Blue Marble - January 2011

Judge Rules Gulf Claims Czar Not "Independent"

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 1:32 PM EST

A Louisiana judge ruled Wednesday that Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of the $20 billion Gulf coast recovery fund, can't call himself "independent."

The Obama administration tapped Feinberg to determine how the money BP agreed to put in the fund would be dolled out to those affected by the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But the fact that BP is paying Feinberg for his services (and paying him pretty well, I might add) has prompted a good deal of criticism. US District Judge Carl Barbier ruled on Wednesday that Feinberg must fully disclose his ties to BP in his conversations with Gulf coast residents seeking money from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. "A full disclosure of the relationship between Mr. Feinberg, the GCCF, and BP will at least make transparent that it is BP's interests" Feinberg is representing, the judge wrote.

Feinberg's law firm is receiving $850,000 a month from BP to administer the fund. The facility has paid out $3.3 billion to 168,558 claimants so far. There are 316,949 claims still in the pipeline, according to the latest figures from the GCCF. But lawyers for some of the people impacted by the spill have argued that Feinberg is asking victims to accept lower payments then they could receive by suing BP.

Feinberg's office didn't respond to the judge's ruling. "We have no comment on the ruling," said Feinberg spokeswoman Amy Weiss in an email. "We are focused on moving forward paying claims."

The ruling also came on the same day that Feinberg released a draft methodology proposal for long-term payments from the fund. The proposed methodology, created in consultation with "scientific and economic experts," estimates that the Gulf will, for the most part, recover by 2012:

There is evidence of a strong recovery underway. However, the GCCF has concluded that it is reasonable to base its future payment calculations on the principle that a full economic recovery in the Gulf region is likely (but not certain) within two to three years from the date of the Oil Spill.

It does, however, acknowledging that the "prediction is not an exact science," and proposes a reevaluation of the science and economic findings every four months.

The draft proposes paying out double the documented loses sustained in the first year after the spill to those whose livelihoods are tied to the Gulf. It also predicts that oysters will take longer to cover, and proposes a payment for four years for oystermen. Claimants still have several options—taking a lump-sum payment now based on the current estimate of losses, accepting interim payments while they wait to see what their future losses might actually be, or opting out of the fund entirely and taking their claim to court. The draft proposal is open for public comment through Feb. 16.

The methodology raised some controversy, as other scientists looking at the long-term impacts to the Gulf argued that it's far too early to make such sweeping predictions about the long term impacts. "This is not a scientific report—it's an opinion. There’s just no data here. It doesn’t propose any methodology by which its assumptions and predictions could be tested,” says Ian MacDonald, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University.

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Podcast: Does Punxsutawney Phil Believe in Climate Change?

Thu Feb. 3, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Climate scientists have for years complained of their inability to educate the public about the dangers of global warming.

Maybe they can learn a thing or two from Punxsutawney Phil.

The world's most famous groundhog prognosticator has little trouble getting attention for his weather predictions. And on Wednesday, the world will tune in once again to watch as Phil emerges from his home on Gobbler's Knob and looks for his shadow. [UPDATE: Phil failed to see his shadow Wednesday morning, signaling an early spring.]

Few know as much about Phil as Mike Johnston, the vice president of the groundhog's Inner Circle, and one of Phil's closest confidants. In honor of this year's Groundhog Day, Need to Know spoke with Johnston to discuss the history of Phil's predictions, the mysteries of the Inner Circle and whether Phil believes in anthropogenic climate change.

As Johnston revealed, Phil does study the work of other climatologists — but mostly for laughs.

"He's a student of weather predicting, weather forecasting, for one day," Johnston said of Phil. "He studies the models, he likes a little light reading, and maybe some humor mixed in with it. And I think that's what he gets with most other weather predictions."

This podcast was produced by Need to Know for the Climate Desk collaboration.

Is Jon Huntsman the Greenest GOP Presidential Hopeful?

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is looking like the most climate-cognizant contender for the Republican presidential nomination. In fact, he downright looks like a climate hawk.

