Blue Marble - September 2010

Rockefeller Still Pushing EPA Stall

| Wed Sep. 15, 2010 4:49 PM EDT

Looks like attempts to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide won't be delayed for too long. After Democrats managed to avoid a struggle over the issue in the Appropriations Committee this week, Sen. Jay Rockefeller again pledged on Wednesday that there will be a vote this year on his measure to delay the agency's rules on planet-warming gases.

Speaking at a pro-coal rally sponsored by the industry and supporters on the Hill today, Rockefeller said he believes he has 53 votes lined up for his measure, and believes another seven votes are "highly gettable," reports CongressDaily.

The vote probably won't come before the November elections at least; Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters that it would be held "this year" but "not before we leave." There's not a whole lot of time for votes this session, and Reid likely doesn't want to take a vote on a highly contentious issue that's likely to divide the caucus right before the election. That means a vote on Rockefeller's measure would probably come in a lame-duck session after the election.

But Rockefeller was actively rallying support for his work at today's coal rally. His bill would delay EPA rules for two more years. The agency has indicated that it will begin phasing in regulations on greenhouse gases in 2011. The Associated Press reports:

The state's senior senator, Democrat Jay Rockefeller, said that Jackson "doesn't understand the sensitivities economically of what unemployment means. Her job is relatively simple: clean everything up, keep it clean, don't do anything to disturb perfection. Well, you can't do coal and do that at the same time. God didn't make coal to be an easy thing to work with."

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) also spoke in support of Rockefeller's bill: "We are not going to let the EPA regulate coal out of business." Webb voted against the last effort to block EPA regulations, which six other Democrats and every Republican supported. His vote for Rockefeller's bill would increase the number of supporters to at least 48. The measure needs 60 votes to pass, but the margin is too close for comfort for environmentalists. "We're incredibly concerned," said John Coequyt, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "There's been a lot of industry action on the Hill. They have hundreds of lobbyists up there trying to come up with ways to delay EPA rules going forward."

Dan Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, said most of what is happening now is talk. Even if a measure did pass in the Senate, it is unlikely to even go to a vote in the House this year, and the White House has already pledged to veto it. The threat, however, could become more real next year, as Republicans are expected gain seats in both chambers this November. "This is exhibition season for assaults on the Clean Air Act," said Weiss. "The real battle will be in 2011 when there will be more representatives and senators who are hostile to pollution reductions than there are now."

Clean Energy Works, a coalition of environmental groups, is running ads on the EPA attack on DC cable starting tomorrow. Here's the 30-second spot, which a spokesman said CEW is spending "six figures" on:

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RIP, Republican Moderates

| Wed Sep. 15, 2010 12:30 PM EDT

Christine O'Donnell's defeat of congressional veteran Mike Castle in Delaware's Senate primary yesterday has the political class chattering. Among the many things, her win marks the defeat of the only Republican Senate candidate who was not a climate change denier.

Questioning the science of climate change is back in a big way with GOP candidates this fall. Castle was the only candidate who not only accepted that climate change is happening, but also endorsed action to stop it. His demise in the Senate primary also means that there will be one less moderate GOP voice in the House next year.

Castle was one of only eight Republicans to vote for the House climate and energy bill in June 2009. He joined Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), John McHugh (N.Y.), Dave Reichert (Wash.), Chris Smith (N.J), Leonard Lance (N.J), and Mark Kirk (Ill.) in voting for the American Clean Energy and Security Act. Without their votes, the measure would have failed. But conservative activists lambasted them for their votes, casting them as "sell-outs" and "traitors."

The backlash caused some of them to backtrack on support. Kirk, who is now running for Senate in Illinois, later said he would vote against the same measure as a senator. But Castle was unflinching in his support for action on climate change.

O'Donnell's win may upend the chance for the GOP to take the Senate. But it also means one of the last voices of moderation in the party is now out of electoral politics. I have a piece up on the main site today about the prospects for leadership on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee should Republicans retake the House. With almost no moderate Republican voices like Castle's left in the House these days, it becomes even more likely that the far right will be calling the shots in the 112th Congress.

