Blue Marble - September 2010

Texas Guv Candidate Bill White Talks Wind, Solar, and Urban Planning

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 1:49 PM PDT

Earlier this year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) made news with a characteristically rash declaration that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was "an act of God" and that he had "full confidence" in BP's diligence. His opponent, Bill White (D), responded with a 10-page memo asserting that Perry's "sweeping generalizations are not helpful." It followed with a detailed analysis of the law and engineering of offshore drilling disasters, drawing on White's experience working in the energy industry and at the Department of Energy.

The underdog White—any Democrat running for statewide office in Texas is an underdog—is betting that his sober, pragmatic approach will appeal to voters ready for a change from the secession-talking, EPA-blasting Perry, the longest-serving governor in the state's history. Polls put White within 7 points of Perry, and if the challenger is able to cast the race as a decision between the past and the future, he may have a chance.

During White's time as mayor of Houston, the nation's fourth largest city, he ran a highly successful home-weatherization program and engineered a major purchase of 50 megawatts of clean energy, giving momentum to the state's booming wind industry.

White spoke to Grist this week about energy, high-speed rail, and the daunting prospect of urban planning in Texas. [And here's our look at Gov. Perry's record.]

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Gulf Scientist: The Oil's Still Out There

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 10:56 AM PDT

Another independent expert disputed the Obama administration's claims that the vast majority of the oil from the BP spill is "gone." Dr. Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University, told the National Oil Spill Commission on Monday that he believes more than half of the oil is still in the Gulf, and that "much of it is now buried in marine and coastal sediments."

The administration's estimates on both the size of the spill and where the oil went have stirred up controversy in recent weeks. While the government claimed in early August that most of the oil was "gone", independent experts have found oil accumulating on the floor of the Gulf and suspended in giant underwater plumes.

MacDonald's testimony supports many of these independent reports:

[T]he BP oil discharge was at least 10,000 times more concentrated in space and time and about twelve times greater in magnitude than the total annual release from natural seeps of the Gulf of Mexico. In my scientific opinion, the bulk of this material was dispersed in surface layers, from which about one third evaporated and ten percent was removed by burning or skimming. An additional ten percent was chemically dispersed. The remaining fraction—over fifty percent of the total discharge—is a highly durable material that resists further dissipation. Much of it is now buried in marine and coastal sediments. There is scant evidence for bacterial degradation of this material prior to burial.

Gulf Fund Czar Under Fire

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 7:56 AM PDT

The Department of Justice is not happy at all with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility and its administrator, Kenneth Feinberg. Associate US Attorney General Thomas Perrelli recently sent a sharply worded letter to the spill fund czar, calling the current speed of processing claims "unacceptable."

The letter directs Feinberg to make whatever changes are necessary to expedite payments to Gulf residents. It's a claims process that has been fraught—as my profile of Feinberg earlier this month detailed, he's faced a number of challenges in administering the fund and has been much slower to deliver checks than he promised. Last week Feinberg admitted that some of his initial promises of expediency might have been overly optimistic.

But the DOJ isn't taking any excuses. The letter notes that, even in cases where a lack of documentation is not a factor, "tens of thousands of claims have been pending, awaiting GCCF review, longer than the time periods you proposed." Perrelli wrote:

Your recent public statements have acknowledged that the process is more complicated and time-intensive than you had anticipated. I would reiterate to you, however, that the efficiency of the GCCF's review and payment process is not just a matter of fulfilling your own performance goals. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill has disrupted the lives of thousands upon thousands of individuals, often cutting off the income on which they depend. Many of these individuals and businesses simply do not have the resources to get by while they await processing by the GCCF.

The letter was sent on Sept. 17, but made its way into the press over the weekend. On Saturday, Feinberg announced that he would implement "new and improved procedures to expedite claims," and said the center would be "sending out more generous checks more quickly" in the coming days.

"Over the past few weeks, I have heard from the people of the Gulf, elected officials, and others that payments remain too slow and not generous enough. I am implementing new procedures that will make this program more efficient, more accelerated and more generous," Feinberg said.

