Blue Marble - January 2011

Is Energy Really "Non-Partisan"?

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Many have remarked already at this point that Tuesday's State of the Union address did not include a single reference to "global warming," "climate change," or even something vague like "the environment." There was, however, a lengthy discussion of energy, with President Obama calling for a new goal of drawing 80 percent of electricity from "clean" sources by 2035.

Obama has made clear statements on climate in his previous addresses; his first in 2009 talked about the need to "save our planet from the ravages of climate change," and called for a "market-based cap on carbon pollution" to drive the production of renewable energy. And in 2010 he called on Congress to pass "a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America." There was no such mention this year which, coupled with Monday's announcement that climate czar Carol Browner is hitting the road, has likely upped the market for heartburn medicine among greenies.

With a cap and trade bill all but dead, it's no mystery why he left it out this year. Instead, he devoted a page and a half of the 21-page printout of the speech handed to reporters Tuesday night to discussing energy. As one can expect, environmental groups weren't all that excited about the inclusion of "clean coal" and nuclear in that mix, but that's pretty broadly expected as the price one must pay to draw broader support for a clean energy standard. (See more on what they actually mean by the term "clean energy" here.)

On top of the 2035 goal, his plan calls for putting 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, giving 80 percent of American access to high-speed rail, and ending a number of subsides and tax loopholes for oil (the part of his package that I believe might actually accomplish quite a bit on climate). The administration also said that it will call for expanding the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy in this year's budget and doubling the number of innovation hubs to six. (More on the plan here.)

Other pundits have already wondered whether the issue of climate has simply become too divisive. The theory, then, is that clean energy should be an issue that crosses party lines and brings us all together for that Sputnik moment that Obama emphasized. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the Senate's champion on climate and energy issues, told me last night after the speech that she SAW this a deft move on the part of the president. "He's trying to unify," said Boxer. "There are a lot of people, when they hear 'climate change,' they say, 'Oh, I don't want to talk about it' … I think it was very smart of him."

And in a call with bloggers on Wednesday morning, Secretary of Energy Steven Ch, reiterated the belief that energy is a "nonpartisan issue," as it means creating jobs and building wealth. "It doesn't matter because this is wealth creation," said Chu. "Rather than get in a debate about climate predictions, say this is a debate about our future prosperity." (Chu also noted that "energy is more of a regional issue than a Republican-Democrat issue," which I think is absolutely true.)

Here's the problem: I really, really wish Chu, Boxer, and Obama were right. But I haven't seen much to indicate that this is the case. In remarks at a House hearing on Wednesday, Alaska Rep. Don Young spun Obama's remarks last night as evidence that he "doesn't believe in fossil fuels," as if they were akin to unicorns. There are plenty of people—and most of them happen to be Republicans—who don't think that policies to support clean energy are worthwhile and who will oppose any attempt to move away from them. See the list of programs they'd like to cut if you don't believe me.

My colleague David Roberts makes a compelling case for why this gambit just might work, but color me not yet convinced. Meanwhile, this latest iteration of the Obama climate and energy plan includes few of the driving forces that would actually make renewables cost-competitive in the near future and allow renewables to compete (the big one being, of course, a price on carbon pollution). Utilities aren't making the switch out of the goodness of their largely-coal-powered hearts; they will do it because what has long been the cheap option will be significantly less so. And making that happen requires an acknowledgment that carbon pollution is bad and clean energy sources are good.

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Watchdog: Admin Ignored Scientists' Spill Report Recommendations

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 3:21 PM EST

A watchdog group is accusing the Obama administration of putting public relations ahead of scientific integrity in its communications about the Gulf oil spill. Last night, the Project on Government Oversight released emails sent between scientists and officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Geological Survey, and the White House. POGO charges that emails show that the White House "may have ignored expert advice from agency officials and pressured scientists to make changes during the development of" an August report on the spill "in order to advance a public relations agenda." POGO released the emails along with a letter to President Obama asking him to address concerns about scientific integrity.

