Blue Marble - August 2010

About that DOI Revolving Door ...

| Tue Aug. 24, 2010 12:02 PM EDT

In the nearly three months since the Deepwater Horizon disaster began, the Department of Interior has been come under fire for maintaining a too-cozy relationship with the companies it is supposed to regulate. Among the chief criticisms has been the revolving door between the department and the industries its various components are supposed to regulate. Here's yet another stellar example of what was standard operating procedure at the agency: an oil and gas industry advocacy group has just named former Bureau of Land Management field manager (and ethics probe target) Steven Henke as its new president.

The Farmington Daily Times reported last month that Henke, who left BLM's Farmington, N.M. office in May, will now head the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. The BLM is the division of Interior that oversees development of natural resources on federal lands. Until May 21, 2010, Henke was the senior official at that office, managing approximately 160 employees.

He was "ideal choice" for the new post because of how well he worked with industry while he was at BLM, the article notes. Henke is quoted in the piece as saying he hopes he will be "afforded the opportunity to sit at the table with policy makers and legislators to describe the impact and the role." I would venture that he will, given that these are largely the same policy makers he was employed by just a few months ago.

Henke also happened to be the subject of a probe by the Department of Interior's inspector general, prompted by a General Accounting Office report that indicated that Henke was "too close to unnamed oil and gas industry officials and made decisions to benefit companies based on personal relationships, rather than the good of BLM."

The Project on Government Oversight obtained the IG's June 7 report, which found that Henke took gifts like golf tickets, lodging and meals from Williams Exploration and Production, misused BLM travel funds to attend the 2007 PGA Championship in Tulsa, Okla. as a guest of the same company, and, in 2007, solicited approximately $8,000 in donations from that company for youth baseball teams (the report blanks out a few words, but the implication is that the funds were for the sports team of a child or other relation to Henke). The report also notes that another company, Merrion Oil & Gas, gave an internship to a child or other relation of Henke. None of these gifts, all from "prohibited sources," were listed in his financial disclosure reports.

The IG report concludes, however, that it could find "no evidence of any corrupt or official acts Henke took to benefit the company in exchange for the things of value he received." The investigation was referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, who declined to prosecute the case. And since Henke retired from the federal government as of May 21 of this year, the case is now officially closed. So, rather than being punished for ethics violations, Henke was rewarded with a (presumably lucrative) job shilling for the oil and gas industry.

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Oh Yeah, That's Why the Climate Bill Failed

| Tue Aug. 24, 2010 10:53 AM EDT

Environmental groups spent a record amount of money on lobbying in 2009, a year everyone thought presented the best hope for signing landmark climate change legislation into law. But for every dollar they dropped, the fossil fuel industry spent almost eight times as much, according to a new report from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Last year, as the House debated and eventually passed cap and trade legislation and the Senate began to draft its own bill, environmental groups spent a record $22.4 million on federal lobbying—about double what green groups had spent annually for the previous eight years. Groups like the Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund spent an unprecedented $2.2 million each on lobbying.

But all the green's green was no match for the fossil fuel lobby. ExxonMobil alone spent $27.4 million in 2009, more than all the environmental groups combined. Oil and gas interests spent a combined $175 million on lobbying.

The report comes as the Center for Responsive Politics launches a new project oil and gas spending in Congress, "Fueling Washington." The project is great, but this only scratches the surface of the fossil-fuel spending on the issue; the coal industry is also a major player. Electric utilities (much of which are coal-fired here in the US) spent $145 million last year (though there were utilities pushing both for and against cap-and-trade). Coal mining interests spent another $14.8 million. All told, fossil fuel interests spent at least 15 times as much as green groups on lobbying last year.

Enviro Links: EPA Admin on NOLA, Another BP Exec Pleads the Fifth, and More

| Tue Aug. 24, 2010 9:57 AM EDT

Today in environmental news:

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson reflects on the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the rebirth of her hometown of Pontchartrain Park:

The homeowners and families in Pontchartrain Park were among the first African-Americans to buy their own homes in the New Orleans suburbs. Despite the racial inequality of the time, they shared a belief that the nation's opportunity should be equal for everyone.
In 2010, Pontchartrain Park is being reborn, re-emerging after the destructive power of Katrina and the failure of the New Orleans levee system left the neighborhood devastated. Today's vision is no less bold than it was in the 1950s.
Pontchartrain Park is re-emerging as model of new urbanism, a place where livability, environmental responsibility and economic opportunity come together. My dad, my aunt and uncle, my cousins and the many other Pontchartrain Park pioneers who are no longer with us would be proud.

