Blue Marble - August 2010

Is Gulf Seafood Really "Safe"?

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 3:22 PM EDT

In addition to efforts to convince us that the oil is all gone in the Gulf (it's not), the government has been promoting the idea that seafood from the region is totally safe. Obama himself has been banging this drum, noshing on plenty of seafood during his trip to the region last week, serving it up at his birthday bash, and of course, taking a dip in the Gulf with his daughter.

But how safe is it really? A study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that there may be good reason to be concerned about the long-term impacts, even if the seafood is safe for most people to eat right now. The biggest issue, the authors write, is with shrimp, oysters, crabs and other invertebrates that have a harder time clearing out polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are carcenogenic chemical compounds found in oil and other fossil fuels, from their systems. "Although vertebrate marine life can clear PAHs from their system, these chemicals accumulate for years in invertebrates," they write.

There are also longer-term worries for larger fish like tuna, swordfish and mackerel, which over time may accumulate dangerous levels of heavy metals found in crude oil, like cadmium, mercury, and lead, "potentially increasing future health hazards from consumption," the report concludes. It was authored by Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and a medical doctor who teaches in the Department of Medicine at University of California-San Francisco, and Sarah Janssen, also an MD and public health expert with NRDC.

Solomon says the standards for evaluating the safety of the seafood are not as thorough or transparent as they could be to assure consumers that the seafood is safe for them to eat. "The government numbers and protocols are probably fine to protect the occasional fish consumer but not not necessarily good enough to protect vulnerable populations," says Solomon.

Meanwhile, the government maintains that seafood from the Gulf is perfectly safe. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke was in the region yesterday, where he reaffirmed this idea:

"We need to let the American people know that the seafood being harvested from the Gulf is safe to eat," Locke said during a tour of a Louisiana seafood processing plant. "I think there have been a lot of misperceptions out there. A lot of testing is done before we open state and federal waters to fishing. We're being very thoughtful, very careful and very deliberate."

Officials have been green-lighting even more fishing in the Gulf in recent days. On August 10, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reopened 5,144 square miles of Gulf waters. Now, just 22 percent of the Gulf is closed for fishing, down from 37 percent in early June. This was just in time for the opening of fall shrimp season yesterday. But as the Times-Picayune reports, many shrimpers in the region remain cautious. Even if the catch is as safe as the government says it is, the public remains (perhaps justifiably) concerned about eating the seafood.

Solomon also points out that in determining what's safe, government agencies should look at how exposure to the toxic chemicals in oil affects vulnerable populations—pregnant women, children, the sick or elderly—and not just the impacts on generally healthy adults. As it stands, the Food and Drug Administration's evaluation of safe levels for contamination in shrimp is based on what's safe for a healthy, 176-pound person, with the expectation that this person is only eating one dish of four shrimp per week. What about people who eat far more than that? And the NOAA standards for evaluating whether a region is safe to reopen for fishing require as few as six fish of a particular species be evaluated from that area—and it's unclear how big that area can actually be. NOAA has also been criticized for withholding much of the data the agency has gathered on seafood from the region.

Environmental groups and Gulf groups have called on the federal government to improve its testing procedures to ensure food really is safe, sending letters to both the FDA and NOAA Tuesday. NRDC and almost two dozen local groups have asked NOAA and the Food and Drug Administration to put in place more "comprehensive" monitoring to ensure protection of vulnerable populations, and to make all their methodology and data public.

"The issues isn't so much what's on people's dinner plates over the next few days or weeks, but that this problem is going to last for years, and we want to make sure that there is a robust safety system that will be protecting people for months and years to come," said Solomon. "We just want to see this done right, see it done carefully, and we want to make sure all the science is there and available for public scrutiny before years go by and people go back to consuming Gulf fish without a second thought."

Special Report: Check out our in-depth investigation of BP's crimes in the Gulf, "BP's Deep Secrets."

