Blue Marble - January 2011

Love Letters to Darrell Issa

| Thu Jan. 13, 2011 12:45 PM EST

Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has asked a slew of companies and industry groups for feedback on the regulations they think need to be changed. Two major lobbies, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), wasted no time in sending over their wish lists.

Both groups have staunchly opposed a number of new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, particularly those intended to combat climate change. The NAM list calls for weakening a number of environmental, health, and labor standards that they believe are currently "harmful" to manufacturers. Via John Walke, that includes rules on mercury, arsenic, lead, and other carcinogens, and smog standards as well as greenhouse gas limits.

Greenhouse gas regulations from the EPA are, of course, not popular among many industry types. But the smog rules are also pretty important—and have significant public health consequences. The EPA has proposed tougher limits on ozone pollution, also known as smog, but has delayed a final decision on those rules. (The agency pushed the release date back again last month.) The American Lung Association estimates that up to 186 million people in the United States currently breath unhealthy levels of smog under the weaker standard. But EPA has faced backlash from groups like NAM. Here's what they said in their letter to Issa:

The NAM's overriding concern with the proposal is that the high compliance costs associated with the more stringent ozone standard will hinder manufacturers’ ability to add jobs and hurt our global competitiveness. One study estimated 60 ppb would result in the loss of 7.3 million jobs by 2020 and add $1 trillion in new regulatory costs per year between 2020 and 2030.

API's letter outlines worries that climate action might impact the ability of its members to drill. Concerns include the "use of climate change arguments to limit acreage offered for lease." They're also worried that providing protections for imperiled animals under the Endangered Species Act may "restrict public lands acreage" that companies can use for drilling. API's full list is here.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

State Denies Request for Info on TransCanada Connection

| Wed Jan. 12, 2011 7:28 PM EST

The Department of State has denied a Freedom of Information Act request that environmental groups filed seeking a record of correspondence between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a former member of her campaign staff who is now lobbying for an international oil services company. The company is seeking approval from the State Department for a massive oil pipeline that would run from Canada to Texas.

Friends of the Earth, Corporate Ethics International and the Center for International Environmental Law submitted the request last month, seeking any communication between Clinton's office and the top lobbyist for TransCanada, Paul Elliott, who served as her national deputy director during the 2008 campaign. The ties between the two have drawn scrutiny, as the State Department is in the process of deciding whether to approve TransCanada's proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline. Clinton raised ire among environmental groups and some senators when she indicated last October that the pipeline would likely be approved despite the fact that the evaluation of the proposal is still underway.

The State Department's rejection letter states that its request had "not reasonably described the records you seek in a way that someone familiar with Department records and programs could locate them." Alex Moore, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, called the rejection "absurd" and accused the agency of "delay tactics." He said the groups would submit a retooled request. (The original FOIA request is here, and the rejection letter from State is here.)

Energy and Environment Daily reported Wednesday that Elliot registered as a lobbyist in December. But he didn't officially register until three days after that FOIA request was submitted. Friends of the Earth pointed out, however, that his form lists lobbying on issues like the Waxman-Markey and Boxer-Kerry climate bills in the House and Senate, respectively. But by the time he actually registered, it was clear those bills weren't going anywhere. That would seem to indicate that Elliot had been lobbying for months without filing the official disclosure form.

Will the Obama Admin Put Arctic Drilling on Ice?

| Wed Jan. 12, 2011 3:00 PM EST

Last summer's Deepwater Horizon disaster gave the nation a taste last year of the disastrous implications of an oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. And that blowout occurred in warm waters that were relatively easy for responders to reach. But what about a massive spill in the icy waters of the Arctic? Unless the Obama administration puts the brakes on the permitting process, Shell could begin exploration off the coast of Alaska as early as this summer, despite the fact that response capability and information about the environmental impacts of a spill there are sorely lacking, according to the National Oil Spill Commission.

The commission on Tuesday outlined a number of steps that Congress needs to take to help avert a future crisis like the one in the Gulf. But on Arctic drilling, the administration has the capacity to step in and stop Shell without needing approval from Congress. In late 2009, the Department of Interior greenlighted Royal Dutch Shell to begin exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the northern coast of Alaska. It looked like that exploratory drilling there could begin last summer, but the temporary moratorium that the Obama administration imposed following the Gulf spill delayed that (though that moratorium has since been dropped).