Renewable energy advocates are making a big push to get the Senate to pass a renewable electricity standard this year.

And in oil-spill news:

BP conducted an internal audit of the Deepwater Horizon rig in September 2009 that found 390 overdue maintenance problems. The audit also found that Transocean, the owner of the rig, structured bonuses for some staff around how much time the rig was in operation—rather than, you know, pausing operations to fix problems.

During a panel probe into the Gulf disaster yesterday, a top official from Transocean couldn't tell investigators who was in charge on the rig the day it exploded.

Meanwhile, another BP executive is expected to plead the Fifth today rather than testify before a panel of investigators probing the spill.

State officials in the Gulf are criticizing BP spill fund czar Kenneth Feinberg over the terms of the $20 billion compensation plan. Critics say the terms are too restrictive, and have accused the Obama-appointed administrator of the fund of being too cozy with BP. Feinberg officially took over administration of the fund yesterday.

Michael Bromwich, the top federal regulator of offshore drilling, indicated yesterday that the moratorium on new drilling is expected to continue for several more months.

Louisiana state biologists are investigating whether the 5,000 to 15,000 dead fish that turned up dead near the mouth of the Mississippi River are the result of all the oil and dispersants in the Gulf. The fish kill included crabs, sting rays, eel, drum, speckled trout, and red fish.

I would venture that this is more than a little extreme, but Brad Pitt thinks the death penalty should be on the table for those responsible for the Gulf disaster. "I was never for the death penalty before," Pitt says in Spike Lee's new documentary on New Orleans. "I am willing to look at it again."

Audio: Are the Floods in Pakistan and the Wildfires in Russia Related?

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 5:08 PM EDT

Extreme weather has been grabbing headlines this summer. A major heat wave in Russia and flooding in Pakistan have had devastating effects, including loss of life and livelihood. Russians are plagued with wildfires and smog and the UN estimates that 6 million Pakistanis are in need of emergency aid.

Need to Know's Alison Stewart speaks with Dr. Kevin Trenberth, the head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He explains the meteorological dynamics at work and speaks of the larger implications of climate change — both problems and possibilities.

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

Bad News for Breathers?

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 9:26 AM EDT

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency quietly delayed the release of final rules on ground-level ozone pollution standards, better known as smog. One clean-air group called the delay "a potentially ominous development," as the agency has been pressured to forgo the new standards.

The agency proposed tough new rules in January, tightening controversial Bush-era regulations that experts believe imperiled public health. But EPA has faced push-back from the industry and a group of senators, who asked the agency to hold off on the new rules. Opponents of the standards argue that it's only been two years since the Bush administration released the last set of rules, and updates are generally issued every five years (they failed to mention, however, that the Bush rules were far weaker than the agency's own scientists recommended).

The final rule was supposed to be released at the end of this month; now EPA says it won't be issued for at least another two months. In a statement, EPA said it still intends to issue a new rule:

EPA remains committed to protecting public health from the dangers of ground-level ozone, a key component of smog. We are continuing to carefully consider the proposed options and the information we received during the public comment period on the January 2010 proposal. There will be a slight delay in finalizing our decision on any new ozone standards. We expect to finalize the standards towards the end of October 2010. We have spoken with the litigants and have updated the court on our status.

But Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, thinks the delay is a bad sign for the rules. "Obviously, we want EPA to make the best possible decision, using the best possible science. But this delay is bad news for breathers," said O'Donnell. "We can only hope it is a temporary setback, and that the EPA does not bow to political pressure on an issue so significant."

Do Cheap Airfare Specials Hurt the Environment—or Help It?

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

A while back, I griped about the environmental irresponsibility of a recent JetBlue promotion that offered $20 last-minute round trip fares to various US cities. A bunch of commenters pointed out that in a way, specials like this actually save CO2 emissions, since they put butts in would-be empty seats. But I was still skeptical: Even if cheap fares help fill seats, don't they just create more demand for flights in the long run?

