News on health, energy, and the environment from our other blogs

Sunday Drivers: Free parking and what it means for walkability and real estate.

Carbon Ain't Free: Consumers like it better when they don't see carbon's price tag.

Pay to Play: BP's spent $93 million since the spill, on advertising.

Passing the Buck: Who should pay when an illegal immigrant needs expensive care?

Straight As: Auto industry protests letter-grade system for fuel efficiency.

Curves Ahead: Levi's new curvy jeans are advertised by skinny models.

The small Japanese town of Taiji made infamous in The Cove began its annual dolphin hunt today. Filmmaker and dolphin advocate Ric O'Barry won't be there, though, because he's been threatened by Japanese nationalist groups. So instead, Barry's staying in Tokyo. Today he staged a protest at a Tokyo hotel and delivered a 1.7 million signature petition to end the hunt to the US Embassy. Not to be outdone, Sea Shepherd is calling for any dolphin supporters to go immediately to Taiji: otherwise, the organization says, activists aren't doing enough. But is Taiji really the right place to go? The town of 3,400 in Wakayama prefecture kills around 2,000 dolphins a year. Iwate prefecture up north kills approximately five times as many dolphins as Taiji.

For all O'Barry and Sea Shepherd's work, the dolphin hunt (and whaling) isn't likely to end soon, the Taiji mayor told the AP. "We will pass down the history of our ancestors to the next generation, preserve it. We have a strong sense of pride about this," mayor Kazutaka Sangen said. Speaking of history, activists have been so (understandably) blindsided by the cruelty and atrociousness of dolphin and whale slaughter that they've forgotten it was only after WWII that Japanese consumption of whale and dolphin meat increased. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was the one who helped Japan set up whaling fleets so Japan could feed people who were facing starvation during the American occupation. It's no surprise that more than a million people around the world want the brutal Taiji dolphin hunt to stop. Who wouldn't? But Japan is a society that highly values respect, tact, and diplomacy. I can't say that I'm sure American activists will get what they want by using their highly public, confrontational tactics.

The hot question in green circles these days is, "what next?" For the last decade, strategy has been built around getting a federal climate bill that would place a cap on carbon emissions. That attempt was supposed to culminate in success this year, but it didn't, so... what next?

There will be much to say along those lines in coming months. I hope to share words of inspiration and uplift, to stir minds with insight and hearts with passion. To tell great tales of green pastures to come and the heroes who will sail the fleet of righteousness to the golden shores of, uh, the pastures. Just real quick, though, I need to be depressed as hell for a minute.

The House

Start with the fact that Democrats are going to get shellacked in the midterms. A new Gallup poll shows the GOP with the biggest lead in a generic midterm matchup in friggin' history—10 points, 51 to 41 percent. Even if you take a single poll with a grain of salt (as you should), Pollster paints a grim picture:

Politico sees an approaching tidal wave.

At this point, the smart money is on Democrats losing the House. What will the GOP do with their shiny new majority? They're not shy about it: They will launch a wave of investigations, inquiries, and witch hunts. An endless stream of allegations and subpoenas will be used to distract and slow the executive branch.

The Gulf spill has been fading from the headlines for weeks now, but today's explosion of an oil platform 200 miles west of the last disaster has renewed calls for closer scrutiny of offshore drilling.

The Vermilion Oil Platform 380 blew at around 9 a.m. While the company said in a press release earlier that "no hydrocarbon spill was reported," the Coast Guard later reported that a one-mile long, 100-feet wide sheen of oil could be seen extending from the platform. Now the Coast Guard says there is no sheen.

But there are reports that as many as seven wells are connected to this platform, and it was in production at the time of the blast. Mariner Energy, the platform's owner, has confirmed that it produced "approximately 9.2 million cubic feet of natural gas per day and 1,400 barrels of oil and condensate" in the last week of August. These figures suggest that a spill from this site would be much smaller than the amount that gushed from BP's well for weeks, but just how much crude the Vermilion site could leak is unclear at this point.

