Blue Marble - October 2010

Shrimpers, Enviros to Sue for Dispersant Info

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 1:30 PM PDT

The Gulf may "open for business" again now that the Obama administration dropped the moratorium on new deepwater drilling, but there's little evidence that the federal government is any more prepared to deal with another disaster like the Deepwater Horizon. Case in point: The recent spill commission report made it clear that the lack of adequate government planning for the use of chemical dispersants "handicapped" the response effort. But regulators still don't have much of a plan for how they're going to use dispersants if there is another spill.

On Wednesday, a coalition of community groups, shrimpers, and environmental organizations filed a petition urging the Environmental Protection Agency to fix the dispersant planning problem. The groups want the EPA to establish rules about which chemicals can be used in future spills and at what point they can be dumped into the water.

The coalition, which filed its petition through the enviromental lawyers at Earthjustice, asked the EPA to require manufacturers to disclose the ingredients they use in dispersants. They also want more in-depth testing of the toxicity of the products. Both are issues highlighted in my magazine piece this month, which focuses on the lack of regulation of these chemicals. Nearly two million gallons of dispersant are already in the Gulf, so it's a little late to second-guess these substances' use in this disaster. But that doesn't mean that dispersant manufacturers should continue to operate without any oversight.

The Earthjustice petition was filed on behalf of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, Florida Wildlife Federation, Gulf Restoration Network, the Alaska-based Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Waterkeeper and the Sierra Club. The groups also filed a 60-day-notice of intent to sue for access to information about where dispersants can be used and how much is safe. (They say that disclosure is required under the Clean Water Act.)

"Unprecedented use of toxic dispersants during the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster without prior scientific study and evaluation on the effect to Gulf of Mexico marine ecosystems and human health was a horrific mistake that should never have been allowed to happen," said Clint Guidry of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

"Because so little is currently known by EPA—or anyone else for that matter—about the long-term impact to fish and wildlife, the use of dispersants is a dangerous and potentially devastating experiment," said Cynthia Sarthou, director of the Gulf Restoration Network.

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Science Shots: Sex, Sludge, Orchids, Dogs

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 12:20 PM PDT

An idiosyncratic sampling of the latest science papers. Forthwith: the complex evolution of sex; how to denature Hungary's toxic red sludge; orchids get tricksier; dog scientists.

  •  Environment exerts a huge influence over whether your species has sex or not. U of Toronto evolutionary biologists found that sexual reproduction emerges more often in organisms living in heterogenous environmentsplaces with uneven concentrations of the same species, and rich concentrations of other species—than in organisms living in more homogenous environments. The research was done with rotifers, tiny aquatic organisms capable of sexual or asexual reproduction, that were allowed to evolve in either environmentally homogeneous or heterogeneous habitats. After more than 70 generations, they tended toward sexual reproduction in heterogeneous habitats and asexual reproduction in homogeneous environments. You find the political metaphor. The paper: Higher rates of sex evolve in spatially heterogeneous environments, in Nature.

 

Rotifer. Each numbered tick is 122 µM. Credit: Bob Blaylock, courtesy Wikimedia CommonsRotifer. Each numbered tick is 122 µM. Credit: Bob Blaylock, courtesy Wikimedia Common

  • The bauxite residue infamously known as red sludge that escaped a containment pond in Hungary last week to kill all life in an entire river could be made less toxic with the help of carbon sequestration. That according to a geologist from Indiana University. Here's how. Bauxite residue has a pH of between 11 and 13 (water: 7). To reduce the sludge pH, the geologist suggests mixing it with another kind of industrial wasteoil-field brine, a by-product of oil and gas productionand then carbon dioxide. The brine provides the medium for CO2 to dissolve and then, with the help of water, form carbonic acid, lowering the pH. Heavy metals in the sludge then spontaneously precipitate out of solution. So, two toxins make a right. The geologist has a patent pending on the technique.

 

The bauxite residue holding pond, near Kolontar, Hungary, burst on Oct. 4, 2010, leading to human casualties and intense environmental damage. Image courtesy Google EarthThe bauxite residue holding pond, near Kolontar, Hungary, burst on Oct. 4, 2010, leading to human casualties and intense environmental damage. Image courtesy Google Earth

  • Plants lie to animals. We know this. Now a new deceipt has come to light. German researchers have discovered that the orchid Epipactis veratrifolia produces chemical substances emitted by aphids as alarm pheromones. Females hoverflies smell the alarm and lay their eggs close by, thinking the "aphid colony" will be food for their hatching larvae. It's not altogether an act of orchid piracy though. The hoverfly gets a tiny dose of nectar in return for her unwitting pollination services. The paper: Smells like aphids: orchid flowers mimic aphid alarm pheromones to attract hoverflies for pollination, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