In a separate letter to the White House this week, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) raised concerns that even those emails released don't tell the entire story of the oil budget. His office also requested records of communication on the oil spill budget. He notes in his letter to the president that the response his office received had "unjustifiable redactions," "including entire pages blacked out in the middle of pertinent e-mail conversations." Grijalva also raises concerns about transparency surrounding the oil spill budget.

But there is plenty to comb through in the emails. POGO points to an email in which Mark Miller, a scientist at NOAA, states that his office "received strong pushback" from the White House, which encouraged them to use an exact estimate of 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, rather than a range of 3 to 5 million barrels that agency scientists had previously recommended. (POGO does note in its letter, however, that they believe the White House "deserves credit for erring on the side of the larger end of the spectrum of the possible size of the spill.")

But POGO argues that hiding the uncertainty did a disservice to the public:

We are concerned that White House officials may have removed the uncertainty that typically comes with scientific measurements and settled on a more definitive number to make the public feel more comfortable. We feel that the public would be better served by understanding that the government’s handling of the Gulf spill is filled with numerous uncertainties.

In another email exchange the group released, EPA deputy administrator Bob Perciasepe expresses concerns about giving an exact percentage for the amount of oil that was chemically dispersed:

The percentages are very rough and should not be considered accurate. We still do not believe we should in a public document try to distinguish between naturally and chemically dispersed oil in the ocean. These calculations are extremely rough estimates yet when they are put into the press - which we want to happen - they will take on a life of their own. We should combine these two categories.

But Stephen E. Hammond, chief of the emergency operations office in US Geological Survey's National Geospatial Program, brushed aside Perciasepe's concern:

Based on how NOAA is developing a communication product with the [White House], the dispersion types (Natural & Chemical) will not be combined. We appreciate the case for combining them, however the goal is to show chemical dispersion as part of the Federal response to the spill.

The oil budget created some controversy after it was released on August 4, as some administration officials made inaccurate claims, stating that most of the oil was "gone" and that the report had been peer reviewed. There were also complaints that the agency NOAA had not released supporting documents for their initial report. A later, more thorough review of the report largely agreed with its findings, however.

Justin Kenney, NOAA director of communications and external affairs, released a statement to Mother Jones on the emails, indicating that they should be interpreted as demonstrating the "healthy scientific debate" that went on among agencies:

These documents reveal a commitment to share information with the public as soon as we were confident it was accurate, a close coordination among numerous agencies and the White House, and a healthy scientific debate that is the hallmark of good policy making, especially during a national crisis. Contents of these emails show the effort made to communicate real-time scientific information to the American public quickly and clearly. We were clear in our release, the report and at the press briefing how those numbers should be interpreted. In November, we released a peer-reviewed report, developed in collaboration with federal and independent scientists, that provides the technical documentation for the Oil Budget and largely validates the early results released on August 4.

The emails certainly show that there were internal debates among the agencies that may explain the unwillingness at NOAA to provide more detailed accounting of the oil in the Gulf at the time the budget was first released.

UPDATE: An EPA spokesman also responded to a request for comment about the allegation that the White House ignored their input on the report:

EPA was not directly involved in the creation of the oil budget, and many of the issues involved were outside EPA's mandate. EPA officials and scientists were among many who participated in a robust conversation about specific technical and scientific issues. All good scientific discussions involve a robust back and forth among scientists, and that's exactly what happened here.

Waxman Seeks Details on Skeptic's Income

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) may be back in the minority, but that also means he's back to the role of professional gadfly. He kicked off the 112th Congress on Monday with a request to new Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to investigate whether a well-known climate skeptic lied to Congress on his CV.

The skeptic in question is Pat Michaels, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. Michaels, unlike many of the kooky climate contrarians that Republicans often dig up to, actually has some bona fides. He has a PhD in ecological climatology and is a senior fellow in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. And unlike some of his fellow skeptics, Michaels will acknowledge that the earth is warming—he just doesn't think it's that big of a deal, nor will he agree that human activity is the major contributing factor.