"I Want to Make Sure I Have a Home To Go Back To"

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 6:28 AM PDT

Activists from across Appalachia are in Washington, DC, this week to call attention to mountaintop removal coal mining, the controversial practice of blowing up mountains to reach coal reserves. Appalachia Rising participants will march from the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters to the White House on Monday and hold a lobby day Tuesday to call attention to the practice they say is destroying their homes and communities.

"The region's not going to survive much longer if we don't do something soon," says Dustin White of Charleston, W.Va., in town for this week's events. White, a 27-year-old with a crew cut and glasses, is orginally from James Creek, a community of about 100 people on Cook Mountain in the southwestern part of West Virginia. The mountain was named for one of his ancestors, and many are buried nearby. Two months ago, Patriot Coal Corporation, one of the largest mining companies in the country, told White's father, a former coal miner, that they would soon be blasting near his home.

White describes nearby towns that are no longer, as residents have been bought out by coal companies or simply abandoned due to the blasting and diminished quality of life. There's Lindytown, which sits on the other side of Cook Mountain in the valley below a Massey MTR site, which he says went from 100 people a few years ago to just three today. White fears the same might happen to his town.

"I'm in limbo—I don't know whether my hometown is going to exist in 20 years," said White.

"Twenty? Try five!" chimed in Mary Love, an anti-mountaintop-removal activist from Kentucky.

White says he's not anti-mining. He just thinks it can and should be done safely underground, the way it was before mining companies had the machinery, firepower, and more lenient environmental rules that have allowed them to blast mountains and dump the waste in nearby valleys. The practice was also accelerated in the past eight years, thanks to a 2002 Bush administration change to the Clean Water Act rules that made it legal to fill valleys with waste from blast sites. The same change also made it legal to dump the debris and even waste like old toilets and junk cars into valleys.

Are Genetically Engineered Foods (Including Salmon) More Allergenic?

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 2:30 AM PDT

You've probably heard that the FDA is considering whether to approve the first-ever genetically-engineered fish. Developed by a Massachusetts-based company called AquaBounty Technologies, this new supersalmon is basically an Atlantic salmon with genes from Chinook salmon and a fish called the ocean pout. In theory, this could be a good thing: The new genes allow the fish, called AquAdvantage, to grow twice as fast as regular salmon, meaning more salmon for everyone, and less stress on wild stocks. 

But a number of consumer, health, and environmental groups say that neither AquaBounty Technologies nor the FDA has enough evidence to ensure the public that the fish—which wouldn't have to be labeled as genetically engineered (GE) on supermarket shelves—is safe for people or the planet. Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen called the company's food safety tests "woefully incomplete," and the group pointed out that the FDA approval panel is mostly comprised of GE cheerleaders, with no fish ecologists or allergists. Why's an allergist important? Because the company's own tests suggest that the new salmon could be much more allergenic than regular salmon.

In order to understand the allergy tests, a bit of backstory on how AquAdvantage salmon are made is necessary. First, genetic engineers create a "diploid" fish, meaning like people, it has two sets of chromosomes. Then, to make the final market product, they add genetic material from other fish and breed a new salmon with three sets of chromosomes—a "triploid" female that can't reproduce. AquaBounty researchers compared the allergenicity—or potential to cause an allergic reaction—of a control group of salmon to both the genetically engineered diploids and triploids. They found (PDF, see page 102) that the diploid salmon were 40 percent more allergenic than the control, while the triploid group was 19 percent more allergenic.

AquaBounty says that the triploids' allergenicity level wasn't statistically significant, and although the diploids' level is significant, it doesn't matter because only triploids will be sold. But Hansen of the Consumers Union finds a few problems with this argument. For starters, the test wasn't double blind, meaning the researchers knew which fish were part of which test group. Second, the sample size of triploid fish was tiny—only six fish in all. Third, although AquaBounty is going to try to turn all its market-bound fish into triploid sterile females, the process isn't perfect, and some 5 percent could end up as the more allergenic diploid. Especially scary when you consider that unlike the triploids, the diploids aren't sterile. So if they escaped, they could breed with wild salmon.