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BP's Oil Still Present, Still a Hazard

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 2:34 PM EDT

Here's the report I referred to in yesterday evenings blog post, BP's Oil Far From Gone, disputing NOAA's claim that 75 percent of the Gulf oil is "gone." Current Status of BP Oil Spill was released by the Georgia Sea Grant and the University of Georgia. It begins:

On August 2, 2010, the National Incident Command (NIC) released a report on the status of oil from the BP oil spill. The findings of the report are being widely reported in the news media as suggesting that 75% of the oil is “gone” and only 25% remains. However, many independent scientists are interpreting the findings differently, with some suggesting that less than 10% is “gone” and up to 90% remains a threat to the ecosystem. Considering the vulnerability of the southeast Atlantic coast to oil being carried our way by the Gulf Stream, it is critical that we determine which of these interpretations of the report is more accurate. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compare the NIC report's oil budget (above) with the high and low variants of the Georgia Sea Grant's oil budget (below).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Images courtesy the Georgia Sea Grant)

Charles Hopkinson, director of Georgia Sea Grant and professor of marine sciences in the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and the report's author, tells UGA:

"One major misconception is that oil that has dissolved into water is gone and, therefore, harmless. The oil is still out there, and it will likely take years to completely degrade. We are still far from a complete understanding of what its impacts are."

More from the report:

There are no data available from the scientific literature or the National Incident Command on rates of decomposition or weathering of oil released from the BP spill. Because so much oil exists as micro-droplets in deep, very cold ocean waters, it is difficult to infer decomposition rates from studies of previous spills occurring closer to the surface. However, several scientific studies are currently underway to directly address this critical need. 

We asked our scientific experts to estimate, as best they could, the percentage of subsurface oil that has degraded. They suggested a range of between 5% (see Figure 3) and 10% (see Figure 2). Given that estimate, we calculated that between 168,000 and 319,000 barrels have been removed from the Gulf through degradation. This is equivalent to 4-8% of the total oil released into the water. 

However, it is important to realize that the degradation of crude oil by marine organisms mostly entails short-chain hydrocarbons—not the more toxic, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Mass balance calculations, such as we are doing here, do not reflect this preferential decomposition. The most toxic components of crude oil are the least likely to be naturally degraded. 

 

Carly Fiorina's Weird, Self-Defeating Stance on Climate

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 2:29 PM EDT

California is indisputably the nation's leading creator of "green jobs." According to the state's Employment Development Department, 500,000 people work in the state's clean tech sector. It's one of the few parts of the state economy that's actually growing, thanks in large part to the way that the state's cap-and-trade law, AB 32, is driving demand for solar panels, cleaner fuels, and more efficient homes. The law is backed by everyone from Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which includes Hewlett-Packard. All of which is to underscore the weirdness of this morning's press release from HP's former CEO, GOP senate candidate Carly Fiorina, trashing cap-and-trade and federal green jobs funding.

"To be clear, we're for jobs of any kind," Fiorina's press release says, before going on to complain that the federal government set aside $80 billion in stimulus funding for green jobs without clearly defining what constitutes a green job. It was apparently unacceptable that the Obama administration and state officials were given discretion over the money. Fiorina then complains that her opponent, Senator Barbara Boxer, "hasn't provided much specifics about the so-called green jobs that she's talked so much about."

From there, Fiorina pivots to the issue of federal cap and trade legislation, claiming that it would have been "the equivalent of a 15 percent personal income tax hike and could have cost as many as 1 million jobs per year." Of course, both figures are completley bogus. The tax hike claim is based on the total cost of emissions permits, most of which would be recycled back through the economy. The number comes from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has received more than $2 million from ExxonMobil and its foundations since 1998. And the jobs figure comes from the Tax Foundation, a cog in Koch Industries' vast climate disinformation machine. In 2008, Fiorina herself said that John McCain's cap-and-trade plan would "both create jobs and lower the cost of energy."