But Michaels is loathe to admit how much of his income over the years has come from fossil fuel interests, despite evidence that he's taken quite a bit of it. In his letter to Upton on Monday, Waxman raises the question of whether Michaels "may have provided misleading information about the sources of his funding and his ties to industries opposed to regulation of emissions responsible for climate change" when he testified before the committee in February 2009.

In his curriculum vitae (PDF) provided to the committee at that time, under the section "Financial Support (Over $10,000)," Michaels listed $4.2 million in income, attributing just 3 percent of it to industry sources—excluding several major industry sources that have been disclosed in the course of litigation, including New Hope Environmental Services, Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA), Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc., and the free-market think-tank the Heartland Institute.

Asked about whether he is funded by the oil industry in an appearance on CNN last August, Michaels first responded, "Not largely." He was then asked how much of his funding comes from oil interests, to which he replied, "I don't know, 40 percent." That, as Waxman writes, certainly doesn't match up with the CV he provided last year. (The statement was back in the news last week after a mention in Politico.) Waxman proposes that the committee call Michaels in for a meeting.

This reminds me of an interaction I had with Michaels last November, when he was asked to testify before the House Committee on Science and Technology as part of its final hearing of the 111th Congress. I asked him, again, how much money he's taken from fossil fuel interests. "I don't take any taxpayer money,"  he responded. "It's a conscious decision. The country's $14 trillion in debt and if anybody knows me they know that nobody's going to tell me what to say. End of story."

So I asked again about whether he would respond to the questions that have been raised about his legitimacy based on this funding. "It's very clear that nobody tells me what to do," he said, growing increasingly annoyed. "My answer is it's clear that nobody tells me what to do, so it doesn't matter. It's an irrelevancy. Thank you," he continued, before hurrying off.

I'm guessing that Upton won't be rushing to call Michaels in to clarify on this issue, but it's certainly worth keeping in mind as GOP leadership begins its efforts to undermine climate science in the coming months, as Michaels is one of their favorites.

A Flood of Unusual Accuracy

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 6:27 PM EST

Credit: Malene Thyssen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Malene Thyssen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

An interesting analysis in Environmental Research Letters of the accuracy of media reporting of climate-related sea level rise. The premise: That the mass media associates sea level rise with climate change and reports on it frequently, yet the scientific community remains dubious of the media's accuracy.

So how good or bad is the situation really? The authors examined the accuracy of reporting between 1989 and 2009 by seven prominent US and UK newspapers:

  • New York Times
  • Washington Post
  • Los Angeles Times
  • Financial Times
  • The Times (London)
  • The Guardian
  • The Telegraph
 Credit: NASA.Credit: NASA.
 
Their findings—a surprise to me and I suspect to the authors too—that journalists have done an excellent job portraying scientific research on sea level rise projections to 2100.
 
So why the unease? 
 
Well it turns out that while coverage of the issue of sea level rise has risen in the past 20 years, it's done so in fits and starts pegged to major news cycles—the release of an IPCC report, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the 2009 COP-15.
 
 

Credit: Environmental Research Letters DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/6/1/014004)Credit: Environmental Research Letters DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/6/1/014004

There's been little to no coverage of direct research, the completion of specific projections, or the publication of incremental but important papers. For those milestones, the mass media is largely silent. Obviously this speaks to the different tool sets of media and science—media being the microphone, science the microscope. If we can ever get them working together, we'll get real traction against the flood.

 

Credit: Wikinedia Commons.Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The authors conclude:

Mass media presentations of climate change remain key influences that bound discourses and shape the spectrum of possibility for climate mitigation and adaptation actions. Amid much recent criticism of climate science and the media on the high-stakes, high profile and highly politicized issue, accurate reporting on projections for sea level rise by 2100 demonstrates a bright spot at the interface of climate science and mass media. These findings can contribute to more measured considerations of climate impacts and policy action in the public sphere.
  