Mariner is a former subsidiary of Enron, and it's been involved in 13 accidents since 2006. While the details of what happened Thursday are murky, this latest explosion underscores several points—and has reinvigorated the call to put the brakes on offshore drilling.

Notably, the site of today's explosion is in water that is significantly shallower than BP's well, about 340 feet deep. These shallow water operations are considered much "safer" than deep waters. The six-month moratorium on new oil drilling projects (which is set to expire by the end of next month) doesn't apply to permits in shallow waters. The Interior Department said in a statement in July that shallow-water operations "do not present the same type or level of risks as deepwater drilling operations." But as the unfolding Vermillion disaster indicates, shallow water drilling is still risky.

Enviros rushed out statements pointing to the episode as yet another example of why there should be a time-out on all offshore activities. "It’s another reminder that drilling accidents happen all too frequently," said Oceana senior campaign director Jacqueline Savitz. "We cannot afford to lose any more human lives, nor can we tolerate further damage to the gulf and its irreplaceable ocean ecosystems."

Michael Brune, Sierra Club's executive director, said: "How many disasters will it take until our leaders decide to act? We don't want to see one more oil disaster. The BP disaster was supposed to be the wake up call, but we hit the snooze button. Today the alarm went off again."

Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have already blasted out a letter to Mariner CEO Scott D. Josey requesting a briefing from Mariner on the incident and its possible causes.

Even as a new story develops around the explosion on the Mariner Energy platform off the Louisiana coast, the BP story remains highly volatile. Here are a few bubbling highlights. Plus, elsewhere in the news from science, some interesting developments on the relationship between war and Alzheimer's dementia, a 2,000-year-old case of mixing beer with antibiotics, the risks of flying in the developing world, plus a woman with a mysterious nocturnally-erasing memory.

  • Officials from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources took oyster fishermen out on the reefs off the Pass Christian Harbor yesterday, where they had earlier dredged and pulled up catches with 80 to 90 percent of the oysters dead, reports the Miami Herald. Oyster season typically begins in September or October.
  • A UC Santa Barbara scientist has come up with a new way of predicting how contaminants like oil will spread. Igor Mezic, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara, and his colleagues successfully predicted where and when oil washed ashore in the Mississippi River Delta and later, on the white-sand beaches of Pensacola, Florida. Their predictions were accurate to within a couple of miles of the actual spill later assessed by from aerial surveys. Mezic's approach to the problem is based on computations describing how slicks of oil tend to be stretched into filaments by motion at the sea surface, and on incorporating forecasts of sea surface conditions from a US Navy model.The paper's published online at Science.
  • A chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Nubians shows that they were regularly consuming tetracycline, most likely in their beer (the real key to near-eternal life?). This is the strongest evidence yet that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was common practice nearly 2,000 years ago. Read more in the paper at the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
  • A new paper in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society finds that combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a greater risk for dementia than veterans without PTSD, even those who suffered traumatic injuries during combat. The difference doubles the risk that PTSD-sufferers will suffer a dementia diagnosis. "Although we cannot at this time determine the cause for this increased risk, it is essential to determine whether the risk of dementia can be reduced by effectively treating PTSD. This could have enormous implications for Veterans now returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," says senior author, Mark Kunik, a psychiatrist at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, Texas, USA.
  • Taking a flight in the developing world runs you 13 times the risk of being killed in an air accident as taking a flight in the developed world. The more economically advanced countries in the Developing World (e.g., Taiwan, India, and Brazil) have better overall safety records than the others, but even their death risk per flight is seven times as high as that in the developed world. This according to a new paper in Transportation Science.
  • Psychologists have documented what they believe to be a first-ever known case of a woman whose memory of new material is erased each night as she sleeps. She's been having this problem ever since a car wreck in 2005. Reminsicent of the film 50 First Dates. But worse, probably. The paper's in Neuropschologia. HT Research Digest Blog.

