Blue Marble - October 2010

Big Oil's 2010 Gusher

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 2:51 PM EDT

Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil and gas interests have flooded campaign contributions to congressional candidates. It's not surprising, as the spill invigorated new debate about the safety of offshore drilling, the cost of reliance on fossil fuels, and the future of the oil and gas industry. The next Congress will likely have a lot to say about energy policy, and oil and gas interests are making sure they play a role in determining the make-up of the 112th Congress.

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the oil and gas industry has given more than $17 million to congressional candidates and federal political committees so far this year. The spending outpaces previous mid-term election cycles, CRP reports. Most of the money is going to Republicans, but there are a few Democrats who have brought in pretty hefty sums from oil and gas interests as well.

In just this election cycle, ten House candidates have hauled in north of six figures from the industry. In the lead is Oklahoma Democrat Dan Boren at $183,850, but 16 of the top 20 recipients are Republicans. Rounding out the top ten:

  • Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), $166,232
  • Chet Edwards (D-Texas), $158,830
  • Joe Barton (R-Texas), $145,620
  • Mike Conaway (R-Texas), $129,450
  • Eric Cantor (R-Va.), $125,550
  • William Flores (R-Texas), $117,302
  • John Fleming (R-La.), $108,250
  • Mike Ross (D-Ark.), $106,350
  • John Boehner (R-Ohio), $104,300

Fifteen of the top 20 recipients in the Senate are Republicans. David Vitter (R-La.) tops the list of at $512,284, for this campaign cycle (which goes back to January 2005). But Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) isn't far behind, at $464,500. The other top recipients in the Senate are all GOPers:

  • Richard Burr (R-N.C.), $221,250
  • Rob Portman (R-Ohio), $213,258
  • Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), $208,750
  • Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), $196,550
  • James DeMint (R-S.C.), $182,323
  • John Hoeven (R-N.D.), $172,650
  • John Thune (R-S.D.), $171,885
  • Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), $137,450

Find out more about who owns Congress in this piece from the September/October issue of Mother Jones.

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Is Your Favorite Organic Egg Brand a Factory Farm in Disguise?

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

The chickens pictured on the egg producer Chino Valley Ranchers' Simply Organic site look pretty happy. And from the description of their digs, it sounds like they'd have good reason to be: "When you walk into the chicken houses and you see all the birds scratching around in the dirt, running around, flapping their wings and hear the soft clucking from each of them, you can feel their contentment," the copy below the little fuzzballs reads. "It is the way nature intended."

An industrial henhouse jam-packed with 36,000 birds, on the other hand, is probably not "the way nature intended." But that is exactly what investigators from the organic food advocacy group Cornucopia Institute found when they visited a Wisconsin henhouse that supplies Chino Valley Ranchers with organic eggs.

And Chino Valley isn't alone. A recent Cornucopia investigation revealed that conditions at many facilities that produce organic eggs are often just as crowded and industrial as those at conventional egg farms. And although US organic standards require outdoor access for laying hens, Cornucopia found that at many organic farms, "outdoors" often consists of nothing more than a tiny concrete screen porch adjoining the tenement-like henhouse.

Last year, a group of organic egg producers (listed below) signed a letter to the National Organic Standards Board opposing the rule that mandates organic operations to grant their chickens outdoor access. They argued that the rule put too much of a financial burden on producers; the Cornucopia report excerpts a comment that Bart Slaugh, Eggland's Best's director of quality assurance, posted to the NASD: "The push for continually expanding outdoor access and decreasing protection needs to stop," writes Slaugh.

Cornucopia plans to file an official complaint to the USDA about the conditions at four farms (listed below), including Hillandale Farms, one of the culprits in the recent salmonella outbreak. While it hasn't been proven that organic eggs are less likely to be contaminated with salmonella than conventional eggs, Cornucopia cofounder Mark Kastel believes that crowded factory-farm conditions can breed disease. "If you are living in these filthy conditions it takes a tremendous toll on your immune system," he says. "And when you are dealing with those incredibly huge industrial scales, you can't pay attention to the health of individual birds."

Cornucopia rates major organic egg producers it investigated on this scorecard. (The setup is a little confusing, since the lowest scorers were those that refused to participate in Cornucopia's survey, not the farms where the most egregious violations were found. That's because Cornucopia rightly believes that producers of organic food should be transparent about their operations.) Here's a list of the organic egg producers that Cornucopia is filing a complaint against, plus the companies that signed the letter opposing outdoor access for chickens:

Rockefeller Means Business With EPA Block

| Fri Oct. 1, 2010 2:22 PM EDT

Earlier this week, Politico's Darren Samuelsohn reported on Sen. Jay Rockefeller's admission that his effort to delay carbon dioxide regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency is really just a message vote. Even if it passes in the Senate, President Obama will veto it.