The FDA simply doesn't have enough information to determine whether AquaBounty's salmon are likely to cause more allergic reactions than their non-GE counterparts. But there is good reason to be concerned about the potential allergenicity of all GE foods, says Margaret Mellon, director of the scientist Union of Concerned Scientsts' Food and Environment Program. "You have this technology that allows you to essentially move proteins around from food to food," she says. "You can move a highly allergenic protein into a new food, and no one will know to avoid the new food."

Indeed, a 1996 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who were allergic to Brazil nuts were also allergic to soy beans that had been implanted with a Brazil nut protein. There is also some evidence that even proteins don't usually cause allergies can become allergenic when they are moved to a new food. A 2005 Australian study found that mice who were fed peas containing a typically non-allergenic protein from kidney beans experienced allergic reactions.

Another worry is that potentially allergenic GE crops might "escape" into foods. In the late '90s, the pharmaceutical giant Aventis introduced StarLink, a genetically engineered variety of corn. StarLink was approved for sale in the US, but only for non-food uses, since it contained a potentially allergenic protein. But then, traces of it started turning up in food (most famously, Taco Bell taco shells), and 28 people claimed they had suffered allergic reactions to foods containing StarLink. Although the CDC later found no medical evidence that any of those people had an allergy to the corn, an EPA advisory panel acknowledged that the CDC's tests did "not eliminate StarLink...protein as a potential cause of allergic symptoms."

The bottom line: It's not that genetically engineered foods are inherently more allergenic than traditional foods, but transfering genes does make it more likely that allergens might pop up in unexpected places. "There can be a lot of unintended side effects when you do genetic modification, which means you have to test very carefully," says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the watchdog group Food and Water Watch. "In the case of salmon, one test on six fish just seems very insufficient for something that will open the floodgates to other GE meat and fish."

 

 

Landrieu Blocks OMB Nomination Over Drilling Moratorium

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 10:55 AM PDT

The oil and gas industry has made no secret of its opposition to the Obama administration's temporary moratorium on new deepwater drilling. Now, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has pledged to block the nomination of Jack Lew to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget until the moratorium is lifted.

"Although Mr. Lew clearly possesses the expertise necessary to serve as one of the President's most important economic advisors, I found that he lacked sufficient concern for the host of economic challenges confronting the Gulf Coast," Sen. Landrieu wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday. "The fact that the most acute of these economic challenges, the moratorium, results from a direct (and reversible) federal action only serves to harden my stance on Mr. Lew's nomination. I cannot support further action on Mr. Lew's nomination to be a key economic advisor to the President until I am convinced that the President and his Administration understand the detrimental impacts that the actual and de facto moratoria continue to have on the Gulf Coast."

The moratorium has been the subject of an ongoing legal battle, and though it has now been rejected in multiple courts, uncertainty over the issue has essentially put all new drilling on hold. The initial moratorium is set to expire at the end of November, but it's not clear how the administration will proceed at that point.

But despite all the dire predictions, the moratorium's impact on the Gulf Coast economy has been less than expected. The administration issued a report that found that the loss of jobs due to the drilling freeze was actually much lower than the government's initial predictions; though the adminstration had initially estimated that 23,000 jobs could be lost, the number of affected workers is actually more like 8,000 to 12,000, according to the report.

That's not to say that 12,000 lost jobs isn't a significant figure, especially to those who've lost them. But moratorium opponents often fail to mention all the jobs lost in tourism and fishing industries thanks to the spill—or that the moratorium is a temporary one, designed to provide assurances that the industry can and is operating safely. And it's not like those impacted by the moratorium aren’t being compensated as well; BP created a separate $100 million fund for those workers.

In short, the problem isn't the moratorium; it's the spill that necessitated it. Nor is Lew the problem. And the idea that one senator with a bone to pick on an unrelated issue can hold up Lew—who won approval yesterday in the Senate Budget Committee by a 22-1 vote and last week in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee by a 9-0 vote (a rare show of bipartisan support)—is frankly absurd.

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BP Spill Estimate Grows—Again

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 7:22 AM PDT

An independent estimate concluded this week that the BP spill dumped 4.4 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The new study, published this week in Science, is the first peer-reviewed analysis of the total amount spilled over the nearly three months of the disaster. The scientists used high-resolution video of the leaking well to estimate the rate of the spill.

