Blue Marble - January 2011

Barrasso's EPA Assault

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 1:25 PM PST

That the vast majority of Republicans in Congress as well as some Democrats are hoping to squash the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate planet-warming gases is certainly no secret. (See here, here, here, and here for starters.) On Monday, Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming introduced a new bill that would go even farther, making it impossible for the federal government to do anything about climate change under any of the nation's existing environmental laws.

Barrasso's bill, "Defending America’s Affordable Energy and Jobs Act," would block federal regulations under the Clean Air Act, but also the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. In case you're keeping track, that's just about all of the most important environmental laws currently on the books.

Barrasso's bill would also take away the EPA's ability to act on auto emissions, handing that power over to the Department of Transportation. EPA was essential in the landmark deal reached on greenhouse gas emissions with automakers and states last year, a deal that has already resulted in more efficient vehicles.

From Barrasso's statement:

It's time for the Administration to face the facts: Americans rejected cap and trade because they know it means higher energy prices and lost jobs," said Barrasso. "Washington agencies are now trying a backdoor approach to regulate our climate by abusing existing laws. Congress must step in and stand up for the American people. My bill will shrink Washington’s job crushing agenda and grow America’s economy. I will do whatever it takes to ensure that Washington doesn’t impose cap and trade policies in any form.

What's particularly ironic about the statement is that cap and trade was a Republican idea created as a business-friendly alternative to command-and-control regulations. Cap and trade was promoted as the legislative alternative to EPA regulations, but it never went anywhere in the Senate last year. So the idea that Congress—particularly, Barrasso and his seven cosponsors—would now start caring about the issue is humorous, at least if you have a sick sense of humor. We're in this situation because Congress did nothing for the past four years.

Even worse: Barrasso is one of the three medical doctors in the Senate, and the EPA's decision to act on emissions under the Clean Air Act is based on the 2007 Supreme Court directive and the finding that greenhouse endanger human health. Barrasso says though, that he only wants regulations for greenhouse gases that pose a "direct threat to human health because of direct exposure to that gas" –implying, of course, that he doesn't think that most of them actually pose a threat.

Republicans have, for the most part, been competing to outdo each other in cracking down on the EPA. Last week we had Newt Gingrich calling for the abolition of the EPA entirely.

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Is Hillary Clinton in Cahoots With TransCanada?

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 11:48 AM PST

Three environmental groups are challenging the denial of a Freedom of Information Act request for records of communication between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the lead lobbyist for the international oil services company TransCanada.

Friends of the Earth, Corporate Ethics International, and the Center for International Environmental Law are seeking a record of all communication between Clinton's office and that of Paul Elliott, who served as the national deputy director in her 2008 campaign and now the top lobbyist for TransCanada.

The connection between the two has drawn scrutiny, since the State Department is evaluating whether to approve TransCanada's proposal for the 1,600-mile Keystone XL pipeline. Clinton raised ire among environmental groups and some senators last fall when she indicated that the pipeline was likely be approved despite the fact that the evaluation of the environmental impact of the proposal is still underway.

The proposed pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries in Texas, has generated plenty of controversy as the State Department considers whether to approve it. "The disclosure of the requested documents will make a major contribution to the public's understanding of this divisive issue," the groups argue in their latest request.

Meanwhile, a report that TransCanada released last week predicted higher prices in the Midwest for Canadian crude oil—which certainly isn't going to make the pipeline more popular there.

BP's Dispersants Slow to Disperse

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 3:31 PM PST

For MoJo environment reporter Kate Sheppard's take on the BP dispersants study, click here.

Here's a quick look at a forthcoming paper in Environmental Science and Technology on the fate of BP's dispersants. As you may recall, BP loosed ~2.1 million gallons of chemical dispersants—1.4 million gallons to the surface and 0.77 million gallons into deepwater at the wellhead—in an attempt to break the oil into small droplets.

The authors note that surface dispersants had been used and (somewhat) assessed before Deepwater Horizon, with a cautious consensus that these chemical brews might mitigate oiling on marshes and other shorelines.

But the injection of dispersants deep underwater had never been tried before, and never studied. This is what I referred to in BP's Deep Secrets as the biggest baddest field experiment of all time.

To track the deep dispersants, two of the authors—Elizabeth Kujawinski and Melissa Kido Soule—developed a new chromatographic technique to trace DOSS (dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate), a component of both the Corexit formulations used by BP. The findings from three cruises in the Gulf of Mexico:

  • In May and June, DOSS was found and measured at concentrations of parts per billion at depths up to 1,200 meters/3,000 feet.
  • In September, 64 days after deepwater dispersant applications, DOSS was still found in the plume—which had traveled more than 300 kilometers/186 miles from the wellhead—and measured at concentrations of parts-per-trillion.

