Blue Marble - August 2010

Sorry, Drilling Regulators: No More Oil Orgies

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 12:50 PM PDT

Last night, Michael Bromwich, the new director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (formerly known as the Minerals Management Service), circulated an email to staffers outlining new ethics policies for employees who deal with offshore drilling, an attempt to reform his run amuck division's rep for being too cozy with oil and gas interests. Most of the new rules seem like a no-brainer, but given MMS' history, perhaps we should be grateful they're now on paper.

Here's how Bromwich's memo begins:

District employees must perform their duties based solely on the facts and information they collect or that are presented to them in accordance with applicable regulations, without any coercion or improper influence from any industry personnel. Pursuant to the procedures set forth below, District employees must immediately report any situation or incident where industry personnel attempt to bribe, harass, coerce or improperly pressure or influence a District employee with respect to the performance of the employee’s official duties, including the issuance of Incidents of Noncompliance (INCs) or any other action considered or taken by the employee in accordance with applicable regulations.

I wish the memo included a line more specifically saying, "Hey, no more porn, meth, and oil parties," but maybe that's too much to ask.

Under the new guidelines, BOEM staffers will be barred for two years from handling any matter involving a former employer in the industry. Employees will also have to inform their supervisors about any other potential conflicts of interest, and will be required to submit requests to be relieved of duties that might present a conflict. Staffers will also have to recuse themselves from duties that involve companies that employ a family member or friend.

The division has undergone a major overhaul since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The head of the agency at the time, Elizabeth Birnbaum, was canned. It's name was even changed to make a clean break from MMS' sordid past. The Interior Secretary also split the division into separate units for regulation and revenue-collection.

Even knowing how bad it was at MMS pre-Deepwater, it's still a bit shocking that, as the Houston Chronicle reports, this "is a first for the federal agency that regulates drilling, which previously had no formal guidelines governing such potential conflicts." But why stop at MMS? Seems like something they might want to extend to other DOI divisions while they're at it.

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What's Missing From Interior's New Scientific Integrity Policy?

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 12:18 PM PDT

The Department of Interior issued a new draft policy on scientific integrity on Tuesday, a long overdue addition to the agency's manual outlining the rules and regulations for employees when it comes to ensuring that their decisions are based on sound science. It's certainly a step in the right direction, given such a policy didn't even exist previously. But there are still concerns that the policy doesn't go far enough in reforming an agency known for ignoring (or outright manipulating) scientific findings.

In the wake of the BP disaster, Interior has come under increased scrutiny when it comes to its enforcement and oversight activities. The Minerals Management Service, now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, has been singled out for the bulk of the criticism. As the agency's Inspector General pointed out in April, in its not-so-subtly-titled report "Interior Lacks a Scientific Integrity Policy," DOI's other divisions have also fallen down on the job when it comes to upholding sound scientific practices. At fault, the IG says, has been the lack of a policy on the subject. From the report:

We found that Interior has no comprehensive scientific integrity policy and only one of its bureaus has such a policy. In addition, we found that Interior has no requirement to track scientific misconduct allegations. Without policies to ensure the integrity of its scientific research, Interior runs the risk that flawed information will reach the scientific community and general public, thereby breaching the public's trust and damaging Interior's reputation. The time for a comprehensive scientific integrity policy at Interior is, therefore, long overdue.

The report offered a few examples illustrating why the lack of a policy is problematic. In one case, a deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks "was found to have unduly influenced a critical habitat designation." In another, a National Park Serve senior science adviser for Point Reyes National Seashore "misrepresented research regarding sedimentation, failed to provide information sought after from Freedom of Information Act request, and misinformed individuals in a public forum regarding sea life data, and put into question NPS' scientific integrity."