Going on the attack against cap and trade is a peculiar political strategy in California, where a recent Reuters poll found that most voters believe AB 32 will "drive investment in green technology and create jobs." But then, Fiorina is a peculiar candidate: She has accepted more than $60,000 from out-of-state coal interests. The latest poll shows her earning 40 percent of likely votes to Boxer's 45.

Gov't Pledges to Actually Do Its Job on Regulating Offshore Drilling

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 10:30 AM EDT

On Monday, the federal government issued new guidance on the permitting and oversight of offshore drilling, vowing to end the rubber-stamping of new operations that had become standard for agencies.

The updated policy basically constitutes a pledge to uphold the environmental review and enforcement process that's already mandated under law, but has been systematically neglected for decades. A review conducted by the Council on Environmental Quality recccomended that the Department of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (previously the Minerals Management Service) improve its policies on environmental review as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The review (and the response from DOI) seems to acknowledge that the department had not been adequately following the law when it came to environmental review of new drilling projects, or even carrying out even the most basic protocol for evaluating the potential impacts of drilling before granting approval. The government has been green-lighting projects on the assumption that they are safe, rather than actually conducting the kind of thorough reviews that are supposed to be mandatory.

"Since April 20, 2010, that assumption will be revised, and BOEM will take steps to incorporate catastrophic risk analysis going forward," CEQ said in a report issued Monday. CEQ is charged with making sure NEPA, which requires review of the potential impact of all new federal projects, is enforced.

The Gulf well that exploded and caused untold environmental and economic damage by dumping 4.9 million barrels of oil into the water was among the many approved without adequate assessment of the risks it posed. That well was granted an exclusion from environmental review, like basically all other Gulf operations (the waiver is typically called a "categorical exclusion"). Its approval was based on initial assessments dating back to 1981 and 1986, and subsequent evaluations that indicated that risks of a blowout or spill at the site were very low.

Yesterday's announcement amounts to a promise that BOEM will actually do their job going forward, with CEQ recommending to the Department of Interior that it stop using categorical exclusions altogether (DOI says that the use of the exclusions will be "limited" going forward). The review also reccommends an extension of the time granted for environmental review, which under current policy is only 30 days. The administration has said that the 30-day limit has impeded their ability to conduct more thorough reviews.

"In light of the increasing levels of complexity and risk—and the consequent potential environmental impacts—associated with deepwater drilling, we are taking a fresh look at the NEPA process and the types of environmental reviews that should be required for offshore activity," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said yesterday.

But that doesn't mean we can breathe any easier about offshore drilling. As I reported in June, the feds have continued to approve new lease sales despite knowing that the environmental review process was faulty. There was no indication in yesterday's announcement that drilling operations already approved under these bad reviews will be revisited. "Existing deepwater wells and rigs already approved under the now admittedly faulty environmental review process will not necessarily have to seek full National Environmental Policy Act or Endangered Species Act compliance," said Bill Snape, senior council with the Center for Biological Diversity. He points out that the announcement is also specific to deepwater drilling and doesn't include operations in shallow water, which could be just as dangerous.

So while the new guidelines are good news, they might not be enough.

* This post has been updated to clarify portions of the review.

Special Report: Check out our in-depth investigation of BP's crimes in the Gulf, "BP's Deep Secrets."

BPCares for Sale

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

I've been getting a lot of emails from Joseph Rollins, a guy in North Carolina who owns "BP Cares" and related web domains shortly after the oil spill. And I do mean all of them:

www.bpcares.com
www.bpcares.net
www.bpcares.org
www.bpcares.info
www.bpcares.us
www.bpcares.biz
www.bpcare.net
www.bpcare.org
www.bpcare.info
www.bpcare.biz
www.bpcare.us

Rollins has put them up for sale, asking for $68,000 for all 11 domains. He says he'll give half of the proceeds to Gulf coast charities. He also says that he wants to sell them to someone other than BP, as he thinks the oil giant has been trying to buy them up:

Since the situation in the Gulf, I have received hundreds of calls per week from individuals, groups and organizations indicating there interest in acquiring the domains. I have received inquiries from individuals claiming to be working on behalf of BP who were very interested in acquiring the domains. I have communicated with BP. BP may be using individuals, groups and organizations to acquire the domains from me."