Another EPA Threat Averted (For Now)

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 5:58 PM EDT

The Senate hasn't done much this year on climate or energy. In fact, one could say it has done nothing substantive on the issues. But at least that do-nothing spirit extends to not stripping the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate planet-warming gases—at least for now.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to mark up the annual appropriations bill on Thursday, and as Politico reported today, there was considerable fear that an amendment to bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases would be offered and approved. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats skirted the issue by limiting this week's markup to just executive branch and defense appropriations, leaving the portion that the question of EPA regulation to a later date.

Yet another attempt to block EPA regulations was expected to come from Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Her spokesman, Robert Dillon, said her office had drafted an amendment to limit the agency's ability to spend any funds on said regulations and expected Murkowski to offer it in Thursday's markup. (She's been in Alaska contemplating her options for reelection after right-wing challenger Joe Miller unexpectedly defeated her in the primary last month, but expected to be back in DC on Thursday. Dillon said the senator "fully expected to win that vote."

The measure also had the backing of the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Mining Association and the National Association of Manufacturers, among others, reports The Hill.

This, of course, wouldn't be Murkowski's first attempt to thwart EPA action; in June the Senate voted down an attempt to strip that authority by an uncomfortably close margin. Six Democrats voted to bar the agency from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, and most of them sit on the Appropriations Committee, which made it more likely that Murkowski's move would win approval in committee.

But the fact that the EPA regulations are off the table for Thursday doesn't mean the attempts to block action are no longer a threat. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has also floated legislation that would delay regulation for two years, and Majority Leader Harry Reid told him his measure would get a vote. On Tuesday, Rockefeller said he would not offer his measure via the appropriations process, after several other Democrats balked. Instead, Rockefeller and his supporters expect a separate vote on the Senate floor sometime this fall.

Amazon.com Gets F+ for Paper Sustainability

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 2:32 PM EDT

A new report (PDF) puts Amazon.com on the bottom of the heap when it comes to using sustainable paper. Forest Ethics and Dogwood Alliance's "Green Grades 2010" gave the online retailer an F+, while companies like FedEx and Staples got As and Bs for their use of environmentally friendly paper. Amazon.com, named after the Amazon River in the Brazilian rainforest, "does not have a meaningful paper policy," the report states. "Indeed the company appears to have no problem with buying and selling paper from endangered forests and other controversial sources..." You'd think that being based in the timber stronghold of the Pacific Northwest, Amazon.com would pay special attention to where its paper products are sourced from. The firm does plan to have LEED certified buildings on its Seattle campus, but the report points out that Amazon supports the Sustainable Forestry Initiative's (SFI) greenwashed eco-label. SFI standards allow for clear-cutting, logging close to streams and bodies of water, cutting old-growth forest, chemical use, and other harmful practices. The picture above says it all: you can see the difference between the SFI areas and those protected by the Forest Stewardship Council, which remains the only real eco-logo to look for in terms of paper products. No, FSC isn't a perfect measure of forest health. But as you can see by the picture, it's a hell of a lot better than the SFI label Amazon.com uses.

Enviro Links: No Money for Spill Research, White House Rejects Carter's Solar Panel, and More

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 5:00 PM EDT

The internal report BP put out last week on the causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster has been roundly criticized for downplaying BP's share of the responsibility. The Wall Street Journal also reported that BP's lawyers were allowed to review the report before it was made public.

The Associated Press digs through the $134 million in contracts the Obama administration awarded for work related to the Gulf oil spill, including $18,000 for some guy to keep track of and classify news stories about the government's handling of the spill.

A lack of funding is keeping many independent researchers in the Gulf from working on studies that could provide crucial information about the impacts of the oil spill.

BP is telling analysts that it believes that the $20 billion set aside to compensate the victims of the spill will be more than adequate.