But now Rockefeller is clarifying that he really does mean it—he wants to block EPA action on climate change, and he wants do it this year. The bill, he said, is one of his "top priorities." Here's the statement he put out last night:

With the Senate heading into recess and a lame duck session on the horizon, one of the remaining items that this Congress must consider is my bill to suspend EPA regulation of greenhouse gases for two years. As I have said repeatedly, the Majority Leader has committed to allowing a vote on my bill this year and I believe we have more and more momentum to get it passed in the Senate.
Even in the face of the President’s veto threat, we must send a clear message that Congress–not an unelected regulatory agency–must set our national energy policy. Together we must make sure that in this very fragile economic recovery, our manufacturing and energy sectors are able to grow and generate jobs. We can address emissions and secure a future for the U.S. coal industry, but we need the time to get it right and to move clean coal technology forward.
This bill is one of my top priorities and it is needed as soon as possible to reduce the uncertainty facing so many American industries at a time when we need them to invest in our economy and create jobs. EPA is set to begin regulating on January 2, so we cannot let up on our fight to move this issue forward.

Scientist Finds High Levels of Carcinogens in Gulf

| Fri Oct. 1, 2010 1:23 PM EDT

Researchers at Oregon State University are finding elevated concentrations of carcinogenic chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico as they investigate the lasting impacts of the BP oil spill. Specifically, researchers are finding high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are found in crude oil, in some areas of the Gulf.

Via OSU's release:

Oregon State University researchers began testing for the contaminant May 9, and preliminary results, which have not yet been fully analyzed, suggest that the level of PAHs in the water off the coast of Louisiana experienced a 40-fold increase from May to June. The July data was lost when the device the OSU team uses for water sampling disappeared.
However, an initial analysis of the August data continues to show abnormally high levels of PAHs, similar to the 40-fold increase discovered earlier in the summer, said Kim Anderson, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences.

This is a concern not only for those who are living or working in the region, but for anyone who eats Gulf seafood as well. As a recent piece published in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted, "Although vertebrate marine life can clear PAHs from their system, these chemicals accumulate for years in invertebrates." This of course raises concerns about the long-term safety of seafood—specifically, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and other invertebrates.

The researcher outlined the potential problems with high PAH levels:

In some cases, they are a significant toxicological health concern. Of the more than 100 chemicals that make up the class, a fraction of them can result in harmful health effects after exposure.
"There are a range of health effects associated with PAHs," said Anderson. "They are toxic by several different modes of action. We're now using a technique that looks at the fraction of PAHs that are bioavailable – that have the potential to move into the food chain."

There are also concerns about a specific type of PAH that contains oxygen, or OPAHs—the production of which the researchers say may have been increased by the use of chemical dispersants to break down the oil. This type is more mobile and stays in the environment longer.

Still more evidence that, just because you can't see the oil in the Gulf, that doesn't mean it's not there.

Grijalva Demands Info on Disappearing Oil Reports

| Fri Oct. 1, 2010 11:50 AM EDT

About that disappearing oil: Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent scathing letters to the heads of three agencies closely involved in the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill this week. The congressman accuses the federal government's spill responders of using "questionable scientific data" and potentially misleading Americans about the amount of oil still in the gulf.

As we've reported here plenty of times now, there are many outstanding questions about the government's official estimates on the spill: Why were the initial estimates of the spill size so far off base? Why won't the feds release data to back-up their claims? Why wasn't the spill budget peer-reviewed, as officials indicated? Grijalva, chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, raises all these questions and more in letters sent this week to Coast Guard Rear Admiral James Watson, US Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator Jane Lubchenco.

The letters demand all staff emails from each agency about the release, analysis, preparation, and dissemination of the oil budget report and flow rate estimates; the supporting scientific documentation for the reports and any early drafts; records of any communication with outside experts, and records of communication with news outlets on the reports. Clearly, Grijalva wants to know where all those claims about disappearing oil actually came from.

In his letters, he raised questions about the release of a government report on August 4 that indicated that the vast majority of the oil in the Gulf was gone or otherwise non-consequential. He also questioned the assertion that the report had been reviewed by independent scientists, which it apparently was not:

This gave the clear impression that the data to support the findings, as well as the findings themselves, had been subjected to a scientifically rigorous peer review process. The initial public reaction was relief that such a thorough review had found reduced risks to the Gulf of Mexico and its ecosystems and economic resources.

His letter to McNutt states that USGS has "a troubling history of premature assurances that the Horizon disaster was small and easily containable." He also questions her bizarre reference to "unknown unknowns" in their analysis of the size of the spill.

The letters also highlight a television report from New Orleans about independent scientists claiming that government actors had tried to silence their findings. Here's an excerpt from the letter to Lubchenco:

Taken together, this attitude toward independent analysis and the widely varying spill estimates do not paint an acceptable picture. The Gulf economy was shattered by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the people of the Gulf states and the entire nation have rightly demanded an explanation not only of how the spill occurred, but of the extent of the damage and the prospects for recovery. I am concerned that NOAA and its partner agencies have fallen short in this regard.

I'll be interested to see what the agencies provide to Grijalva, considering the trouble outside groups have had prying information from their grasp.