Blue Marble - August 2010

Ummm, About That Disappearing Oil?

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 6:45 PM EDT

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration took heat at a congressional hearing Thursday for the much-debated report released earlier this month that gave the impression that most of the oil in the Gulf had disappeared. In testimony, a top NOAA scientist admitted that the report was released before it had gone through full scientific review.

As I reported previously, the agency has been unwilling to hand over the supporting data for the government's "oil budget" released on August 4. And in a call with congressional staffers yesterday, NOAA indicated that the information won't be available for months, raising questions as to whether the claims were released prematurely, and who called for that early release. Basically, what the government handed out to reporters and the public earlier this month was a pie chart saying where the oil was, but very little of the supporting evidence to back up those claims.

Bill Lehr, a senior scientist in NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration, told the Energy and Environment Subcommittee on Thursday that the report was an "estimate for response purposes," not a final report. The full, peer-reviewed report with supporting information won't be available for some time because, he said, "We want to make sure it's done right."

But Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the subcommittee and the only member present for the hearing (it is, after all, recess), said the report had given "many people a false sense of confidence regarding the state of the Gulf" and should not have been released until it was complete. "If you are not confident it was right, it shouldn't have been released ..That is obviously of great concern to people in the Gulf. They don't want to be forgotten. They don't want this to be downplayed or low-balled, which is the case in some quarters since this has been released."

Lehr said that the report was delivered to the National Incident Commander, who is charged with overseeing the response effort in the Gulf, in order to provide guidance for response efforts; rather than ask the commander (currently Thad Allen) to wait for the peer review process, they released this initial finding, Lehr said. Even though NOAA and the other agencies that contributed to the report rushed the findings out the door, the data, methodology, assumptions and supporting literature won't be made public until it's been peer reviewed. "We wanted to provide a complete document that provides all the answers," said Lehr, adding, "It's still being compiled."

Without that data, it's impossible for independent scientists to evaluate the study, and to use it to determine the appropriate response to the oil that remains in the water, Markey said. "The public has the right to know right now what is going on in the Gulf of Mexico," said Markey.

Lehr also noted that, despite the fact that some administration officials, most notably White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner, have claimed that "more than three-quarters of the oil is gone," in reality "about three-fourths" of oil is "still in the environment"—dispersed, dissolved, evaporated, and at or below the surface. Browner had also said that the findings had "been subjected to a scientific protocol, which means you peer review, peer review and peer review" at a press conference on the report, which appears not to be the case.

The criticism of the government report comes as other independent studies this week concluded that not only has the oil not vanished, but it could be significantly more dangerous that we've been led to believe. Scientists at the University of Georgia have found that the vast majority of the oil is still in the water. Scientists from the University of South Florida have a new study finding that the oil suspended underwater may be more toxic to microorganisms in the Gulf than researchers previously thought. And researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution released yet another study contradicting government reports. Theirs found that not only is the dispersed oil hanging in a 22-mile-long, one-mile-wide plume, it's also degrading much more slowly in the plumes than it would at the surface. "The plumes could stick around for quite a while," study co-author Ben Van Mooy told the AP. (The government's top scientists, meanwhile, have claimed that the oil in the Gulf is degrading rapidly.)

Those sentiments were echoed by other independent researchers who testified at Thursday's hearing. "This oil is going to be in the environment for a long time," said Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University. "There's a lot of oil, it's not gone, and it's not going away quickly."

MacDonald also indicated that he believed the official government oil budget was released prematurely. "I feel that this report was misleading," he said. "It's impossible for someone reading this report to check the numbers, and we have concerns about the numbers."

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

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What's Eviscerating Britain's Seals?

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 6:43 PM EDT

Scores of dead seals are washing up on British shores eviscerated and skinned with ghastly corkscrew injuries, as if passed through a giant pencil sharpener, reports the UK's Daily Mail. Police and scientists are investigating the disturbing phenomenon.

In Scotland, the problem is bad enough to arouse concern over the survival of the common seal, which is no longer so common. From the Daily Mail:

Callan Duck, senior research scientist at the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at St Andrews University, said: "We simply don’t know what is causing this. We are finding seals coming ashore dead with these highly unusual lacerations right around their body like a spiral. From their head down they can have one or two complete revolutions to their abdomen. It is a continuous cut with a very smooth edge."

The injuries don't match any known killers such as fishing nets or boat propellers. Researchers believe they're mechanically produced by a rotating single blade, perhaps by the animals being sucked into the propeller blade of an as yet unidentified vessel. The bodies of more than 50 common and grey seals have been found on the Norfolk coast since November. Thirteen have so far been the subject of necropsies, but most were too mutilated to provide answers. In the Firth of Tay this summer, seven were found dead out of a breeding population of only 150. 

Similar unsolved seal deaths have been reported off the Atlantic coast of Canada in the past ten years, reports the Telegraph.

The Sun reports that tidal power generators, or tide turbines, have been ruled out as culprits too. But no one else reports that. So I wonder.

