Blue Marble - August 2010

TransCanada Already Bullying Landowners in Nebraska

| Fri Aug. 27, 2010 2:48 PM EDT

A Canadian oil giant wants to expand an already-massive pipeline to bring oil from the tar sands of Canada all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. The US has yet to even approve the 1,980-mile TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, but the company is already sending threatening letters to landowners in their pathway.

In a letter sent last month to a landowner in Nebraska provided to Mother Jones, the company warns that the landowner could be forced to surrender his or her property if the landowner doesn't consent to the pipeline construction on their property. The company invokes a Nebraska state statute to threaten eminent domain should homeowners turn down their offer of financial compensation for agreeing to let the pipeline cross their land:

In order to construct the pipeline, Keystone must acquire a permanent and temporary easement over your property. It is Keystone's strong preference to negotiate a voluntary transfer with each property owner. However, in the event we cannot come to an agreement, Keystone will use eminent domain to acquire the easement, which is authorized pursuant to Nebraska Revised Statute 57-1101 et. Seq.

The letter goes on to offer a price to the landowners, which has been blacked out. It warns that this is the final letter, and gives the landowner just one month to respond. The company also offers to "provide compensation for any damages that occur during the course of construction including crop loss and any damages to fences, trees, or other improvements."

In case the landowner didn't get the threat the first time, the threat is repeated:

While we hope to acquire this property through negotiation, if we are unable to do so, we will be forced to invoke the power of eminent domain and will initiate condemnation proceedings against this property promptly after the expiration of this one month period.

This letter comes despite the fact that the project isn't even approved yet; in July, the State Department extended the review period for the pipeline by 90 days to give federal agencies additional time for comment. People who live in the region are justifiably outraged by the bullying from TransCanada before the oil giant even has the green light on the project.

The pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Houston would pass through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. It has been the subject of plenty of debate already, and even more so in the wake of the giant oil disaster in the Gulf. Then there was yet another oil spill in Michigan last month, one that dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude from the tar sands into the Talmadge Creek. That pipeline belongs to TransCanada rival Enbridge Energy, and certainly hasn't helped the public feel much better about the Keystone XL project (more on that here).

Environmental groups and the US EPA have raised concerns about the large amount of emissions from tar sands oil as compared to conventional sources. But there's a growing concern about the safety of the pipeline, which would cross 71 rivers and streams and the Ogalalla aquifer if it is completed.

The full letter, which was obtained by the National Wildlife Federation, is here.

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Enviro Links: Spill Probe Continues, Tastykake Goes Green, and More

| Fri Aug. 27, 2010 10:06 AM EDT

Today in oil-spill news:

BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells was on the hot seat yesterday, as federal investigators dug in on the oil giant's abysmal safety record. Investigators noted a letter Minerals Management Service sent to Wells in 2003 criticizing the company for "incomplete planning, poor communication, insufficient knowledge or training, and a lack of effective supervision."

Meanwhile, another BP executive testified that the Deepwater Horizon was "considered one of the most efficient and safest mobile floating rigs in the Transocean Ltd. fleet."

The New York Times has a piece today detailing some of the behind-the-scenes stories from the now four-month long process to kill BP's Gulf well. It was "far more stressful, hair-raising and acrimonious than the public was aware of," the paper reports.

And for a little bit of good news, BP has given up plans to drill in the Arctic off Greenland's coast.

Republicans are planning a number of probes into executive branch dealings should they take over the House this November, including an investigation of the Minerals Management Service (now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, or "BOEM").

Speaking of "BOEM," the selected acronym for the agency, apparently it's pronounced like "home." This is an improvement over using the longer acronym, BOEMRE, which many of us thought was pronounced "bummer."

And in other environmental news:

Tastykake has a new "green" bakery in Philadelphia, a 345,000-square-foot facility with more efficient water and energy systems, recycled building materials, and other "environmentally friendly" features.

