Blue Marble - April 2011

BP to Oil Spill Victims: Get Off My Stoop!

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 3:50 PM EDT

Almost one year since creating the worst oil spill in US history, BP is holding steadfastly to its response strategy: Duck and hope for the best. At its annual shareholder meeting in London yesterday, five Gulf residents who flew in to tell investors about their loss of livelihood were denied entry. A few tried to sneak in, among them 62-year-old Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation fisherwoman from Seadrift, Texas, who covered herself in oil to make a statement. Police arrested her for "breaching the peace," the Associated Press reports. Others who made it in were dragged out by security guards. NBC's Nightly News has more on this:

Is there any other way for a major corporation to deal with these kinds of situations but ignore protestors and feign optimism? BP's chief executive Bob Dudley doesn't seem to think so, based on what he told shareholders on Thursday:

BP remains a great company with a great history and I believe a great future...Not every company gets such an opportunity and we don't intend to squander it.

Except, er, you kind of already did squander it. For all its promises to compensate victims, many have not yet been paid out. Journalists have been barred consistently from accessing the coastal areas affected by the spill. 

And why wouldn't BP ignore its victims, when few in Washington seem to care that much? Mother Jones' Kate Sheppard told us earlier this week about certain GOP Congressmen who are trying to expand off-shore drilling. And as Mac McClelland reported, Kenneth Feinberg, whom the president appointed to oversee victim compensation issues in the Gulf, was entirely unmoved by victims complaints at a recent town hall meeting in Louisiana. All of which is why the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression named the company and the Obama administration the worst First Amendment violators of 2011.

Meanwhile, some BP shareholders are increasingly frustrated about the way things are going. Investors accounting for 60 percent of shares voted yesterday against re-electing William Castell as the head of its safety committee, while about 7 percent voted against re-electing Carl-Henric Svanberg as BP chairman. Around 11 percent voted against the company's remuneration report, which awarded bonuses to Iain Conn, who oversees BP's refining activities, and Chief Financial Officer Byron Grote. BP might continue to ignore its oil spill victims, but good luck dodging your investors.

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Yoots to Obama: Listen Up!

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 12:30 PM EDT
Thousands of youth gather on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to call for a green economy, a safe sustainable future and binding climate legislation from the United States government. The rally followed on the heels of PowerShift '09, the largest climate change youth conference in United States history.

Will President Obama have a youth problem in 2012? In the 2008 election, young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 picked Obama over John McCain by a 2 to 1 margin. Energy and environment are two issues that young people cite as important electoral concerns much more regularly than older adults. And when it comes to energy and environment, the administration hasn't had all that much luck getting things done.

So this weekend, when thousands of young people gather in Washington, DC for the massive youth climate and energy summit Powershift, there's probably going to be a different vibe than there was at the last conference, in 2009. When I covered Powershift two years ago, there were more than 12,000 young people really excited about the new administration and the prospects for passing a climate and energy bill. Now no one thinks a climate bill is going anywhere for at least two more years and even an energy-only bill seems doomed to fail. Meanwhile, the solutions Obama has been talking about of late sound a whole lot like the same old, same old, highlighting offshore drilling, nuclear power, natural gas, and "clean coal."

Courtney Hight, co-director of Powershift and the Energy Action Coalition, the group that has taken the lead in organizing the conference, knows this frustration well. After working for Obama's primary campaign in New Hampshire in 2007 and the general election campaign in Florida in 2008, she took a post at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. But last June, amid frustration about how little was changing on energy and environmental policy, the 31-year-old left CEQ to take over the helm of the Energy Action Coalition.

"We can't just work with the politics," Hight told Mother Jones this week in the EAC office, amid dozens of volunteers scrambling to put the finishing touches on the conference. "We have to change the politics."

A deciding moment for her, she says, was last year's Gulf oil disaster. She expected angry citizens to be literally at the door of CEQ demanding policy change. But the angry mobs never really showed up. "It baffled me," said Hight. It also pushed her back into organizing work.

