Blue Marble - December 2010

The Missing Scientific Integrity Policy! At Last! Sort of!

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 6:01 PM EST

The Obama administration on Friday finally released that scientific integrity plan it was supposed to produce almost a year and a half ago.

President Obama called on John Holdren, his chief science adviser, to "develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making" and ensure that the new administration makes decisions based on "the soundest science" in one of his first executive orders. Holdren announced on the White House blog that he's issued a memorandum describing the "minimum standards" expected for departments and agencies as they write their own scientific integrity rules. So it's not exactly the plan—more of a framework. But I guess that's something.

Holdren wrote that the new standards call for a "clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency." Each department and agency is expected to report on its progress on that front in four months.

While watchdog groups are glad to finally see the directive, they're somewhat nervous that implementation appears to be left up to individual agencies. Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program, called it a "rough but promising blueprint for honesty and accountability in the use of science in government decisions." "If the details are fully articulated by federal agencies and departments, the directive will help keep politics in its place and allow government scientists to do their jobs, said Grifo in a statement. “At the same time, I'm worried that the directive leaves an enormous amount of discretion to the agencies."

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Beware the Treehuggers!

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 11:30 AM EST

Just in time for the holidays, a coalition of Christian conservative groups has issued an "explosive new 12-part DVD series" detailing the dangers of environmentalism. "Resisting the Green Dragon" explains how caring about future of the natural world is really an attempt to "push evangelicals to embrace anti-Christian environmental views."

There's a 12-minute preview here (password is "RESIST"), but Right Wing Watch helpfully made a condensed version for those who only want the greatest hits. Here's their clip:

And from the Christian groups' press release:

"One of the greatest threats to society and the church today is the multifaceted environmentalist movement," says Cornwall Alliance founder and national spokesman Dr. E. Calvin Beisner. "There isn't an aspect of life that it doesn't seek to force into its own mold."
"Today's environmentalism isn't a neutral set of ideas that can be tacked onto the Christian faith without theological compromise," Beisner said. "Instead, it promotes its own worldview and its own doctrines of God, creation, humanity, sin, and salvation. And those doctrines aren't Biblical."

Of course, if the environmental movement was actually as strong as the Christian right seems to think it is, we would have quite different politics on this issue.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday December 17

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 8:38 AM EST

News on health and the environment from our other blogs.

Common Cents: The economic impact of not requiring people to have health insurance.

Red Tape: Why bother with lower courts, if health care decision is going to Supreme anyway?

Mixed Bag: New bill is good on renewables, but subsidizes liquid coal too.

Counterintuitive: How a judge's ruling against mandatory coverage may help it.

In Brief: A brief analysis of judge's decision against requiring health insurance.

Cause of Death: There are more than 140 ways Mozart could have died.

Hidden Costs: A writer's bill for reporting on the BP oil spill.

 

Jindal's Berm Project "Underwhelmingly Effective, Overwhelmingly Expensive"

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 3:11 PM EST

Remember those sand berms Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was so insistent on getting to stave off oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill? Remember how he ignored science and law to put them up? Remember how they're the same berms that Jindal uses as part of his evidence to bash the Obama administration's spill response and conclude that, in Washington, "Political posturing becomes more important than reality"?

Well, as it turns out, the berms were an expensive, wasteful idea.

On Thursday, the National Oil Spill Commission released a draft working paper, "The Story of the Louisiana Berms Project," that concludes that building the berms were nearly useless for dealing with the spill. "From a long-term coastal restoration perspective," the commission concludes, "the berms may indeed be a 'significant step forward,' as Governor Jindal has claimed, but they were not successful for oil spill response." The report says that the commission would not recommend using berms for future spills, as "the length of time and cost to build only a fraction of the proposed project shows that, even with advance planning and preparation, and rapid review of proposed actions, it is unlikely that offshore barrier berms could ever be constructed to any effective scale during an emergency."

All-in-all, "The Commission staff can comfortably conclude that the decision to green-light the underwhelmingly effective, overwhelmingly expensive Louisiana berms project was flawed."

Sorry, Bobby Jindal.

Fox Climate Coverage Irony Alert!

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 2:34 PM EST

The Fox News memo on how to "report" on global warming (i.e., suggest the science behind it is fatally flawed) got a lot of attention on Wednesday. Not that anyone was particularly surprised—you can turn on Fox most days and see that policy in action.

But while management at Fox is still banking on sowing doubt about climate change, the big-wigs at parent company News Corp. aren't. Earlier this year I reported at length about News Corp.'s effort to go carbon neutral. Rupert Murdoch has argued that dealing with global warming is not only the right thing to do, it's good for the corporation's bottom line. Yeah, all that stuff about how global warming is just Al Gore's pipe dream? The boss man doesn't think that.