Follow Kate Sheppard, Mac McClelland, and Julia Whitty on Twitter for the latest updates on the explosion.

Another oil platform has exploded in the Gulf, and details are still coming in about today's explosion. Firefighters are battling the blaze on the platform, and there are reports of a mile-long oil sheen extending from the site. As the Houston Chronicle reports, platform owner Mariner Energy has been involved in 13 accidents in the Gulf since 2006.

Stay tuned, we'll have more details on today's explosion as they come in.

Perhaps it's a good time for a reminder of just how many pipelines (33,000 miles), wells (50,000), platforms and rigs (thousands of abandoned ones alone) are out there in the Gulf, each with its own potential for disaster. And did we mention it's hurricane season?

Here's what it looks like out there, from our September/October issue:Click for larger versionClick here for a larger version.

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

Follow Kate Sheppard, Mac McClelland, and Julia Whitty on Twitter for the latest updates on the explosion.

From the "things they probably wish they hadn't said" desk, the Financial Times reports that employees of Mariner Energy, the owner of the oil platform that exploded this morning, were apparently in Houston on Wednesday to protest the offshore drilling moratorium: 

"I have been in the oil and gas industry for 40 years, and this administration is trying to break us," said Barbara Dianne Hagood, senior landman for Mariner Energy, a small company. "The moratorium they imposed is going to be a financial disaster for the gulf coast, gulf coast employees and gulf coast residents."

Hagood isn't the only one with bad timing. Minutes after the initial reports of the latest explosion, the fossil fuels front group Institute for Energy Research blasted out an email asking supporters to write to the Obama administration and ask for an end the temporary moratorium on new deepwater drilling.

From the email:

That's not fair to the 23,000 people in the Gulf forecasted to lose their jobs as a result of Obama's moratorium on deepwater drilling, according to the Department of the Interior.

The moratorium won't just affect the people working in the energy field. The impacts will be felt across the country in the form of:

- Higher energy prices
- More expensive goods and services
- Fewer jobs

This needs to be reversed. The Oil Spill Commission has to hear the truth: that we should be producing more energy in America, not less. Producing energy here lowers prices and creates jobs—exactly what we should be doing during this recession.

Of course, the moratorium was put in place so regulators could evaluate whether offshore drilling can be done safely. And despite the outcry from the industry, the moratorium is only temporary (six months), and it's only on new exploratory operations. It doesn't even touch the existing deepwater platforms, or drilling in shallow waters. If anything, today's news should be an indicator that we need to take the time to evaluate all offshore operations.

(h/t to Think Progress for the FT report.)

Follow Kate Sheppard, Mac McClelland, and Julia Whitty on Twitter for the latest updates on the explosion.

With news of yet another oil rig exploding breaking this morning, an admission from the federal incident commander that the response to the BP disaster may have been bungled is not at all reassuring. The Press-Register reports:

In hindsight, if BP had removed the 5,000-foot-long tangle of riser pipe from its damaged Gulf well in the early days of the spill, a new blowout preventer or cap could have been installed, shutting down the well perhaps within weeks instead of months, according to both the federal incident commander and petroleum engineers.
"I think that is one thing we will look at," retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said during a recent interview with the Press-Register editorial board. "Obviously what finally worked was cutting the riser pipe. ... If we had elected to cut the riser pipe we might have been able to do it much quicker."

The piece continues:

In the recent interview, Allen said the federal government and BP decided not to cut the riser off, instead adopting "the doctor’s policy of first do no harm."
“The new BOP would have required cutting the riser off and going to an uncontrolled flow,” Allen said. “BP’s position, concurred by our science team, was to take the most low-risk option. We could have assumed a more aggressive course.”

