Blue Marble - January 2011

Spill Report Spin Zone

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 7:35 AM PST

The National Oil Spill Commission released a chapter of its final report on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Wednesday night. The report directed much of the blame for the incident at BP, Halliburton, and Transocean, the three companies directly involved in the drilling at the time of the explosion. But the report also makes it clear that there were broader failures—in the industry and government oversight—that precipitated the disaster.

And that was just one chapter of the report; the rest is expected to outline more broadly the causes of the disaster and the advisable reforms to avert a similar catastrophe in the future. But those who opposed the temporary drilling moratorium that the Obama administration put in place (and later lifted) are using the report to claim that the pause on drilling to assess safety was not necessary. Here's Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) calling the time-out "excessive, over-reactive and uncalled for," among other things:

These findings seem to support what we’ve said all along: that the blowout was caused mainly by human error among the companies managing and servicing that particular rig, not by any faulty mechanical system or equipment failure. The administration’s response to this tragedy—to impose a moratorium on all other deepwater drilling in the Gulf—was excessive, over-reactive and uncalled for, in much the same way as if the government were to ground all commercial flights pending investigation of a single plane crash. Nothing in these findings justifies the shutdown of an entire industry because of one mishap. I eagerly look forward to reading the Commission’s full report.

That's really not what the chapter says at all. Actually, here's exactly what it says:

The blowout was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again. Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.

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Fiji Water Sued for Greenwashing

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 5:05 AM PST

Despite selling, you know, water, Fiji Water is not the most transparent corporation. The company, the subject of a groundbreaking investigative feature we ran in 2009, is now the target of a lawsuit for deceptively marketing itself as "carbon-negative." A US District Court class-action suit filed by a Newport, California, firm on behalf of a Santa Ana woman named Desiree Worthington accuses Fiji Water of using a practice known as "forward crediting": essentially, giving yourself credit for carbon reductions that haven't happened yet.

In the lawsuit, Worthington argues that she paid more for Fiji Water specifically because it advertised itself as a carbon-negative product. She says she expected that the "carbon-negative" label meant that Fiji was currently taking more carbon out of the environment than it was producing. This is consistent with the company's view: Fiji Water claims on its website to have been "a carbon-negative brand" since 2008, "under which we will continue to offset 120% of our emissions" (emphasis mine). However, under the forward crediting model, the offsets do not need to be currently occurring, they can simply be anticipated actions. Indeed, Fiji Water has said in a press release that the offsets necessary to make it "carbon-negative" will not be realized until 2037.

Scott J. Ferrell, lead counsel for the class-action suit, told me that "We want Fiji Water to stop distorting its environmental record to push sales of overpriced bottled water. It is unconscionable for Fiji Water to charge double the price of its competitors by convincing consumers that drinking Fiji Water helps the environment, when in reality the opposite is true."

Seed Fish

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 5:16 PM PST
Photo by Bill Walsh, courtesy Oregon State University.
 
Seems to me that for every unit of effort we put into protection and restoration of wilderness, nature responds 100 fold. We stand on the shoulders of a healing giant.
 
Here's one way that works. Elegant research just published in PLoS ONE  answers one of the more pressing questions in marine ecology: Do marine protected areas (MPAs) work to restock depleted fisheries outside the protected zones? The notion's called spillover.  From the paper:
While there is mounting evidence for localized spillover, there have been no empirically documented cases of MPAs seeding unprotected sites, which has impeded acceptance of this management tool. Seeding is a form of population connectivity, which, in marine metapopulations, is characterized by the dispersal of planktonic larvae among local populations. Recent empirical efforts to track larval dispersal have demonstrated localized self-recruitment, but have not documented larvae seeding distant or commercially fished sites. 

Photo by Sarah McTee, courtesy Oregon State University.Photo by Sarah McTee, courtesy Oregon State University.
 
The study focused on populations of yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens) off the Big Island off Hawai’i. These fish are important players in their world, helping to promote coral growth by browsing on coral competitors, marine algae. But the tangs are also one of the most popular aquarium fishes and the top export from Hawai'i. Ten years ago the fishery was on the brink of collapse. 
 
So in 1999 the state of Hawai'i established a network of nine marine protected areas along the west coast of the Big Island, which effectively prohibited fish collecting on 35 percent of a 150-kilometer/93-mile coastline. The fishery quickly recovered. But did nature respond with spillover into the unprotected areas?
 
Here's what the investigators were up against trying to answer that question: 
Determining patterns of larval dispersal is especially challenging due to the minuscule sizes of larvae and the vast ocean environment through which they travel... Therefore, we applied a new genetic parentage method to directly determine how far and to what extent the larvae of an abundant coral-reef fish disperse from their natal populations.   

