Blue Marble - July 2010

Manchin/Big Coal 2010?

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 8:00 AM EDT

West Virginia's Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin said Wednesday he would "highly consider" making a bid to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Robert Byrd's death last week. The state law on whether to hold a special election to fill the seat this November, or wait until Byrd's current term finishes in 2012, is unclear, and the state attorney general has yet to weigh in. Manchin said he supports a race this fall because "two and half years for me to appoint someone to replace this giant, Robert C. Byrd, is far too long." And Manchin just happens to have his eyes on the seat.

In a press conference yesterday, the second-term Democratic governor also didn't rule out getting the state legislature to change the law so that they can hold the special election this fall. In the meantime, Manchin will likely appoint someone to keep the seat warm for him who is largely in line with his views (he's already said he won't appoint himself, but has made it clear that he has national ambitions). Manchin stands a good chance of winning, whether it's this fall or in 2012; he won reelection in 2008 with almost 70 percent of the vote.

Neither Manchin nor a placeholder would be a particularly good addition to the Senate when it comes to climate and energy legislation. To call Manchin a champion of coal would be an understatement; last year he named coal the official state rock. Last month he pushed the state legislature to introduce a resolution condemning action on climate change. He also cheered West Virginia's junior senator, Jay Rockefeller, for trying to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.

Byrd, long a champion of coal, came around on the issue quite a bit near the end of his life. He blasted the effort to neuter the EPA an "extreme" move that would "dismiss scientific facts" about climate change. He also penned an op-ed last December on the need for coal to "embrace the future" and stop denying "the mounting science of climate change," and was critical of mountaintop removal, a mining practice that has brought environmental devastation to the state.

Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette tried to ask Manchin's spokesman about whether he would appoint someone in the mold of Byrd or himself on climate change, but didn't get a straight answer.

Manchin is also pro-life and an NRA member, so I don't expect progressives are going to get particularly excited about him in any case. But on climate and energy issues, Manchin or his seat-holder will probably have to vote on some manner of legislation in the very near future. Byrd became a fairly reliable vote for climate action, but the next senator from the state probably won't carry on that legacy.

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MMS Scrubs Safety Nod for BP From Website

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 5:40 PM EDT

Shortly after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, we reported that the Minerals Management Service canceled its annual "Safety Award for Excellence" luncheon, which—rather embarrassingly—included BP as one of the finalists for a 2010 safety commendation. The SAFE event was never held, and MMS never did get around to announcing a winner. Now Energy & Environment reports that the Department of Interior has scrubbed the evidence of BP's finalist-status from its website.

You can see here that BP is no longer listed as a finalist in the "High OCS Activity Operator" category. E&E got this screenshot of what the page used to look like, however:

The SAFE awards don't have a particularly solid record, so perhaps its understandable that they'd want to hide BP's nod. One of the 2009 award recipients was Deepwater Horizon-owner Transocean. But Interior has been trying to send MMS down the memory hole entirely. Last month they announced that they were changing its name to the "Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement," which is substantially more complicated but doesn't conjure the memory of sex, drug and oil parties and, oh yeah, the giant Gulf disaster.

BP's Big Ad Buys: At least $5.6 Million

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 2:22 PM EDT

Anybody who's bought a national newspaper in the past two months has probably seen BP's full-page spreads pledging, "We will get it done. We will make this right." The ads have been prominently displayed in the New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today, among other outlets. Given the ad rates at these papers, it's clear that BP has been forking over plenty of money for the campaign.

Just how much? Greenpeace kept track of BP's ads throughout June and came up with a rundown of how much they likely cost. The company ran 12 ads in the Times, 15 in the Washington Post, and 11 in USA Today. Based on the ad rates for each paper, which vary by color, day of the week, and size (for example, according to their rate card, a full-page color at the Times on a weekday costs $230,266, while a black and white ad costs $194,166), Greenpeace calculated that BP spent at least $5.6 million on ads in these three papers alone in the month of June—no small chunk of change considering how bad the adversting market is for print media these days.

BP has bought enough ads at the Post, for example, to qualify for a bulk rate. It's not a special discount, Marc Rosenberg, senior advertising manager at the paper, explained to me last month. "Anybody who is buying 10 full pages of ads would get the discount," he said. Rosenberg also said that BP can state a preference on where an ad goes in the paper—meaning the company could request that its ads not be positioned immediately across from photos of oil-soaked birds, for example. "Any advertiser has the right to request preferences for placement," he said.

And BP of course has the right to shell out as much money as it wants on the ads—and, knowing full well the state of the print media, I wouldn't begrudge any paper for taking as much BP ad money as they can get their hands on. But how much control BP might have over where the ads are placed and whether the company gets discounts is an interesting subject. After all, these papers have done amazing and abundant work on the Gulf disaster, so it must raise at least a few questions about how to best deal with these giant ads about a controversial subject that is currently all over the news.

"That has obviously been a challenge at times," Rosenberg acknowledged. "There are days that there isn't much in the paper besides oil spill."

