this tragedy is being exploited to undermine realistic energy policies that would benefit our nation. In fact, some policymakers are attempting to levy billions of dollars in new taxes on America’s energy companies—taxes that could impact every American industry employee, and every American energy consumer.

If you're going to fake grassroots citizen mobilization, API, it would probably be worth the time (and money, which I am well aware API has quite a bit of) to come up with a new name, or at least make an attempt to cover your tracks.

 

The Little Climate Bill That Couldn't

| Tue Jul. 20, 2010 5:56 PM EDT

Not to sound like a broken record here, but Senate Democrats emerged from today's caucus lunch with, yet again, not much to say in the way of details on their energy package. And even in the wake of the worst environmental disaster in US history, it's looking increasingly likely that the Senate will not only fumble climate legislation, but even fail to move a basic package of energy reforms in response to the oil spill.

"We're really not at the point where I can determine what I think is best for the caucus," Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) told reporters following the meeting, when asked if there were any new details on the package, which they are supposed to start debating next week. Reid also noted that they haven't yet drawn any Republicans to work on a package. "Everyone is focusing all the attention on us. We're trying to find a Republican or two or three … We haven't given up on that."

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) told reporters that they spent about five minutes on the subject of an energy package. Reid walked them through several options on a bill, one with a carbon cap and one without it, and gave senators more time to think about it.

Other senators are just getting testy about the issue. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of the few Democrats still considered "on the fence" when it comes to including climate provisions, flatly refused to discuss the issue with reporters. "I'm not going to talk about energy. I got burned twice last week," said McCaskill, indicating that some unnamed reporter had misquoted. McCaskill is one of the Democrats folks are watching most closely on this issue, since she has yet to weigh in publicly one way or another. I have no idea what quote she is referring to as having been wrong.

Republicans, including one who was once viewed as a potential ally on climate, are also not looking any more amenable to an energy package at all this year, with or without a carbon cap. "Anybody that's been in the Senate for any period of time knows there's no way that an energy bill is going to get done between now and the election, and for that matter, now and the end of the year," George Voinovich (R-Ohio) told reporters. "Anybody that's being intellectually honest has got to say we do not have the time to do anything meaningful at this point in time when it comes to climate change."

Voinovich, who is retiring after this year, didn't offer much hope that he would come around to working with Democrats on a package. "I'm only going to spend my time on stuff I think might make a difference," he said.

Bush Official on Sex, Meth and Oil: What's the Big Deal?

| Tue Jul. 20, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

Gale Norton, former President George W. Bush's first Secretary of the Interior, ran the department during the time when its Minerals Management Service was guilty of some of its worst excesses—including holding cocaine and meth-fueled sex and oil parties. But that didn't stop Norton from taking to Capitol Hill Tuesday to defend the "hardworking and professional men and women of the Minerals Management Service."

Norton was one of two Bush-era Interior secretaries who testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Tuesday morning, the first time representatives from the previous administration have been put on the hot-seat about the regulatory miscues that may have led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Current Secretary Ken Salazar joined Norton (who served in the role from January 2001 to March 2006) and Dirk Kempthorne (June 2006 to January 2009) before the panel.

In her opening statement, Norton accused critics of the Interior Department of vilifying the Minerals Management Service (now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement). "There has been a great deal of media attention to the ethics of MMS. It pains me to see the vilification of MMS and its employees. I want to speak in defense of the vast majority of hardworking and professional men and women of the Minerals Management Service," said Norton in her prepared opening statement.

Now, it was under Norton's watch that many of the porn, meth, and oil parties took place at the MMS' Lake Charles, La. office. Oh, and the sex, oil, and cocaine parties at the Lakewood, Colorado office. And Norton, who went to work for Shell Oil shortly after leaving office, has been the subject of a Department of Justice criminal investigation into whether she illegally used her position at DOI to benefit the company that would hire her soon thereafter (that probe is said to be wrapping up soon, with no charges against Norton).

Norton did at least address the Inspector General reports on sex and drugs at MMS, though she claimed it was only a "handful of employees" who blatantly violated gift limitations and other conflict of interest requirements.  She acknowledged that "[t]heir actions were wrong and unacceptable," but downplayed the extent of the problem:

These employees were disciplined, and I join in condemning their misconduct. But MMS has over 1700 employees.  The very few misbehaving employees have been blown out of proportion to create a public image of the MMS as a merry band of rogue employees seeking favors from industry.  The public servants I encountered were entirely different from that impression.  

Norton's attempts to rehab the MMS' image are almost as amusing at Obama administration's, which have included changing the name of the department and sending BP's nomination for a safety award down the memory hole.

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Enviro Links: Cameron to Discuss Lockerbie Bomber Release, BP Buys Scientists, and More

| Tue Jul. 20, 2010 10:12 AM EDT

On the three-month anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, here's the latest on the oil disaster:

British Prime Minister David Cameron is visiting the US today, and conversation with President Obama will likely include the oil disaster.

Cameron will also meet this evening with four senators who have raised concerns that BP lobbied for the release of Libyan prisoners—possibly including convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi—in order to secure a $900 million oil drilling deal.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated yesterday that the issue of the Lockerbie bomber's release should be revisited. "That al-Megrahi is living out his remaining days outside of Scottish custody is an affront to the victims' families, the memories of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing, and to all of those who worked tirelessly to ensure justice was served," wrote Clinton in a letter to the senators who have asked her to open up a probe into the matter.

BP's "company man" on board the Deepwater Horizon at the time of the explosion, Robert Kaluza, has invoked his 5th Amendment rights rather than testify at a federal hearing on the incident today.

