Blue Marble - November 2010

Whatever Happened to That Scientific Integrity Plan?

| Thu Nov. 11, 2010 12:05 PM PST

The White House has responded to the Department of Interior's Inspector General's charge that the administration's report on offshore drilling was edited in a way that mischaracterized its conclusions. According to the IG, several of the independent experts who evaluated the offshore drilling report's conclusions said they had not actually weighed in on a six-month moratorium on offshore drilling, yet the report's summary made it appear that they had. In a statement issued Wednesday night responding to the allegations, White House spokesman Bill Burton emphasized that the IG's review "found no intentional misrepresentation of [scientists'] views" and that the "Interior acted quickly to correct" the misrepresentation.

The White House also stood behind the moratorium, which was lifted last month. "The decision to implement a 6-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was correctly based on the need for adequate spill response, well containment and safety measures, and we stand behind that decision," Burton said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff, also issued a statement:

There was no intent to mislead the public. The decision to impose a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling was made by the Secretary, following consultation with colleagues including the White House. As the report makes clear, the misunderstanding with the reviewers was resolved with the June 3rd letter and a subsequent conference call with those experts.

Even if one accepts that this was a mistake (and the IG's report notes that the engineers who complained about the issue said they agreed it was unintentional), it's not really an excuse for sloppy editing. If this were the Bush administration, we'd all be falling over ourselves complaining about the lack of scientific integrity here—especially considering this isn't the first time White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner or her office have misrepresented "peer review." Browner made similar claims about the report on where all the oil in the Gulf had gone. But that had not actually been reviewed, either, and Browner and others in the administration have been criticized for this and other issues surrounding their handling of information related to the oil spill.

It's worth mentioning that the scientific integrity plan that President Obama called for in one of his first executive orders—an effort to distance the new administration from the last—is now 16 months over due. It strikes me as something that would be useful right about now.

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Two Whales, 400 Years Apart

| Wed Nov. 10, 2010 2:34 PM PST
"Beached wale near Beverwijk, 1601." Jan Saenredam. 1602. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons."Beached wale near Beverwijk, 1601." Jan Saenredam. 1602. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
This 1602 engraving by Dutch artist Jan Saenredam records the actual beaching of a sperm whale at Beverwijk on 19 December 1601. Crowds of curious onlookers are gathering—some arriving by foot, some by horse and carriage, some splashing through the shallows offshore. 
 
 
 

Podcast: Congressional Climate Change?

| Wed Nov. 10, 2010 1:50 PM PST

The shifting political winds in Washington may have a far-reaching impact on a wide range of issues: health care, tax cuts, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But what about climate change?

Very little was said about global warming during the campaign season, other than the barrage of negative ads by Republicans accusing their Democratic opponents of supporting "cap and tax" legislation. Kentucky Senator-elect Rand Paul even went so far as to criticize President Obama for giving "credibility and credence" to dictators like Hugo Chavez and Robert Mugabe by supporting global action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

And then there is this statistic: Of all the Republicans newly elected to the U.S. Senate last week, only one has openly accepted the science behind anthropogenic climate change (Senator-elect Mark Kirk, of Illinois). As much as half of the new Republican majority in the House has either outright denied the existence of climate change or questioned whether the warming of the planet is caused by humans.

To say the least, congressional action on comprehensive climate change legislation in the next two years seems unlikely. But the results of the midterm elections could have much more damaging consequences for environmental legislation, including efforts by Democrats to increase oversight and regulation of the off-shore drilling industry after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf.

To sort through all of this, Need to Know’s Alison Stewart spoke with Mother JonesKate Sheppard. Sheppard covered the elections on Tuesday from Colorado, where she followed the closely watched battle between Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and his Republican challenger, Ken Buck.

San Francisco Bans Happy Meal Toys

| Wed Nov. 10, 2010 12:44 PM PST

It's a battle straight out of the latest DreamWorks movie: The "bad, blue, and brilliant" Megaminds of San Francisco's ultra-liberal Board of Supervisors have finally conquered their slick, good-looking, Metro Man nemesis, Mayor Gavin Newsom. Yesterday the board overrode a mayoral veto to ban McDonald's from offering free toys inside its high-fat, vegetable-scarce Happy Meals. Any local kid who wants to reenact the drama better hurry, because San Francisco McDonald's restaurants won't be offering their plastic Megamind and Metro Man figures much longer.

Notwithstanding a recent Onion headline, the law doesn't totally ban Happy Meals and the toys that they contain. Instead, it limits Happy Meal toys to McDonald's meals that meet certain health and nutritional benchmarks, such as maximum sodium levels and minimum fruit and vegetable content. Newsom opposed the law because "Parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat," he explained in a statement. The sponsor of the law, Supervisor Eric Mar, countered that "this is a simple and modest law that holds fast food accountable."

According to Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the fast food industry spent $4.2 billion on advertising in 2009; some 40 percent of preschool-aged children ask to go to McDonald's on a weekly basis and 84 percent of parents have taken their children to eat fast food at least once in the past week. Only 12 out of 3,000 kids meals at 12 popular restaurant chains meet basic childhood nutritional guidelines.