Oil Plume Dead Zones Likely to Last 2 Years

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 3:15 PM EDT

A new simulation of oil and methane leaked into the Gulf of Mexico suggests that deep hypoxic zones, also known as dead zones, could form near the source of the pollution. The research is detailed in a scientific paper in press with Geophysical Research Letters. Dead zones occur where oxygen levels have dropped blow the threshold to support most marine life.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Princeton University investigated five scenarios of oil and methane plumes at different depths and incorporated an estimated flow rate from the Deepwater Horizon spill. The simulations reveal that ocean hypoxia or toxic concentrations of dissolved oil arising from the Deepwater Horizon blowout are likely to be significant in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

According to their simulations, the dead zones will be peaking this October. Thereafter the oxygen drawdown will slowly dissipate as the polluted water is mixed with Gulf waters that aren't polluted. The simulations predict it will take a couple of years before the dead zones completely dissipate.

You can watch some informative animations of the simulations here.

The study was carried out when the flow rate from the Deepwater Horizon spill was still underestimated. But the simulated leak lasted longer than the actual spill. Consequently, the paper's authors believe the overall impact on oxygen will be about the same.

As I wrote in BP's Deep Secrets, the last thing the Gulf of Mexico needs is anymore dead zones. It's already home to the second largest dead zone on Earth, a side-effect of fertilizer overuse in North America's breadbasket.

The paper: Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2010GL044689, in press.

Live-Tweeting the Spill Hearing

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 10:59 AM EDT

Because Ed Markey (D-Mass.) never rests, the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a rare recess hearing this morning on the oil spill.

The panel, "The BP Oil Spill: Accounting for the Spilled Oil and Ensuring the Safety of Seafood from the Gulf," features government and independent scientists, and will focus both on the question of where the oil went and how it may be affecting the food chain in the region. It's recess, so Markey and congressional staffers are probably going to be the only ones there for the hearing. But they do have a strong line-up:

  • Bill Lehr, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Office of Response and Restoration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Paul Anastas, Ph.D., Assistant Administrator, Office of Research and Development, Environmental Protection Agency
  • Donald Kraemer, Acting Deputy Director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration
  • Ian MacDonald, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Oceanography, Florida State University
  • Mike Voisin, Chief Executive Officer, Motivatit Seafoods, LLC
  • Acy Cooper, Jr., Vice President, Louisiana Shrimp Association
  • Dean Blanchard, President, Dean Blanchard Seafoods, Inc.
  • Lisa Suatoni, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Oceans Program, Natural Resources Defense Council

I'll be live-tweeting the hearing below:

Return of the BP Cover-Up

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Earlier this month, the federal government claimed that three-quarters of the oil in the Gulf had magically disappeared. But as I reported Wednesday, the federal government has so far refused to provide congressional investigators and the media with the numbers to support that claim. Now, it looks like the official report, with all the data and substantiating material, won't be released for months. 

On Wednesday afternoon, during a telephone briefing on the spill for congressional staffers, NOAA scientists said the data might not be available for at least two months. The full report is in the "process of being written," according to NOAA, but it won't be made available for "around a couple months." The delay, NOAA representatives said, is so the report "can be peer reviewed."

This, of course, raises the question of why the initial report was even released on Aug. 4 if it hadn't been peer reviewed and couldn't be substantiated with data, methodology, and full disclosure of the kind of assumptions that went into reaching this conclusion. The explanation of why the report was released by the National Incident Command and touted by administration officials seemed to indicate that the White House may have jumped the gun on releasing the initial report before the entire documentation was available.*

From what NOAA indicated to congressional staffers, we're not going to know for a while what the final report actually looks like or how accurate that first one even was. So is the government operating under the assumption that "most" of the oil is gone? And what does that mean for how they're handling the response–everything from cleaning up the oil itself to evaluating the safety of seafood?

Perhaps even more concerning, did members of the Obama administration, in their effort to declare "mission accomplished" and finally get some good news out of the Gulf, create more problems than they solved? I mean, they got their New York Times headline, so at least we can say their PR mission was accomplished. But the rush to put out a report they still can't substantiate should raise red flags galore.

* Sentence has been updated for clarity.

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

Waxman Wants to Know: How Much Has BP Spent on Ads?

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 4:00 PM EDT

Last month, I estimated that BP had spent at least $5.6 million on ads in major newspapers alone to promote its "recovery" efforts. That was as of June; the company has spent plenty more since then, and plenty on television and web ads, too. How much? Well, Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wants to know. He sent the BP America CEO Lamar McKay a letter this week demanding a detailed accounting of the oil giant's ad buys.

Waxman demands that the company provide "a chart identifying the total amount spent on advertisements placed, published, or aired by, or on behalf of, BP" since the April 20 disaster—radio, TV, print, and web. The ads are still running in major papers (I saw one in the Sunday Washington Post last weekend).

I'll be interested to see how much the company has forked out in promoting itself over the past four months. I'd guess $5.6 million is just a tiny slice.

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

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Wait, Now CO2 is a Myth, Too?