24-day-old yellow tang larva. Photo courtesy Syd Kraul.24-day-old yellow tang larva. Photo courtesy Syd Kraul.The researchers used a new Bayesian approach—a powerful statistical amplifier—to assess the genetic results on more than 1,000 adult and juvenile fish collected from nine reefs around the Big Island.  Amazingly (on what must surely have been a wildly exciting day or three in the lab), they found four parent-offspring pairs:

[W]hich is remarkable given the approximately 54-day pelagic larval duration and the large number of yellow tang around the Island of Hawai'i... All identified offspring were found between 15 and 184 kilometers to the north of their parents, suggesting that ocean currents played a substantial role in larval dispersal.

Nature's 100-fold effect?

Juvenile yellow tang about the size at settlement out of the pelagic zone onto the reef. Photo by Sarah McTee, courtesy Oregon State University.Juvenile yellow tang about the size at settlement out of the pelagic zone onto the reef. Photo by Mark Hixon, courtesy Oregon State University.
 
There's so much exciting research coming together in this paper, including the identification of the oceanographic conditions driving the larvae away from their parents' territories. As the authors point out, the work is also relevant to the vital connectivity between oceans and people:
In addition to demonstrating the seeding effect of MPAs, documenting connectivity among marine populations has an important social and economic role. The identification of connectivity between distant reef fish populations on the Island of Hawai'i demonstrates that human coastal communities are also linked: management in one part of the ocean affects people who use another part of the ocean. Understanding connections at all levels is the foundation for truly effective ecosystem-based management.
The paper:

♥ Mark R. Christie, Brian N. Tissot, Mark A. Albins, James P. Beets, Yanli Jia, Delisse M. Ortiz, Stephen E. Thompson, Mark A. Hixon. Larval Connectivity in an Effective Network of Marine Protected Areas. PLoS ONE. 5(12): e15715. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0015715.

I ♥ open access papers.
 
Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.
 
 

RIP, Select Committee on Global Warming

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 7:39 AM PST

The kick-off of the 112th Congress on Wednesday also marked the end of an era in the House—the demise of a committee devoted solely to climate change and energy issues. The Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, created by Nancy Pelosi in 2006, has been shuttered under the new Republican leadership. In the final days of the committee, staffers released a report on what the committee accomplished in its brief tenure—an epitaph of sorts.

Tackling issues from the politicization of climate science to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, the committee held 80 hearings and briefings. It played a role in shaping policy for the 2007 energy bill, the 2009 stimulus package (which included $90 billion in energy, efficiency, and other green elements), and, of course, the 2009 climate bill (the one that never became law, of course, because the Senate didn't act on it).

The final report concludes with the question of whether the United States will respond to all the information that the committee has compiled during its lifespan on the climate and energy challenge:

Someday, our children and grandchildren will look back on the record of the Select Committee. That record will reflect a respectful and rigorous debate and an unprecedented understanding of the challenges before us. Whether or not they will see that this generation has taken the bold action required by these challenges remains to be seen.

Select Committee Chair Ed Markey (D-Mass.) will now serve as the ranking member of the natural resources committee, so I'm sure we will be hearing more on the subject from him in the next two years.

There had been some talk among Republicans of keeping the committee alive so it could be used to mock climate change and harass scientists, but leadership put the kibosh on that idea. It went out on a high note, and on its own terms, so I suppose we can take some small comfort in that.

The Oil Industry's New Year's Resolution

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 4:00 AM PST

The American Petroleum Institute, which last year called congressional efforts to curb climate changing emissions, among other things, "a giant tax," a "job killer," and "fundamentally flawed," is now begging for Congress to take action—to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating those emissions, that is. In a speech laying out the priorities of the oil industry's top trade for the new year on Tuesday, API president Jack Gerard pledged to fight the coming EPA regulations.

EPA regulations of greenhouse gases began phasing in on Sunday, though their progression will be slow and the major rules for power plants and oil refineries aren't even expected until the second half of 2012. The EPA rules came after a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that the agency could in fact regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act if it determines that the gases endanger human health, and after both the Bush and Obama administration EPA did in fact reach that conclusion in 2008 and 2009, respectively. While a new law from Congress dealing with greenhouse gases was the preference of most folks following the issue (enviros, business, and the administration included), the Senate decided not to deal with it last year. And now the EPA is following through with actions as the agency is compelled to by the Supreme Court, the Clean Air Act, and its executive branch authority.

