Blue Marble - August 2010

NOAA Tried to Silence Reports of Undersea Oil Plumes

| Tue Aug. 10, 2010 8:04 AM PDT

Speaking of the BP cover-up, there are two very important pieces of news today about the extent to which the real impacts of the disaster have been hidden. In the St. Petersburg Times, Craig Pittman has this scathing report on how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration attempted to silence scientists who discovered the vast undersea plumes of dispersed oil in the Gulf:

A month after the Deepwater Horizon disaster began, scientists from the University of South Florida made a startling announcement. They had found signs that the oil spewing from the well had formed a 6-mile-wide plume snaking along in the deepest recesses of the gulf.
The reaction that USF announcement received from the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agencies that sponsored their research: Shut up.
"I got lambasted by the Coast Guard and NOAA when we said there was undersea oil," USF marine sciences dean William Hogarth said. Some officials even told him to retract USF's public announcement, he said, comparing it to being "beat up" by federal officials.

It gets worse; NOAA's top brass confirmed that they tried to keep the reports quiet:

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, in comments she made to reporters in May, expressed strong skepticism about the existence of undersea oil plumes - as did BP's then-CEO, Tony Hayward.
"She basically called us inept idiots," Asper said. "We took that very personally."
Lubchenco confirmed Monday that her agency told USF and other academic institutions involved in the study of undersea plumes that they should hold off talking so openly about it. "What we asked for, was for people to stop speculating before they had a chance to analyze what they were finding," Lubchenco said. "We think that's in everybody's interest. … We just wanted to try to make sure that we knew something before we speculated about it."

There's another extremely important piece out today, wherein the Associated Press documents how oil is already finding its way into the food web. Scientists are finding traces of oil in crab larvae:

The government said last week that three-quarters of the spilled oil has been removed or naturally dissipated from the water. But the crab larvae discovery was an ominous sign that crude had already infiltrated the Gulf's vast food web -- and could affect it for years to come.
"It would suggest the oil has reached a position where it can start moving up the food chain instead of just hanging in the water," said Bob Thomas, a biologist at Loyola University in New Orleans. "Something likely will eat those oiled larvae ... and then that animal will be eaten by something bigger and so on."

This, of course, does not help efforts to convince the public that seafood from the region is safe. Nor does it help in promoting the idea that the oil is less of a threat because we can't see it, as the government and BP have been busy doing for the past week.

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Mission Accomplished? Far From It.

| Tue Aug. 10, 2010 7:15 AM PDT

BP and the US government may be rolling out the "Mission Accomplished" banner on the Gulf disaster already, but the impact of 4.9 million barrels of oil dumped into the ocean remains far from clear. In the new issue of Mother Jones, environmental correspondent Julia Whitty takes a look at the new science that indicates that the worst impacts of the disaster may be yet to come.

The piece is part of our Gulf disaster package in the September/October issue, "The BP Cover-up." You can also find out more about why BP was allowed to dump nearly 2 million gallons of toxic chemicals in the Gulf, and check out our timeline of BP's damage control.

There are also several great graphics on the spill: a look at the hidden damages, a map showing the 15 biggest oil spills, and a look at the Gulf's 33,000 miles of oil pipeline and 50,000 wells that could be ticking time bombs for another disaster.

You can find all of our BP coverage here.

Gulf's Wildlife Casualties Rising Fast

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 12:02 PM PDT

More injured and dead wildlife has been found in the 25 days since BP capped the well than when it was still spewing. According to the Times-Picayune:

  • 37 oiled birds were collected on average each day prior to July 15, with 71 oiled birds collected on average each day after July 15.
  • Prior to the cap, 56 percent of oiled birds were collected alive. Since then, only 41 percent have been collected alive.
  • More sea turtles have been collected now than during the first three months of the spill: 428 oiled sea turtles recovered in total, with 222 coming in the only past past 10 days.
  • Yesterday's tally included 38  sea turtles collected alive and 33 collected dead, according to this Fish and Wildlife collection report (pdf) of the daily totals.

The growing number of bird casualties may be at least partially a result of rescuers venturing into sensitive rookeries for the first time since the spill. Earlier, at the height of the breeding season, human rescuers might have done more harm than good. Also, many fledgling birds are just now leaving the nest and encountering a fouled world for the first time.

Alarmingly, a high number of oiled turtles are now being found feeding on seaweed drift lines, where there's no apparent oil in the drift lines or on the open water.