 

Eastern marsh helleborine (Epipactis veratrifolia), an orchid species, has successfully lured a hoverfly of the genus Ischiodon by mimicking alarm pheromones usually emitted by aphids. Credit: MPI Chemical Ecology, Johannes StöklEastern marsh helleborine (Epipactis veratrifolia), an orchid species, has successfully lured a hoverfly of the genus Ischiodon by mimicking alarm pheromones usually emitted by aphids. Credit: MPI Chemical Ecology, Johannes Stökl

  • The evolution of dog scientists continues. We've heard about the whale-poop-finding dogs. Now a group of researchers reports using scat-detection dogs to gauge the presence and abundance of five large mammals threatened with extinction by habitat loss: maned wolves, pumas, jaguars, giant anteaters, and giant armadillos. The idea was to see if any of these animals were living in agricultural areas near protected lands in the dry tropical savannas of Brazil. The dogs were trained to find the scat of various species, and were awarded PhDs in noseology. Not really. The paper: Effectiveness of scat-detection dogs in determining species presence in a tropical savanna landscape, in Conservation Biology. From the abstract:

We were able to detect the presence for each of five wide-ranging species inside and outside the park and to assign occurrence probabilities to specific survey sites. Thus, scat dogs provide an effective survey tool for rare species even when accurate detection likelihoods are required. We believe the way we used scat-detection dogs to determine the presence of species can be applied to the detection of other mammalian species in other ecosystems.

 

Photo credit Piotr Grzywocz, courtesy Wikimedia CommonsPhoto credit Piotr Grzywocz, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Real Cost of Energy

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 1:50 PM PDT

The national security implications of climate change has, in recent years, become a common theme in Washington policy debates, with politicians and military officials increasingly highlighting the potential threats posed by resource constraints and inhospitable climates. The Pentagon's  Quadrennial Defense Review was, in fact, the first to point to climate change as an "accelerant of instability and conflict." This week, the Pentagon is highlighting a separate but related concern: American's unhealthy reliance on fossil fuels.

In recognition of Energy Awareness Month, the Department of Defense convened a series of panels on Wednesday examining the costs of this reliance and how national security could be strengthened by changing America's energy portfolio. After all, the Department of Defense consumes about 2 percent of all fossil fuels used in the United States, as several speakers repeated at the event.

What was most telling, however, was the human cost of reliance. Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy, noted that Tuesday was 10th anniversary of bombing of the USS Cole. The attack killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others, and happened when the ship was docked in Yemen for refueling. Warships are in constant need of refueling—it has to happen every few days—so more efficient vessels are also safer, he said. "If we do that, we will improve both the security and the combat capability of that ship."

Transporting oil in conflict zones is also a dangerous mission. In the past three months, Mabus said, six Marines have been injured while guarding fuel convoys. According to an Army report from 2009 Mabus cited, one American soldier is killed or wounded for every 24 convoys.

"That is too high a price to pay for energy," he said. "We have to change the way we operate. We have to change the way we produce and use energy, not only to save lives and injuries in Afghanistan, but also free up those soldiers and airman to do what they were sent to do, which is to fight, to build capacity in the national security forces, and to engage with the local population."

He also noted that the danger of relying on other countries for our energy. "Denial of energy can be used as a weapon, a weapon perhaps as effective as planes and tanks," said Mabus.

Mabus recently witnessed the environmental costs of oil reliance first hand, after President Obama tapped him to develop the Gulf Coast Restoration Plan. (A former governor of Mississippi, he also served as an ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Clinton administration.)

His remarks—and the wider show of concern about fossil fuels on display at the Pentagon today—should be a rallying call on energy. Even for those who still think climate change is a giant conspiracy theory, it's hard to deny the real problems that reliance on fossil fuels creates for the US.

Live Chat: Ryan Lizza Talks Climate

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 1:34 PM PDT

New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, who took a hard look at Senate's failure to pass a climate bill in a mammoth recent piece, is swinging by Grist at 11 a.m. PST/2 p.m. EST on Thursday to answer readers' questions in a live chat with Grist's David Roberts. We are streaming the chat here at Mother Jones, too. Here's the scoop from Roberts:

This month, The New Yorker ran an extraordinary 10,000-word piece by reporter Ryan Lizza detailing the climate bill's slow and inglorious failure in the U.S. Senate. It was a feat of inside reporting, meaty enough to support dozens of follow-on posts dissecting and illuminating it. I myself wrote no less than five posts spinning off Lizza's story:

I could have kept going, too, if my colleagues hadn't started to mock me.