I'm not endorsing the dollar figure he wants for the sites, but considering all the fun BPglobalPR and BPCares have been having with this meme on Twitter (and all the work BP has done to drive viewers to their site rather than anything critical of the company), the sites could be an interesting investment. His phone is 803-665-6348 or you can email at jrollins005@carolina.rr.com.

Is the Spill Victims' Fund Keeping BP and the Feds in Bed?

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

In mid-June, when oil was still gushing from the Gulf well with no end in sight and pressure was mounting on the administration to show some spine, Obama called BP's top executives to the White House for a summit. The parties emerged with an agreement that BP would set aside $20 billion in a fund administered by an independent mediator to compensate business owners and residents who suffered economic damages because of the spill. The president said the fund would "provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored" and would ensure that BP followed through on its promise to make Gulf residents whole. "The people of the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them," said Obama. 

But the specifics of that agreement for the $20 billion fund were finally released last week (full agreement is here), and critics are now saying say the plan jeopardizes the government's ability to hold BP accountable. In a letter to President Obama last week, the watchdog group Public Citizen outlined "very serious concerns" with the structure of the deal. The company agreed to deposit $5 billion into the escrow fund this year and $1.25 billion every quarter from 2011 through 2013, for a total of $20 billion. But securing the money is contingent upon BP's Gulf subsidiary remaining profitable—which, of course, might not happen if the federal government follows through with the kind of criminal and civil penalties and that many Americans believe the company should receive for it's negligence in the disaster. Another problem: The plan actually creates a perverse incentive for the company to increase drilling offshore in the United States, since under the terms of the deal, the money in the fund will come from revenue from BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling operations.

If the government gets serious about cracking down on BP, the oil giant could face up to $21 billion in fines for Clean Water Act violations alone. At some point, the federal government is also going to send the company a bill for the damages to natural resources. There are also likely to be major fines for worker health and safety violations, considering how many people died or were injured in the blast. And don't forget the ongoing criminal probe into the disaster, which could determine further liability for the company. But Public Citizen warns that under the terms of this agreement, it's likely that the government "would be reluctant to mete out harsh sanctions to BP"—sanctions like banning the company from obtaining new leases in the Gulf, a measure included in the House spill bill.

"The proposed arrangement is wildly inappropriate, as it will make the government and BP virtual partners in Gulf oil production," says Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's energy program. "It will give the government a financial incentive to become an even bigger booster of offshore oil drilling in the Gulf."

It gets worse. The escrow fund agreement is with BP Exploration & Production Inc., a subsidiary of BP America Production that deals primarily with Gulf of Mexico production. BP America Production is a subsidiary of BP Company North America, which is a subsidiary of BP Corporation North America, which is a subsidiary of BP America Inc., which is a subsidiary of the parent company BP. In case you're counting, that means the escrow deal is with a subsidiary five layers removed from BP PLC, the multinational oil giant. Because the deal is with a subsidiary way down the chain, it would be difficult to access additional funds from the corporate parent should the subsidiary collapse or simply not have enough funds to meet the obligation, since it's the subsidiary, not the parent corporation, that's legally on the hook, says Public Citizen. At the very least, says Slocum, the deal should have been negotiated with BP America Inc. to ensure access to more of the company's resources. Slocum adds that the deal should also include provisions to ensure that BP puts more cash into the fund should $20 billion turn out to be inadequate.

Public Citizen is lobbying for the feds to renegotiate a deal that ensures that victim compensation does not come at the cost of letting BP off with a slap on the wrist rather than meaningful sanctions. Considering the fact that 11 workers died and 17 were injured in the explosion on April 20, and the resulting spill unleashed a record 4.9 million barrels of oil into the US waters and caused untold environmental and economic damage, Public Citizen believes the deal should be much harder on BP. "If you can't negotiate a good deal with those facts in front of you, then you need to get new negotiators," said Slocum. "I don't know what the administration is thinking on this."