The plan to expand offshore drilling that the Obama administration laid out last March opened more areas of the Arctic for drilling. While the administration later walked back its plans to expand drilling following the Deepwater spill, the Arctic is still on the table; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in December he plans to take a "cautious" approach to issuing new leases there, after completing a new environmental review and evaluating spill response capabilities. The administration also signaled that it plans to move forward with the permitting process that would eventually allow Shell to begin drilling on its lease in the Beaufort, though an exact timeline for decisions is not clear. A new environmental assessment on that application is currently underway.

Environmental groups have been fighting to halt Arctic exploration for some time, arguing that the areas under consideration for drilling would be particularly vulnerable should a spill occur; the Interior Department, they say, has so far done an inadequate job of evaluating the potential environmental threats drilling there poses.

While acknowledging that there the Arctic is an "important area for future oil and gas development," the commission advised that much more research and investigation should be conducted before it moves forward. Geological and environmental information about the region is lacking, as are the industry and government institutions that would be needed to ensure it is done safely, the commission noted. Exploration there should be undertaken with "the utmost care," the commission advised.

The need for caution in the Arctic is pretty clear, as both the spill commission and a recent report from the Pew Environment Group have concluded. The region is covered with ice eight to nine months out of every year. Sub-zero temperatures are the norm. It's dark most of the day during the winter months. High winds, major storms, and heavy fog are common. Organizing a spill response there would be quite challenging, and cold environment also means that oil would degrade more slowly. In addition to an inhospitable climate, the nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away and doesn't have the kind of vessels that would be needed to deal with a spill in the ice. It's also a rich ecosystem, home to whales, walruses, and bears, among other species.

The commission recommended that the Department of Interior take steps to "ensure that the containment and response plans proposed by industry are adequate" and backed up by demonstrated financial and technical resources. They also advise that the Coast Guard and oil companies "carefully delineate their respective responsibilities in the event of an accident," and that Congress provide adequate funding for the Coast Guard to fulfill those responsibilities.

For now, enviros argue that the Arctic exploration plans should be put on ice until there's more information available. Moving forward now would be "reckless," argued Bill Eichbaum, vice president of marine and Arctic policy at the World Wildlife Fund. "We think that the Department of Interior should suspend the consideration of any further permitting or leasing for oil development activities until they have addressed each of these issues," he said.

Shell has invested $3.5 billion in its Arctic exploration program, but it's already faced several set backs. Earlier this month, environmental groups successfully challenged Shell's air quality permit. (Shell did not respond to a request for comment about the spill commission's findings.*) Whether the commission report will prove to be another obstacle is unclear. "Secretary Salazar believes we need to continue to take a cautious approach in the Arctic that is guided by science and the voices of North Slope communities," said Salazar spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff in a statement on Tuesday.

But enviros are hoping the spill commission report will serve as validation of their concerns about Arctic drilling plans. "Until Shell can prove they can clean up an oil spill, allowing drilling to go forward is the wrong decision," said Leah Donahey, Arctic Ocean campaign director at the Alaska Wilderness League.

*UPDATE: Shell sent over a comment on the report on Wednesday afternoon outlining steps that the company has taken to "make an already-robust Arctic exploration plan, even stronger." Spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the company has undertaken "dozens of Arctic studies" and believes that "significant data exists to proceed with an exploration program."

"We look forward to achieving a more thorough understanding of the Commission’s recommendations and assessing perceived gaps against the unprecedented steps Shell has taken to pursue safe, environmentally responsible exploration in shallow water off the coast of Alaska," said op de Weegh.

ATMs Are as Clean as Toilets

| Tue Jan. 11, 2011 8:44 PM EST

An "antimicrobial protection" firm called BioCote has come out with a new study that says that English ATMs are as dirty as the average toilet. Since BioCote manufactures antimicrobial coatings, there's an obvious conflict of interest here. But let's put that aside for a moment. If ATMs are as "dirty" as toilets, should we worry? 

According to BioCote statements to the Daily Mail, the company found pseudomonads and bacillus bacteria on ATMs. What they didn't mention is that both these bacteria are very common, and are not a danger to healthy people. In a way, BioCote has shown that ATMs are just as clean as toilets.