It's possible that we won't know the outcome of the Alaska Republican primary until the end of September.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that at least four acts slated to appear at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Game have pulled out in protest of the event's sponsorship by a coal company. Alliance Coal is one of the main sponsors, and the groups would be performing under a banner touting "clean coal."

Eco-News Roundup: Friday August 27

| Fri Aug. 27, 2010 6:25 AM EDT

What If: Some say health care reform will keep students from being insured.

Head Start: Early childhood education may help future earnings, but not test scores.

Easily Seen: Climate scientists can actually see global vegetation has decreased.

Gay Fears: In Uganda, an official says homosexuality is a European thing.

Ken's Big Day: Ken Mehlman comes out as gay, insiders yawn.

In Living Color: Newsroom diversity stalls out, though AP creates new ethnicity post.

Flooded: As the Pakistani government dithers, Islamic organizations step up flood relief.

You're Welcome: BP said the oil was gone. Our reporter found otherwise.

Katrina's Legacy: Tips from one reporter to another on Katrina's lasting damage.

 

What Does the Alaska Senate Race Mean for Climate?

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 8:52 AM EDT

I've been plenty hard on Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski for her problematic stance on climate change. She wants credit for acknowledging that climate change is a problem, but at the same time has proved the most effective and aggressive senator when it comes to undermining actual action on the issue.

After Tuesday's unexpected upset by tea party candidate Joe Miller, Murkowski might be on her way out (though there's talk of a third-party run). You have to wonder what this means for the climate (and, thus, the fate of poor melting Alaska). While Murkowski acknowledged that the changing climate imperiled her state, Miller's not so sure there's a warming issue at all. While plenty of Republicans acknowledge that the planet is getting hotter but insist it's not because of human activity, Miller thinks the problem "may not even exist." He actually thinks that "the trend in more recent years has been towards cooler temperatures" (which is, of course, just not true).

Here's the full explanation from his issues page:

Alaskans face some of the highest energy costs in the nation, despite being near tremendous natural resources. We need to power our homes and businesses at a reasonable cost. For this and other reasons, I strongly oppose the unconstitutional Cap and Trade legislation. The science supporting manmade climate change is inconclusive. Nothing typifies that more than the metamorphosis in terminology being used. A few years ago, the dire warnings coming from Al Gore and others all spoke of "Global Warming." The term "Greenhouse Gas" itself conjures up images of the unnatural heat found in a manmade environment. However, since the trend in more recent years has been towards cooler temperatures, those (like Senator Murkowski and others) pushing for cap and trade and other carbon emission reducing legislation have had to change their terminology to “Climate Change.” Should we take drastic measures to combat something that may not even exist, burdening our already struggling economy with billions in new taxes and regulations? Even President Obama said the cost of cap and trade legislation to businesses and individuals will be steep. We need good science, and a long-term climate trajectory before we jump in and make decisions that will profoundly affect the lives of ordinary Alaskans. California has already passed a Cap and Trade law, which has made it even more expensive to do business there and has increased unemployment.

One of the reasons Murkowski has been such an effective player in the climate debate is because she's able to play both sides. She appears to care about the issue, but has done more to undermine action than anyone else in the Senate. Unlike, say, a James Inhofe, the senator from Oklahoma, who is basically ignored by most decision-makers, she's regularly invited to White House meetings on the subject and Senate negotiating sessions. I'm guessing Miller's approach would not be nearly as savvy. So while his actual beliefs about climate are far more absurd, he might actually pose less of a threat in practice. But maybe that's overly optimistic.

About That Gas ...

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

We reported last month that the natural gas that escaped from BP's well is the colorless, odorless villain in the Gulf, one that hasn't gotten the attention that all that crude has received. Now several conservation groups are asking the attorney general to include natural gas as it determines exactly how much BP has to pay up for polluting the Gulf.

The National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council sent a letter to Eric Holder Wednesday asking him to include gas in the total tally of hydrocarbons released into the Gulf. Even if BP is still being cagey about the amount of crude dumped from its well, the government has estimated that upwards of 4.9 million barrels of oil were spilled. Roughly forty percent of what was spewing out of that well was actually natural gas, mostly methane, and if you included the oil and gas in the total, it would be more like 6 million barrels. The groups raised concerns that the gas could be harmful to fish and other marine life.