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 2:41 PM EDT

There are so many things to say about this interview in the New York Times today with Massey Energy CEO (and unabashed evildoer) Don Blankenship. The first is why he doesn't have a PR person to tell him that getting photographed in a dark room just makes him look even more creepy. But I'm perhaps most struck by this part:

"Some people believe in CO2 so strongly it trumps every other thought that they’ve got, so we wouldn't expect them to favor coal mining,” Mr. Blankenship said. “Some people believe that the country should be socialized so they are opposed to free enterprise. I mean, you have to have your own beliefs, your own core beliefs, your own strengths and do what you think is right. You can’t do what others believe is right, you have to do what you believe is right."

Socialism fear-mongering aside … now Blankenship is skeptical of not just global warming, but carbon dioxide itself?! What's he exhale then? I've always questioned his humanity (this is, after all, the guy ultimately responsible for the deaths of 29 miners in April, and who believes that mine safety regulations are "as silly as global warming"). Perhaps I've questioned for good reason.

Where's the Math on Gov't Oil Spill Report?

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

When the federal government released its report claiming that the vast majority of the oil in the Gulf has disappeared on August 4, I noted that the official report "doesn't include much in the way of specifics on the supporting data used to reach these conclusions." I've repeatedly asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which took the lead on the report, for more of the supporting data. Those requests have not been fulfilled. Heck, I can barely even get anyone to return a call over there. A spokesperson finally told me today that she would look into whether the supporting information on the report would be made public.

Turns out I'm not alone. A congressional investigator forwarded his lengthy correspondence with NOAA congressional affairs specialist Michael Jarvis over the same issue. NOAA isn't coughing up numbers for Congress, either, even though the numbers are even more important now that an independent study from the University of Georgia found that up to 80 percent of the oil is still in the water. It's hard to swallow the official government estimate if they can't even show their work.

Here's the correspondence. I took out the name of my congressional source and all the email addresses:

Can Renewables Catch a Break?

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 10:29 AM EDT

A few weeks ago, I reported that the Senate was planning to use $1.5 billion in funds from a renewable energy loan program designed to get new solar-panel manufactureres, geothermal generators, and other major renewable projects off the ground to pay teachers and fund Medicaid. Well, the Senate did in fact dip into the fund, as did the House, meaning Congress has now depleted more than half of the program designed to boost renewables.

The renewables sector has, of course, been banging down Congress' door to make sure it gets that funding back. The administration has repeatedly touted this investment in a clean energy included the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a major success and a down-payment on a broader clean energy policy. But in addition to the $1.5 billion taken from the fund for state aid and Medicaid this month, Congress also dipped into the same renewable loan program last year to fund a $2 billion extension of Cash for Clunkers. That means what was supposed to be a $6 billion fund is now ow to $2.5 billion.

"It's disconcerting that a program that was created in the recovery act just 18 months ago has been used as a funding mechanism for other political priorities, rather than focusing on making this program successful," Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in an interview with Mother Jones. (The sting of the slight for renewables was even worse, considering that it came shortly after the Senate announced it wasn't dealing with emissions and wouldn't even include a bare minimum renewable electricity standard in a bill this year.)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated that that this program was an easy target because the Department of Energy hasn't been acting fast enough to put the funds to use. The solar industry has also expressed frustration with the department's sluggishness on approving projects. At least 150 renewable projects are already in the queue for a loan, but the DOE has only finalized a loan for one loan for one project so far (another 13 projects have conditional guarantees so far). It's taken months to process every application, frustrating the companies who are relying on the loans to get new projects started.

Resch says bureaucracy and confusion about how to handle renewables projects has held the program up. Now, increased uncertainty about whether those loans will ever be available has caused more anxiety for renewable developers. He estimates that the uncertainty has put $35 billion worth of projects on hold. He also expressed concern that developers "have very little information from DOE which projects are where in the pipeline, when they'll be addressed." Developers themselves probably aren't going to complain, he says, since their projects are still in the running for those (now limited) funds.

Both Reid and Pelosi's offices have indicated that they will seek to restore the funding later this year, as has the White House, SEIA says. Resch says getting that funding, either through appropriations or reallocating other money, will be a priority for his group this year. The American Wind Power Association, Biomass Power Association, Geothermal Energy Association, and the National Hydropower Association have also been vocal opponents of Congress' dipping into the renewable funds.

Renewables also face another looming challenge, as a program created under the stimulus that allowed companies to tap a new Treasury Grant Program in lieu of an investment tax credit is set to expire at the end of the year. (The ITC required developers to actually have a project up and running and making a profit in order to get a tax credit, whereas the grant program allows the to use that money up front to get off the ground.)

For now, getting the funding for the loans back is a top priority for SEIA, as is getting DOE to speed up the process of awarding the loans. "It's been great for the few who have gotten conditional loans," said Resch. "But the rest of the industry is being hampered by bureaucracy and the inability to sign off on these projects."

Audio: The New Ice Island

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 4:39 PM EDT

On August 5, one of the largest glaciers off the coast of Greenland lost about a quarter of its 43-mile long ice shelf. It just separated and started to flow away. Why did this happen and what could be the consequences?

Need to Know’s Alison Stewart spoke with Professor Andreas Muenchow of the University of Delaware’s College of the Earth, Ocean, and Environment. He has been researching the area since 2003.

 

This podcast was produced by Need to Know for the Climate Desk collaboration.