The short answer is that it depends on the nature of your trip. Mikhail Chester, a UC-Berkeley post-doctoral researcher in civil and environmental engineering, points out that sometimes cheap fares can actually help prevent car trips. "If you were planning on driving from San Francisco to LA, but you decide to hop on a cheap flight at the last minute instead, that's one less car trip," says Chester. "But if you buy a cheap ticket on a whim, that's different." Let's say I had gone to Austin for the evening, like my roommate wanted to. All of a sudden, we're talking restaurants, bars, hotel stay, and maybe even a car rental—all of which create emissions I would have avoided by spending a quiet evening at home.

But the long answer is more complicated, and it helps to understand why airlines offer bargain fares in the first place. Chester's colleague Megan Smirti Ryerson studies airline-ticket pricing models. Ryerson explained to me that although airlines typically don't make money on these deals, cheap flights do help them stay competitive. At many airports, each airline is alotted a certain number of take-off time slots every hour. "If you don't use your slot 80 percent of the time, you're going to lose it to one of your competitors," says Ryerson. So in the long run, it makes more financial sense for an airline to keep all of its slots than give them up, even if the flights aren't completely full. "It would be so much more efficient to get everyone on a larger plane and have less frequent flights," says Ryerson. "But in order to be competitive, airlines have to oversupply frequency to assert their market dominance."

Cheap fares are also an excellent marketing strategy, says Ryerson. "JetBlue tweets to their millions of followers about the deals, and those tweets get retweeted," she says. "It gets people to the website. And even if those people don't use the cheap fares, maybe they are looking for another flight."

Bottom line: Considering that planes will probably take off regardless of whether they're full, indulging in a cheap flight once in a while is okay, especially if you're saving a car trip. But don't allow those JetBlue specials to let you forget about air travel's giant carbon footprint. If everyone flew less overall (which would be a whole lot easier if our rail system wasn't so inconvenient and slow), maybe airlines wouldn't find it worth their while to send all those half-empty planes up into the air in the first place.

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NOAA's Supposed Peer Reviewers: We Never Reviewed the Report

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 4:46 PM EDT

The federal government is facing mounting criticism over the oil budget report released on August 4 that has been characterized as painting an overly rosy picture of the situation in the Gulf. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has defended its release and claimed that the document was in fact reviewed by outside experts. But was it?

"The report and the calculations that went into it were reviewed by independent scientists," NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco told reporters Thursday, indicating that those independent experts were listed at the end of the report. Yet the scientists listed as consultants (at least the ones that I have been able to contact; will update as I am able reach more of them) have said that they did not review the final five-page document before it was released earlier this month.

"I didn't review the final product," said Alan Allen, who runs the Washington state-based oil spill consulting firm Spiltec. Allen says he gave input on controlled burns and how they would affect the amount of oil, but did not see the final report before it was released.

Ed Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University, balked at the idea that the document had been peer reviewed. "To a scientist, peer review means something," he said. "Clearly it wasn't a peer review from a scientific perspective."

In early June, Overton says, he was asked to give his opinion on how this particular type of oil would degrade or evaporate. The report, he said, was supposed to be an estimate, not an exact calculation. "It was to try to tell the Incident Command where we thought the oil could go," Overton told Mother Jones. "It was not an oil budget for scientific purposes." The report was pulled together by experts, he said, and is an "educated guess," but should not be seen as an exact calculation.

Though Overton said he thinks the estimates are fairly accurate, he also said that the report was overly specific for an estimate; it makes claims like 24 percent of the oil was dispersed. "If you say 24, you are implying that it's 24—you know it's not 25, and it's not 23," said Overton.

Administration officials had indicated, however, that the document had undergone thorough scientific review by outside experts. White House climate and energy adviser Carol Browner said that the report had "been subjected to a scientific protocol, which means you peer review, peer review and peer review." Lubchenco also stated that there had been "peer review of the calculations that went into this by both other federal and non-federal scientists."

Dan Froomkin beat me to the punch on this one. He got even more of the experts listed at the end of the report on the horn to confirm the same thing: They hadn't seen the final document, either. And some of them disagreed with the report's conclusions as well.

NOAA has defended the report's release, even as the agency has been under fire for not providing the substantiating data. Now it looks like it will be months before anyone has the data or the final report in hand to actually evaluate its accuracy.