Meanwhile, from an overflight of  Chandeleur Sound east of New Orleans, the National Wildlife Federation reports streams of red oil on the water surface caught in a rip line, as well as mile after mile, as far at the eye could see, of what looked like red dispersed oil just below the surface.

I have a lot more forthcoming on the insidious effects of dispersed oil—including what might be a clue to the mysterious oiled sea turtlesin a big MoJo article in the September/October issue, to be released online this week.

Indefatigable, Thy Name is John Kerry

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 11:14 AM PDT

On "Meet the Press" this weekend, David Gregory asked White House climate and energy adviser Carol Browner whether Congress could return to a climate measure in a lame duck session. She had little to say other than that it could "potentially" be under consideration.

But John Kerry (D-Mass.) isn't giving up on getting something done this year. Unwilling to let clean energy legislation be pushed to the wayside now that an emission-curbing bill isn't likely to get any attention this year, Kerry has a new measure on the table, one that would fund clean energy through a variety of incentives and tax-cuts. Kerry has, of course, been the main senator pushing for climate action this year. His newest bill is the Clean Energy Technology Leadership Act of 2010, which includes provisions that would, according to the summary his office released:

  • provide additional funding for the advanced energy manufacturing credit and uncap the credit for solar energy property, fuel cell power plans, and advanced energy storage systems, including batteries for advanced vehicles;
  • extend and modify tax incentives for new energy efficient homes, nonbusiness energy property improvements, and energy efficient commercial buildings;
  • encourage clean transportation by providing incentives for natural gas heavy vehicles;
  • extend the excise tax credit for biodiesel and renewable diesel retroactively for 2010 and through 2012;
  • modify the cellulosic biofuel tax credit to include algae based fuels;
  • extend the credit for domestic manufacturers of energy appliances;
  • provide an additional $3.5 billion for clean renewable energy bonds; AND
  • extend the research and development tax credit retroactively for 2010 and through 2012 and provide an additional 10 percent credit for qualified advanced energy research expenditures.

Maybe the Senate can get their act together on this. Oh, and while they're at it they should refund the money they took from renewables to pay teachers last week.

Are Other Oil Giants Better Prepared for a Disaster?

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 6:40 AM PDT

Investors representing $2.5 trillion in assets are pressuring oil and gas giants to prove that they're better-prepared than BP was to prevent or deal with a massive disaster. Fifty-eight global investors, including the New York State Comptroller, California State Treasurer, Florida State Board of Administration, sent letters to the CEOs of 27 oil and gas companies.

The effort was led by the sustainable business group Ceres. From the letters to the companies:

The shareholder harm that has flowed from the BP spill has focused investor attention on the need for good governance, compliance, and management systems to minimize the risks associated with deepwater offshore oil and gas development worldwide. The BP Gulf of Mexico disaster has also highlighted the need for clear, comprehensive, well-tested response plans by oil and gas companies for dealing with future offshore accidents.

"It is important for all companies involved in subsea deepwater drilling to be open and transparent with investors and stakeholders at this crucial historic moment," the investors continued. Targets included Petrobras, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, the three biggest deepwater drillers, as well as Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Hess, and Statoil.

The investors inquired about how much the companies have invested in spill prevention and response planning, what their contingency plans are in the event of a spill, and what lessons they have learned from the BP disaster. They also asked to see the companies' policies on selecting and overseeing contractors and their internal governance structures in place to manage risks.

It's pretty easy to understand why investors would care; BP's stock has dropped more than a third since the disaster began in April. And it's still not clear how much the oil giant will have to pay out between fines and damages.

Are Email Attachments Bad for the Environment?

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 2:30 AM PDT

At one of my first jobs ever, there was a guy who would print out every single email he received. Then, to make matters worse, he would forget about his printed emails and leave them on the printer. Occasionally, just to give him a hard time, we would hand deliver his emails to him and announce their contents. "Your wife says pork chops for dinner and she loves you!"

I haven't encountered anyone with that irksome habit since, probably because most people now understand that printing something doesn't make it more real. But according to Matthew Yeager, a data storage expert who works for the UK data services and solutions company Computacenter, emails—especially those with attachments—still use energy and create greenhouse gas emissions, even if you don't print them. Last month, Yeager told the BBC that sending an email attachment of 4.7 megabytes—the equivalent of about 4 photos taken on a point-and-shoot digital camera—creates as much greenhouse gas as boiling your tea kettle 17.5 times. I called Yeager to find out the whole story.