Although the dispersants were persistent (long-lived and widely-traveled), it's not clear if they actually dispersed or sequestered any of the oil.

Based on our observations, we cannot assess whether the dispersant application was successful in reducing the oil droplet size or in increasing the sequestration of oil in deep water. However, we can conclude that DOSS, and presumably the other Corexit components, became sequestered in deep plumes. Two or more possibilities may explain these observations. In one scenario, DOSS dissolved into the water during ascent and detrained at approximately 1100 m through partitioning with methane, water, gas hydrate, or other phases. In this case, if the DOSS dissolved completely or partitioned with natural gas, it may suggest that the dispersant was rendered unavailable to the oil and thus ineffective in dispersing the liquid oil. In a second scenario, Corexit was associated with small liquid oil droplets that were sequestered in this plume. If the DOSS was deposited in these small oil droplets, it may suggest that the chemical dispersion was highly effective. We have rejected the hypothesis that DOSS was associated with large oil droplets since their higher buoyancy would be expected to force them to travel to the surface, presumably releasing dispersant en route.

The effects of these dispersants on marine living in or migrating through the deepwater is equally ambiguous:

[F]urther tests are needed to assess stress responses of pelagic biota to oil, gas, dispersant, and associated mixtures. In particular, our study has not assessed the fates or reactivities of the nonionic surfactants and the hydrocarbon solvents present in Corexit 9500A, each of which may have unique toxicological impacts. In short, the application of this material in the deep ocean is new and unprecedented and so merits further study of pelagic macro- and microbiota at environmentally relevant Corexit concentrations and dispersant-to-oil ratios.


Here's the abstract in full:

Response actions to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill included the injection of ∼771,000 gallons (2,900,000 L) of chemical dispersant into the flow of oil near the seafloor. Prior to this incident, no deepwater applications of dispersant had been conducted, and thus no data exist on the environmental fate of dispersants in deepwater. We used ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS) to identify and quantify one key ingredient of the dispersant, the anionic surfactant DOSS (dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate), in the Gulf of Mexico deepwater during active flow and again after flow had ceased. Here we show that DOSS was sequestered in deepwater hydrocarbon plumes at 1000-1200 m water depth and did not intermingle with surface dispersant applications. Further, its concentration distribution was consistent with conservative transport and dilution at depth and it persisted up to 300 km from the well, 64 days after deepwater dispersant applications ceased. We conclude that DOSS was selectively associated with the oil and gas phases in the deepwater plume, yet underwent negligible, or slow, rates of biodegradation in the affected waters. These results provide important constraints on accurate modeling of the deepwater plume and critical geochemical contexts for future toxicological studies.

The paper:

Elizabeth B. Kujawinski, Melissa C. Kido Soule, David L. Valentine, Angela K. Boysen, Krista Longnecker, and Molly C. Redmond. Fate of Dispersants Associated with the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. 2011. Environ. Sci. Technol. DOI: 10.1021/es103838p

Eco-News Roundup: Friday January 28

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 1:21 PM PST

News on health and the environment from our other blogs.

Extra Lives: Should real life be more like video games

Survey Says: Another poll showing less than half Americans want to repeal health care.

Hold On: Self-control is linked to success, but is it innate?

Repeal, Repeat: If GOP repeals health care, what will replace it? 

Elementary: If the chemical for lethal injection becomes unavailable, death penalty may change.

Drill, Baby: Palin still loves oil as much as ever.

Death Star: Death Panels are back in the media as Republicans dismantle health care.

No EPA: Newt Gingrich is stumping, and calling for abolishment of the EPA.

Two Party: A bipartisan solution to health care is a difficult but ongoing conversation.

Up In Smoke: US DOJ won't raid marijuana dispensaries, but IRS is auditing them.

Most Wanted: Gay protester of Uganda ad calling for killing of gays has been killed.

Shaken: Deaths from earthquakes come more from unsafe buildings than other causes.

Amazon Plaintiffs to Chevron: We're Real!

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 1:07 PM PST

The long legal case against Chevron over environmental damage wrought by drilling operations in the Amazon may finally be drawing to a close, as the parties in the case this month began filing their final arguments. But Chevron has made several attempts to get the case thrown out entirely--including making claims that the plaintiffs in the case don't actually exist.