The Oil Spill Pollution Act, passed in 1990 following the Exxon Valdez, amended the Clean Water Act to levy a fine of $1,000 to $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled. The groups argue that the gas should also be included in the assessment of fines in the BP disaster. That starts to add up; if investigators determine that it was BP's negligence that caused the spill, the company could owe as much as $25.8 billion in Clean Water Act fines alone.

"While it will take time to fully understand the effects of the Gulf disaster, we're deeply concerned about hydrocarbon gas discharge because so much of it will dissolve into the water before reaching the surface," said Dr. Ian MacDonald, professor of oceanography at Florida State University.

Obama Endorsed Offshore Drilling Without Asking His Own Oceans Agency

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 3:32 PM EDT

Just weeks before the Gulf oil spill, the Obama administration announced a massive expansion of offshore drilling. The proposal to open up hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin territory along the eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast and within the Arctic Ocean shocked enviros, but it was clear that the White House saw offshore drilling as an incentive to convince wary senators to support its larger energy plan.

Of course, that plan hit a brick wall on April 20, as the public was reminded that drilling might not be all that safe after all. And it threw a wrench into the already contentious debate over climate and energy policy in the Senate, even as senators tried to quell concerns by modifying the drilling expansion plans. At this point, we know that there's no chance of getting a comprehensive bill this year, and it's not even clear that the Senate can even pass a scaled-back spill-response bill. So a massive expansion of offshore drilling remains on the table, even as hopes dim for the broader plan happening anytime soon.

Now it seems that it's largely up to the president's Oil Spill Commission to determine how to proceed on offshore drilling. But from what the commissioners have said previously, this is a question of how, not if; we shouldn't expect them to advise the Obama administration to changes its plan to expand offshore oil and gas development.

Which is why it was telling Wednesday as the commission held its first hearing in Washington, DC, and repeatedly returned to the question of who, exactly, endorsed the drilling expansion in the first place. Among the witnesses were Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. At three points in their hourlong appearance, commission members asked them to clarify whether their offices had been consulted before the vast expansion of offshore drilling was announced. (It was asked repeatedly because it took three tries to get a clear answer on the subject.) Commission Co-Chair Bob Graham, a former senator and governor from Florida, pointed to Obama's own statement on the day the expansion was announced, in which he noted that it was "not a decision that I've made lightly," but "one that Ken and I—as well as Carol Browner, my energy advisor, and others in my administration—looked at closely for more than a year." (Ken, of course, refers to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.)

The answer from both Sutley and Lubchenco about whether they'd been asked to give their opinion on the plan: Nope.

Now, Sutley's job description at CEQ is mostly confined to making sure that federal agencies uphold the National Environmental Protection Act in their decisionmaking. Any involved on the part of CEQ would come down the line as decisions are made about lease sales or permitting. But Lubchenco's role as the head of NOAA is much more central here. This is the agency charged with protecting ocean and coastal resources and responsible for evaluating the extent to which drilling operations might impact endangered species, marine mammals, or fisheries. One would hope that its guidance in the expansion plan would be crucial; but while Lubchenco said her agency offered comments on previous leasing plans and there was "formal and informal agency discussion at various points in this process," NOAA was not asked to approve or disapprove of the plan. Some, though not all, of the agency's concerns were taken into account, she said.

"You say now you were consulted, but were not part of the group that advised the president on the ultimate decision?" asked Graham. "That's correct," Lubchenco replied. Nor was her agency asked if it had the resources available to properly execute the additional responsibilities that this expansion would create, she said. At another point in the hearing, she noted that her agency is already "seriously hampered by a lack of resources" and time to do much of the oversight work it would like to do.

The decision, Lubchenco and Sutely indicated, was in the hands of the Department of Interior. This really makes you wonder what agencies they did consult about the final decision, if not NOAA. It also makes you wonder what this means for the expansion plan going forward.