USA Today vice president of advertising Bruce Dewar said that it's standard industry practice to work with advertisers on placement, though he said that, to his knowledge, BP has not made any specific requests to avoid placing its ads near spill coverage. "We will work with an advertiser if there is going to be a clear direct conflict that is going to be embarrassing to both of us," said Dewar. He also said the BP is getting a bulk rate on ads there too. "BP is spending at a level that is definitely earning them some discount," he said. The Times didn't return requests for information about their policies.

Greenpeace's Kert Davies argues that perhaps BP shouldn't get a say when it comes to placement given the current situation, or in the very least should be forced to pay full-price. "This is part of a very clear national image washing campaign. It's damage control," he says. "They're clearly broadcasting to an audience of decision makers, thought leaders, and the public through these print outlets." But at the same time, he said, "It's good if this ad revenue supports ongoing, good reporting that the Times and Post are doing."

There's also another important question about just how much these ads are actually helping BP. Congressmen have lambasted the "make this right" line repeatedly, noting that it can never really be "right," given the scale of the disaster. And I've talked to more than one person who felt the ads were more off-putting than anything else. As Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, explained, "A lot of folks see those ads and think, give me a break. It's too little too late." The ads, he said, "really strike the wrong cord with a lot of folks."

It's also worth noting that the $5.6 million on print ads in major papers alone is probably only a tiny fraction of what the company has bought so far. They've also run ads in local Gulf papers, on television, and all over the internet, which isn't included in that figure.

The Gulf of Oil from Space on Day 75

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 1:06 PM EDT

 

This Earth Observatory posted this image from July 4th of oil from the damaged Deepwater Horizon oil well off the Mississippi Delta. The MODIS on NASA’s Terra captured the natural-color image. The oil appears as an uneven light gray shape east-southeast of the delta.

Ethanol Subsidies: Bad for the Gulf, Good for BP

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 10:54 AM EDT

Josh reported yesterday on the National Corn Growers Association's attempt to put a farmer-friendly spin on the Gulf disaster by promoting ethanol as an alternative. But as Josh notes, ethanol production presents its own disaster for the Gulf. But it gets worse: among the major beneficiaries of our country's corn-loving ways is BP. The oil giant stands to gain $600 million through ethanol tax breaks this year alone.

An analysis from Environmental Working Group finds that BP will bring in millions through the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (or VEETC), a tax break for refiners that blend ethanol into gasoline. The tax credit has become yet another handout to oil companies.

"As one of the largest blenders and marketers of biofuels in the nation, we blended over 1 billion gallons of ethanol with gasoline in 2008 alone," BP boasts on its website. According to the Energy Information Association, BP is the fourth largest ethanol blender in the country.

EWG notes that in 2008 the VEETC was worth 51 cents per gallon, which means BP would have brought in $510 million. Now the tax credit is 45 cents per gallon, but "it is highly likely that BP is blending more ethanol now than they did in 2008," EWG writes. Between 2005 and 2009, taxpayers shelled out $17 billion in credits to subsidize corn growers, according to EWG's analysis.

CongressDaily has more on how Big Oil is a major beneficiary of these tax breaks.

So despite what the corn lobby wants us to believe, our ethanol policies are actually a boon for BP, too.

Enviro Links: Abandoned Gulf Wells, Greens Sue Exxon, and More

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 9:49 AM EDT

In Gulf disaster news:

There are more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico, many of them closed off decades ago, and no one has been keeping track of whether or not they're leaking, reports the Associated Press. Many are classified as "temporarily abandoned," and may have failing cement jobs because the rules for capping those wells are not as stringent they are for permanent closures.

The Obama administration has asked a federal appeals court to reinstate the moratorium on new offshore drilling.

More tar balls have been found in Galveston, Texas.

The Navy is sending a blimp to help monitor cleanup efforts in the Gulf.

Oil is now making its way into Lake Pontchartrain, a lake that borders New Orleans. More than 1,000 pounds of tar balls and waste have been removed from the lake.

At least the Gulf spill is benefiting someone: Atlantic Coast vacation destinations.

And in other environmental news:

Environment Texas and the Sierra Club are suing the nation’s largest oil refinery in Baytown, Texas, owned by ExxonMobil Corp, for illegally releasing at least 5.9 million pounds of hazardous air pollutants over five years.

The EPA announced new, tougher standards for dangerous sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions yesterday. By 2012, the plan will cut SO2 emissions 71 percent from 2005 levels and nitrogen oxide emissions by 52 percent, the EPA said.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is pressuring the Obama administration to oppose a massive pipleline that would bring oil into the US from Canada's tar sands.