Here's a letter from Murdoch on the initiative (it apparently hasn't trickled down to Washington managing editor Bill Sammon quite yet):

News Corporation has always been about imagining the future and then making that vision a reality. We seek new ways to reach our global audiences and we address those issues that have the greatest impact on their lives. Global climate change is clearly one of those issues. So how do we, as a media company, do our part to confront this challenge?
It starts with us. We must first get our house in order. In May of 2007, we launched a global energy initiative across News Corporation to reduce our energy use and impact on the climate. Our goals are to fully understand our carbon and energy impact, to reduce that impact significantly and to inspire our employees to take action on this issue in their business and personal lives.

News Corp.'s initiative is paying off: Climate Counts, a nonprofit that scores companies' efforts to deal with climate change, gave the company a glowing review just last week. It's a sad irony that, while the parent corporation is doing the right thing, Fox executives are still selling the idea that climate change is giant hoax crafted by conniving scientists and liberals to force us all to live like cavemen again (or whatever it is they want the American public to believe).

Wood Turner, the executive director of Climate Counts, writes via email:

Apparently, Bill Sammon didn't get Mr. Murdoch's climate memo. Fox News has been ignoring its own parent company's strong climate stance for a long time now. If News Corp is as committed as Mr. Murdoch says to inspiring and educating its audiences and its employees about its vision, it could start by making sure Fox News stops misrepresenting the basic facts.

Good on Murdoch for making strides on the impacts of his empire. But it's more than a bit hypocritical that Fox News, likely his most influential product in the US, continues to warp the public's understanding of the issue.

Grizzly+Polar=Grolar? Or Is That Pizzly?

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 8:15 AM EST

For some time, it's been apparent that just as climate change is killing some species, it's making room for others to expand, or fostering creation of new species altogether via hybridization. In the Arctic, hybridization is a particular problem for conservationists trying to save unique species from extinction.

Take the magnificent polar bear: with thick white fur over black skin, and blubber up to 5" thick, the animal is well-adapted to a cold environment. But as temperatures climb and animals begin to roam, it's interacting (and breeding) with species it would have rarely encountered before. In 2006 a hunter killed an animal that was found to be half grizzly and half polar bear, the first known "grolar bear." Another grizzly-polar hybrid was killed in April: DNA tests showed that not only was it a hybrid, it was a second-generation mix. Its mother was a "grolar" that had mated with a male grizzly bear, scientists said. Some have called it a "pizzly" to denote both its hybrid status and to differentiate it from the half polar-half grizzly "grolar." Bears aren't the only Arctic mammals creating hybrid offspring: biologists have evidence of harp seals mating with hooded seals, and narwhals mating with belugas.

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How About Some Liquefied Coal in Your Stocking?

| Thu Dec. 16, 2010 7:00 AM EST

The Senate approved the controversial tax package on Wednesday, kicking the bill back to the House for a final vote. President Obama has asked the House to approve it without making any changes. The vote on the $860 billion tax package has proven controversial in green circles as well. The renewable-energy industry is cheering passage, while a coalition of the big environmental groups have united against it, arguing that the little good it does on energy is outweighed by major incentives for dirty power sources.

The green groups argue that the energy provisions of the bill "would, as a whole, take us backwards not forward on moving to a clean energy economy." In a letter to representatives, they point to two portions—an extension of the incentive for turning coal into liquid fuel and the credit for corn ethanol. The former would provide a $0.50 tax credit for every gallon of liquid coal sold or used in the US—and liquid coal creates almost twice as much greenhouse gas pollution as regular old gasoline.

And, though corn-based ethanol is of dubious environmental benefit, the credit would cost more than $31 billion over the next five years. "Not only is the corn ethanol tax credit wasteful, but continuing to use scarce taxpayer dollars to support a mature, mainstream and polluting technology like corn ethanol will impede our ability to transition to the new, better-performing advanced biofuels we need," wrote the groups, which included 1Sky, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club.

Meanwhile, the renewables lobby is cheering the inclusion of at least a few of the tax programs it was looking for to boost its industries. The package included a one-year extension of the Department of Treasury grant program for renewables, which gives businesses a cash grant for new projects, rather than making them wait for the 30 percent investment tax credit.

The Solar Energy Industries Association and the American Wind Energy Association both put out statements today praising the extension. SEIA noted that the program, which was originally created under the stimulus bill in 2009, has so far supported 1,100 solar projects in 42 states, leading to $18 billion in investment.