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Will BP Own Up to the Real Flow Rate?

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 2:48 PM EDT

The federal government determined that 53,000 barrels of oil were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico every day over the course of the BP disaster. So why is BP still "continuing to evaluate available inforomation" to come up with its own flow rate figure?

We know that BP has consistently low-balled the figure, trying for days to convince us that just 1,000 barrels of oil was coming from the well before they finally acknowledged a revised (and now known to be far too low) 5,000 barrel initial government estimate. It looks like the oil giant might still be trying to avoid acknowledging that the spill was far worse than BP led us to believe.

Rep. Ed Markey has been dogging this issue. In a letter to the company on August 11, he asked "whether BP will accept this more definitive" estimate from the flow rate technical group (FRTG) "as the basis for its per barrel spill liability and for other legal purposes." Basically, he wants BP to say that it won't challenge this figure in court, a figure that will be crucial to determining things like how much money BP owes for Clean Water Act violations and for the damages to natural resources.

"BP acceptance of a flow rate number is fundamental to its claim that it 'is doing everything it can to make this right' for the families and businesses of the Gulf," said Markey. "Oil may have stopped flowing from the well, but the suffering in the region continues. Low-balling or litigating the flow rate estimate would be just one more insult to the people of the Gulf."

Here's the response to Markey's request, provided by Douglas F. Curtis, an attorney at WilmerHale, on behalf of BP:

Without addressing the letter's premise, BP agrees with you that it is important to determine the amount of oil that was discharged from the MC 252 well into the Gulf of Mexico. BP is continuing to evaluate available information, including estimates previously released by the FRTG. The company is also cooperating with the various government agencies looking into this important matter.

Of course, BP faces tens of billions of dollars in fines based on this figure. The company has every reason to remain coy about whether or not it will fight the government's estimate.

Reports of Dead Oil Greatly Exaggerated?

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 1:37 PM EDT

Yesterday's paper in Science, Deep-Sea Oil Plume Enriches Indigenous Oil-Degrading Bacteria, managed to punch through the growing lethargy absorbing the Gulf catastrophe. The title uses interesting language, in my opinion, almost making it sound as if the spill's been a good thing. Enriches. Nice spin. Indigenous. Something we need to protect, right?

Many media outlets picked up on the general optimism. One favorite approach was to encourage the feeling that the oil spill created a new species of life (rather than one we just now discovered, and that only because big science is finally examining the much-neglected Gulf). "New microbe discovered eating oil spill in Gulf," headlines the AP.

So what does this new paper mean? I asked David Valentine, geomicrobiologist and geochemist at UC Santa Barbara. I've been reporting his work since early in the spill, including his op-ed in Nature that methane measurements in the water could be used to calculate the total amount of spewed oil. In The BP Cover-Up in this month's MoJo, I reported his findings of clouds of dissolved natural gas at 100,000 times the normal density and at depths of more than 2,500 feet in the Gulf. This is what Valentine had to say about the new paper in Science:

The microbiology is very elegant, with a number of high end tools revealing the makeup of the microbial community. As expected, there is a direct response by the microbes to the input of oil. Keep in mind though that the number of samples is very small and the time window limited, meaning the samples may not be truly representative.

However, the rates of oil degradation presented are misleading. The lab studies are basically "supercharging" the oil degraders, and don't have direct environmental relevance. The environmental studies do not account for mixing of the plume with outside water, which is expected to be significant. The paper and associated releases suggest that the half lives are from biodegradation, whereas they may truly arise mainly from the mixing.

Basically, the researchers behind the Science paper used some super cool new tools of microbiology to find some hitherto unknown species of oil eaters living in the Gulf. And, yes, doubtless some of those microbes are blooming or migrating or both towards the dispersed oil, as many predicted. But the paper's conclusions are based on a small number of samples (17) collected during a very short window of time (9 days).