The IG's office recommended that the agency develop and implement an Interior-wide, comprehensive scientific integrity policy, one that covers "all agents, appointees, employees and contractors involved in researching and publishing scientific results of any kind." Now, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says the draft policy DOI produced only includes about half the rules that are needed. While agency scientists would be disciplined for things like falsifying data and not disclosing or avoiding conflicts of interest, there are a number of concerns. Chief among them is that the draft policy only applies to employees, contractors, and volunteers, excluding supervisors and appointees. Which is pretty key—most of the officials responsible for suppressing or altering scientific data have been political appointees.

"The scientists within Interior are not the ones rewriting documents inappropriately. Scientific misconduct stems from Interior's political appointees and hand-picked senior managers but these folks are not covered by the policy," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "Interior's approach to scientific integrity in essence penalizes the victims and gives a free ride to the perpetrators… Reform at Interior needs to start at the top."

The policy will be open for public comment for the next 20 days. It's also worth noting that President Obama issued a directive in March 2009 calling for a new scientific integrity policy covering all the federal agencies, an attempt to reform the tattered reputation agencies earned under the Bush administration for burying or manipulating incovenient science. Each agency was also supposed to write its own policies, and today's DOI draft is in response to that directive. And while the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was supposed to deliver the overarching policy for all agencies by July 2009, it still has yet to be completed.

Exclusive: Fannie Regulator Digs in on Clean-Energy Opposition

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 4:29 PM PDT

The Federal Housing Finance Agency solidified its opposition to the home-greening program Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) in a letter to members of Congress Thursday, telling them it doesn't see a way to let the program move forward.

FHFA Acting Director Edward DeMarco rejected the possibility of a PACE pilot program, seen as the last best hope for bringing the suspended finance tool back to life in the near term.

"Discussions have failed to produce concepts that would mitigate the threat to FHFA-regulated institutions or to broader financial markets," DeMarco wrote to PACE-supporting Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), John Sarbanes (D-Md.), and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). "FHFA, therefore, has determined that its guidance to its regulated entities must remain in place."

The remaining options for saving the popular PACE program are a court battle, legislation, or possibly intervention from the Obama administration. That last option seems remote since the administration has so far refused to put its top people on the case.

Audio: Michael Mann on Ken Cuccinelli's "Climategate" Investigation

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 3:45 PM PDT

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's crusade against climate science was dealt a setback today after a judge denied his attempt to subpoena documents relating to former University of Virginia climate scientist, Michael Mann. Need to Know’s Alison Stewart spoke with Mann about the dangerous precedent the Cucinelli's case could have set and about what he calls the climate change denial "industry."

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

Devastating Psychological Effects of BP Disaster

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 2:45 PM PDT

Anger, depression, and helplessness are the main psychological responses to BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. And these responses are likely to be long lived, according to an interview in Ecopsychology, a peer-reviewed journal exploring the relationship between environmental issues and mental health and well-being.

The anger being expressed in response to the recent BP oil rig explosion and resulting spill of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico is a way of masking the really unfathomable and profound despair that is just under the surface as we watch this catastrophe unfold. This according to Deborah Du Nann Winter, a psychologist at Whitman College, WA. Winter predicts chronic depression, withdrawal, and lack of functioning among people directly affected by the events in the Gulf. She predicts the same for people nationwide and globally who aren't directly affected by the catastrophe but who who identify or empathize with those who are.

In the interview, Winter discusses her own personal attempts to deal with the negative emotions she is experiencing by focusing at times on hopeful, positive feelings related to the "tremendous self-sacrifice and generosity of spirit" among those affected by the spill and those helping to contain it and clean up the oil.

 

 

Judge Blocks Virginia AG's Climate Witch Hunt

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 11:30 AM PDT

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has been waging a war on climate science, among his many other right-wing crusades. Today, his climate mission was dealt a setback after a judge denied his attempt to subpoena documents relating to a former University of Virginia climate scientist.