For at least the past two years, the environmental movement has been almost singularly focused on passing a climate bill. But this year's summit will focus more on training attendees in community organizing. EAC and other groups will have more than 700 trained organizers on site to train the thousands of other attendees on how to mobilize support back home. On Sunday they will also offer lobby training for attendees—all with the goal of putting pressure on Obama and Congress to make the right choices on energy and environment.

"Obama can be bolder," said Hight. "We have to show him we need him to be."

5 Ways to Sip a Cocktail and Save the World

| Thu Apr. 14, 2011 2:50 PM EDT

Getting tipsy might not be the first idea that comes to mind when figuring how to help out poor farmers in Bolivia. But it is a pretty good one, say the fair-trade wine and spirits folks I met over the weekend. At the San Francisco Green Festival last Saturday, Fair Trade Spirits's Danny Ronen and wine importer Michael Hutchinson unveiled a few brands of alcohol that prove a fine Merlot can also be socially conscious. Since we've already told you how to minimize your carbon footprint at the wet bar, why not improve your social impact too? Try out a few of these recipes at your next party* and tell us what you think.

Photo courtesy Fair Trade USA.Photo courtesy Fair Trade USA.A Caïpirowska that creates jobs: Consider it a lazy mojito, made from fair-trade quinoa vodka (yes, quinoa) that is cultivated by more than 1,200 small-scale producers in the Bolivian Altiplano and gathered in the Anapqui cooperative, the country's main association of farming producers. Thanks in part to the new craze for quinoa in the US, fair-trade quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) production has generated an additional 2,675 jobs in the Bolivian highlands, and increased profits have gone to support the coop's new vehicles purchases and agricultural training programs. It tastes better than potato-based vodka, too.

  • 5 centilitres fair-trade quinoa vodka
  • 1/2 lime
  • 2 spoons of fair-trade sugar

Cut the 1/2 lime in 4 pieces and crush in a mortar with the sugar. Top with crushed ice and add the vodka. Shake well and serve with two short straws. (Recipe from Fair Trade Spirits.)

Ivo Posthumus/Flickr.Ivo Posthumus/Flickr.A White Russian that puts kids through school and combats cancer: The liqueur in this drink, otherwise known as the "Jackie Caucasian," is made from coffee grown by small-scale farmers in Huatusco, Mexico, and sugar harvested by independent cane growers in Malawi. Profits from the coffee have funded some $21,000 in scholarships and helped build a cancer screening clinic in Huatusco, and sugar sales have helped install 10 safe drinking water wells in Malawan villages. The Dude would be proud.

  • 2 ounces fair-trade quinoa vodka
  • 1 ounce fair-trade cafe liqueur

Pour over rocks in a rocks glass. Top with organic half-and-half. (Recipe from Fair Trade Spirits.)

GOP Marks Oil Spill Anniversary With Drilling Push

| Wed Apr. 13, 2011 2:55 PM EDT

We're one week away from the first anniversary of the worst oil spill in the nation's history, and to commemorate it, House Republicans spent Wednesday marking up a trio of bills that would dramatically increase drilling in the US.

The bills, all from Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, would open new areas for drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans, as well as Alaska's Bristol Bay. They would also speed up the process of approving drilling permits; after 60 days permits will be considered approved regardless of whether an environmental review is complete.

Hastings' bills would force the Department of Interior to move forward with lease sales in the central Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Virginia without further environmental review, even though last year's spill raised a number of questions about whether those reviews were anywhere near adequate. One of the bills would even create economic incentives for oil companies to use seismic technology to survey for oil reserves. Yes, that's right—the bill proposes using taxpayer dollars to cover half the cost of the surveys for the oil industry.

Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the committee, decried Hastings' bills as "full of gifts for the oil industry." "This legislative package reflects a pre-spill mentality of speed-over-safety," Markey said Wednesday.

Budget Axes NOAA's Climate Service

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 5:59 PM EDT

While the EPA's climate work survived last week's confrontation over government funding, another area of climate research that did not. The Climate Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was killed before it even really got started. (Details of the budget cuts have been emerging pretty slowly. The full bill is here. The relevant section is on page 218.)

The vision for the NOAA climate desk was to bring a bunch of the climate work the agency already does under one umbrella in order to improve the organization and distribution of information on the subject. Climate Science Watch outlined the main goals of the service last year, and NOAA has a prototype for the division's website over at Climate.gov that should give you a decent sense of what the division was supposed to do.