Last month, Chevron made accusations of an "elaborate forgery of plaintiffs' signatures" in the suit. When the complaint was first filed in 2003, 48 indigenous residents of Lago Agrio, Ecuador, affected by the legacy of toxic pollution left behind by Texaco (a company Chevron later acquired) signed on as plaintiffs. Chevron claims that its forensics expert has determined that 20 of those signature were forged, and that therefore the lawyers representing them in the case did not truly have consent.

Chevron vice president and general counsel R. Hewitt Pate almost sounded like an activist in Chevron's press release last month, pledging to "seek full redress against the harm that has been done in the name of the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and to hold accountable all of those who have knowingly participated in this unlawful scheme." The irony, of course, is that the plaintiffs are seeking compensation for what they have described as massive environmental and human health harm caused by decades of oil extraction in the region that was never fully remediated.

Chevron says this is evidence that the suit has been "tainted with corruption from the very beginning and must be terminated." The company's lawyers filed a motion in the provincial court asking the judge to therefore declare the lawsuit "null and void."

In response, 24 of the plaintiffs involved in the case held an event this week to re-sign the documents, a symbolic effort to show that they are, in fact, real and they do have very real complaints against Chevron, namely the billions of gallons of toxic waste that they say was dumped in their Amazon communities. (The total number of plaintiffs is now down to 47; one has died since the suit was originally filed.) The lawyers for the plaintiffs say the forgery claims show that Chevron is getting "desperate" in these last-ditch efforts to get the case thrown out, rather than challenging the question at stake in the suit—whether the oil giant is indeed responsible for the alleged damage caused by its subsidiary.

"It's part of their fantasy of saying that this lawsuit doesn't really exist," Karen Hinton, spokesman for the plaintiffs, tells Mother Jones. "The only way to maneuver now is to discredit the court, the lawsuit itself, the plaintiffs and the lawyers—anyone associated with this—through various personal vilification campaigns."

The company has also sought footage from a documentary filmmaker that they believe will show misdeeds on the part of the plaintiffs.

The Ecuadorian court is supposed to rule on the case sometime before May, though it's likely that it will remain tied up in this legal wrangling for some time. If the forgeries claim is any indication, Chevron will throw every obstacle it can think of in the way of a final decision.

Is Ban Ki Moon Backing Off Climate?

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 11:09 AM PST

There was a fair bit of optimism on climate last month at the conclusion of the United Nations talks in Cancun, bolstering hopes that a long-stalled global climate treaty might be back on track. But it appears that the UN's secretary general that made global warming one of his top priorities is backing away from the issue.

The Guardian reports today that Ban Ki Moon is retreating from his close involvement with the climate negotiations, reflecting the realization that a global deal isn't happening any time soon:

The officials said the change in focus reflected Ban's realisation, after his deep involvement with the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009, that world leaders are not prepared to come together in a sweeping agreement on global warming – at least not for the next few years.
"It is very evident that there will not be a single grand deal at any point in the near future," said Robert Orr, UN assistant secretary general for strategic planning and a key adviser to Ban.
The view from UN headquarters will likely dismay developing countries who fought hard at Copenhagen and last year's summit at Cancún for countries to renew their commitments to the Kyoto protocol in just that type of grand deal.
UN officials say Ban will no longer be deeply involved in the negotiations leading up to the next big UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, meeting at Durban in December 2011.

Ban has called climate change "the greatest collective challenge we face as a human family." His office says he's still committed to the issue, but sees more value in working on finance for adaptation to climate rather than trying to get leaders to commit to deep emission cuts.

UPDATE: Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Friday, Ban refuted the idea that he is backing away from his focus on climate change and emphasized its importance:

To any who might argue that time and effort spent on climate change is wasted, I would respectfully beg to differ. A climate agreement among all nations is both necessary and possible. It may not be easy, but things worth doing seldom are. I will continue to engage world leaders, just as I have here in Davos, to advance climate negotiations and to make concrete progress on the ground. This is integral to our overall sustainable development agenda. As I told President Zuma yesterday, I look forward to attending COP 17 in Durban this December and will do all I can to build upon recent success in Cancun. I also had a meeting with President Calderon of Mexico, and we will work in concert together to achieve progress in the climate change process.

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Baby Wildlife: A BBC Top Ten

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 5:01 AM PST

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

For the next couple of months we're going to be reveling in all things living and new. So check out our ten favorite new life photos.

1) Giant Panda

Giant panda cubs aren't so big, and they only start walking after 75 days or so. In the meantime, their mothers occupy them by wrestling and rolling with them, cute!