Cuccinelli was seeking the records of Michael Mann, a climate scientist now at Pennsylvania State University, in an attempt to prove the scientist  perpetrated some type of "fraud" via global warming warming work. Mann is best known for the so-called "hockey stick" graph illustrating the uptick in global temperatures over the last century. His work was at the center of the bogus controversy over the so-called ClimateGate emails, which skeptics continue to harp on as evidence that climate change is a conspiracy devised by a cabal of scheming scientists, even as investigations have found no such evidence or even any sign of wrongdoing.

Cuccinelli wanted access to five grant applications Mann wrote while at UVa., as well as his email records in order to investigate whether Mann willfully mislead colleagues and the public during his employment at UVa., which as a state school uses taxpayer dollars. Cuccinelli has been trying to pursue a case against Mann under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. But today's ruling is bad news for Cuccinelli's case. The Washington Post reports:

Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. ruled that Cuccinelli can investigate whether fraud has occurred in university grants, as the attorney general had contended, but ruled that Cuccinelli's subpoena failed to state a "reason to believe" that Mann had committed fraud.
The ruling is a major blow for Cuccinelli, a global warming skeptic who had maintained he was investigating whether Mann committed fraud in seeking government money for research that showed the earth has experienced a rapid, recent warming. Mann, now at Penn State University, worked at U-Va. until 2005.
According to Peatross, the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, under which the civil investigative demand was issued, requires that the attorney general include an "objective basis" to believe fraud has been committed. Peatross indicates that the attorney general must state the reason so that it can be reviewed by a court, which Cuccinelli's failed to do.

This fight isn't over yet. The judge indicated that Cuccinelli could take another stab at the subpoena. Given Cuccinelli's zealous pursuit of the climate issue in the past, there's little doubt that he will.

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Enviros Target ex-Rep. Steve Pearce

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 9:11 AM PDT

Election season is upon us, and with it we find green groups going after some of the worst offenders in Congress. Among the first candidates to be targeted is Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM), the subject of a new ad from Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund.

Pearce has been a perrenial environmental foe, known for his investments in the oil and gas industry and his abysmal environmental voting record. The League of Conservation Voters gave him a 1 percent lifetime score over his first six years in office. Pearce, who represented New Mexico's 2nd district from 2003 to 2009, resigned his seat to run for Senate in 2008. He lost to Democrat Tom Udall, and is now running to reclaim his old seat.

Here's the Defenders ad:

Enviro Links: BP Misread Pressure Data, Obama on Spill, and More

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 8:28 AM PDT

Today in oil spill news:

BP's internal probe into the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon has found that the company's engineers misinterpreted pressure data warning of a blowout, Bloomberg reports. The full report has not yet been made public, however.

The New York Times weighs in in support of the BP Gulf Fund and its administrator, Ken Feinberg. Feinberg also talked to the Southern Governors' Association annual meeting about the claims process.

The Telegraph reports that BP will admit to spending $1 million a week on television and radio advertisements to promote the company post-spill. The figure comes in response to a congressional inquiry.

The co-chair of the oil spill commission expressed frustration with the fact that the Senate still has not approved legislation granting the panel the power of subpoena. "I wish they would give us subpoena authority and hope that they do that as soon as they come back from recess," said William Reilly on Platts Energy Week.

While everyone was paying attention to the Gulf disaster, a BP refinery released 538,000 pounds of toxic chemicals—including benzene, a carcinogen benzene—in Texas City, Texas over the course of 40 days, making a number of residents sick.

From President Obama's speech on the fifth anniversary of Katrina on Sunday: “[W]e will continue to rely on sound science, carefully monitoring waters and coastlines as well as the health of the people along the Gulf, to deal with any long-term effects of the oil spill. We are going to stand with you until the oil is cleaned up, until the environment is restored, until polluters are held accountable, until communities are made whole, and until this region is all the way back on its feet."

12 Most Toxic Fish (For Humans and the Planet)

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 2:30 AM PDT

Food & Water Watch just released its 2010 Smart Seafood Guide to the safety and sustainability of more than 100 kinds of fish and shellfish. Now I still love the Monterey Bay Aquarium's pocket guides and searchable Seafood Watch site (the only place where you can geek out with a trawling fact card, as far as I know), but the Smart Seafood Guide has a few unique features worth pointing out.

