Blue Marble - July 2010

New Leak In the Gulf?

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 10:52 AM EDT

BP has reported success in closing in the Gulf well with its new dome, but all is not well in the Gulf yet. Thad Allen, the incident commander for the Gulf disaster, sent a letter to BP last night asking for more information about "a seep a distance from the well and undetermined anomalies at the well head."

The letter doesn't offer much in the way of detail about the seep, but the acknowledgment of an additional leak is a bad sign; it could mean that the well is damaged enough that oil is escaping through other avenues. Allen granted BP permission to keep the well closed off for another 24 hours while tests and observation of this new leak continue.

Allen's letter demanded a new response plan for the well, given the concerns about the leak and questions about how much damage the wellhead may have sustained:

As a continued condition of the test, you are required to provide as a top priority access and coordination for the monitoring systems, which include seismic and sonar surface ships and subsea ROV and acoustic systems. When seeps are detected, you are directed to marshal resources, quickly investigate, and report findings to the government in no more than four hours. I direct you to provide me a written procedure for opening the choke valve as quickly as possible without damaging the well should hydrocarbon seepage near the well head be confirmed.


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Is the Population Bomb Ever Going To Explode?

| Fri Jul. 16, 2010 7:38 PM EDT

World Population day was July 11, 2010. Did you even know that? Environmentalists and human rights advocates regularly point to a growing world population as a potential source of strife. But one environmental author doesn't agree. Fred Pearce is an environmental and investigative journalist. His books include Confessions of an Eco-Sinner and PeopleQuake, in which he argues the fears of a population explosion are overblown. His recent post on our Climate Desk partner site, Grist, sparked a sharp rebuttal from Robert Walker, executive vice president of the Population Institute. We invited them both to talk about the issue of population growth and its impact on climate change:

This podcast was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Read Julia Whitty's Mother Jones cover story on population, The Last Taboo.

Utilities Are Trying to Pull Off the Scam of the Decade

| Fri Jul. 16, 2010 7:01 PM EDT

I'm technically on vacation, but there's an extremely important fight going on in the background right now, so I want to weigh in, even at the risk of irritating my long-suffering family.

Here's the deal: Right now, two things are happening in parallel. The first is getting all the attention, but the second is, in practical terms, more significant. Yet the first may screw up the second. Let me explain.

The first thing is, Democrats in the Senate are now talking about passing a limited cap-and-trade system that only covers electric utilities. This is widely seen as a second-best measure, something short of an economy-wide system but better than no CO2 restrictions at all. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), among others, is working on legislative language for such a system (though he has said he's skeptical it can get to 60 votes). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) is apparently going to go for it, including such a system in the coming energy bill, and he's deep in negotiation with various stakeholders about it.

The second thing is, EPA is working on a whole suite of new Clean Air Act regulations. I'm not talking about the much-discussed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases—I mean tightened standards on traditional ("criteria") air pollutants. The Clean Air Act dictates that EPA regularly revisit pollution standards and update them to reflect the best current science. Needless to say, that wasn't done during the Bush years, so there's a huge backlog of work. Every single criteria pollutant is being revisited. The upshot is, there are tons of new standards either recently released or on their way in the next year or so. (Also relevant are upcoming regulation of coal ash and tightened Clean Water Act standards.)

Eco-News Roundup: Friday July 16

| Fri Jul. 16, 2010 7:13 AM EDT

News on health and the environment from our other blogs.

Spill Ill Will: Americans don't like the BP oil spill, but are A-OK with drilling.

Operator Error: Bad drivers are the #1 thing making Toyota cars dangerous to your health.

Kids Are Covered: Some say kids are why they don't want Obama to cover contraceptives.

Dirty Hands: Hospitals are still killing patients by giving them catheter-borne infections.

Judge's Outrage: Clarence Thomas's epileptic, depressed nephew was Tased, bringing attention to treatment of mentally ill.