Huntsman—who is resigning his position as ambassador to China in order to, as they say, explore his options—has been outspoken about the need for climate action, and, as governor, signed his state up for a regional cap-and-trade program as part of the Western Climate Initiative.

He's obviously greener than outright climate deniers like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and flip-floppers like Newt Gingrich, but he might also be more climate-hawkish than Tim Pawlenty, who called for moderate climate action while he was governor of Minnesota but more recently has questioned the degree to which climate change is human-caused. A number of Republican presidential hopefuls have, like Pawlenty, backed away from climate concern in the past year as skepticism has come into vogue in the Tea Party camp. Huntsman, who's been out of the country and out of the spotlight since heading to Beijing in August 2009, has not backtracked—at least not yet.

In 2007, Huntsman brought his state into the Western Climate Initiative, the only Republican governor other than California's Arnold Schwarzenegger to do so. In 2008, he set a goal for Utah to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 2005 levels by 2020. His climate activism ticked off the heavily Republican state legislature, which hit Huntsman with a resolution calling on him to back out of the WCI, but the state's heavily Republican electorate didn't seem to mind, as it reelected Huntsman in November 2008 with 78 percent of the vote.

In January 2009, Huntsman said he found it "enormously frustrating" that Republicans had not been working toward a national climate policy. "We would not need the Western Climate Initiative if it were not for the foot-dragging nature of Congress," he said. "If Republicans had identified this problem earlier and tackled it aggressively, we would all be working together."

When Huntsman resigned from the governorship to become ambassador to China, Marc Heileson of the Sierra Club's Utah office lamented that the state was losing "a national leader in the world's most important environmental issue."

Huntsman carried his call for climate action into his ambassadorship, saying that one of his top goals would be collaborating with China on climate solutions:

We have entered an era in which all nations are called upon to work together to address the urgent problem of global climate change. The United States and China should be part of the solution, and collaboration on clean energy and greater energy efficiency offer a real opportunity to deepen the overall US-China relationship. US agencies have been encouraging their counterparts in China to expand cooperation on clean energy and other emission-reducing activities and to advance the international climate change negotiations. As Utah's Governor, I have been deeply involved in exploring clean energy options for the Western States. During my chairmanship of the Western Governors' Association, we focused specifically on the global nature of climate change, working directly with China and other major carbon emitters on this critical issue. If confirmed, I will continue my personal interest in working with China to identify and take action in areas that are mutually beneficial and which promote low-carbon economic growth in ways that are consistent with our trade and investment policies.

The political climate (ahem) is much different now than it was in mid-2009. If Huntsman decides to make a run for the Republican presidential nomination, will he distinguish himself from his competitors by sticking to his guns and insisting that climate change is a real problem that needs urgent action? Or will he follow the herd and make mealymouthed noises about uncertain science and the economic apocalypse that cap-and-trade would bring on?

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

Yet Another Bill to Block EPA's Climate Regs

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 7:47 PM EST

UPDATE: Looks like Upton and Inhofe have now actually released a discusssion draft of the bill. The draft is newer than the one that Markey and Waxman sent out earlier, with a time-stamp of 5:05 p.m. Feb. 2.

ORIGINAL: Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, was reportedly set to release a bill that would block the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing greenhouse gas regulations on Wednesday. But by 6 p.m., the bill was still nowhere to be seen—so House Democrats pushed out a draft copy of the legislation to reporters themselves.

Politico had some details last week, noting that Upton had been working with Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) on a bill together to introduce in both the House and Senate. This is a draft of a House bill, titled the "Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011." It would amend the Clean Air Act to make it state explicitly that it does not cover greenhouse gases, and would repeal the EPA's scientific finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health.  It would also overrule the Supreme Court's determination that those gases can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The measure would also bar the EPA from setting new emissions standards for automobiles, and from granting states waivers that allow them set their own higher standards for cars and light trucks.