The "seep" identified near the Macondo well doesn’t appear to be related to the gusher.

Gulf seafood prices are soaring.

BP is now buying up scientists in the Gulf for its legal defense.

The Times-Picayune takes a look at Louisiana's relationship with offshore oil and gas drilling.

Birth Control's Hidden Costs

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 6:17 PM EDT

The recent flap over whether or not birth control will be considered a co-pay-free "preventive service" won't be resolved until Health and Human Services issues a ruling next August. But in the meantime, I've been thinking a lot about the cost of birth control, specifically, cost-effectiveness. After all, contraceptive use in and of itself saves around $19 billion in direct medical costs in the US.

I recently found a study that shows that it's not just the cost of the birth control that Americans pay for: it's the failure cost. As shown in this 2009 study by Princeton's James Trussell, oral contraceptives only cost around $526 a year themselves but the cost of their failure during typical use adds another $132 a year. I was surprised to learn that one of the most cost-effective methods of birth control (aside from more permanent methods like vasectomy or IUDs) is the male condom. In fact, according to Trussell's paper, out of 17 methods of contraception, not taking insurance into account, the patch, the pill, and the sponge are among the least cost-effective; the most cost-effective are IUDs, vasectomy, and the male condom.

The patch, the pill, and the sponge are among the least cost-effective; the most are IUDs, vasectomy, and... the male condom.

This isn't to say that I advocate insurance companies only cover cost-effective methods of birth control, but I find it interesting that the system is set up so that even if you use a birth control method with a very high failure rate (e.g. withdrawal, fertility awareness), it's still more cost-effective than many modern pharmaceuticals. The entire cost of withdrawal was its failure cost, about $403/yr, while the pill was $676/yr. Even if you were using a pill that was covered by insurance with a co-pay of around $30/month, you'd still pay $360/yr for it which is more than using the less-effective condom ($315/yr). One would hope that if conservatives really want fewer abortions, they'll at least endorse the coverage of contraceptives like IUDs which are the most cost-effective and the most effective at preventing pregnancies.

Forum: Is Vegetarianism Always Better for the Planet Than Eating Meat?

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 2:17 PM EDT

We've got a good debate going over at our "vegetarianism vs. meat-eating" forum today. For starters, our panelists—Eating Animals author and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, farmer and writer Joel Salatin, Diet for a Hot Planet author Anna Lappé, Bard College geophysicist Gidon Eshel, and food-waste expert Jonathan Bloom—have posted some provocative responses. Salatin, for example, makes an interesting point about ecological benefits of raising livestock:

Grasses are the lungs of the earth. They sequester more carbon than trees. In order to keep grass converting solar energy into decomposable biomass as efficiently as possible, it must be grazed routinely to restart the juvenile growth period. This pulsing is literally the heartbeat of the earth.

A reader named Felicia disagrees:

That's nice, but it sounds like an argument for restoring native prairies and native predators, not eating hamburgers—there's no implication here that we need to put non-native cows on non-native forage and then butcher them in brutal factories so we can have our steaks and feel good about our earth-lungs too.

Join the conversation! Our experts will be responding to reader comments regularly through this Wednesday, July 21. Check out the forum here

Actual Size of Gulf Disaster Still Unknown

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 12:55 PM EDT

There may be concerns about whether the well is safe, but for now, BP has closed in the Gulf gusher. Yet even after three months of leaking, we still don't have a solid estimate of how much oil was escaping the well for all that time. The official government flow-rate team last released an estimate on June 15, leaving the range of possible estimates quite large: from 35,000 barrels per day up to 60,000. But with the well now closed in, might we never get an accurate idea of how much oil has been dumped in the Gulf?

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has been going gangbusters on making BP and the federal government own up to the reality of this disaster, sent a letter on Monday to Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the federal incident commander, asking whether closing in the well will make it impossible to know how much oil is leaking. It had previously been indicated that the new cap would allow them to pump all of the oil to the surface for collection, which would have offered indisputable figures. Now that BP plans to contain it, Markey worries, we will never know the real figure.

"By shutting in this well, we could be shutting off our last best chance to determine what BP could pay in government fines," said Markey.

In his letter to Allen, Markey suggests that, should the reported problems with the well continue, BP should instead try the collection option: "If it is necessary to again allow the well to flow, either because a decision to keep it shut in indefinitely is unsound, or in order to conduct the relief well bottom kill‚ then there would be no reason at that point for not taking the opportunity to conduct a 100 percent hydrocarbon collection test."

"It is imperative that we understand your current plans and be able to assess the ramifications of different options at this point," Markey continues. "I am also concerned, as I know you are, that continuing to keep the well fully shut in, could pose risks of additional problems with well integrity, an issue that I have raised with both you and BP in separate letters over the past few weeks."

Allen has also expressed concerns about the integrity of the well, and has demanded more information from BP about possible leaks and the company's plans for dealing with problems.

BP has, of course, been coy about how much oil is leaking from the well. The company originally said just 1,000 barrels was leaking every day. BP later upped the estimate to 5,000 barrels, which the government's official team now says is likely less than one-sixth of the actual amount. BP faces stiff penalties per barrel—up to $4,300 each for Clean Water Act violations alone. The Department of Interior last week announced that BP will also be expected to pay royalties on all the oil it's dumped into the Gulf. (The typical royalty rate is 18.75 percent of the going rate for a barrel of oil, currently about $76 a barrel—so, about $14.25 a barrel.) In any rate, how much BP will have to shell out is almost entirely reliant on getting a realistic, concrete estimate—and we still don't know if we'll ever get one.