Special Report: Check out our in-depth investigation of BP's crimes in the Gulf, "BP's Deep Secrets."

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BP's Oil Far From Gone

| Mon Aug. 16, 2010 7:25 PM EDT

University of Georgia scientists have found that most of the BP oil the government said was gone from the Gulf of Mexico is still therewith as much as 80 percent still lurking beneath the surface, reports the AP. According to the Georgia scientists, it's a misinterpretation of the data to claim that dissolved and dispersed oil is actually gone, based on their analysis of federal estimates. Earlier this month NOAA scientists said that only about a quarter of the oil remained and the rest was either removed, dissolved, or dispersed.

I wrote about the insidious effects of dissolved and dispersed oil in this month's MoJo cover, BP's Deep Secrets. Invisible doesn't mean gone.

Indian Ocean Corals Walloped by Warming

| Mon Aug. 16, 2010 6:32 PM EDT

A dramatic rise in sea surface temperatures off Indonesian has resulted in a large-scale coral bleaching event and the death of up to 80 percent of coral cover. Rising water temperatures stress corals. If stressed enough, they expel their plant symbionts: the zooxanthellae that give corals color and perform many of their important metabolic activities. Without their plant partners, corals weaken and will eventually die.

In May, the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) "Rapid Response Unit" of marine biologists, dispatched to investigate coral bleaching off the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, found more than 60 percent of corals bleached. Subsequent monitoring revealed one of the most rapid and severe coral mortality events ever recorded, with 80 percent of some species of corals killed since May. More colonies are expected to die in the coming months.

The die-off is due to a frighteningly high rise in sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea, north of Sumatra. NOAA's Coral Hotspots website records temperatures in the region peaking in late May 2010 at 34 degrees Celsius/93 degrees Fahrenheit. That's 4 degrees C/7 degrees F higher than long-term averages for the area. If you've ever swum or dived in water that warm, you'll know it feels uncomfortably hot.

Many of these same reefs miraculously escaped damage during the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. Others that had been severely damaged by poor land use and destructive fishing practices before the tsunami actually recovered afterwards dramatically. That's thanks to improved management, aimed at maintaining fish biomass while allowing fishing on the reefs. But the bleaching and mortality of 2010 have toppled this recovery and will profoundly wallop reef fisheries.

Of real concern: the scale of the sea surface temperature anomaly, which has affected the entire Andaman Sea and beyond. Similar mass bleaching events of 2010 have now been recorded in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and many parts of Indonesia. If this scale of mortality is found at other sites, the event will enter the record books as the worst bleaching ever recorded in the region. WCS Marine Program Director Dr. Caleb McClennen tells WCI:

"This is a tragedy not only for some of the world’s most biodiverse coral reefs, but also for people in the region, many of whom are extremely impoverished and depend on these reefs for their food and livelihoods. Immediate and intensive management will be required to try and help these reefs, their fisheries, and the entire ecosystem to recover and adapt. However, coral reefs cannot be protected from the warming ocean temperatures brought on by a changing climate by local actions alone. This is another unfortunate reminder that international efforts to curb the causes and effects of climate change must be made if these sensitive ecosystems and the vulnerable human communities around the world that depend on them are to adapt and endure."

 

Can Plaintiffs in BP Suits Get a Fair Hearing?

| Mon Aug. 16, 2010 3:35 PM EDT

First, the good news: The more than 300 lawsuits stemming from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will be heard by a New Orleans judge. The oil giant had initially lobbied for the cases to be heard in Houston, Texas, where it might get more sympathy than it would in the region most affected by the spill. Houston also happens to be the home of BP's US corporate headquarters.