Inhofe is the most vocal skeptic of climate change in the Senate, so of course he doesn't see any reason for the EPA to regulate emissions. Upton, however, has been moderate on this issue in the past, and even endorsed the premise that emissions should be cut.

Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.)—authors of the cap and trade bill that the House passed in 2009 to deal with global warming—sent the draft of the bill to reporters Wednesday evening, stating that they received a copy from "industry lobbyists." The two Democrats panned the draft as an "assault the Clean Air Act" in a release sent to reporters Wednesday night.

"The Republicans have a lot of power, but they can’t amend the laws of nature. Gutting the Clean Air Act is only going to make our problems worse," said Waxman in a statement. "This proposal threatens public health and energy security, and it undermines our economic recovery by creating regulatory uncertainty."

This week certainly is shaping up to be an all-out assault on the EPA. A group of Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would delay EPA regulations for two years. And a group of Senate Republicans introduced a bill this week that would bar the EPA from acting on climate under almost every major existing environmental law.

"It Feels Weird To Shoot the Lady Zombie in the Boobs"

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Read the Feral Pig Diaries: "Day 1: Moonshine and Teen Swine" is here; "Day 2: Do Hogs Like Supermarket Danishes" is here; and "Day 3: OK, but How Does Wild Hog Taste?" is here.

On Monday I dragged fellow MoJo staffers Mac McClelland and Adam Weinstein with me to our (sort of) local shooting range. What, you may ask, were some hippies like us doing in a place like this? Well, I needed to learn to shoot for an upcoming reporting trip. I'll explain that part in a second, but first, some pictures and a video clip of our afternoon:

 We piled into my car and drove out to Jackson Arms, a shooting range within spitting distance of San Francisco International Airport. (File this fun fact away for your next layover.) Once inside, Adam passed a quick test so we could rent a few guns and a rifle lane—novice shooters like me must be accompanied by at least one experienced marksman, house rules. I was the only novice in the crowd: Adam is a Navy veteran and grew up around guns, and Mac was a great marksman in college.

Adam showed me how to load, carry, and shoot the gun safely, then we headed into the rifle range. Above, Adam fires off a round on the AR-15. Doesn't he look cool? Both he and Mac were total badasses shooting this gun, which made a big noise and had quite a kick. In a moment that probably would have reminded my mother of the time when, at age five, I had to be carried out of the lightning show at the Boston Science Museum because it was too loud and scary, I declined to shoot the AR-15 and decided to stick to this gun instead:

Yes, this Ruger 1022 semiautomatic rifle is very one-if-by-land compared to the AR-15. At first I was aiming pretty well, hitting the evil clown target (see below) right between the eyes. But by my fourth round or so, my beginner's luck had worn off considerably. Also, I was freezing; the range was, for some reason, like a meat locker. Mac and I decided to go warm up in the lobby for a minute. I took out my granola bar and asked the guy behind the counter if it was okay to eat it, at which point Mac tweeted, "Kiera to attendant: 'Can I eat my granola bar in here?' #MotherJonesGoesToTheFiringRange!" Then, as I was eating my granola bar I noticed a sign about how you should always wash your hands after handling ammo, and I started worrying about whether hunters inadvertently give themselves lead poisoning. Like Mac said, #MotherJonesGoesToTheFiringRange!

 

The sheer variety of paper targets for sale at Jackson Arms really surpassed my expectations. We selected this evil clown, a man zombie, a lady zombie, and a few plain old bullseyes. While I had no qualms aiming for this clown's big red nose, Mac remarked, "It feels weird to shoot the lady zombie in the boobs." 

Unfortunately I don't have a video of Mac and Adam shooting, since my phone is the opposite of smart. But this one, which Adam took, shows me shooting and Mac sweeping up some bullet casings and generally looking cool.