The law gives McDonald's and other restaurants until December, 2011 to bring their Happy Meals up to standard. "We are extremely disappointed with the decision," a McDonald's spokeswoman told CNN. But instead of moping, maybe McDonald's should just adopt some of the can-do spirit of its Happy Meals' superheroes. Next up on its plastic toy rotation: The Transformers.

Fracking Halliburton

| Wed Nov. 10, 2010 10:46 AM PST

In September, the Environmental Protection Agency requested that natural gas drillers hand over information about the substances they are using in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method that uses a high-pressure blast of chemical compounds, sand, and water to fracture rock and access natural gas reserves. The EPA asked nicely in its letter to nine companies, but said they were prepared to be less polite: "EPA expects the companies to cooperate," the letter said. If they don't, "EPA is prepared to use its authorities to require the information needed to carry out its study."

Well, eight of the companies have complied, leaving just one—Halliburton, the oil field services giant that everyone loves to hate—that has not turned over its fracking data. Yesterday, the EPA followed through on its threat to subpoena the companies data. Halliburton, the EPA said Tuesday, "has failed to provide EPA the information necessary to move forward with this important study." 

Halliburton said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that they are "disappointed" by the EPA's decision:

Halliburton has been working in good faith in an effort to respond to EPA's September 2010 request for information on our hydraulic fracturing operations over a five-year period. Because the agency's request was so broad, potentially requiring the company to prepare approximately 50,000 spreadsheets, we have met with the agency and had several additional discussions with EPA personnel in order to help narrow the focus of their unreasonable demands so that we could provide the agency what it needs to complete its study of hydraulic fracturing. We have turned over nearly 5,000 pages of documents as recently as last Friday, Nov. 5, 2010. We are disappointed by the EPA’s decision today. Halliburton welcomes any federal court’s examination of our good faith efforts with the EPA to date.

Halliburton's reticence is perhaps related to the fact that, according to data released earlier this year, the company admitted to using 807,000 gallons of diesel-based chemicals in its fracking fluids, in violation of an agreement drillers had with the EPA.

The industry successfully lobbied to have fracking fluids exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005, meaning they aren't required to disclose the chemicals they use. But Congress asked the EPA to conduct a through review of the potential impacts of the fluids on drinking water, which the EPA is supposed to complete by the end of 2012.

White House Edits Mischaracterized Moratorium Report

| Wed Nov. 10, 2010 10:13 AM PST

The White House misrepresented conclusions included in an Interior Department report to suggest that independent experts supported a six-month moratorium on offshore drilling the administration enacted following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a report from Interior's Inspector General finds. The IG report points to the office of White House Energy and Climate adviser Carol Browner as the source of the mistaken information.

On May 27, 2010, an email sent at 2:13 a.m. from one of Browner's included two edited versions of the executive summary of a report President Obama had requested about deepwater drilling safety. The draft versions were very similar, and both made it appear that seven outside experts had peer-reviewed and endorsed the six-month moratorium Secretary Ken Salazar issued later that day. The version of the report made public with Salazar's annoucement of the moratorium included the line, "The recommendations contained in this report have been peer-reviewed by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering."

But while the reviewers had looked at the conclusions of other experts and exmaned the Interior's recommendations on how to proceed with offshore drilling, they had not in fact been asked to weigh in on the whether to establish the 6 month moratorium, contrary to what the report edited by Browner's office implied. The IG report (first obtained by Politico) concludes:

Both versions, however, revised and re-ordered the Executive Summary, placing the peer review language immediately following the moratorium recommendation causing the distinction between the Secretary's moratorium recommendation—which had not been peer-reviewed—and the recommendations contained in the 30-Day Report—which had been peer-reviewed—to become effectively lost.

After the report's release, one of the reviewers, an engineer from the National Academy of Engineering, raised concerns about the misrepresentation in a letter to Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R), and Gov. Bobby Jindal. The letter was co-signed by several other members of the panel.

Salazar later held teleconference with the concerned reviewers to apologize for the mischaracterization, indicating it been a simple error rather than a proactive attempt to mislead. The engineer who initially raised concerns said he accepted the explanation that it "was a mistake rather than an intentional attempt to use the peer-reviewers' names to justify a political decision."

But this isn't the first time that Browner's office has been fingered for misrepresenting a conclusion related to the oil spill as "peer-reviewed." Browner also mischaracterized a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the location of the oil from the spill, saying it had been peer-reviewed when in fact the individuals listed as reviewers said they never saw the final product.

While Browner's role is indeed interesting, perhaps most telling in the IG report is what it says about who wasn't in the loop about the decision to extend the moratorium—specifically, Elizabeth Birnbaum, who was at the time head of the Minerals Managment Service, which oversees offshore drilling. The report states that Birnbaum "had no knowledge that Secretary Salazar planned on recommending the moratorium in the Executive Summary of the 30-Day Report to the President." Birnbaum was dismissed from that post on May 27, the same day that report was released. But even if she was on her way out the door, you'd think she would have at least been brought into the discussions seeing as she was the head of the division overseeing offshore drilling.