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes. But thinking back on those weeks of fumbling after April 20—domes, top-hats, junk shots, and top-kills—it's a bit alarming to learn that BP nixed what could have been the best, fastest solution. We know why, of course; the federal government was clearly no better prepared for this kind of worst-case scenario. But now that exploding rigs and other disasters are apparently commonplace, let's hope lessons have been learned.

Follow Kate Sheppard, Mac McClelland, and Julia Whitty on Twitter for the latest updates on the explosion.

News on this is just trickling in, but apparently there's been another oil platform explosion* off the Louisiana coast. The New Orleans station WDSU reports that the Coast Guard has been called in, and the 13 workers on the rig have been accounted for.

The explosion happened 80 miles south of Vermilion Bay at around 9 a.m., on a rig owned by Mariner Energy. There aren't a whole lot of details yet; will update as they come in.

The Houston Chronicle has more.

* Post has been updated to clarify that it was a platfrom, not a rig, that exploded this morning.

The world's foremost certifier of safe and sustainable fisheries has just been slapped down in a new op-ed by a top-shelf collection of scientists in the latest issue of Nature. The problem is that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is ignoring science in favor of bureaucracy, write the authors, researchers from the University of British Columbia, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and elsewhere.

The idea behind the MSC, which was established in 1997 by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever (one of the world's largest fish retailers), was to help consumers eat fish "guilt-free" by certifying fisheries. Today, major grocery chains—Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, and Europe's Waitrose—carry the MSC's blue check-mark label as a sign of seafood sustainability.

The council has become the world's most established fisheries certifier:

  • with 94 fisheries currently MSC-certified
  • accounting for ~7% of global catch
  • with 118 more fisheries under assessment

But the authors object to the many of the MSC's procedures and its certification of certain species. The largest certified fishery is the US trawl fishery for pollock in the eastern Bering Sea, with an annual catch of a million tons. The MSC certified this fishery in 2005 and recommended it for recertification this summer. Except that pollock suffered a 64 percent decline in spawning biomass between 2004 and 2009. With no solid evidence for recovery. How is that sustainable, the authors ask?

The Nature op-ed authors also voice concern for other fisheries certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council:

  • Pacific hake (Merluccius productus), certified in 2009 despite a population decline of 89 percent since a peak in the late 1980s. How is that sustainable, the authors ask?
  • Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni), marketed as Chilean sea bass, proposed for certification despite the fact that not even the basics are known about this species, with none of its eggs or larvae ever collected. How can that be even be considered as a candidate for certification, the authors ask?
  • Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), recently certified by the MSC, despite research showing a long-term decline in krill populations, as well as a link between the depletion of krill and declining sea ice in an area highly sensitive to climate change. The authors state their concern strongly:

Much of the krill caught is destined not for consumer purchase but for fishmeal, to feed factory-farmed fish, pigs and chickens. We propose that any fishery undertaken for fishmeal should not be viewed as responsible or sustainable, and should not qualify for MSC certification. At present, the MSC assessment rules do not consider the end-use of a product.

The Marine Stewardship Council's failure to accurately assess the health of fisheries triggers a cascade of problems, suggest the authors:

  • It hurts the populations that aren't sustainably hunted
  • It hurts those the ecosystems of unsustainably hunted species
  • It deprives the public of an opportunity to make meaningful choices
  • It damages fisheries that are well managed, especially sustainable small-scale fisheries that have to compete with the giants that buy certifications they haven't earned

The op-ed suggests MSC create more stringent standards, crack down on arguably loose interpretation of its own rules, and alter its process to avoid a potential financial incentive to certify large fisheries. Fisheries that are being heavily depleted, that are reliant on high-impact methods such as bottom trawling, as well as those that aren't destined for human consumption, should be excluded from certification, conclude the authors:

The MSC can still fulfil its promise to represent—as it claims, "the best environmental choice—if it undergoes major reform. If it does not change, there are better, more effective ways to spend £8 million [$12.3 million], such as lobbying to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies, or creating marine protected areas. These steps would do more to help the oceans.