Libyan Lies: BP is being pushed to stop drilling in Libya after allegations of backdoor deals.

Strange Bedfellows: Allegations surface linking a BP drilling deal in Libya to the Pan Am 103 bombing.

Over the Hill: Sharron Angle suggests a 77-year-old senator had "outlived his usefulness."

Blocking the Pill: Religious groups are trying to make sure Obama doesn't mandate contraceptives coverage.

Fetus Fib: Florida gov hopeful got a few details wrong in his pro-life campaign story.

Cheapskate: BP is shorting the paychecks of local workers, as many as 4,000 of them.

A Climate Bill, But at What Cost?

| Fri Jul. 16, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

The Democrats' energy bill remains almost as much of an enigma as it was last week, though now at least we have a broad sense of what it will include. Majority Leader Harry Reid confirmed this week that there will be a "pollution" cutting measure in the package, though he did not actually use the words "carbon" or "greenhouse gases" (even though that's clearly what he's talking about).

There's still plenty of skepticism about whether there are enough Senate votes for any measure to cap and price carbon. But Reid seems confident in including it in a package. There's still a question, however, as to what that this carbon cap will look like; it seems like the only type of greenhouse gas legislation with a chance of making it into the package will be a utility-only provision, meaning it will only apply to the power generation sector, leaving other major producers of carbon dioxide out of the equation until a later date. There are two utility-only options floating out there right now. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have been quietly working on a utility-only measure, dated copies of which have been flying around the Hill this week, though Bingaman is skeptical a cap can pass, even his own. Meanwhile, John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have also laid out a scaled-back version of their cap-and-trade bill.

So, there are competing versions of a utility bill on the table. A utility-only cap isn't inherently bad; utilities are the biggest source of power generation. But as Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said recently, a bill that only targets power plants "has to be very ambitious to go beyond business as usual."

But in exchange for being the first to be subjected to the new rules, utilities are likely to make a number of demands, and there's significant concern that those demands might undermine existing Clean Air Act rules, which the EPA has been chugging forward on. Just last week, the EPA issued new regulations on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. More rules are coming on hazardous air pollutants like mercury, arsenic, and cadmium by 2011. These new rules mark major advances in protecting public health, and they're also expected to shut down some of the oldest, dirtiest coal plants in the country.

Utilities could ask to shelve those and possibly other clean air rules in exchange for going first. In the original Kerry-Lieberman bill, there was a provision to create a "task force" made up of industry officials and regulators that would review other federal regulations on power plants and consider granting "exemptions" from those rules. If the Senate goes the utility-only route, Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, cautions that this bill might become a "vehicle to weaken" other emissions rules.

David Roberts at Grist echoes these concerns:

Why would it be so bad? Because the new Clean Air Act regulations are going to have bigger, faster, and more substantial effects on the power sector than any watered-down utility-only cap-and-trade system. Those regulations will eliminate more pollution, shut down more dirty coal plants, and avoid more greenhouse gases than a utility-only cap-and-trade system.

Environmental advocates who have been working pushing to get an emissions cap passed for years now are seeing their window of opportunity (at least during this Congress) close. But getting just any old cap probably isn't worth it if it comes at the expense of many other important clean air laws.

But then again, who knows if BS or KL or any other cap actually makes it into the package. An environmental advocate briefed on the meetings with Kerry said that the senator is "cautiously hopeful that the utility-only can get enough votes." But while the Massachusetts Democrat is usually the Senate's biggest advocate for a carbon cap, his meeting this week "was not a cheerleader meeting."

I'll have more on the utility-only option and the fate of a carbon cap soon as more details emerge.