I'm very pleased to report that Lizza will be stopping by for a chat with Grist readers and me on Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern, 11 a.m. Pacific. I'll be moderating and selecting questions.

Questions for Lizza? Leave 'em in the comments section on Roberts' post here. You can watch the chat here:

 

Want Cane Sugar? Drink Mexican Coke

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 11:53 AM PDT

If you haven't heard, there's a craze for Mexican Coke that's only getting stronger. The drink has more than 30,000 fans on Facebook, and demand is such that there's even a web site to help those looking for the sweet drink, WhereToFindMexicanCoke.com. Part of the appeal may be the drink's retro-style glass bottle, but many claim it just tastes better because it's sweetened with cane sugar: Coke in the US uses high-fructose corn syrup. So why must we import this delicious treat from south of the border, instead of getting it from our own American factories? This week, Consumerist tried to answer this question, but all Coca-Cola would tell them is that they don't plan on introducing a non-HFCS version of Coke in the US anytime soon because we already have a sugar-based version: Mexican Coke. Also, the rep claimed that in taste tests, Coca-Cola found that consumers detected "no perceptible taste difference" between HCFS Coke and cane Coke.

There are a few key reasons Coke should consider introducing a sugar cane-based US version, and not just because 89% of Consumerist readers said they'd buy it. Firstly, it would reduce the carbon emissions from shipping those heavy glass bottles all the way from Mexico. Glass is much heavier than aluminum (though readily recyclable) so trucking it any distance is a considerable hit to the environment. Secondly, Coca-Cola reps have repeatedly said that Mexican Coke is a taste of home for Mexican and Latino immigrants. If it's such a homestyle taste, why not capture that fast-growing market by making the same product in the US?

The growing taste of Americans for Mexican Coke did get me thinking about the environmental costs of HCFS vs. sugar cane. Sugar cane is no balm to the environment, but neither is corn. Sugar cane requires a lot of water, but corn needs more fertilizer. Corn has more sugar per ounce, but sugar cane can be planted more densely. Regarding land use, an Australian study found that, as mentioned in Slate, "a single acre can produce about 5.4 tons of sugar from sugar cane versus 3.4 tons from sugar beets and only 2.5 tons from corn." An added plus for sugar cane: its waste can be used as fuel, meaning production machinery can be run on it, reducing outside power and fuel requirements. Do people know (or care) about all this as they sip their sugary Mexican Cokes? Probably not. But it's too bad because it might make that sip all the sweeter.

Why Aren't BLM Honcho's Ethics Violations Being Investigated?

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 11:16 AM PDT

In August, we brought you the story of Steven Henke, a former Bureau of Land Management field manager and ethics probe target who recently landed a new job as head of an oil and gas industry advocacy group. Henke took gifts like golf tickets, lodging, and meals from an oil company, and also took money from the same company for his kid's baseball team.

The Department of Interior's inspector general found these to be clear ethics violations after a General Accounting Office report that found he was "too close to unnamed oil and gas industry officials and made decisions to benefit companies based on personal relationships, rather than the good of BLM." But the district attorney general declined to prosecute the case. Now, the Project on Government Oversight wants to know why.

The watchdogs sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey asking why these violations were not investigated. The group argues that "ethics officials failed to exercise due diligence" in approving Henke's move to his new job as president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, a classic example of the much-criticized revolving door between regulatory agencies and the industry.

While the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service (now known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) has been subject to an ethics overhaul since the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, the department's other offices need similar scrutiny, POGO argues.

"It's shocking that BLM wasn't concerned with the misconduct of one of its managers, nor his turn through the revolving door to represent the companies he was supposed to have been overseeing," said POGO executive director Danielle Brian. "Henke's new position could present a significant conflict of interest. This should be a no-brainer."

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Obama Admin. Drops Drilling Moratorium

| Tue Oct. 12, 2010 1:26 PM PDT

The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it is ending the temporary, six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling operations. The announcement means that new drilling could take place in the Gulf "very soon," said Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, though rigs will need to undergo new inspection and permitting procedures before companies can start drilling.

The moratorium was supposed to remain in place until Nov. 30, but as of today it is off. "The policy position we are articulating today is that we are open for business," said Salazar in a call with reporters. The agency will be taking applications for new permits and processing them according to new regulations and guidance issued in the six months since the Deepwater Horizon spill. Salazar said he expects to see deepwater drilling resume "very soon—I can't tell you how soon, but soon."

Both Salazar and Michael Bromwich, the director of the Bureau Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Service), said that they believed enough work had been done in the months since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon to prevent another disaster. "The risks of deepwater drilling have been reduced sufficiently to allow deepwater drilling to resume," said Bromwich in a call with reporters.