But API—as well as some House members and senators on both sides of the aisle—wants the agency's regulations shut down. "We do not support and strongly oppose the EPA unilaterally regulating greenhouse gas emissions," said Gerard. "We believe it is in the purview of the United States Congress to regulate greenhouse gases." The EPA, he said, "has overstepped its bounds." He also said API "will support the means necessary to make sure Congress makes that decision," noting there are multiple options available to do so but not offering any preference for how legislators could do that.

To sum up: The EPA was directed to act on this issue, which it has. Congress had almost four years after the Supreme Court decision to put in place a new law that woud supersede EPA regulations. But industry groups like API balked at the options that Congress came up with, and in the end, the Senate never passed anything at all—which has basically forced the EPA to act. Now industry groups are griping that Congress should act, not EPA.

One option for blocking the EPA, which incoming Energy and Commerce Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) floated this week, is to pass a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act. This obscure maneuver allows Congress to block a regulation from the executive branch within 60 days of publication in the Federal Register. Upton was in the audience for Tuesday's API event, and it's pretty much assured that if Upton does pursue that option, API will support him.

On the broader issue of climate change—you know, the issue those regulations were designed to address in the first place and the issue that Gerard says he prefers that Congress deal with—Gerard predicted that "the climate discussion will likely be put off for another day." While he noted that "there may be a time in the future when we come back to the climate dialogue," he didn't seem to think that would be anytime soon. "I think it's a question of priority," said Gerard. "Right now I think the American people have made it clear they want the focus to be on job creation."

Gerard's other priorities for the year included urging the Obama administration to reconsider its decision to delay lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and reverse the decision to open new areas to drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, which was made in respons to the Gulf oil spill. Gerard also called for "additional access" to oil and gas reserves on land and in the Outer Continental Shelf, and decried any move that would amount to "increasing taxes on oil and natural gas." (While Gerard refers to attempts to "raise taxes," what API usually means by that is efforts to end subsidies and close the loopholes the industry currently enjoys—which the Obama administration has proposed cutting in past budgets.) Doing so, said Gerard, would "result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs."

There wasn't much new really in Tuesday's speech, but a good idea of what to expect from the oil industry in 2011.

Comic: The Climate Bill in Six Acts

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 4:00 AM PST

The last two years saw the protracted death of climate change legislation. Here, in an exclusive new comic, we tell the sordid tale. Click on the thumbnails below to see each page of the comic.

1. 2008: A New Hope 2. Spring 2009: The House Gets to Work 3. Summer 2009: Dawn of the Dead
4. Winter '09 - Spring '10: Senate Follies  5. 2010: Failure 6. 2011 on: What Next?

(Written by me, illustrated by Thomas Pitilli, lettering and headers by Warp Graphics.)

This comic was produced by Grist for the Climate Desk collaboration.

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Big Changes in North Atlantic Currents

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 3:16 PM PST

There's an important paper in early view in PNAS describing profound changes in the dominant currents of the North Atlantic since the 1970s. What's intriguing here—apart from the findings—is the method of determining these changes.

The authors used new technology to parse the story of ocean circulation from the story of ocean productivity using the skeletons of deepwater gorgonian corals. Specifically, they employed a process of amino acid analysis of nitrogen stable isotopes (δ15N-AA), as recorded in the growth rings of corals living between Newfoundland and Maine.

The technique promises to be a kind of Rosetta Stone for deciphering the ecological and physical history of the oceans.

A deep-water gorgonian coral. Image courtesy of Sanctuary Quest 2002, NOAA/OER.A deep-water gorgonian coral. Image courtesy of Sanctuary Quest 2002, NOAA/OER.

The results reveal a sharply declining influence of the Labrador Current (colder, less saline, and nutrient-poor) in favor of Gulf Stream waters (warmer, saltier, nutrient-rich) since the 1970s, compared to the previous 1,800 years. Image courtesy PNAS.Image courtesy PNAS.

The interplay between the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream is a crucial component of the North Atlantic Oscillation, one of the major climate drivers for North America and Europe.

We therefore conclude that changes in nitrate source partitioning may be tied to recent, human-caused changes in global climate. These results highlight the importance of novel and creative proxies like δ15 N-AA for investigating the links between climate change and ecosystem functioning beyond the last few decades of scientific observations.

The paper:

  • Owen A. Sherwood, Moritz F. Lehmann, Carsten J. Schubert, David B. Scott, and Matthew D. McCarthy. Nutrient regime shift in the western North Atlantic indicated by compound-specific δ15N of deep-sea gorgonian coral. PNAS. January 3, 2011. DOI: 

Mourning the Loss of the "Godmother of the Anti-Mountaintop Removal Movement"

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 1:32 PM PST

The environmental movement lost a leader Monday night with the death of Judy Bonds, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch. Bonds, 58, had battled cancer for several months, but to the end was a leading voice in the movement to end mountaintop removal coal mining.