Potentially more troublesome are the laboratory studies presented in the Science paper. What happens in the lab is not the way things happen in the super complex systems of the real world. Which includes the possibility that the dispersed plumes are too dispersed for these "new" microbes to get greatly "enriched" by.

You can read more in my op-ed in today's USA Today, BP Catastrophe Might Lurk in Deep Waters.

Greenland Begins Whale Hunt, Illegally

| Tue Aug. 24, 2010 5:40 PM EDT

Humpback whales, who've been absent from Greenland waters for 60 years and are only now beginning to find their way back, will be rewarded for their recovery with harpoons. That's because the IWC has granted Greenland an aboriginal quota to kill 27 humpback whales starting in October. But the hunters aren't waiting for the season to start, as BlueVoice director Hardy Jones reports at the Huffington Post:

"[From the air] an hour out of Keflavik, I realized the humpbacks that have now become targets of the hunt were swimming a mere vertical mile below me. I had come to know this stock of whales in the Caribbean at Samana Bay and out on the Silver Banks. They were extraordinarily friendly toward me as I filmed them underwater. We looked at each other eye-to-eye, each knowing the other was aware of the other. The idea of their being harpooned is appalling to me. Along most of their migratory route off the eastern seaboard of the United States, the humpbacks are protected. In response to protection, they've become increasingly friendly and curious toward the whale watchers who now are part of a multimillion dollar business for charter boat owners, hotels, restaurants and transport companies. They approach boats and eyeball passengers with astonishing trust. That trust will now be rewarded by a harpoon."

I also know these humpback whales and, like Hardy, I cringe at the thought that emerging relationships based on years of hard-won trust are about to be destroyed, certainly for the remainder of my lifetime, and at the cost of the whales' lives.

Aboriginal hunts of marine mammals provide food for people who eat outside a cash economy. But as Hardy discovered in Nuuk, some Greenlanders aren't honoring the noncommercial terms of the IWC that allow them to kill for themselves but not for sale. Without having to look far, Hardy found whale meat for easy, open sale in markets and restaurants.

"In the supermarket I found packaged whale meat. In a Thai restaurant I found whale sushi and whale and Rangoon Whiskey soup. In a greasy spoon burger/pizza joint I found whale steak. The Inuit of Greenland complain that they do not have enough whale to sustain themselves. They may be having a hard time getting whale meat because the big money guys are sucking it all up for the more lucrative commercial trade."

TSA's Frisky New Pat-Downs

| Tue Aug. 24, 2010 3:43 PM EDT

If you're traveling this summer and don't want a TSA agent to see your graphic full-body scan, you might have to opt for a grope. Reports have surfaced that passengers who've refused to go through the TSA's expensive and invasive body scanners have been treated to a more rigerous pat-down. "If anybody ever groped me like that in real life, I would have punched them in their nose,” one male traveler told the Boston Globe. “It was extremely invasive.. actually probing and pushing and seeing if I was concealing something in my genital area.”

The new "enhanced" pat-downs are different in that screeners are using the front of their hands to probe sensitive areas instead of the backs of their hands as they had previously. Another difference is screeners will use a sliding motion to move their hands over passengers' bodies instead of a patting motion. As one female passenger said, screeners touched her face, hair, and underneath and between her breasts in their search for weapons. These new pat-downs are currently being used at Boston's Logan airport and Las Vegas's McCarran airport, but the TSA plans to roll them out nationally. And in case there was any doubt, these touchy-feely pat-downs are just for those who refuse to have their bodies scanned. If you go through a regular metal detector, one source says, you would only get the regular, back-of-hand pat-down.

I can't say which I'd prefer less: being personally probed and prodded by a TSA agent, or having my body graphically scanned knowing the image has the potential to be saved. Despite the TSA blog's bold declaration that "TSA has not, will not and the machines cannot store images of passengers at airports," a lawsuit turned up evidence from DHS that the machines had indeed stored more than 2,000 images for "test purposes." The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a motion to immediately halt TSA's use of scanners pending an investigation, but until then, the agency's stance is clear: get scanned or face the consequences.