That's saying something: Neither toilets nor ATMs are as dirty as cell phones which, according to one study, have 18 times more germs than the flush lever on a toilet. This makes sense when you consider we humans carry around 150 species of bacteria on our hands, so the less often a thing is touched by humans, the cleaner it will be. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "sh*t-talking," don't it?

How to Fish Sustainably

| Tue Jan. 11, 2011 7:26 PM EST
Photo by Fir0002, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Fir0002, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
 
Community-based cooperative management—wherein fishers, fisheries managers, and scientists work together to create sustainable fisheries—yields big catches. Now the authors of a new paper in Nature present their findings on what elements of co-management are most effective. They write:
The dominant theme in fisheries management has been that privatization is necessary to avoid Hardin’s tragedy of the commons, whereas Ostrom and others have argued that community-based co-management can often achieve sustainability.
In other words, how does that age-old divide in human thinking (capitalism v. socialism, by one set of labels) play out in the arena of the ocean?
 
Photo by Diliff, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Diliff, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
 
 The advantages of co-management, according to the authors:
  • An enhanced sense of ownership that encourages responsible fishing
  • Greater sensitivity to local socioeconomic and ecological restraints
  • Improved management through use of local knowledge
  • Collective ownership by users in decision making
  • Increased compliance with regulations through peer pressure
  • Better monitoring, control and surveillance by fishers

 

Photo by Petr Ruzicka, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Petr Ruzicka, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In light of stark realities—1 billion people depend on seafood for protein, yet a third of fish stocks are depleted—the researchers asked: Exactly what part of co-management works to save fisheries? Here's what they did to find answers:
  • Identified 130 co-managed fisheries in 144 countries with a wide range of economic development, ecosystems, fishing sectors, and type of resources
  • Conducted a systematic search of the peer-reviewed and grey literature (~1,168 documents) for evidence of the impacts of fisheries co-management practices 
  • Identified and evaluated the relative merits of 19 different co-management attributes across fisheries
  • Used those 19 attributes to predict three kinds of success: ecological (increase in stock abundance); social (increase in social welfare); and economic (increase in unit price)
  • Combined those predictors to reach a single holistic success score reflecting natural and human dimensions of fisheries
 
From Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature09689From Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature09689
 
All that enabled them to zero in on the aspects of community management that work best. Their findings: 
  • Strong leadership is the single most important predictor of success
  • Next comes individual or community quotas, social cohesion, and protected areas
  • Less important conditions include enforcement mechanisms, long-term management policies, and life history of the resources
  • Fisheries are most successful when at least 8 co-management attributes are present, with a strong positive relationship seen between the number of attributes and success (i.e., redundancy in the system is good)

Photo by Thomas Tolkien, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Thomas Tolkien, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The authors write:

Our results demonstrate the critical importance of prominent community leaders and robust social capital, combined with clear incentives through catch shares and conservation benefits derived from protected areas, for successfully managing aquatic resources and securing the livelihoods of communities depending on them.
The paper:

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Issa's Regulatory Rehash

| Tue Jan. 11, 2011 7:00 AM EST

New House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) drew attention last week when he solicited advice from a number of corporations, trade groups and organizations about federal regulations covering a variety of issues. A number of energy companies, manufacturers were on the list that are likely to focus on regulations from the Environmental Protetion Agency in their response.  The letter raised some eyebrows in DC, of course. Interest groups looking to influence regulations is certainly not uncommon, nor is it outside of the norm here for lawmakers to solicit input from affected parties. But rarely is there such a clear call for regulated industries to set out a list of demands.

On Friday, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) made an appeal for Issa to release all the letters he sent out. An Issa spokesperson tells The Hill that the congressman will make public all the responses he receives—which is certainly good news for transparency.