Often sporting a "Save the Endangered Hillbilly" T-shirt at public events, Bonds consistently reminded us that we are not dealing with an "environmental" threat, but a human one as well. Just a few months ago, she was part of the organizing team for Appalachia Rising, an event that brought 2,000 anti-mountaintop removal activists to Washington. Coal River Mountain Watch co-director Vernon Haltom memorialized her in a message last night:

Judy was more than a co-worker, friend, and mentor: she became family. She inspired thousands in the movement to end mountaintop removal and was a driving force in making it what it has become. I can't count the number of times someone told me they got involved because they heard Judy speak, either at their university, at a rally, or in a documentary. Years ago she envisioned a "thousand hillbilly march" in Washington, DC. In 2010, that dream became a reality as thousands marched on the White House for Appalachia Rising.
Judy endured much personal suffering for her leadership. While people of lesser courage would candy-coat their words or simply shut up and sit down, Judy called it as she saw it. She endured physical assault, verbal abuse, and death threats because she stood up for justice for her community. I never met a more courageous person, one who faced her own death and spoke about it with the same voice as if it were a scheduled trip.

Jeff Biggers also posted a touching piece on Bonds Tuesday morning:

She was a tireless, funny, and inspiring orator, and a savvy and brilliant community organizer. She was fearless in the face of threats. As the godmother of the anti-mountaintop removal movement, she gave birth to a new generation of clean energy and human rights activists across the nation. In a year of mining disasters and climate change set backs, she challenged activists to redouble their efforts.

Bonds was a real inspiration to many, and her voice will surely be missed.

Fate of Gulf Oil Still Largely Unknown

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 9:20 AM PST

In the months since the Deepwater Horizon blew up and unleashed 4.9 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico, the whereabouts of the oil has been a major subject of research and debate. Some reports suggests the oil has accumulated in large, undersea plumes. Others have found it accumulating on the Gulf floor. But a report compiled by the Congressional Research Service concludes that the actual fate of the oil that remained in the Gulf after clean-up efforts is anyone's guess.

The Federation of American Scientists posted the report on its website on Monday, though it's dated December 16 (h/t to Andrew Restuccia for flagging it over at E2 Wire). "Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: The Fate of the Oil" surveys a variety of studies released since the well was finally capped in late July. The author notes that while a "substantial portion" of the oil has been removed, "a greater portion remained, in some form."

As the report notes, even if one assumes that about half of the oil has been removed from the Gulf, as the government does, that means the other half—more than 2 million barrels—remains in the Gulf.

The report concludes:

It is debatable whether the fate of the remaining oil will ever be established conclusively. Multiple challenges hinder this objective: the complexity of the Gulf system; resources required to collect data; and varied interpretations over the results and observations. Moreover, as time progresses, determining the fate of the oil will likely become more difficult. Regardless, the question of oil fate will likely be addressed through an incremental process. Researchers are continuing to study various components of the Gulf, specifically damages to natural resources. Some of these efforts may provide clues to the oil's fate.

There was quite a bit of controversy when the Obama adminstration released its report on the fate of the oil in early August, because the was no supporting data to accompany the figures at the time and because administration officials falsely claimed that the oil budget had been peer reviewed. The National Oil Spill Commission report blasted the administration's handling of that report. But the administration later issued a peer-reviewed version of that oil budget, concluding that its earlier estimates were in fact correct. The CRS report accepts those figures as accurate while highlighting that uncertainties remain about how precise the estimates are. Moreover, the August estimate is now five months old and not necessarily relevant to where the oil is today.

But the fate of all that oil is still a crucial question. Its lasting impact will (or at least, should) affect decisions about the damages assessed for the spill and policy choices going forward. And, as the report notes, it also affects perceptions about Gulf industries like fishing and tourism.

Fred Upton's Climate Changeup

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 4:00 AM PST

Does Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) have something to hide when it comes to his position on climate change?

In the past, Upton—the incoming chair of the House energy and commerce committee—has advocated taking action on global warming. "I strongly believe that everything must be on the table as we seek to reduce carbon emissions," he once stated on his website. But that statement recently vanished from his site—along with, it seems, his concern about global warming. Following a tea party-aided Republican takeover of the House and a heated fight for the chairmanship of the powerful committee, Upton's position on climate change has veered closer to those of his global-warming-denying caucus-mates. And he's now vowing to use his new role to thwart efforts to cut emissions.