Birth Control by the Numbers

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 5:03 PM EDT

Contraceptives aren't included in the list of preventive services health insurance companies will have to cover copay-free in new plans starting in September. At least, not yet. Insurance plans will also have to cover a range of preventive services just for women. Health and Human Services is expected to release that list by August 2011, and groups like Planned Parenthood are hoping contraception will be included. Personally, I think birth control should absolutely be covered, especially the long-term methods like IUDs and implants. And as this is a list of preventive services, contraception is, by its nature, preventive. But hard-working lobbyists and the common misconception (pardon the pun) that birth control is a "woman problem" are a powerful double-whammy, so much so that I wonder if they'll delay this crucial health care step for years, maybe even administrations.

I dug through some medical records and a back-of-napkin calculation showed that contraceptives cost me somewhere between $400 and $500 a year. I don't know what the median spending for women (and men) using birth control is but I would wager it's in the billions at least. Making contraceptives free won't stop all unintended pregnancies, but it would certainly defray the cost for the tens of millions of Americans who use it daily. A few more numbers that make me think free birth control is a good thing, below.

Birth control costs me somewhere between $400 and $500 a year.

99 percent of women ages 15 to 44 who've had sex have used contraception at some point.

There are 62 million women in the US ages 15 to 44, of which 62 percent (38 million) are currently using birth control.

More than a tenth of unmarried, sexually active women who don't want to get pregnant don't use contraceptives.

Nearly half of all pregnancies in the US are unintended.

There are approximately 1.2 million abortions performed yearly.

18- to 29-year-olds have sex an average of 112 times a year: That's around $75 in condoms if used once each time.





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The Gusher is Capped (For Now)

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 4:37 PM EDT

BP reports this afternoon that, for the first time in 86 days, they have stopped the flow of oil from gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. BP vice president Kent Wells said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that oil stopped flowing into the Gulf at 2:25 p.m. CDT, after they successfully closed the new containment dome.

Obviously, this is a huge success, but optimism should be cautious; they're still testing to make sure that the cap doesn't cause too much pressure on the wellhead (which could cause it to break even more). And the gusher won't actually be stopped until the well is plugged. As I reported earlier, it's still not clear when the relief wells might be successful in finally plugging the gusher, the only long-term solution.

Mac McClelland, Julia Whitty, and I will stay stay on top of this news and keep you updated. One question I'm trying to get answered is whether this means we'll actually get an real estimate of how much oil has been leaking into the Gulf for the past three months.

UPDATE: Incident Commander Thad Allen put out this statement this evening:

Significant progress has been made on the capping stack installation. As a result of that progress, BP will perform a "Well Integrity Test" tomorrow morning. This test involves closing one or more of the valves on the new cap for a period of time to allow BP to measure pressures in the well.

It also requires that the Helix Producer and Q4000 collection systems be ramped down and placed in standby mode during the test. The measurements that will be taken during this test will provide valuable information about the condition of the well below the sea level and help determine whether or not it is possible to shut the well for a period of time, such as during a hurricane or bad weather, between now and when the relief wells are complete.

I have reviewed the protocols for this test, in consultation with the government science team. The test will likely last anywhere from 6-48 hours or more depending on the measurements that are observed. BP will be in regular contact with the government during the test, and the government will halt the test if the risks of doing further damage to the surrounding formation are significant.

Once the test has concluded, collection of the oil will resume.

Senate Dem Pledges Dispersant Reform

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 12:13 PM EDT

A new bill is in the works that would regulate the use of dispersants on oil spills. But is it too little too late?

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said Thursday that he plans to introduce the Safe Dispersants Act next week, which would require companies to disclose the chemicals in their products and compel the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test the safety of the chemicals before authorizing their use. The bill would reform the current rules on dispersants, which require no safety testing and allow companies to keep the ingredients of the compounds secret.

Lautenberg announced the new measure at a hearing on dispersants Thursday morning, where EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was put on the hot seat about their use. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) pressed Jackson on whether the EPA even had the authority to force BP to stop using Corexit, its dispersant of choice.