The estimate is slightly higher than the estimate from the government's flow rate team, which concluded in August that 4.1 million barrels were spilled into the Gulf and another 800,0000 barrels was removed from the water.

The official government estimates of both the size of the spill and where the oil went have been the subject of some controversy, as much of the supporting documentation has not been made public and the estimates were not peer-reviewed. But since the new estimate of the spill size is fairly close to the government's, it should lend some credence to the accounts from the federal government. 

Still, the latest estimate is 300,000 barrels—or 12.6 million gallons—higher than the previous. That's a whole Exxon Valdez spill right there, bringing the Gulf spill to more than 17 times the size of the Alaska spill that previously ranked as the worst in US history.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday September 24

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 4:45 AM PDT

Weekly news on health and the environment from our other blogs.

New Start: Health care reforms start going into action this week.

Bang for Buck: Americans pay a lot for health care, but don't get much for it.

Ch-ch-Changes: Kaiser has a handy timeline of when health care reforms start.

Planning Ahead: GOP may not be able to repeal health reform, but it can chip at it.

Warm Glow: Dems are basking in the light of newly enacted health reform.

Obtuse Angle: Sharron Angle mocks autism, decries maternity leave since she won't have more kids.

Jailing Gramps: Caring for elderly prisoners is becoming increasingly expensive, and inhumane.

Conspiracy Theory: Avastin wasn't rationed away by Obamacare: the drug just didn't work.

Live from Haiti: Our reporter Tweets her time with a rape victim receiving care in Haiti.

The Little RES That Could

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 12:53 PM PDT

A bill to enact a federal mandate for renewable electricity is gathering steam in the Senate. And unlike many issues in Washington these days, the measure is gaining support on both sides of the aisle. On Thursday, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) became the latest Republican to back a renewable electricity standard (RES).

Grassley joins John Ensign (Nev.), Susan Collins (Maine), and Sam Brownback (Kan.) among Republican co-sponsors of the bill. Twenty-one Democrats have also signed on.

The bill would require utilities to draw 3 percent of electricity from renewable sources starting in 2012. By 2021, that requirement scales up to 15 percent. While this RES is lower than the House-passed measure and than the goal renewables energy advocates had hoped for, it is likely the most attainable energy measure this year. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said he planned to gather 60 votes for the measure before encouraging Majority Leader Harry Reid to hold a vote, most likely in a lame-duck session post-election. So far he's 25 votes closer to that goal.

While Reid is supportive of an RES, his office offered a more realistic take on its chances of the measure getting on the ever-growing to-do list. A leadership aide sent along this statement:

Senator Reid strongly supports a national renewable electricity standard. But, there is very limited time before the October recess and probably even during the lame duck, so the proponents of a stand-alone RES will need to demonstrate they have 60 votes for swift floor action before floor consideration could be scheduled.

An Inhospitable Climate

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 11:21 AM PDT

What else can we expect next year if the GOP assumes leadership in the House? In addition to protecting the incandescent light bulb, we can expect hearings—lots of them. Specifically, expect annoyer-in-chief Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the would-be chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform, to launch numerous investigations and wield the power of subpoena liberally. He promised as much in a dossier released yesterday listing his planned investigations.

One of the big ones: He plans to investigate climate science and the so-called "ClimateGate" "scandal." Issa lists it under the subsection, "Politicization of Science," and outlines his mission:

In November 2009, in a scandal popularly referred to as "Climategate," a large volume of email messages and documents from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia were disclosed, raising serious questions about the research that led to the findings released by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Other news reports have suggested that in an effort to force a determination that carbon dioxide (CO2) endangers human health and welfare, EPA inappropriately limited staff contributions, suppressed dissent, and may have punished those who challenged the Obama Administration’s environmental agenda. The Republican Minority requested that Chairman Towns launch a full Committee investigation into the disclosed emails and EPA’s lack of transparency and alleged misconduct, but did not received a response from the Majority.

Of course, this fails to mention that multiple investigations now have found no evidence of of wrongdoing when it came to the emails, or that a vast body of scientific literature affirms that the climate is changing, regardless of whether a few scientists sent some mean emails.

If Republicans do in fact take the majority in November, welcome to the next few years, folks!