 

Kochs Attempt to Unmask Climate Pranksters

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 4:00 AM PST

A few weeks ago, I reported that Koch Industries didn't take too kindly to the anonymous pranksters who spoofed their position on climate change last month with a fake website and press release. The Kochs argued that the fake site that claimed the company had changed its tune on global warming was bad for the bottom line of Koch Industries. Koch has filed suit, accusing the spoofers of "trademark infringement, cybersquatting, and unfair competition." And, in order to do so, Koch wants the names of the folks behind the prank revealed.

But the anonymous defendants in the case—who are calling themselves "Youth for Climate Truth"—now have representation from an attorney, Deepak Gupta of the public interest group Public Citizen. This week, Gupta asked the judge in the US federal district court in Utah to dismiss the case outright. Public Citizen is also asking the court to quash the subpoena issued to the web hosting company that sought to force it to cough up the names of the pranksters and issue a directive to Koch's lawyers barring them from releasing any information about the defendants that they may have already obtained.

The Koch suit also seeks to purse the pranksters for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a federal offense that is intended to deal with hacking. This one, the defendants' lawyer says, should be a real stretch of the law, since there was no hacking involved in the spoof; it was only a parody of the Koch website and a fake press release.

Revealing the identities of the anonymous people behind the prank and punishing them for it would have a "chilling effect on free speech," Public Citizen argues. "The First Amendment protects anonymous speech and speech on the internet," Gupta tells Mother Jones. Moreover, there is no evidence that the spoof site caused any financial harm to Koch, nor did anyone take the prank seriously, Gupta argues. (See the defendants' filing here.)

This case is pretty similar to the one that the US Chamber of Commerce filed against the Yes Men in 2009 after the pair of notorious pranksters made a mockery of their climate stance as well. There hasn't been any resolution in that case so far.

US Teachers Don't Teach Evolution

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 3:02 PM PST

From tomorrow's issue of Science, a new paper describing the great divide between creationism's court losses (every major US federal court case in the past 40 years) and a paradoxical decline in classroom teaching of evolution, scientific methods, and reason itself.

Based on data from the National Survey of High School Biology teachers, the authors estimate that only 28% of all biology teachers consistently teach evolutionary biology, while 13% explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design. The remaining teachers they deem the cautious 60%:

The cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists. The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or "teaching the controversy" all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established by the combination of peer review and replication. These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally.

The authors note that more high school students take general biology than any other science course, and that biology will be the only high school science class for up to a quarter of all US graduates. Yet 72% will get no schooling in evolutionary biology or a wobbly version of it: "absent, cursory, or fraught with misinformation."

The authors suggest that scientists and scientific organizations address the problem:

  • By continuing participation in federal law suits, since federal courts effectively limit the ability of state and local governments to endorse nonscientific alternatives to evolution
  • By requiring evolution courses be taught to teachers in training, since those who teach evolutionary biology are more likely to have completed a course in evolution (and feel more confident teaching it) than those who don't teach it at all, or who teach it ambivalently:

They add:

More effectively integrating evolution into the education of preservice biology teachers may also have the indirect effect of encouraging students who cannot accept evolution as a matter of faith to pursue other careers.

The paper:

  • Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer. Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom. 2011. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1198902

Report: Dispersant Chemicals Lingering in the Gulf

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 9:42 AM PST

For MoJo environmental correspondent Julia Whitty's take on the BP dispersants study, click here.

In the weeks after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP—with the consent of federal regulators—spread 1.8 million gallons of dispersants on the surface of the Gulf and at the wellhead a mile below. Using dispersants in this volume and at this depth was unprecedented, and there wasn't a great understanding of the implications. Now a new report indicates that some of the chemical components of the dispersants might remain in the Gulf for months.

The report, from scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, finds that dispersant components aren't breaking down all that fast, lingering in plumes of undersea oil and gas that researchers have been studying. This should "raise questions about what impact the deep-water residue of oil and dispersant—which some say has its own toxic effects—might have had on environment and marine life in the Gulf," the Institute said in a release this week.

The lead author on the report was chemist Elizabeth B. Kujawinski, and it appeared this week in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology. Researchers found a component of the chemical dispersant, dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, up to 200 miles from the wellhead. They were also still finding the chemical two to three months after the injections. This would indicate that the mixture was not biodegrading rapidly, the scientists concluded. The report did not, however, evaluate the toxicity of the lingering components, though it does indicate that there should be more investigation into the effects the chemicals may have on the Gulf.

The EPA acknowledged that BP's use of dispersants was a massive, real-time science experiment, but has said it believed the use was justified and better than the alternative—not using them at all. A later report from the National Oil Spill Commission also endorsed their use while arguing that the agency should have been better prepared to make informed decisions on dispersants. This latest research is certainly evidence that more work needs to be done to understand the full impacts of these chemicals.