And in other environmental news:

The death toll following the explosion of a natural gas pipeline in San Bruno, Calif. last Thursday may be as high as seven, and six more people are still missing.

The White House turned away Jimmy Carter's solar panel on Friday, which the group 350.org had delivered from Maine.

Climate change isn’t just threatening polar bears. A new report from the Center for Biological Diversity finds plenty of other Arctic critters at risk: the Arctic fox, the Pacific walrus, four types of seals, four types of whales, the sea butterfly, three types of seabirds caribou, and muskox are all at risk in a warming climate.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski may still make a bid to keep her seat as a third-party or write-in candidate.

The source of the oil leak in Michigan still hasn't been found, though the EPA says crews are closing in on the site.

Food for Thought: Gov't Employees Say Interference Threatens Public Health

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 4:44 PM EDT

In the past months, more than 1,400 Americans have become sick after eating salmonella-tainted eggs, and half a billion eggs have been recalled from a single Iowa farm. Since the outbreak was identified in mid-August, it's come to light that the United States Department of Agriculture failed to report unsanitary conditions at the farm to the Food and Drug Administration—a frightening reminder of the dangers of regulatory lapses. In the wake of one of the worse cases of food safety oversight failure, a watchdog group warned Monday that federal agencies are still too deferential to business and political interests.

While most federal employees believe interference is less of an issue under the Obama administration, hundreds of scientists and inspectors who oversee food safety at both the USDA and the FDA still say they have personally experienced pressure from business and political interests, according to the results of a survey released Monday by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The survey revealed that many in the agencies feel these interests inhibit their ability to perform their jobs adequately.

UCS worked with the Iowa State University Center for Survey Statistics on the report, sending a questionnaire to 8,000 food-safety employees in the federal government; 1,700 employees responded from the USDA and FDA. Of the respondents, more than a third agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that "public health has been harmed by agency practices that defer to business interests." More than half said they believe the weight given to political interests in decision making is "too high," while a third said the same of business interests. A third also said they had personally experienced one or more incident of political interference with their work.

The report also found:

  • 27 percent of respondents said they had personally experienced "instances where the public health has been harmed by businesses withholding food safety information from agency investigators."
  • 25 percent of respondents said they themselves had experienced "situations where corporate interests have forced the withdrawal or significant modification of policy or action designed to protect consumers or public health."
  • 24 percent said that they had experienced pressure from members of Congress.
  • 22 percent said they had experienced pressure from non-governmental groups.
  • 31 percent said they thought that the fact that many top decision-makers at agencies come directly from the industry "inappropriately influences the decisions made by the agency."

Francesca Grifo, director of UCS's Scientific Integrity Program, said that while the numbers have improved since the group last administered a survey of this type in 2006, they still show that "political interference continues." That the responses were similar at USDA and FDA also "suggests need for broad reform."

Grifo noted the lack of a uniform scientific integrity plan across the federal government that would lay out the guidelines for ensuring that policy decisions are guided by science rather than political or corporate pressures. One of Obama's earliest executive orders last year was a demand for improved scientific integrity across federal agencies, directing his science adviser to create a plan that would ensure that scientific data is "never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda" and that decisions are "based on facts, not ideology." The plan was supposed to be delivered in July 2009, but has yet to be finalized. UCS has been bird-dogging this issue. "It's really time for the administration to take on the scientific integrity work in a way that is specific to how agencies can do better," said Grifo.

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Found: Gulf Oil

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 12:17 PM EDT

Remember that whole "Where'd all the BP oil go?" thing last month? As we've reported repeatedly, it didn't all disappear: three quarters of the oil remains in the environment. In addition to the oil dispersed throughout the water or gathered in giant underwater plumes, scientists are now finding much of it appears to have sunk to the bottom of the Gulf.