Does the grant program outweigh some of the not-so-great portions of the bill when it comes to renewable power? Not really. But at least there's something worthwhile on energy in the package.

Mother Sues McDonald's for 'Interfering' With Kids

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 7:02 PM EST

Happy Meals just got a little more expensive for McDonald's: the fast food chain has been sued by California mother Monet Parham for using toys to make her two young daughters want nutritionally unsound Happy Meals. The class-action lawsuit (PDF) was filed in conjunction with the Center for Science in the Public Interest in California Superior Court in San Francisco this morning. Filing the bill in San Francisco, rather than Parham's home city of Sacramento, was a calculated move: San Francisco recently passed a "Healthy Meal" bill that requires meals with an "incentive item" to contain fruits and vegetables, be under 600 calories, and not have beverages with excessive fat or sugar.

Parham, mother of a six-year-old and two-year-old, said in a CSPI press release that:

"I object to the fact that McDonald's is getting into my kids' heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat... what kids see as a fun toy, I now realize is a sophisticated, high-tech marketing scheme that's destined to put McDonald's between me and my daughters... I want McDonald's to stop interfering with my family."

Parham complains that the firm affects her personal life and relationship with her daughter, but the main thrust of the lawsuit seems to be that CSPI thinks 1) Happy Meals are not a healthy choice for children and 2) McDonald's inclusion of a toy with Happy Meals "is illegal" because it advertises to children who do not have the "cognitive skills and the developmental maturity to understand the persuasive intent of marketing and advertising. Thus, McDonald’s advertising featuring toys to bait children violates California law because it is inherently deceptive and unfair," the suit reads.

Pot Beats Cigarettes Among High School Seniors

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 5:42 PM EST

In the past month, 21 percent of high school seniors smoked pot, while just 19 percent lit up a cigarette. That's according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse's (NIDA) annual Monitoring the Future survey, released yesterday. The LA Times reports that it's the first time this has happened since 1981.

But while the Times called the findings a "victory for public health campaigns aimed at stamping out cigarette smoking among teens," don't expect the FDA to adopt a pot leaf for any of its proposed anti-cigarette warning labels. The survey, which also questioned 8th and 10th graders about their illicit drug habits, noted a "significant" rise in daily marijuana use across all three grades.

DOJ Files Suit on Deepwater Horizon Spill

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 5:13 PM EST

The Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it is filing suit against BP and eight other companies for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The DOJ is seeking civil penalties under the Clean Water Act—which could add up to as much as $21 billion—and wants to declare eight of those companies "liable without limitation" for the costs of clean up and damage caused by the disaster.

The DOJ filed suit in the US District Court in New Orleans, arguing that all of the listed companies in some way "caused or contributed" to the oil spill. It lists BP, along with several companies under the parent corporations Anadarko and Transocean, along with MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC, Triton Asset Leasing GMBH, and QBE Underwriting Ltd./Lloyd’s Syndicate 1036 (BP’s insurer).

Here's the statement from Attorney General Holder:

"We intend to prove that these defendants are responsible for government removal costs, economic losses, and environmental damages without limitation," said Attorney General Holder. "Even though the spill has been contained, the Department’s focus on investigating this disaster and preventing future devastation has not wavered. Both our civil and criminal investigations continue, and our work to ensure that the American taxpayers are not forced to bear the costs of restoring the gulf area and its economy is moving forward."

The DOJ also lists the alleged oversights:

  • Failing to take necessary precautions to keep the Macondo Well under control in the period leading up to the April 20th explosion;

  • Failing to use the best available and safest drilling technology to monitor the well's conditions;

  • Failing to maintain continuous surveillance; and

  • Failing to use and maintain equipment and material that were available and necessary to ensure the safety and protection of personnel, equipment, natural resources, and the environment.

I broke down the role of a number of the companies in this post a few months ago. Worth pointing out that several of the companies on that list—cement provider Halliburton and blowout preventer manufacturer Cameron—aren't listed on this complaint. That's not to say that they couldn't be listed in future complaints, of course, but this does give a sense of where the DOJ is assigning blame right now. Holder noted in his remarks today that both the civil and criminal investigation into the spill are ongoing.

It's also worth noting that BP has indicated it intends to challenge the federal government's estimate of spill size. BP argues that the total estimate from the federal government, 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled in the nearly-three-month ordeal, is much too high.

How much oil spilled and whether the companies were guilty of negligence is crucial. The companies face a fine of at least $1,100 a barrel, but the figure could be as high as $4,300 if the court determines that the companies were negligent.