"Without discounting the spill's effects on other states, if there is a geographic and psychological center of gravity in this docket, then the Eastern District of Louisiana is closest to it," the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation wrote in its decision on where to hold the hearing.

That the cases of all those seeking claims against BP will be heard in the region most impacted is a big win for plaintiffs. The 300 cases already is probably just the beginning; we can probably expect many more cases in the coming months.

And now, the slightly less-good news: US District Judge Carl Barbier will handle the cases. Barbier has held bonds in oil companies, including several companies involved in the BP case. Barbier, a Clinton appointee, has been on the federal bench for 12 years. He's a native of New Orleans, and he attended Southeastern Louisiana University and Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. But according to his most recent financial disclosure form, until recently Barbier held bonds in Transocean and Halliburton, two companies with connections to the disaster that have been named in some of the suits.

I don't intend to knock Barbier in particular for these connections. He sold off his holdings in those companies after taking on the case to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. His selection has been praised by legal experts, and the panel that selected him has said that it is "quite comfortable with its choice" despite the ties. But perhaps the most telling aspect of the case is how hard it was to find a judge that didn't have some sort of conflict of interest in the cases. As the The National Law Journal reports:

Only four New Orleans-based federal judges remained available to hear the cases; the others were ineligible because of their investments in the oil and gas industry or personal connections with the attorneys involved.

This is, of course, just the most recent evidence of how hard it is to find a court or a judge not tainted by oil interests. The judge who threw out the moratorium on offshore drilling has been criticized for not recusing himself from the case, given that he has had financial ties to the oil industry, including one of the companies directly involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The appeals court that heard the moratorium case had quite a few ties to the oil industry, too. As we've pointed out before, it's hard to find a judge in the Gulf that doesn't have some kind of ties to the industry. In the region, 37 of 64 federal judges have some oil sector connection.

This leads to a troubling question: Might Barbier be the best judge that plaintiffs in the Gulf spill cases can hope for?

Kentucky Senate Watch: No, I Love Coal More!

| Mon Aug. 16, 2010 11:29 AM EDT

Kentucky Repubican Senate candidate Rand Paul has been busy showing his pro-coal bonafides in recent weeks. Last month, he told Details that mountaintop removal coal mining isn’t so bad, really; actually, it creates "enhanced value" for Appalachian land and just needs some rebranding. Now he's going way out of his way to make it clear that he loves coal.

In a speech over the weekend, Paul targeted the Obama administration on coal, arguing that the president "cares nothing about Kentucky and cares even less about Kentucky coal." He continued, as one might expect, with an assault on the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to regulate mountaintop removal and the Mine Safety and Health Administration's efforts to protect workers:

"We have a president who is forcing the EPA down our throats," Paul said. "Even without changing the rules, the EPA is stifling the permit process, and people (are) out of work here because of the president and his policies.
"With all due respect, Mr. President, you're wrong, and you need to stay out of Kentucky affairs. And you need to keep the EPA out of our affairs because we need jobs, and we're not going to get jobs with a busybody EPA that's in our way."
Paul made overtures to coal families by proclaiming himself a coal ally who would "defend your way of life." The Bowling Green eye doctor has come under attack from members of the United Mine Workers who recently said they were alarmed by Paul's suggestions in a magazine interview that elected officials in Washington shouldn't be setting coal mining rules.

Opposition to any form of regulation is, of course, Paul's standard operating procedure. But it's worth noting that not all that long ago, his primary opponent was targeting him as not pro-coal enough, running ads that featured a clip of a Paul stump speech on behalf of his father's presidential campaign in which he called coal "a very dirty form of energy." So much for that.

Meanwhile, Paul's Democratic opponent in the race, Attorney General Jack Conway, is far from anti-coal. He's challenged the EPA's conclusion that greenhouse gases threaten human health, and his spokesman has made it clear that Conway "opposes any and all cap-and-trade legislation."

It may be a tight race, but one thing's clear: Coal will win big in Kentucky this November.