What I ended up getting was a very brief introduction to the strange world of data storage. According to Yeager, at some point in the coming year, the world will have a grand total of 1.2 zettabytes of stored data, requiring equipment with a mass equivalent to that of 20 percent of the island of Manhattan. Wonder how much data 1.2 zettabytes actually is? "If you took all the content in all the US's academic libraries and multiplied it by half a million, that would be 1.2 zettabytes," says Yeager.*

Part of the reason we have so much data has to do with redundancy: Let's say you take a picture and send it to 20 people. Each of those people then have to download it, which requires equipment—personal computers, servers, and storage centers. Steve Duplessie, a senior analyst at the Massachusetts-based data storage company Enterprise Strategy Group, explained it this way. "Ten years ago, a movie studio would physically make a certain amount of copies and then ship them off to the movie theater. Today every kid you know can create the equivalent amount of data in two minutes with an iPhone. We keep making data easier to create, so people do it. And data is not sedentary. It is shipped everywhere, usually over email. All of a sudden there are 7,000 copies, and because of that there are 7,000 devices that are being run to support that data."

Yeager didn't go into the details of how he arrived at the 17.5 kettle-boils figure, and Duplessie told me he wonders how anyone could come up with a data-storage figure that precise. Still, Duplessie says, the important lesson is, "Data is physical. When you have a million copies of the same thing, that's a big problem."

The good news is that we are getting better at sharing data more efficiently. Many email programs are beginning to make use of a concept called virtualization, or spreading the workload of transmitting data across many different servers, thereby making the whole process more efficient. "Virtualization is like the carpool lane," says Yeager. "Your email is carpooling. The more people you stick in that car the better." Equipment is getting more efficient, too. According to Yeager, the newest servers are about 1/20th the size of old servers, and as many as 50 times more powerful. Yeager notes that a few email servers—for example, Google—have already made these improvements (meaning that if you're a Gmail user, you're probably doing significantly better than the 17.5 boils figure).

The bottom line: Avoid sending giant attachments if you can. "In the last five or ten years a lot of people have added these 'think before you print' signatures to their emails," says Yeager. "Well we should all have 'think before you attach.'" Luckily, there are easy ways to share your data without attachments: Instead of sending photos directly to all your friends and family members, upload them to central locations like Flickr or Facebook. "It's much more efficient to send a link to a place where everything is stored," says Yeager. For audio and video files, I often use hosting sites like Sendspace or MediaFire.  

*- This sentence originally misquoted Matthew Yeager that 1.2 zettabytes was equal to the data in all the world's academic libraries multiplied by half a million. 1.2 zettabytes is actually only equal to the data in all the US's academic libraries multiplied by half a million.

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Professor McCain on Bad Science

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 4:50 PM PDT

Earlier this week, Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn published a report titled "Summertime Blues: 100 Stimulus Projects That Give Taxpayers the Blues" in which they deem certain projects unworthy of stimulus money. As Newsweek pointed out, in some instances, they seem to be onto something, but in others they appear to have singled out stimulus-backed art and science projects simply for being, well, art and science projects. The Huffington Post did a nice job showing the list's bias against stimulus-backed art, but besides a short article from the AAAS, little has been said about the senators' ill treatment of science.

Gray Wolves FTW

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 12:55 PM PDT

A federal judge in the US district court in Montana ruled Thursday that the Rocky Mountain gray wolf should be returned to the endangered species list, overturning the Obama administration's 2009 decision to delist the species in several Western states. The wolves, said the judge, "must be listed, or delisted, as a distinct population and protected accordingly."

Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the April 2009 decision of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to "delist" gray wolves in Montana and Idaho, while keeping them protected in Wyoming, was a violation of the endangered species act. "The plain language of the ESA does not allow the agency to divide a [species] into a smaller taxonomy," Molloy said.

In a statement, Tom Strickland, the assistant secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, said that the agency believes the wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains no longer need protection. "Our collective efforts have brought this population to the point where it no longer requires Endangered Species Act protection," said Strickland. But until Wyoming makes as much progress in restoring the wolf population, the wolves will remain protected throughout the region. "[I]n the days ahead we will work closely with Idaho and Montana to explore all appropriate options for managing wolves in those states," he said.