Now back to the reason for the trip to the shooting range: Next week, I'm headed down to rural Georgia to work on a story about invasive species—specifiically, the idea that the best way to get rid of destructive non-native animals is to get people to eat them. Jackson Landers, a.k.a the Locavore Hunter, aims to whet American appetites for invasive species like lionfish, geese, deer, boar, and even spiny iguanas by working with wholesalers, chefs, and restaurateurs to promote these aliens as menu items. As Landers recently told the New York Times' James Gorman, "When human beings decide that something tastes good, we can take them down pretty quickly.”

I'll be accompanying Landers and a few of his friends on a hunt for invasive feral pigs, which have proliferated over the last decade in much of the southeastern US, competing with native species for food and wreaking havoc on farmlands with their rooting. They're particularly problematic in coastal areas, where they eat the eggs of endangered sea turtles. (A few years ago, Ian Frazier wrote an eloquent New Yorker piece about the hog population explosion; among his observations: "The presence of feral hogs in a state is a strong indicator of its support for Bush in '04.")

Let's be clear: I've never wanted to go hunting before. I come from a family that likes creatures the way other families like football. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad hustling me outside to listen to migrating Canada geese honking overhead. More recently, he has been known to imitate yipping coyotes, loudly and gleefully, at the dinner table. Needless to say, my father is not pleased about my upcoming pig trip. When I explained to him that we were hunting animals that didn't belong here and were forcing out native species, he countered: "Yeah, and immigrants are taking our jobs, too, isn't that right, Kiery?"

No doubt many of you guys agree with my dad, and you'll probably tell me so in the comments section of this post and elsewhere. (I'm looking at you, Vegansaurus!) I don't mean to be flip about any of this. If we do end up shooting a pig, Jackson has generously offered to show me the whole butchering process. We'll try to make use of the entire animal. I'm not sure how I'll feel when I'm actually on the trip, but I'm going to be thinking a lot about ethics. I'll be chronicling the whole thing here on the Blue Marble. Let's call it the Feral Pig Diaries. 

Read the Feral Pig Diaries: "Day 1: Moonshine and Teen Swine" is here; "Day 2: Do Hogs Like Supermarket Danishes" is here; and "Day 3: OK, but How Does Wild Hog Taste?" is here.

Climate Scientists Seek Invite from Congress

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 7:00 AM EST

A group of scientists, seeking to cut off assaults on climate science at the pass, sent a letter to every member of the House and Senate urging them to take a "fresh look" at climate change and volunteering to appear at hearings on the subject.

The letter asks representatives to set partisanship aside for a fair analysis of the science. "Political philosophy has a legitimate role in policy debates, but not in the underlying climate science," they wrote. "There are no Democratic or Republican carbon dioxide molecules; they are all invisible and they all trap heat."

The 18 climate scientists–organized as the Project on Climate Science—stressed the practical need to be concerned about climate even at a time of economic distress, emphasizing that it will only become a more expensive problem if the country waits to act. They also emphasize the threat that sea level rise poses to coastal infrastructure and the human health implications.

The scientists urge members and senators to hold hearings on climate science, offering their own services for that purpose. Some House Republicans now in leadership positions have called for climate science hearings, albeit from the perspective of accusing scientists of fraud. That appears to have fallen down their list of priorities for this year.

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Your Questions for Kate Sheppard

Tue Feb. 1, 2011 7:04 PM EST

How to use this page: Start by asking Kate a question and submitting it for her to answer. Then be sure to check back next week to see what Kate had to say and to see what other Blue Marble readers and Planet Forward community members asked her. For more experts from Planet Forward, click here.

Fish Decide Better in Groups

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 6:13 PM EST

Photo by Uxbona, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Uxbona, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 
How can so many—fill in the blank—fish, birds, grasshoppers move as one, often at lightning-fast speed, without killing most members in the process? How can they manage to get anything done in the midst of what seems to be barely-controlled chaos?
 
 
Photo by Dead Fish, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Dead Fish, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
 
First up: In common parlance, shoaling and schooling are interchangeable. Technically, though, shoaling is defined as fish hanging out in groups for social reasons—for predator detection, for better foraging, for mate selection, and/or for enhanced hydrodynamics. Shoaling fish stick close to each other but don't attempt to move as one organism. You can see shoaling surgeonfish in the top photo.
 
Schooling is when fish—often fish already grouped in a shoal—reorient in order to swim together in a coordinated manner. The silver moonies in the photo below have reoriented into a school... something usually done in response to a threat.
 
Photo by Mila, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Mila, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

So, what's better, a small school or a big school? The many eyes theory predicts that predators will be detected faster by larger groups, and that all group members—not just the first detector—will enjoy a higher probability of escape as news of the predator is transmitted across the group.

Now a new paper in PNAS shows that bigger schools not only make faster decisions, they also make more accurate decisions. From the abstract: 
Here we show that both speed and accuracy of decision making increase with group size in fish shoals under predation threat. We examined two plausible mechanisms for this improvement: first, that groups are guided by a small proportion of high-quality decision makers and, second, that group members use self-organized division of vigilance.

The researchers investigated the two possible mechanisms by working with captive mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) in a Y-shaped maze. They filmed groups of 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 fish swimming through the "approach zone" and towards the "decision zone" just before the Y split.

A replica predator, measuring 12 cm in length, was allocated to one of the arms of the Y-maze at random and suspended in midwater using fine monofilament line. In pilot trials, the fish showed a strong aversive response to the predator once they detected it. 

Credit: PNAS DOI:10.1073/pnas.1007102108Credit: PNAS DOI:10.1073/pnas.1007102108

Fish expressed uncertainty about which way to swim at the Y split by slowing down and turning more often. The researchers measured this as "path tortuosity" (the ratio of the path taken to the straight line distance of the route) for each group size.

Results indicated that leader fish—those  in the front of the school—were not more accurate decision-makers than follower fish—those in the rear. In other words, the group was not benefiting from the presence of super-vigilant individuals... suggesting that the second option—self-organized vigilance—was the mechanism allowing for increased speed and accuracy in group decision making: 

We propose that the many eyes response is facilitated by a form of self-organized vigilance, whereby information acquired by one individual is transmitted by positive feedback and communicated across the group.
Although there may be some debate about what mechanisms allow such accurate and fast decision making in groups, it is clear that our results are not consistent with the game-theoretic reasoning often applied when thinking about predator avoidance situations. For example, there is no evidence of individuals in larger groups slowing down to force another group member to take the risk of inspecting the two options. On the contrary, the efficiency of the fish shoal’s many eyes suggests a high degree of cooperation in detection and avoidance of predators. 
 

100,000 starlings fill the skies in Poole - 1 Minute: a Vimeo Project from Mark Rigler on Vimeo.

 
The paper:
  • Ashley J. W. Ward, James E. Herbert-Read, David J. T. Sumpter, and Jens Krause. Fast and accurate decisions through collective vigilance in fish shoals. PNAS. DOI:

 Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Democrats Plan to Neuter EPA's Climate Regs

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 5:48 PM EST

West Virginia Democrat Sen. Jay Rockefeller on Tuesday re-introduced his legislation that would block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act for the next two years. Rockefeller offered the same bill last year, though it never went to a vote. This time he's joined by six other Democrats who are calling for a temporary time-out on the EPA regulations that began phasing in on Jan. 2.

Democrats Jim Webb (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Tim Johnson (SD), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Kent Conrad (ND) have signed on as co-sponsors to Rockefeller's bill. Their statement calls for granting Congress "enough time" to pass a climate bill, rather than regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. (Not mentioning, of course, that it's now been four years since the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA could and should start this process, in the absence of a new climate-specific law.)

"We must give Congress enough time to consider a comprehensive energy bill to develop the clean coal technologies we need and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, protect West Virginia and improve our environment," said Rockefeller in a statement. "We can address emissions and secure a future for the U.S. coal industry, but we need the time to get it right and to move clean coal technology forward."

"I do not believe that Congress should cede its authority over an issue as important as climate change to unelected officials of the Executive Branch," said Webb, also in a statement. "It is critical to our environment and our national security that we move towards more responsible energy policy, but Congress—not the EPA—should enact any changes, and be accountable to the American people for them."

Manchin, who fired a rifle at a replica of the climate bill in a campaign ad last fall, accused the EPA of being an "adversary" on energy and "undermining our fragile economy."

When a similar effort to handcuff the EPA on climate was put to a vote last year, two other current Democratic senators also voted for it—Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.). That measure failed last June, but the conversation has shifted much farther to the right in the past seven months. Republicans in the Senate, led by John Barrasso of Wyoming, yesterday introduced their own bill that would permanently bar the EPA from acting on climate, under any and all environmental laws. Meanwhile, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) are also reportedly collaborating on a bicameral bill that would be similarly aggressive. Meanwhile, the Republican takeover of the House has made it almost inevitable that they'll pass some sort of legislation blocking the EPA rules with ease. And then you've got Newt Gingrich, a would-be GOP presidential contender, out campaigning to abolish the agency entirely.

The real threat now is that the litany of bills from Republicans will serve to make Rockefeller's time-out look like the modest proposal, far less threatening than what the GOP wants to do.

Chamber Calls Obama's Clean Energy Plan "Ridiculously Premature"

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 2:24 PM EST

So much for everyone linking arms and walking together toward a clean energy future. A week after President Obama called for setting a goal of drawing 80 percent of electricity from "clean" energy sources by 2035, the US Chamber of Commerce sent a message back in his direction: fat chance.

The Chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy held a press conference on Tuesday to roll out its energy plans for the year. Endorsement of a clean energy standard—even one that includes nuclear power, natural gas, and "clean coal" in the mix, as Obama's does—was not part of it. The Chamber has been a major opponent of efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but the group signaled Tuesday that it is also going to fight Obama's much scaled-back version of an energy plan as well.

"It's ridiculously premature to even have a CES conversation," said Christopher Guith, vice president for policy at the Institute, referring to what specific figure the Chamber would endorse for a target. "We have very little idea where many of these new members of Congress are going. We know that the House majority has said that it's not very likely that they're even going to entertain a CES." He added, "The fact that the president put it out there—it's good to discuss the policy impacts, but again, the political reality is getting smaller by the day."

The Chamber says that the administration's approach to energy is "unrealistic"—arguing that it "picks winners and losers." The powerful business lobby group argued that an eight-fold increase in non-hydro renewables would be needed to meet that goal, which the group claims is "impossible" to achieve.

In particular, the Chamber pushed back on the call to cut subsidies and tax loopholes for the oil industry. "Raising taxes on the industry that fuels our lives shows a profound detachment from our energy and economic reality," said Karen Harbert, president of the Institute, in a statement last week. She elaborated further on the Chamber's preferred energy plan on Tuesday, calling for increased access to land for oil and gas drilling both onshore and offshore and eliminating "regulatory barriers" to energy projects.

The Chamber's plan calls for "streamlining" environmental reviews to speed energy projects faster, targeting in particular enforcement of the National Environmental Protection Act. The group insisted that it doesn't want enforcement weakened—but then went on to state that it wants to "ensure that the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act are not used indiscriminately to threaten adequate supplies of energy."

The Chamber did support plans for a clean energy bank, a provision included in different iterations in both the House and Senate climate and energy bills last year under the name Clean Energy Deployment Administration, or CEDA.

One interesting element of the Chamber's energy presentation was the recognition that so-called "clean coal" isn't likely to play a significant role in the energy portfolio any time soon. "Clean coal technology most likely will not be available in that time frame," Harbert said in her opening remarks. Asked to elaborate after the event, Harbert said, "Given the state of readiness and from the industry's own acknowledgment, they don't see it having permeated the market in any significant manner."

This, of course, is far from what we were hearing a few years ago, when the coal industry and its allies were promising that emissions-free coal was just around the corner. Obama also touted it in the State of the Union address last week, though the Chamber's probably right on this one—it's looking less like a near-term option all the time.