The paper:

 Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Live Chat: Author Mark Hertsgaard

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Join Grist for a live chat with renowned environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard about his new book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. (Read an excerpt of the book here.) Find out what he thinks is in store for "Generation Hot," the 2 billion or so people under the age of 25 who are facing life in a climate-changed world. And find out what gives him hope for the future—there's a lot that does! Read a Grist post about the book.

The chat starts today at Jan. 25 at 3 p.m. Eastern (noon Pacific) to ask questions and join in the discussion between Hertsgaard and Grist's Lisa Hymas.

This piece was produced by the Climate Desk collaboration.

Amazon Case Against Chevron Enters Final Stage

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 10:43 AM EST

The attorneys representing Amazonian communities in a lawsuit against Chevron have submitted their final argument to a judge in Ecuador, the latest development in a legal saga involving the oil giant that that began nearly two decades ago. The plaintiffs are seeking up to $113 billion in compensation for environmental damages in the Amazon.

This particular case started in 2003, though the legal challenges stretch back to 1992. The plaintiffs argue that Texaco dumped 16 billion gallons of heavily polluted waste water from their oil production operations into waterways in the Amazon between 1964 and 1990. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001, and claims that its subsidiary "fully remediated its share of environmental impacts" before 1992.

But the Amazonian communities represented in the case say otherwise. The oil company, their lawyers state in the final argument obtained by Mother Jones, knowingly dumped millions of gallons of the toxic waste into the rainforest, taking no action to minimize the risks it posed to communities in the region. The company also dug 900 open, unlined pits for dumping "drilling muds," which the plaintiffs describe in their filing as "a toxic soup of oil drilling byproducts that includes barium, heavy metals (e.g., chromium, lead, and zinc), chloride, petroleum compounds, and acid." Thousands of gallons of oil also leaked from the pipeline running through the region, which the company repeatedly failed to report or address, they argue.

The plaintiffs report contamination from toxic chemicals at 45 sites they inspected in the area. Further, they point to Chevron's own internal memos obtained in the case as evidence that the company knew about legacy of pollution at the sites. And they say that the remediation work the company took at the sites was a "sham" intended to fend off lawsuits.

The oil company succeeded in getting the case moved to Ecuador, but has since sought to dismiss the case there as well, claiming misconduct on the part of plaintiffs and the judge. Most recently, Chevron also attempted to obtain raw footage from Joe Berlinger, a documentary filmmaker, that they say will reveal inappropriate interactions between the plaintiffs and one of the experts in the case. Earlier this month, a US court ruled that the filmmaker will have to turn over his tapes.

The case has been bogged down in wrangling for months, with the judge in the case changing multiple times amid accusations of misconduct. It's unlikely that a judgment in this case will end the years-long fight. Meanwhile, the issue at the heart of it—whether and how much Chevron should compensate Amazonian indigenous communities for the pollution—still remains unresolved.

"After almost 20 years of Chevron's legal sideshows, delay tactics, false accusations, and intimidation, the time has come for Goliath to face David head-on," they wrote in a summary of the final appeal to the court.

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Will Obama Stand up for Clean Air?

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 10:00 AM EST

Following the administration's announcement last week that it wants to make the regulatory system more friendly to businesses, there's some increasing anxiety about whether Obama will aggressively defend the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. A number of environmental and public health groups are lobbying the president to explicitly defend the agency's climate regulations in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

A coalition of 23 environmental groups sent a letter to Obama asking him to "underscore the critical need for the Clean Air Act’s sensible safeguards and to oppose any attempt to block, weaken, or delay its continued implementation" in the State of the Union address. The groups note that the Clean Air Act is "a remarkably successful public health law that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the last 40 years while our economy has tripled in size."