For starters, while some guides only address human health issues (like mercury) and environmental problems (like overfishing), Food & Water Watch also considers seafood's socioeconomic impact. "For example, lobster is a a key part of the economy up in Maine," says Marianne Cufone, director of Food & Water Watch's fish program. "Knowing that fact is really important to some consumers."

Another handy thing: It's organized by texture and taste, so you can figure out the safest and most sustainable options in categories such as "mild" and "steak-like." This makes it easy to figure out substitutes for recipes. 

Here's Food & Water Watch's "dirty dozen" list of seafood that failed to meet at least two of the group's criteria. For more details, plus a list of alternatives for each verboten species, check out the guide. In no particular order:

1. King crab: Even though crab is abundant in some parts of the US, imports from Russia—which aren't well regulated—are much cheaper and more common.

2. Caviar, especially from beluga and other wild-caught sturgeon: Overfishing and poaching of this coveted species is very common.

3. Atlantic bluefin tuna: Extreme overfishing, plus concerns about mercury and PCB contamination.

4. Orange roughy: May contain mercury and "is particularly vulnerable to overfishing due to its long lifespan and slow maturation."

5. Atlantic flatfish (e.g. flounder, sole and halibut): Seriously overfished.

6. American eel: Concerns about mercury and PCBs.

7. Atlantic Cod: Overfished, and also has major bycatch problems.

8. Imported catfish: Much of it comes from Southeast Asia, "where use of chemicals and antibiotics is barely regulated."

9. Chilean seabass: Concerns about mercury, plus illegal fishing in Chile damages marine life and seabirds.

10. Shark: May contain mercury, also overfished.

11. Atlantic and farmed salmon: Concerns about contamination with PCB, pesticides, and antibiotics. Also, waste and germs from salmon farms often leaches out of the cages and can harm the surrounding marine life.

12. Imported shrimp: About 90 percent of it comes from countries where the seafood industry (waste control, chemical use, and labor) isn't well regulated.

Northwest and Northeast Passages Now Open

| Fri Aug. 27, 2010 3:35 PM PDT

The Northwest Passage is now open for business. And, as this satellite image composited by the The University of Illinois Cryosphere Today shows, the Northeast Passage is too. Jeff Masters at WunderBlog reports:

"It is now possible to completely circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean in ice-free waters, and this will probably be the case for at least a month. This year marks the third consecutive yearand the third time in recorded historythat both the Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage have melted free. The Northeast Passage opened for the first time in recorded history in 2005 and the Northwest Passage in 2007. It now appears that the opening of one or both of these northern passages is the new norm, and business interests are taking notecommercial shipping in the Arctic is on the increase, and there is increasing interest in oil drilling."

The National Snow and Ice Data Center says this year’s early clearing of sea ice likely results from record warm temperatures this past spring over the Western Canadian Arctic, as well as from an ongoing decline in older multiyear iceonce a hallmark of the Arctic, now seriously threatened. Spring 2010 was the warmest in the region since 1948, with some parts of the Western Canadian Arctic heating to more than 6°C/11°F above normal.

Meanwhile, sea ice around Antarctica is at a record high, which some mistakenly take as proof that global warming isn't real. In fact growing Antarctic sea ice is at least in part a result of a warming ocean, as SkepticalScience explains:

"The Southern Ocean consists of a layer of cold water near the surface and a layer of warmer water below. Water from the warmer layer rises up to the surface, melting sea ice. However, as air temperatures warm, the amount of rain and snowfall also increases. This freshens the surface waters, leading to a surface layer less dense than the saltier, warmer water below. The layers become more stratified and mix less. Less heat is transported upwards from the deeper, warmer layer. Hence less sea ice is melted."