Fish and Wildlife argued that the wolf population had been brought up to 1,500 and had made significant progress in those two states since they were first listed as endangered in 1974. Wyoming, however, had not succeeded in adequately restoring the species. The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, and other conservation groups sued the federal government over the wolf delisting last year, arguing that the state delineation was arbitrary.

While the ruling deals with a specific decision by the Obama administration regarding these wolves, it more broadly invalidates a policy adopted in the Bush era, which would have allowed for the protection of small divisions of an endangered species rather than the whole species. While "it may be a pragmatic solution to a difficult biological issue, it is not a legal one," Molloy stated in his decision.

"The Obama administration should have known better than to adopt and defend the Bush administration's anti-endangered species policies," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "This is a victory for all wildlife, not just the wolf, because it forces the federal government to treat species as whole, rather then divide them into politically convenient pieces so it can strip them of protection."

The Smog of War

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 11:22 AM PDT

The climate bill may be dead, but that doesn't mean opponents of clean air rules are resting on their laurels. A bipartisan group of senators is lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency to put the brakes on new rules that would protect the public from harmful ozone pollution, better known as smog.

In January, the EPA proposed tough new rules on ozone, tightening the controversial Bush-era standards that left the public exposed to hazardous levels of pollution. The final rule was expected out by the end of this month, though it doesn't appear to be ready yet; it has not yet been sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which reviews rules before they can be finalized, according to reports.

But a group of seven senators, lead by Ohio Republican George Voinovich and Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh, is pressuring EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to hold off. The Bush administration issued their standards less than two years ago, the senators argue, and such rules are typically updated only every five years. (The senators fail to mention in their letter to the EPA, however, that the Bush-era rules were set far weaker than the EPA's own experts recommended.)

"We believe that changing the rules at this time will have a significant negative impact on our states' workers and families and will compound the hardship that many are now facing in these difficult economic times," they wrote.

Democrats Mary Landrieu (La.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.), and Republicans Richard Lugar (Ind.), Kit Bond (Mo.) and David Vitter (La.) also signed onto the letter to EPA.

Complying with the current standards has been "costly" for businesses and has "greatly restricted the ability of local communities to grow their economies," they continue. "This is unacceptable."

But tougher standards are a critical public health issue. The American Lung Association estimates that up to 186 million people in the United States are breathing unhealthy levels of smog due to the weak rules currently in place. "People are literally getting sick and dying from high ozone levels," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "But these soon-to-be-retired senators just want to play politics." (Both Bayh and Voinovich are retiring this year.)

This isn't a huge surprise; big emitters were already trying to use the climate bill as a vehicle to undermine other clean air standards. Major energy companies like Duke and American Electric Power have asked the EPA to drop the new standards in comments on the proposed rules.

Meanwhile, the EPA hasn't actually issued the final rule. O'Donnell said it is "very troubling" that the agency does not appear on track to finalize the rule this month as previously indicated.

The Climate Bill is Officially Dead. Now for Plan B.

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

Bummed about the Senate dragging its feet on climate? There's a new report out from the Presidential Climate Action Partnership that outlines five big things the Obama administration can do on climate before the next big United Nations climate meeting in Cancun this November.

"Climate Action Without Congress: How Obama Can Take Charge," offers some cause for optimism, should the Obama administration, you know, actually do these things. Here are their reccomendations, which we should probably do anyway even if the Senate gets its act together.

1. "Work with states and local governments to create a national roadmap to the clean energy economy."

One of the biggest points of contention throughout the debate over climate policy in the past year has been whether or not to take away the authority of states to set their own, more aggressive climate and energy policies. Aggressive states—like California—have paved the way for national policy. More than 30 states have or are in the process of finalizing their own climate action plans. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have a renewable electricity standard in place. There are already two regional cap-and-trade systems in place in the US, the Western Climate Initiative and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, covering 16 states between them.

"Rather than curtailing state authority, pre-empting state authority, as some in Congress have proposed, we need to encourage it," said Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

2. "Declare a war on energy waste."

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy finds that the US economy wastes 87 percent of the energy it uses. By instating the most basic, cost-effective energy efficiency measures, like retrofitting building stock or improving transmission lines, the US could cut energy consumption by 23 percent, save $680 billion by 2020 and avoid 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases. The PCAP recommendations call for setting a goal of making the US the most energy-efficient nation in the world by 2035. It also calls on the Department of Energy to set sector-specific energy efficiency targets.