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Spill Fund Czar's Big Paycheck

| Tue Nov. 9, 2010 1:34 PM PST

Kenneth Feinberg, the mediator tapped to head the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, has brought in $3.3 million for his work since taking over leadership of the $20 billion fund BP has set aside to compensate victims of the spill. The figure was reported in BusinessWeek this week. It was released after months of inquiries from the press about how much his firm would be compensated for their work.

I profiled Feinberg in September. At the time, people were raising questions about whether it was a good idea for the fund administrator to be paid by BP. But as Feinberg pointed out, BP was the party at fault and should be obligated to pay for his services. Unlike the previous funds he's administered pro bono, there was an actual liable party here, he said.

A spokesperson for the Gulf Coast Claims Facility confirmed that the $3.3 million figure, providing a document dated Oct. 8, 2010 stating that BP had agreed to pay $850,000 per month to Feinberg's law firm, Feinberg Rozen LLP, starting in mid-June 2010. The current contract continues through the end of the year, at which point it will be up for review.

USDA Gave Dough to Domino's, Too

| Tue Nov. 9, 2010 12:16 PM PST

Yesterday I blogged about a USDA-funded Big Ag lobby group's efforts to discredit the EWG's list of most-pesticide-laden produce. Turns out the Ag lobbyists aren't the only industry group getting some love from the USDA: Via Civil Eats, I learned that Domino's new cheese-a-rific pizza (40 percent more artery-clogging goodness!) and attendant marketing blitz is the result of a $12 million campaign by a USDA-backed group called Dairy Management Inc.

Really, I must say, the Dairy Management Inc. site is worth a visit—it's a real window into the mammoth PR arm of the US dairy industry. Across the bottom of the homepage is a row of 14 buttons, which take you to dairy-cheerleading sites such as Fuel Up to Play 60 (about how you should eat more dairy so that you have the energy to exercise for an hour), ilovecheese.com ("the ultimate site for cheese lovers everywhere!"), and Innovate With Dairy (where the food and beverage producers can learn "new ways to use dairy ingredients in a wide range of on-trend product applications," from a scientists in lab coats, no less!).

But my very favorite little nugget of all is a site called Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk!, which tells parents about the nefarious nutritionists who are trying to take away children's chocolate milk:

Concerned about the added sugars in flavored milk, some schools and activists are working to ban it from school menus, despite scientific evidence supporting its nutrient contributions to children's diets and recommendations from leading health professional organizations.

A cup of chocolate 1 percent milk has about 170 calories, compared to 120 in the unflavored version. Just saying. As Civil Eats points, out, the USDA is supposed to be curbing childhood obesity. And yet it's also funding a group that wants to cram more calories into milk, in order to make it more appetizing to kids. Hmm.

Read nutrition journalist Marion Nestle's take on the Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk campaign here.

 

The Post-Election Outlook for Regional Cap and Trade

| Tue Nov. 9, 2010 12:04 PM PST

When the national climate bill crashed this summer in a flaming streak of senatorial ineptitude, climate hawks could take a little comfort in the progress that continued on the state level.

Ten northeastern states have been running an active cap-and-trade program for power plants that has produced modest greenhouse-gas cuts and raised $729 million for clean-energy programs. Two clusters of states in the West and Midwest have been inching toward their own regional cap-and-trade plans.

But then the election happened, bringing in a host of new governors and switching control of state legislatures, mostly from Democratic to Republican. What does it mean for regional cap-and-trade?

It means most of the action will happen on the coasts. Democratic victories in Northeastern states will probably keep that region's program stable for the next few years. And California's overwhelming ballot victory for its climate law provides a backbone for the Western program, which is scheduled to go online in 2012 even if only a few states follow through. In the Midwest, however, regional cap-and-trade is probably stalled out for the next few years, with the program's original architects out of office and clean-energy-hostile Republicans taking charge in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Ohio.

The Twinkie Diet

| Tue Nov. 9, 2010 12:03 PM PST

Can you eat lots of Twinkies and still lose weight? For one Kansas State University researcher, the answer is yes. He lost 30 lbs in 10 weeks while  eating very little besides Twinkies, Little Debbie snack cakes, powdered donuts, and Oreos for two months. Although the researcher, professor of human nutrition Mark Haub, cautions that he is NOT, repeat NOT, endorsing this diet for anyone, he said his experiment in junk food showed that the quantity of calories mattered most in weight loss, not necessarily the quality of those calories.

But Haub didn't just lose weight: he got healthier. During the two-month junk food feast, his bad cholesterol fell by 20% while his good cholesterol increased by the same amount. His triclycerides fell by 39%. Some of this could have been due to the amount of food he was eating: just 1,800 calories a day, as opposed to the 2,600 a man his size would usually consume. All this led me to wonder, if he could actually get healthier in two months simply by eating less, would that be possible for people who have to shop at conveience stores? Is portion size to blame for obesity in low-income urban neighborhoods, rather than the quality of food available?