The two pointed to reforms at the agency that they believe have improved oversight and to new requirements that have been put in place for companies that want to drill. But as many are pointing out, it seems a bit premature given the fact that the agency still lacks adequate resources for inspections—Bromwich said they are hiring and relocating inspectors and "will do the best we can with the resources at our disposal"—and that the exact cause of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig has yet to be determined.

Environmental groups were, as you might expect, nonplussed.

"To ensure a disaster like this never happens again, we must know what caused it in the first place," said Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We're still waiting for that answer and until we get it, the moratorium should remain in place."

Greenpeace USA executive director Phil Radford accused the administration of timing the announcement to the November election. "This is pure politics of the most cynical kind. It is all about the election season, not safety and environmental concerns," said Radford. "The White House wants us to believe that they have solved all the dangers of offshore drilling and we can return to business as usual. It is a false promise, if not a big lie."

But drilling fans were also not satisfied. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) issued a statement arguing that a "de facto moratorium" is still in place because of "regulatory uncertainty and a slow-down of the issuance of required drilling permits" (since Salazar has said other new rules are on the way).  And Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) indicated that she will continue to block the nomination of Jack Lew to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget because of her concerns about the future of offshore drilling. Landrieu said she would have to "look closely" at how the new drilling permits are issued before she would release the hold, and noted that she wants the administration to "accelerate the granting of permits in shallow and deep water."

California, Dreamin'

| Tue Oct. 12, 2010 10:18 AM PDT

I have a piece over on the homepage today looking at the fight over California's landmark climate law, which could be delayed if an insidious ballot measure passes next month. With climate legislation delayed indefinitely in Washington, California has become the battleground between environmental groups and fossil fuel interests.

California's climate law is the most comprehensive piece of legislation to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in the US. It's also the most important, as the state is often the leader on environmental initiatives. This is, of course, why Proposition 23, which would stop implementation of the law next year, has become a hot spot of action this November. As Wade Crowfoot, the West Coast political director of the Environmental Defense Fund, told me, "If you can drive a stake in the heart of climate policy making in California, it will have a massive political chilling effect elsewhere in the country."

With that in mind, the folks over at Dirty Energy Money this week launched a site to track the money oil and gas interests are spending to kill the law. At the new site you can see exactly where the $8.3 million from oil and gas interests is coming from.

McCain Now Says Climate Science Might be "Flawed"

| Tue Oct. 12, 2010 9:48 AM PDT

Brad Johnson at Wonk Room recently flagged a video of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), once the Republican party's champion of action on climate change, sliding farther into denial. In an event promoting New Hampshire Republican Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte, McCain went so far as question whether the climate is changing and indicate that the science might be "flawed":

I think it's an inexact science, and there has been more and more questioning about some of the conclusions that were reached concerning climate change. And I believe that everybody in the world deserves correct answers whether the scientific conclusions were flawed by outside influences. There's great questions about it that need to be resolved.

Now, this is the same guy who said in 2007: "[U]nequivocally I believe that it's real. I believe there's enough evidence out there to convince us at least to try to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." He also pledged, as a candidate for president in 2008, "I will clean up the planet... I will make global warming a priority."

McCain has been backing off the climate issue ever since Obama won the election. First he attacked Obama's approach to dealing with the issue, and then he disavowed ever having endorsed legislative efforts to address it. But this latest is a new low. Not only does he no longer care about passing legislation to address the issue, he's using the ginned-up controversy over leaked emails to attack the underlying science.

Todd Purdham's lengthy Vanity Fair essay exploring "What happened?" to McCain may help explain McCain's latest comments. Purdham argues that the person and the senator many thought McCain to be may never have existed at all. Instead, McCain's "beliefs" were guided by self-preservation or the desire for political advancement rather than any kind of principle. While this theory makes it less surprising that McCain would do a 180 on climate, it doesn't make it any less disappointing.

Here's the video of McCain's New Hampshire appearance:

 

Eco-News Roundup: Friday October 8

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 10:42 AM PDT

News on environment, climate, health, and other Blue Marble-ish topics from our other blogs.

Cherry Picked: "Health reform law did not deliver the uninsured in the way that insurers wanted"

McFail: McDonald's says ACA is forcing it to cancel its employees' healthcare. Why they're wrong.

Elementary: Virus (and fungus) behind colony collapse disorder identified.

No Thanks: Fla. Dem. Meek rejects Sierra Club's co-endorsement of himself and his opponent.

Unfit for Duty: S.C. senator says gays and unmarried women shouldn't teach children.

28 Days Later: Pro-life billboard thinks your fetus has a face at 28 days.

Post-Mortem: An investigation into why climate legislation failed, and how.