Basically, NOAA's climate service would have provided up-to-date information about climate in order to better inform the public and policymakers. Much like the agency's weather service, it would offer a way to share the agency's work monitoring, modeling, and assessing data. But budget cuts now bar NOAA from using any funds to create this climate division.

The GOP hates anything that has the word "climate" attached to it, but I don't anticipate that this cut will functionally change NOAA's work. NOAA is already doing this work, so this is a cosmetic cut more than anything.

Japan's Nuclear Crisis Reaches Chernobyl Threat Level

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 10:27 AM EDT

The situation at Japan's ailing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continues to be bleak, as officials on Tuesday raised the threat level from 5 to 7—the highest on the international scale and equal to the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl.

While officials said they believe that the levels of radiation released so far are only 10 percent of the Chernobyl release, the projections for the long term are grim. "The radiation leak has not stopped completely and our concern is that it could eventually exceed Chernobyl," Junichi Matsumoto, an executive of the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., told the New York Times.

From Japan's Kyodo News:

A considerable amount of radioactive materials emitted is believed to originate from the plant's No. 2 reactor, whose containment vessel's pressure suppression chamber was damaged by an explosion on March 15, said Kenkichi Hirose, a Cabinet Office adviser serving for the safety commission, at a news conference.
"Our estimates suggest the amount of radioactive materials released into the air sharply rose on March 15 and 16 after abnormalities were detected at the No. 2 reactor,'' Hirose said. ''The cumulative amount of leaked radiation has been gradually on the rise, but we believe the current emission level is significantly low."

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Natural Gas: Worse Than Coal?

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Natural gas is often touted as a climate-friendly alternative to traditional fossil fuels like coal or oil, and as a bridge fuel that will lead the country to a clean-energy future. But it turns out the overall greenhouse gas emissions related to natural gas extracted from shale formations are actually far greater than coal.

A new study in Climatic Change from Robert Howarth, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, finds that shale gas is responsible for 20 percent more greenhouse gases than coal. While burning natural gas may emit less carbon dioxide, its extraction releases quite a bit of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas. Gas from shale—a fine-grained layer of rock below the earth's surface—is also responsible for 30 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional natural gas. The study found that up to 7.9 percent of the methane escapes directly from the wells, leaks from pipelines, or is released in venting and flaring. While the leaks may be relatively small, methane is such a potent greenhouse gas that those leaks have a major impact, Howarth tells Mother Jones.

This is the first peer-reviewed study to look at the overall emissions from this type of gas. It was slated for publication later this week, but The Hill obtained a leaked copy over the weekend that has been generating a stir, as it would undermine the claims of the natural gas industry—and their boosters in Washington—that the gas is a boon for the planet. And major discoveries of shale gas in particular have made it a more appealing fuel source, with increased production and lower costs. The Department of Energy estimates that natural gas production in the US is going to grow 20 percent by 2035. Shale gas accounts for 16 percent of total production right now but is expected to increase its share to 45 percent by 2035.

Howarth is the first to admit that the numbers they had to rely on to write the paper are "not terribly good." That's because industry isn't currently required to report their emissions—and in fact are one of several industries suing the Environmental Protection Agency to keep it that way. Getting the data proved to be "amazingly frustrating," he says. The numbers he and his coauthors used in the study were drawn from a combination of industry reports, presentations, and dated EPA estimates.

While it may be true that burning natural gas produces 40 percent less emissions than burning coal, says Howarth, "what they don't tell you is that's not the whole story." Whether there will be a closer look at the whole story before the US moves forward in developing shale gas is the big question. "I do find it surprising that the nation would rush ahead on developing this a transitional fuel without doing a better job of looking at its greenhouse gas emissions," says Howarth.