The Hill also tracked down a full list of those who received Issa's letter. The list includes a number of companies and trade groups with a keen interest in environment and energy issues: American Petroleum Institute, American Chemistry Council, Duke Energy, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Murray Energy Corp., Edison Electric Institute, National Association of Manufacturers, National Mining Association, among others. There were also a few ideological think-tanks on the list, including the stridently conservative Heritage Foundation and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Yet I'm less troubled by the list of companies he sent the letter to then I am by what it is lacking, which demonstrates an inherent bias to the kinds of companies and groups that would want to weaken regulations. There was only one group on the list that I would solidly classify as a non-partisan organization specifically focused on energy and environment issues, which is Resources for the Future. And some of the companies listed have actually advocated for new regulations on issues like climate change. But the list didn't include any environment or public health advocacy groups, which which would provide quite a different perspective on regulations. An honest and objective evaluation of regulations, if one were interested in that, would certainly require casting a wider net.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Flashback: Bachmann Called for "Armed and Dangerous" Citzenry on Climate Bill

| Mon Jan. 10, 2011 1:01 PM EST

In the wake of the tragic shootings in Tucson on Saturday, there has been a lot of talk about the influence of heated—and at times, violent—political rhetoric, which has seemingly escalated in recent years. Sarah Palin has gotten plenty of attention for her midterms target map (replete with bulls-eyes) of congressional districts, Arizona's Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was critically injured in the shooting. But it's worth noting some of the other examples of extreme rhetoric—notably Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann calling on constituents to get "armed and dangerous" over the climate bill.

Here's Bachmann in a 2009 radio interview, talking about the cap and trade bill that was under debate in the House at that time:

I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us 'having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,' and the people—we the people—are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country. And I think this has the potential of changing the dynamic of freedom forever in the United States.

Now, it's important to note that the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, certainly appears to be suffering from mental illness and that his political ideology, if he even has one, is not really clear at this point. (See Mother Jones' exclusive interview with one of his close friends for more.) He—or any other twisted individual—could have well committed a heinous act like this without elected officials fanning the flames. But it's also certainly true that statements like Bachmann's haven't really helped create a positive discourse in this country on key policy issues—in this case, climate change.

It's not just Republicans though (though I would certainly note that we've seen much more of this the right in recent years). Remember West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's campaign ad that featured him gunning down—literally—the cap and trade bill? Ken Ward has a thoughtful post on the need to back off the violent rhetoric on coal issues in particular, highlighting the Manchin ad.

Given that it's well known that there are paranoid, dangerous, and fragile individuals among us, the insinuation that violence against the government is a meritorious pursuit is irresponsible. There are serious debates to be had about policy, but those don't involve guns.

Do Space Heaters Save Money and Energy?

| Mon Jan. 10, 2011 6:30 AM EST

Brrr! It's been unusually cold in the Bay Area: I had to scrape actual ice off my car last week. (Isn't that why I left the East Coast in the first place?) We've been cranking the space heaters all night at my house, lest we turn into icicles in our sleep. Since our central heat isn't very efficient (it is itself kind of a giant space heater), I've assumed that the room-by-room approach is best. But our power bill soared last month, so I decided to do a little more research.

The short answer is that it depends on how much of your house you're heating. In general, if you only need one or two rooms to be warm, space heaters will use less energy than central heat. (Unless your central heating happens to be wildly efficient: Geothermal users, I'm looking at you). "But in terms of energy per heat output, small space heaters will rarely ever be as efficient as a central heating system," says Tom Simchak, a senior policy-research associate at the Alliance to Save Energy. "There would be few situations where putting space heaters in every room and turning them all on would be more efficient than a properly-operating and relatively modern central system."

BP and the Missing Methane

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 7:16 PM EST

Nine months after BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, a new report in the preeminent journal Science weighs in on the missing methane. The fate of this gas comprises one of the more intriguing scientific riddles surrounding the blowout.

So how much methane blew along with 4.1 to 4.4 million gallons of oil? A lot more. Somewhere between 9.14 billion and 10 billion moles (molecular weight expressed in grams)—about as much as is naturally released annually from the Black Sea, a very gassy place.

Concerns about BP's ginormous methane belch were twofold:

  1. What would it do to the marine ecology of the Gulf?
  2. What would happen if all that methane—a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—escaped into the atmosphere?

The answer suggested in this paper could be hugely significant. And not just for the future of the Gulf, but globally too, since our warming world pretty much guarantees we'll see more methane released from thawing clathrates under the seafloor and in permafrost.