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Gulf Sea Turtles Win Protection, For Now

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 8:35 PM EDT

This is a few days late, but bears mention. Several environmental groups reached a settlement with BP and the Coast Guard last Friday for the company to remove live sea turtles from clumps of oil-soaked seagrasses in the Gulf before they light them on fire. This is fantastic news, as there have been more than 270 burns in the Gulf since the spill and hundreds of turtles found dead. The settlement is for two separate legal actions filed by environmental organizations against BP last week. One was a 60-day intent-to-sue for violations of the Endangered Species Act and other laws, and the other was an immediate injunction to stop the burns until turtle safety concerns could be met. The injunction may be renewed if BP does not live up to its pledge to put trained biologists on boats with the burn crews.

How Big Corn Sees the BP Gusher

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 3:36 PM EDT

Last week, the National Corn Growers Association put its own farmer-friendly spin on BP's oil gusher in a new TV ad called "Ethanol: Now is the time."

Unfortunately, this idea is precisely wrong. Switching from oil to ethanol to save the Gulf would be like switching from cheeseburgers to cocaine to save your heart. Agricultural runoff from ethanol production fuels the Gulf's Dead Zone, a New Jersey-sized pollution plume that may be worse for the marine environment in the long run than BP's oil.

The Dead Zone is created when algae spawned by river-borne fertilizer sucks the oxygen out of the water, killing off shrimp, crabs and any other marine creatures that can't escape. This summer, the Dead Zone will cover up to 8,500 square miles of ocean from Alabama to Texas. That's about a third the area now covered by BP's oil gusher, but the long-term effects could be worse: The Dead Zone has doubled in size since the 1980s and returns every year to ravage crucial parts of the ocean's food chain.

The destruction caused by the Dead Zone means that our increasing ethanol dependence will only throw salt on the Gulf's ecological wounds. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Congress' 2007 renewable fuels standard requires ethanol production, which already consumes a third of the nation's corn, to triple in the next 12 years. A 2008 National Research Council report warned that the change could cause a "considerable" increase in damage to the Gulf.

And ethanol's environmental toll doesn't stop at the shore. A recent study found that dead zones also contribute to global warming—another indication that biofuels, in addition to driving up food prices and causing deforestation, do more to harm the climate than help it

Watch: The Mystery BP Twitterer Revealed!

Tue Jul. 6, 2010 3:05 PM EDT

Leroy Stick is the brains behind a fake BP twitter account called BPGlobalPR that’s racked up more than 180,000 followers. Need to Know’s Erin Chapman grabbed an exclusive on-camera interview with him at the TEDxOilSpill conference.

Stick (an alias) began feeding his updates to humor-starved news junkies on May 19 and — like the oil — hasn’t slowed since. Some of his recent status reports include:

As long as we can get loaded potato skins at T.G.I.Friday’s, seafood can suck it.

Tropical Storms = 1/2 days.

Anyone accusing us of tarring and feathering pelicans is ignorant. They feathered themselves.

In an undisclosed location, Stick agreed to answer some questions about his methods and motivation, as well as what BP is getting wrong in their PR campaign. He appeared in a ski mask and demanded that we disguise his voice (so please excuse the audio

This video was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. For Mother Jones' interview with Leroy Stick, click here.

A Year in the Life of the BP Oil Spill

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 2:37 PM EDT

The video (below) shows computer simulations of one possible scenario for the fate of the Gulf of Mexico's oil catastrophe over the course of a year. In the model, 5 million buoyant particles are released continuously from April 20 to September 17 from the Deepwater Horizon rig. What's really interesting is what you might call the Gulf Stream Whiplash Effect. The highlights, or rather lowlights of the findings:

  • Oil spreads initially in the Gulf of Mexico before entering the Loop Current, the narrow Florida Current, and finally the Gulf Stream.
  • After a year, about 20 percent of the particles have been transported through the Straits of Florida and into the open Atlantic.
  • Coastlines near the Carolinas, Georgia, and northern Florida might see the effects of the catastrophe by October.
  • The main branch of the subtropical gyre will likely transport the oil towards Europe, though strongly diluted.
  • As northeasterly winds intensify near Florida in October and November, the oil in the Atlantic moves closer to eastern US shores as it retreats from western Florida shores.
  • The narrow deep Straits of Florida force the Florida Current into a narrow channel, creating a tight bottleneck for the spreading of oil into the Atlantic. As the animation suggests, a filtering system in the narrowest spot of the Florida Current could mitigate the spreading of the oil film into the North Atlantic.
  •  

The explanantion behind the model:

The animation shows the calculated surface particle concentrations for grid boxes about 10-km-by-10-km in size into April 2011. For an estimated flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon of 50,000 barrels per day over a 150 day period, a concentration of ~10 particles per grid box in the animation corresponds roughly to an oil volume of 2 cubic meters per 100 square kilometers.

The dispersal model doesn't capture the real-world stuff that oil does, like coagulate, form tar balls, and get broken down over time by chemical and microbial degradation. Therefore surface concentrations relative to the actual spill may be overestimated. Or not. Seeing there might be more than 50,000 barrels a day being released. At any rate, the animation is designed not as a specific prediction but as a scenario to guide research and mitigation efforts.

The work was done by researchers from the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.