Riding the BP Gravy Train

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 5:50 PM EDT

As Mac McClelland reported recently from the Gulf, many of those most affected by the oil spill are still waiting for compensation. But it appears that some folks have benefited from the ordeal. From the Associated Press:

In sleepy Ocean Springs, Miss., reserve police officers got Tasers. The sewer department in nearby Gulfport bought a $300,000 vacuum truck that never sucked up a drop of oil. Biloxi, Miss., bought a dozen SUVs. A parish president in Louisiana got herself a deluxe iPad, her spokesman a $3,100 laptop. And a county in Florida spent $560,000 on rock concerts to promote its oil-free beaches.
In every case, communities said the new, more powerful equipment was needed to deal at least indirectly with the spill.
In many instances, though, the connection between the spill and the expenditures was remote, and lots of money wound up in cities and towns little touched by the goo that washed up on shore, the AP found in records requested from more than 150 communities and dozens of interviews.

Last summer, BP agreed to direct millions of dollars to Gulf states so they could entice tourists to their beaches despite the spill. Florida got a $32 million grant, and as the AP reports, some of that money went to counties that never saw any oil. In Florida a county commissioner's girlfriend opened a public relations firm after the spill and then landed thousands of dollars in contracts from the county.

As of last month, the company had paid $754 million to state and local governments. On Monday, BP and Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) announced another $30 million grant to the state to promote tourism. I'm all for BP compensating governments and individuals for the damage, but how effectively the funds are used is also subject to the limitations of government propriety.

Study: Moms' Health Suffers After Kids, Dads Not So Much

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 4:59 PM EDT

A new study published in Pediatrics has a totally non-world-shattering conclusion: mothers of children under age 3 don't get as much exercise as non-mothers, they weigh a little bit more, and are more likely to consume sugary beverages. What is surprising is that until now, the exact difference in how much exercise parents get vs. non-parents hasn't been quantified. (For the record, non-mothers exercise 50 minutes a week more than new moms.)

The title of the study, "Are Parents of Young Children Practicing Healthy Nutrition and Physical Activity Behaviors?", somehow gave me the idea that the research would somehow blame new moms for not being healthy enough. God knows there's a plethora of articles and books telling women what to eat and not to eat during pregnancy. But I was pleased to see the study's authors were on the ball, pointing out that the weight difference between new mothers and non-mothers (about 5 lbs for a 5'5" tall woman) is likely due to a number of factors. Among them: moms may eat high-calorie children's food along with their kids, they have some baby weight left, they may be breast feeding, they are likely tired from broken sleep, and if they do have spare time at the end of the day, moms may prefer to sleep or relax rather than go to the gym. There's also the possibility that mothers are underestimating the amount of "exercise" they get because they are not calculating in time spent chasing after a toddler or other child-related activities.

Please note that I'm using the terms "mother" and "mom" here for a reason: new dads did not experience weight gain or nutritional differences from non-fathers, most likely because (as the study's authors point out) mothers still tend to be the primary caretakers for children, especially babies and toddlers. I'd love to see the authors do another study to see if the weight gain, sugary beverage consumption, and exercise depletion seen in new mothers continue as their children get older. I'd also be interested to see if stay-at-home dads had the same health effects as new moms.

Until then, the study's practical suggestions are for health care providers to talk with parents about how to stay active and fit with a new baby. That, and for parents to "engage in healthful weight-related behavior regardless of the demands of parenthood."

First Tar Sands Mine Approved In US

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 2:36 PM EDT

The Canadian tar sands industry is invading the United States. Alberta-based Earth Energy Resources has won all necessary permits to excavate tar sands oil from a 62-acre site in Uintah County, Utah. And that's just the start. Earth Energy has 7,800 acres of Utah state land under lease and plans to acquire more. The company estimates that its holdings contain more than 250 million barrels of recoverable oil.

Over the past decade, Canada has become the world's largest exploiter of tar sands, paying a high environmental cost to extract and convert its heavy oil, known as bitumen, into usable forms. Canada's tar sands boom has made it into the United States' largest source of foreign oil—as well as a major target of environmentalists, who strongly oppose a pipeline that would carry tar sands crude to US refinieries.

It's unlikely that Utah will ever rival Alberta's bitumen mines in terms of numbers or size. The state is thought to contain 12 to 19 billion barrels of tar sands oil, compared to Alberta's 174 billion. Still, thousands of acres of pristine wilderness are at risk, as is the environmental taboo that has so far kept one of the world's dirtiest forms of energy production off of US soil.