NPR reports:

Scientists on a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico are finding a substantial layer of oily sediment stretching for dozens of miles in all directions. Their discovery suggests that a lot of oil from the Deepwater Horizon didn't simply evaporate or dissipate into the water — it has settled to the seafloor.
The Research Vessel Oceanus sailed on Aug. 21 on a mission to figure out what happened to the more than 4 million barrels of oil that gushed into the water. Onboard, Samantha Joye, a professor in the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Georgia, says she suddenly has a pretty good idea about where a lot of it ended up. It's showing up in samples of the seafloor, between the well site and the coast.

Joye has been documenting the research on her blog as well. She notes that, in some places, her team has found oily material two inches thick. While it's possible that the oil is from sources other than the Gulf spill, all indications so far indicate that the source "is not a natural seep." Joye is not the first to report finding oil on the Gulf floor; researchers from the University of South Florida reported last month that oil has been collecting below.

This of course makes it even more clear that the government's claim last month that the "vast majority" of the oil was gone in the Gulf is simply not true. By all indications, our understanding of where the oil went is still far from complete.

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

Climate Denial Fashionable for GOP Contenders This Fall

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 11:34 AM EDT

It's widely predicted that Democrats won't fare so well this election season. I'm no election guru, so I'll defer to others—see "Top 10 Senate Races to Worry About" and "Memo to Dems: A Miserable November Looms" for starters. Or, for an even more troubling post, see "How Bad Are the Next Few Years Going To Suck?" This, of course, is terrible news for anyone hoping Congress will pass major climate and energy legislation any time soon. How bad is it going to get?

Well, RL Miller at Daily Kos has been tracking what she calls the "Climate Zombies"—the GOP candidates for House and Senate who manage to be even worse on the issue than those currently in office. In short, climate change denial is back in a big way in the would-be congressional Class of 2011.

Ron Johnson, the formidable Republican challenger to Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), believes sunspots are causing the planet to warm. Joe Miller, the tea-party candidate who upset Lisa Murkowski last month in Alaska, doesn't think the planet is actually warming in the first place. In New Hampshire, all six Republican primary candidates in the Senate race agree that it has not yet been proven that mankind is warming the planet.

The House is even more frightening. Here's Ruth McClung, the Republican candidate challenging incumbent Raul Grijalva, weighing in on why she, too, blames the sun:

After researching the causes of temperature fluctuations on earth, I found the largest factor to be the sun. The earth’s orbit changes. Also the earth’s spin and axis change over time. When areas of the earth are closer to the sun, the temperature is hotter and when they are further away, cooler. The sun also has more activity at times and less at other times. They have been able to map out large changes in the earth’s temperature over time to the sun. Times with no polar ice caps have corresponded to times when we were closer to the sun. Ice ages have corresponded to times when we were further from the sun. We should not punish the people of the United States financially by legislating on pseudo-science that has not been proven.

RL Miller's got more on candidates in other big races here. The League of Conservation Voters also put out a memo last week running down the members of what they call the "Flat Earth Society."

Now, if conservative activists get their way, the biggest step the 112th Congress will take on energy is preserving your right to inefficient lighting. But upon further reflection, maybe it will be a good thing if that's the worst they get around to doing.

Audio: Green Design Finds a Home in Dwell Magazine

| Fri Sep. 10, 2010 7:07 PM EDT

Since its launch in 2000, the sleek shelter magazine Dwell has helped popularize green architecture and design. In this week's Climate Desk podcast, Need to Know's Alison Stewart speaks with Dwell's senior editor Aaron Britt. Britt shares his perspective on green design, from LEED certification to low-tech solutions that contribute to sustainable living.

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

The Right’s Climate Denialism Is Part of Something Much Larger

| Fri Sep. 10, 2010 4:45 PM EDT

If you read RL Miller's post on "climate zombies" you know that open climate denialism is back in vogue in the GOP. However muted denialism may have gotten in the late 2000s, it has come roaring back—like everything reactionary—with the economic downturn. This is from Gallup: