Blue Marble - February 2011

Ecuador Court Orders Chevron to Pay Up

| Wed Feb. 16, 2011 4:33 PM PST
Kids play by oil pipelines in Lago Agrio.

A small court in the town of Lago Agrio, Ecuador, has ordered Chevron to pay plaintiffs from indigenous communities and their defense $9 billion for environmental damages. A handful of tribes, represented by attorney Steven Donzinger,  accused Texaco—now Chevron—of deliberately dumping 16 billion gallons of toxic oil-production sludge into Amazon rivers and streams, abandoning 900 unlined pits of heavy metals dumped by the company; and failing to fix oil-pipeline leaks throughout the region. The judge also demanded Chevron apologize publicly, lest the fine be doubled.

But Chevron has been preparing for this outcome for almost as long as the complex battle has been raging. Chevron is trying to take the issue to the Hague's international arbitration court—a legal mediation process that the indigenous plaintiffs would be conveniently left out of, as only countries are party to the relevant international Bilateral Investment Treaty [PDF]. There's also the ongoing battle over allegations of plaintiff extortion.

But the plaintiffs are ready to fight back: They have new funding from Burford Capital, as well as an addition to their legal team, DC law firm Patton Boggs, which filed a lawsuit against the oil giant for its underhanded interference in the legal proceedings and efforts to drain the group of financial resources.

When a Chevron spokesperson said, "We will fight this until Hell freezes over and then we'll fight it out on the ice," Amazon Defense Coaltion's Karon Hinton responded, "We have our skates on." 

The next step comes on Thursday, when both parties will file the first of three possible appeals in the Ecuadorian courts. Chevron, of course, will appeal the most recent decision, while the plaintiffs will argue for higher damages to be awarded. The hope, said Hinton, is to repay some of the families for loss of life, mostly from the high cancer rates that have been linked to the pollution. "People have lost their loved ones, their family members. An Ecuadorian life is just as valuable as an American one," she said. 

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Futurist Ray Kurzweil Isn’t Worried About Climate Change

| Wed Feb. 16, 2011 4:07 PM PST

Author, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil famously and accurately predicted that a computer would beat a man at chess by 1998, that technologies that help spread information would accelerate the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that a worldwide communications network would emerge in the mid 1990s (i.e. the Internet).

Most of Kurzweil's prognostications are derived from his law of accelerating returns—the idea that information technologies progress exponentially, in part because each iteration is used to help build the next, better, faster, cheaper one. In the case of computers, this is not just a theory but an observable trend—computer processing power has doubled every two years for nearly half a century.

As Massey Goes, Will Its Lawsuits Vanish?

| Wed Feb. 16, 2011 1:00 PM PST

Since two of the biggest US coal companies Massey Energy and Alpha Natural Resources announced their merger on January 29, some reports have speculated that Massey's directors and officers may be using the merger to overcome legal troubles spurred by the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine disaster on April 5, 2010, in which 29 miners died and two were injured.

Last week, the West Virginia Record reported that one shareholder filed a complaint with the Eastern District Court of Virginia, claiming that Massey directors agreed to merge with Alpha in order to "escape lawsuits over the Upper Big Branch mine explosion." An earlier New York Times DealBook report on the merger stated that "the combination is also likely to help Massey move past its legal woes arising from safety violations" like the explosion last April, without detailing how. Are Massey's directors up to fishy business?

Not exactly. Despite the coal giant's abysmal safety and health record, the deal "looks pretty Kosher," says Ehud Kamar, a law professor at the University of Southern California. When a company with liabilities like Massey enters a merger, two types of lawsuits are bound to happen, explains David Berger, a partner specializing in merger litigation at the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati. The first kind is the wrongful death case, or the lawsuits brought against Massey by families of miners who died in the UBB incident. These lawsuits will proceed uninterrupted by a merger, lawyers say. In this case, Massey exec will remain a defendant in these cases, which, depending on the verdicts, will cost the company between $100 million and $350 million.

The deal between Alpha and Massey appears to be structured as a "standard statutory reverse triangular merger," meaning that if the deal gets the green light from shareholders and regulators, Massey will become a wholly owned Alpha subsidiary, and Alpha will assume not only Massey's assets but also its liabilities, wrongful death suits included. Presumably, when Alpha agreed to pay $7.1 billion to buy out Massey, it had already sized up the potential damages that will result from these claims. "The liabilities are sticky," says Robert Bartlett, assistant professor of law at UC Berkeley. "Someone's going to have to pay for them." In other words, there's no way Massey or Alpha could escape the UBB lawsuits filed by victims' families, even if they wanted to.

Revealed: How Energy Firms Spy on Environmental Activists

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 12:31 PM PST

This post first appeared on the Guardian website.

Three large energy companies have been carrying out covert intelligence-gathering operations on environmental activists, the Guardian can reveal.

The energy giant E.ON, Britain's second-biggest coal producer Scottish Resources Group, and Scottish Power, one of the UK's largest electricity-generators, have been paying for the services of a private security firm that has been secretly monitoring activists.

Leaked documents show how the security firm's owner, Rebecca Todd, tipped off company executives about environmentalists' plans after snooping on their emails. She is also shown instructing an agent to attend campaign meetings and coaching him on how to ingratiate himself with activists. The disclosures come as police chiefs, on the defensive over damaging revelations of undercover police officers in the protest movement, privately claim that there are more corporate spies in protest groups than undercover police officers.

School for Smarts

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 3:44 PM PST

 

This animation was developed from a talk by Sir Ken Robinson to Britain's Royal Society of Arts. It's the clearest presentation I've seen of why our current education system is such a mismatch for our modern minds. And why some of our brightest kids are being penalized for what the 21st-century world best trains them for. And how we might fix it.

New GOP Spending Plan Takes Chainsaw to EPA

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 11:40 AM PST

If last week's version of the GOP's temporary government-funding bill took a scalpel to the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, the new version trims it with something more akin to a chainsaw.

The latest version of the seven-month spending plan (called a "continuing resolution," or a "CR" in Washington-speak) from House Republicans would hack $3 billion from the agency's budget—a 29 percent cut from 2010 levels and nearly twice the proposed cuts in the original plan. It would specifically bar the agency from using funds for the development and implementation of greenhouse gas regulations, and would cut funding for the EPA's Global Change program, which conducts research on climate change, by a third.

The new CR would also block the White House from filling the energy and climate adviser post that Carol Browner is vacating. (See ClimateWire for more on the specific cuts).

The National Wildlife Federation says the cuts amount to a "sneak attack" on existing environmental laws like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, because they would make it basically impossible for the EPA to do its job. The huge cut—the biggest in 30 years—"would jeopardize the water we drink and air we breathe, endangering the health and well-being of all Americans," Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, said Monday.

The GOP plan also includes major cuts to climate and renewable energy programs at the Department of Energy and the Department of Interior, as well as public transportation. Climate programs at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would also take a big hit. And it includes major reductions to international climate and environment programs—including a $500 million cut in funds that go to the World Bank for projects to cut emissions in developing countries and a two-thirds reduction in the funds the US contributes to the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The full list of cuts is here, and the legislation is here.

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Why Some Birds Became Flightless

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 10:44 AM PST

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

People might wonder why some birds have wings but don't use them and maybe see it as a strange evolution, or that the birds haven't evolved appropriately. It's actually the opposite. The theory goes that the birds evolved to become flightless due to a lack of predators where they lived. They didn't have many enemies, so didn't really need to escape. We've picked three videos of our favorite flightless birds for you, so enjoy!

1. Kagu
While this young kagu might not enjoy the meal it is being given we hope it's grown up to be the pale grey ground-living bird with a funny walk just like its parents. Kagus do use their patterned wings for displays and gliding, but their primary way of getting around is to run extremely fast over short distances before standing stock-still and doing it again.

2. Penguin
Penguins may be birds but sometimes they resemble fish more closely having adapted to live in the cold ocean water of the Southern Hemisphere. But despite their amazing ability to swim, using their wings like flippers, one penguin parent will walk 250 miles in search of food while the other guards the young chick.


3. Kakapo
This adorable, peaceful and record-breaking bird is unfortunately almost extinct. Living exclusively in the forests of New Zealand, these green birds sit motionless in the treetops, using their wings for balance. Their green feathers provide excellent camouflage—only the blink of an eye would give them away. They also have incredible climbing ability, as you can see in this great video.

Feral Pig Diaries Day 3: OK, but How Does Wild Hog Taste?

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 3:30 AM PST

This week, I'm reporting from outside Savannah, Georgia, on my first-ever hunting trip. We're after 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 land with their rooting. I'm hanging out with Jackson Landers, who aims to whet American appetites for invasive species like hogs, lionfish, geese, deer, and even spiny iguanas by working with wholesalers, chefs, and restaurateurs to promote these aliens as menu items. Read "Feral Pig Diaries Day 1: Moonshine and Teen Swine" here, and "Feral Pig Diaries Day 2: Do Hogs Like Supermarket Danishes?" here. My introductory post (wherein MoJo takes a field trip to the shooting range) is here. A word to the squeamish: The Feral Pig Diaries do contain a few graphic images.

After having seen zero pigs (well, except a dead one) during the first few days of my Feral Pig Diaries project, I couldn't wait to get to Ossabaw, a mostly uninhabited island, 20 miles off the coast of Savannah, with a major hog problem. Ossabaw's 26,000 acres of dense forest, salt marshes, and sand beaches is usually closed to the public, but the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was nice enough to arrange a trip out so I could see the pigs and the trouble they've caused firsthand.

My friend Caroline and I set out early from her parents' place, just outside Beaufort, South Carolina, and met David Mixon and Ed Van Otteren, both biologists from the DNR, in a supermarket parking lot. We followed them to this dock, hidden away at the end of a winding drive in the tiny coastal community of Pin Point, Georgia (birthplace of Clarence Thomas!).

We made the 20-minute trip to the island in this little boat, threading our way between barrier islands, where the Ogeechee River empties out into the ocean.

The day was cold and damp, but we hardly noticed since we were busy gawking at the birds: cormorants, horned grebes, bufflehead ducks, and a whole mess of scaups overhead that changed direction with the wind every few seconds. Especially cool was a bald eagle perched on top of a pole on a marshy island (left.)

Also cool was the driver of our boat, DNR wildlife technician Andy Meadows (right), who has lived on Ossabaw for 11 years. His only (human) neighbors are a few other DNR staffers (including a full-time hog shooter) and 98-year-old Eleanor Torrey West, the only remaining member of the family from which the DNR purchased the island. "Miss West," as she's known, lives in a mansion on the island's north shore, where she keeps a pet hog named Paul Mitchell, named (I kid you not) after the hair products guy because it has a cowlick.

I asked Andy if there was a good chance we'd see a hog, and he assured me that he sees them every day. Although pigs were first introduced to the island in the 1500s by Spanish settlers, Ossabaw's current hog population is the result of centuries of mixing with domestic pigs. Ossabaw wasn't always uninhabited; it was farmed till quite recently. At one point before the Civil War, the island held four cotton plantations and 1,200 slaves. 

Once docked at the island, we climbed into a truck with Andy, and David and Ed followed in another truck behind us. From a narrow causeway, we saw a marsh full of bird action: great blue herons, snowy egrets, wood storks, wood ducks, oystercatchers, and one little pied-billed grebe who was making a racket. After the jump: a gory-ish image (but it's not too bad).

Taking Climate Denial to New Extremes

| Fri Feb. 11, 2011 1:55 PM PST

The spending plan the House GOP was supposed to roll out on Thursday included a number of cuts meant to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing anything about climate change. But Republicans had to take that plan back to the drawing board Thursday night after tea party members claimed the package of cuts didn't go deep enough. And if a trio of House members get their way, we won't ever have to worry about the climate—since we won't know what's happening with it, anyway.

This week, Reps. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), Sandy Adams (R-Fla.) and Rob Bishop (R-Utah) called for a budget that would "reprioritize NASA" by axing the funding for climate change research. The original cuts to the budget outlined yesterday would have cut $379 million from NASA's budget. These members want climate out of NASA's purview entirely, however. Funding climate research, said Adams in a statement, "undercuts one of NASA's primary and most important objectives of human spaceflight."

"NASA's primary purpose is human space exploration and directing NASA funds to study global warming undermines our ability to maintain our competitive edge in human space flight," said Posey.

The total budget request for NASA for 2010 was $18.7 billion. Of that, just $1.4 billion was for its earth science division. The agency's climate programs—which include modeling and satellite monitoring—are a subset of that. They are responsible for monitoring data that is crucial to our understanding of how our planet works—ocean temperatures, sea level, the ozone layer, sea ice, and, of course, how carbon dioxide emissions are affecting the atmosphere. The increase in funding requested for climate last year was intended to make up for cuts to the program under the Bush administration. But even with that proposed increase, the earth science program accounted for a mere 7.5 percent of NASA's total budget.

Here's the letter the three GOPers sent to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) and Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) this week.

GOP Plan: Cut Family Planning for 5 Million

| Fri Feb. 11, 2011 12:20 PM PST

The House GOP has made no bone about its plans to severely restrict access to abortion—first by attempting to redefine rape and then by crafting a proposal that would allow doctors to deny abortion services even when the life of the woman is in danger. And as my colleague Nick Baumann reported this week, Republican lawmakers also want to zero out funds for Planned Parenthood—and, while they're at it, axe all government funds for family planning, health screenings, and services for low-income women.

My friend Lisa Hymas at Grist, who has been doing great writing on the nexus of reproductive rights and the environment, writes today about why the elimination of the Title X family-planning program has serious consequences. In 2008, 5 million women (and men too) made use of the services at 4,500 community-based clinics. And if you care about both population and women's rights, you should be worried about the larger narrative here, she writes:

Some progressives are calling the jab at Title X "hypocrisy." But in fact what the Republicans are doing is perfectly consistent with the ultra-conservative agenda of denying women agency and sexual freedom. In just the last month, we’ve seen newly empowered House Republicans try to redefine rape, push to outlaw the use of federal funds for abortion, and gleefully join in attacks on Planned Parenthood. It's not scattershot; it's strategic.

Of course, there are plenty of other things to worry about in the GOP spending plan as well—like massive cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, for starters. When it comes down to deciding what programs to fight for in order to prevent a government shut-down, Title X may not be at the top of the list. And Republicans had to take their spending plan back to the chopping block yesterday after tea party members protested that they weren't deep enough—they wanted to see another $26 billion trimmed. They're planning to release the revised list of cuts later today, and you can probably guess the kind of programs they'll add to it.