Charles D. Connor, president of the American Lung Association, also sent a letter to Obama last week asking him to "send a clear message that protecting the public from air pollution and enforcing the Clean Air Act is a clear and urgent priority for the health of our nation and the health of our economy." He continued:

The public needs to be reminded that the Clean Air Act has prompted technological innovations that have led to much greater pollution reductions at much lower costs than forecasted. America remains the global leader in air pollution technology. American workers help their fellow citizens and millions around the globe breathe easier.

Of course, every issue group has a wish list of things for President Obama to talk about in next week's State of the Union address. The climate regulations, though, are likely to be among the most contentious for the Obama administration this year, so a clear affirmation of the SOTU this week would certainly be a win for those who care about ensuring that the administration moves forward on protecting clean air.

WATCH: Birth of a New Island

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 8:23 AM EST

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

When people think of new things in nature, they usually think of baby animals. And that's usually what's captured on camera... until now. Check out this incredible video of a volcanic island being born in the Solomon Islands.

Is Fake Leather Really More Eco-Friendly Than Real?

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 6:30 AM EST

I caught an NPR segment a few weeks ago that raised the question of whether it's possible to have "eco-conscious fur." The story centers on a project down in Louisiana where they're turning the pelts of nutria—an invasive, semiaquatic mammal that looks rather rat-like—into high-end fashion pieces. (It's a subject we've covered in a previous Econundrum as well.) The segment got me thinking about whether fur, or for that matter, any other animal-derived material used for clothing, is inherently a bad environmental choice.

I can't say I own many articles of clothing that involve fur, real or fake, but I've been opting for so-called "vegan leather" (or, if you prefer, "pleather") for years, sort of assuming that it was the more conscientious choice. My boots, in addition to involving zero dead animals, were also quite a lot cheaper than the real deal. But you get what you pay for, and at barely a year old, the soles are already detaching from the fabric, and the toe is scuffed irreparably. My cheap knock-offs might not have been a great investment—whereas a good set of real leather boots can last a decade, if not longer (sorry, PETA). My kickers are likely destined for the landfill in the foreseeable future.

Science Shots: Penguin Racers, Cold Cod, Cooking with Lead

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 6:45 PM EST

A sampling of new science papers, explained in a sentence.

A new paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B using data from the Continuous Plankton Recorder shows recruitment of young North Sea cod is stronger in cold years than warm years, leading the authors to predict that a full recovery of this stock is unlikely until our warming world cools again.

 

Credit: Hans-Petter Fjeld, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.Credit: Hans-Petter Fjeld, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

A study in PLoS ONE suggests the meat of game animals (red-legged partridge) killed with controversial lead shot is more dangerous to people if eaten cooked rather than raw—and even worse if cooked in acidic recipes, say, with vinegar or wine.

 

Credit: PERDIZ ROJA (Alectoris rufa)1, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Credit: PERDIZ ROJA (Alectoris rufa)1, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Forthcoming in Marine Ecology Progress Series, a paper hypothesizing that emperor penguins gain enough speed underwater to launch into the air and onto sea ice by using "air lubrication"—air bubbles trapped in feathers at dive onset then shed during ascent—a form of drag reduction engineers have learned to use to speed ships and torpedoes through the water.

 Credit: Antarctic Photo Library of the US Antarctic Program, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.Credit: Antarctic Photo Library of the US Antarctic Program, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

The papers:

  • Esben Moland Olsen, Geir Ottersen, Marcos Llope, Kung-Sik Chan, Grégory Beaugrand and Nils Chr. Stenseth. Spawning stock and recruitment in North Sea cod shaped by food and climate. PRSB. DOI
  • Rafael Mateo, Ana R. Baos, Dolors Vidal, Pablo R. Camarero, Monica Martinez-Haro, Mark A. Taggart. Bioaccessibility of Pb from Ammunition in Game Meat Is Affected by Cooking Treatment. PLoS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015892
  • John Davenport, Roger N. Hughes, Marc Shorten, Poul S. Larsen. Drag reduction by air release promotes fast ascent in jumping Emperor Penguins—a novel hypothesis. MEPS. DOI: 10.3354/meps08868