As I wrote in The BP Cover-Up, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was one of the biggest baddest field experiments of all time. So here's some of what we've learned so far, highlights of the Science paper:

  • Methane measurements from the sea air around the spill site (a survey area roughly 25 kilometers/15.5 miles in diameter centered on the wellhead) found that even on windy days the amount of methane that escaped to the atmosphere was less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the total methane release. Clearly the gas stayed in the water.
  • So where did it go? Well, based on the quantity of methane measured underwater in June 2010, the researchers expected Deepwater Horizon methane to persist for years.
  • But their August to October surveys found no elevated methane—just normal ambient Gulf levels.
  • Other anomalous measurements (of fluorescence and dissolved oxygen) strongly suggest the team didn't simply miss the methane plumes.
  • Faced with the apparent disappearance of methane, the team hypothesizes that methane-eating bacteria had, by August, gobbled it all.

If these results holds true—still an "if"—then this is unusually encouraging news for our warming world:

We suggest that a vigorous deepwater bacterial bloom respired nearly all the released methane within this time... Our work suggests by analogy that large-scale [methane] release to the deep ocean from gas hydrates or other natural sources may foster a rapid methanotrophic response leading to complete oxidation of [methane] to [carbon dioxide] within a matter of months. Thus, aerobic methanotrophic bacterial communities may act as a dynamic biofilter that responds rapidly to large-scale methane inputs into the deep ocean. 

Thanks, bacteria!

The paper:

  • John D. Kessler, David L. Valentine, Molly C. Redmond, Mengran Du, Eric W. Chan, Stephanie D. Mendes, Erik W. Quiroz, Christie J. Villanueva, Stephani S. Shusta, Lindsay M. Werra, Shari A. Yvon-Lewis, and Thomas C. Weber. A Persistent Oxygen Anomaly Reveals the Fate of Spilled Methane in the Deep Gulf of Mexico. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1199697.

 

Kochs Sue Over Climate Prank

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 2:46 PM EST

Koch Industries, the Kansas-based oil and gas conglomerate, claims that its "business and reputation were harmed" by a prank last month, when a fake press release and website appeared stating that the company had change its ways on global warming—that is, it had decided to cease pouring millions into climate change-denying campaigns. In late December, the company filed a legal complaint seeking to uncover the individuals behind the prank.

From the filing in the US District Court in Utah that came to light this week, via Wonk Room:

[A]s a result of Defendants’ actions, Plaintiff’s business and reputation were harmed, and Plaintiff incurred monetary damages, including costs associated with spending time and money to respond to inquiries about the fake press release and Defendants’ other fraudulent activities, investigative and legal expenses associated with determining the host for Defendant’s website and contacting the host to have it taken down, and investigative and legal expenses associated with ascertaining the identity of Defendants.

The fake press release stated that after serious reevaluation, the company had decided that the "best course forward includes a discontinuation of funding for these organizations, and organizations like them, whose positions on climate change could jeopardize America's continued global competitiveness in the energy and chemical sectors and Koch Industries’ ability to provide high-quality products and services to the American people."

The press release and website was clearly a prank, one that bore a close resemblance to one pulled on the Chamber of Commerce in 2009 by the notorious pranksters known as the Yes Men. But unlike the Chamber stunt, which put one over on some media outlets, the Koch prank was instantly identified as a "spoof" in news coverage.

Charles and David Koch have become the left's favorite bogeymen. Their company spent $2.6 million on the midterm elections, and both brothers made sizable donations to Republican candidates and campaign committees. For enviros, the Kochs' largesse on climate denial has been a particular bane; the Kansas-based company, its affiliates, and foundations spent almost $25 million on "organizations of the 'climate denial machine'" between 2005 and 2008, according to an analysis compiled by Greenpeace last year. Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, and Citizens for a Sound Economy are among the 35 organizations that have spread misinformation about climate change which have directly or indirectly received money from Koch Industries, affiliates, or family foundations.

In other Koch news this week, Gawker looks at evidence that someone (possibly the Kochs themselves) has been attempting an unsuccessful smear campaign against the New Yorker's Jane Mayer in the months since her blockbuster expose on the brothers was published.

On Friday, Politico's Playbook also noted that David Koch was spotted breakfasting in DC with GOP pollster Frank Luntz at the Four Seasons on Thursday. Luntz is the guy who famously advised Republicans about how to muddy the water on global warming before last year imparting the wisdom to environmentalists that they should just stop talking about the issue. One can only wonder what Luntz and Koch were chatting about over bacon and eggs.