Jackson responded that it was "a matter of untested law" and a matter she was unable to weigh in on: "I would not know, I'm not an attorney." Jackson assured Mikulski that the EPA's lawyers would get back to her office with the specifics on their authority.

"You needed to know on day one," Mikulski shot back.

How much power EPA has over the situation has been an outstanding question. EPA told BP to find an alternative dispersant almost two months ago, but the company chose to ignore that directive. So EPA pledged to do its own tests. (The first round of results was released several weeks ago, but testing continues.) Meanwhile, BP is still using a large volume of dispersants, with the consent of the Coast Guard.

Jackson says that while her agency is still concerned about their use, it's still letting BP use the dispersants because they're considered safer than the oil itself. Yet she acknowledged repeatedly that the EPA did not have enough research on the long-term impacts of the chemicals. "With the use of dispersants, we are faced with environmental trade-offs," Jackson told the panel. "The long term effects on aquatic life are largely unknown." But, she said, "We have not seen significant environmental impacts from the use of dispersants so far."

Critics of the dispersants say there should have been a better understanding of the potential health impacts of disperaants, and regulations government their use, long before the Gulf disaster. "We basically entered into this with a complete lack of preparedness," Ken Cook president of the Environmental Working Group, told the panel. "The government and oil industry long ago should have made sure we had those answers."

A representative of Nalco, the chemical company that manufactures the dispersants BP is using in the Gulf, declined to testify at the hearing, Mikulski said.

UPDATE: A Nalco spokesman emails to say that Mikulski misspoke; "One of the trade associations that Nalco is a member of was asked to testify, Nalco was not asked to testify," he says.

Enviro Links: House Panel Blocks BP Leases, Mystery Sea Turtle Deaths, and More

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 9:19 AM EDT

Today in oil disaster news:

Officials gave the go-ahead last night to begin tests on the new containment cap, which BP hopes will collect far more oil than the old cap.

The House Natural Resources Committee approved a bill to create yet another oil spill commission. The Consolidated Land, Energy and Aquatic Resources Act also sets up new regulations on the oil and gas industry.

That committee also approved an amendment from Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) that would bar companies with a history of safety violations from obtaining new leases, which of course is bad news for BP.

Regulators are asking banks to cut Gulf Coast residents affected by the oil spill some slack, reports The Hill.

Oil has hit Louisiana's largest sea bird nesting area, covering 300 to 400 pelicans and hundreds of terns in crude.

The New York Times reports that many of the autopsies on dead animals found in the Gulf are inconclusive, as many of the victims aren't showing obvious signs of oil contamination.

Does the Marlboro Man Use Child Labor?

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 7:22 PM EDT

In case you needed one last reason to stop giving cigarette companies your hard-earned cash, The Guardian reports today that "activists found children as young as 10 picking tobacco" destined for Philip Morris cigarettes. According to NYT, children working in the remote Kazakhstan fields "developed red rashes on their stomachs and necks" while harvesting the leaves.

What, you thought Philip Morris International's cigarette manufacturing labor practices were somehow more defensible than their global marketing techniques? This Human Rights Watch report released today should disabuse you of that notion. Some salient points:

Human Rights Watch documented 72 cases of children working in tobacco in 2009. Experts consider tobacco farming one of the worst forms of child labor, meaning children under the age of 18 should not be working in it. Children face particular risks associated with the handling of tobacco leaves and exposure to pesticides...

We found six families who were trapped in situations amounting to forced labor," [senior researcher Jane] Buchanan said. "Employers paid them only after eight or nine months of farming tobacco, made many of them do household chores and other farming for no pay at all, and on top of everything, confiscated their passports to coerce them to stay on the job."

In a few other cases found by Human Rights Watch, these factors resulted in debt bondage, where families worked a whole season only to find themselves in debt to the farm owner after the harvest and were required to work additional seasons to pay off the debts.

Read the rest of the report here.

[H/T FP Morning Brief and MoJo reader Rhoda Feng.]