UPDATE: Ron Goodman of the oil spill consulting firm Innovative Ventures, another outside expert listed on the report, confirms that he also did not review the final product. And a spokesperson for ExxonMobil told Mother Jones that Tom Coolbaugh, who was also listed as an independent contributor, played a "very minor roll" in the report. The spokesperson classified his contribution as a single, "one-line email." Two experts from Environment Canada (their equivalent of the EPA) listed in the report, Ali Khelifa and Pat Lambert, were also not asked to review the final document. "Neither Environment Canada scientist saw the report before it was made public on August 4, 2010," said the agency in a statement to Mother Jones.

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

Greens to Obama: Don't Forget the Climate

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 12:57 PM EDT

President Obama and his family are on Martha's Vineyard for vacation today, but green groups want to make sure he doesn’t forget his promises on climate change while he's enjoying the sunny shores. The Obamas were greeted with this two-page ad in today's Martha's Vineyard Gazette urging the president to defend the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate planet-warming gases:

The text of the ad reads, "Help us stop the attacks on the Clean Air Act." NRDC Federal Communications Director Ed Chen writes on his blog:

We are urging the president to help safeguard the well-being of every man, woman and child by rejecting attempts by Big Polluters and their allies in Congress to thwart the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce pollution and protect public health under the Clean Air Act. The brazen attempts to take America back to the dirty old days, if successful, also would hamper our ability to continue making progress in combating climate change.

NOAA Says Spill Report Criticism is a "Tempest in a Teapot"

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 10:30 AM EDT

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been criticized this week for releasing a oil spill report on August 4 that has not been peer-reviewed and does not include the supporting data for their conclusions. In a conference call with reporters last night, the head of the agency defended their report (via Politico):

"We're comfortable with our numbers and as we continue to learn more about what's happening below the surface and elsewhere, we will build that into our estimate," Jane Lubchenco, the chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told reporters yesterday evening on a hastily-organized conference call.
"Given the heightened interest in the fate of the BP oil we felt it was appropriate to release that information as soon as possible," she said.

Lubchenco called the criticism of the release "a tempest in a teapot" (via Huffington Post). "The report and the calculations that went into it were reviewed by independent scientists," Lubchenco said. "And we are pulling together the full background information that would go into a more comprehensive report." (I was not invited on this particular conference call.)

There are still plenty of questions surrounding the decision to release the report. NOAA scientist Bill Lehr said yesterday that the report was "estimate for response purposes" rather than a final report. But it was widely touted by administration officials and in the news media as a conclusive documentation of the fate of the oil in the Gulf. NOAA hosted a call with congressional staffers on Wednesday, and several listeners (including myself) got the impression that it was the National Indicent Commander (currently Thad Allen) and the White House who released the report to reporters and the public, despite the fact that it had not undergone thorough review.

Several other listeners on that call, and officials at the Department of Commerce, of which NOAA is a division, have denied that this was the case. Commerce spokesman Shannon Gilson said in a statement: "Dr. Lubchenco and the Incident Command decided to release the estimate to the American people given the heightened interest in the fate of the oil. Any speculation that Bill Lehr suggested otherwise on a call with Congressional staffers is false."

Lehr did not take any questions from reporters yesterday following his testimony to a House subcommittee.

Regardless of who decided to release it, administration officials repeatedly gave the impression that the report had been thoroughly vetted before it was released. Lubchenco told reporters there was a "high degree of confidence" in the numbers. "The likelihood of large-scale changes is very, very small because we have so much certainty in some of the numbers," she told reporters at a press conference the day the report was released. White House climate and energy adviser Carol Browner echoed that the report had "been subjected to a scientific protocol, which means you peer review, peer review and peer review."

A number of independent scientific studies since then have raised questions about the government's report. My main criticism, however, is not necessarily that the report is "wrong," but that it's impossible to check the math without access to the data, methodology, assumptions, and literature that went into drawing the conclusions released earlier this month. The government released conclusions about the fate of the oil, without the substantiating information. NOAA's Lehr says they're not releasing that information for another two months, possibly longer.

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

Eco-News Roundup: Friday August 20

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 6:22 AM EDT

News on the environment and health from our other blogs.

Walking Fast: New York has a record low year for traffic fatalities.

Green & Greener: Study shows people over-report their environmental friendliness.

Overruled: Some states don't have authority to enforce health care reform.

Sex Sells: $pread magazine's Will Rockwell talks sex work.

BP's Big Rig: MoJo reporter gets a tour of a BP drilling rig and lives to tell the tale.