Blue Marble - May 2011

Feds Fine BP Big Time—For Alaskan Spill

| Wed May 4, 2011 11:59 AM EDT

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced an unprecedented fine against BP's Alaskan division for spilling 5,078 barrels of oil from a pipeline in 2006. Yes, that other big oil spill problem BP had before they trashed the Gulf of Mexico. The fine—$25 million—is the highest civil per-barrel penalty to date.

It works out to $4,923 for each barrel of oil the company spilled—which is higher than the standard penalty, the EPA explains, because it also includes fees for violating both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The maximum fine is usually $4,300 per barrel for Clean Water Act violations, imposed when a company is found grossly negligent for a spill. The agreement, hashed out by the EPA, the Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, also requires BP to set up a $60 million system-wide pipeline integrity management program.

The question for me is whether this fine sets a precedent for BP's other big spill. The company dumped 4.9 million barrels of crude if the Gulf. If the company is deemed grossly negligent in the disaster, BP could face up to $21 billion fines for Clean Water Act violations alone. Then there's the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process, in which the feds survey the damage to ecosystems and levy a fee for restoration to the responsible party. That's on top of the $20 billion in compensation for residents and businesses that BP already agreed to put into an escrow account.

All told, it could add up to quite a bit for BP if the government is aggressive in its penalties. But whether the government will be is still an open question.

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A Heck of a Lot of Birthday Parties

| Tue May 3, 2011 4:38 PM EDT

The world population will hit seven billion by October 31, 2011*, the United Nations said Tuesday. If current fertility rates continue, there will be 9 billion of us Earth-dwellers by 2050, and 10 billion of us by 2100—mind-boggling when you consider that we just passed 6 billion in 1999.

This issue was on my mind at several points in the past week. On Friday I was discussing (yes, I'll admit it) the royal wedding with someone a generation older than me. When I mentioned reports that 2 billion people watched the event (which seems a little far-fetched, to say the least), my older counterpart said that was impossible—half of the world couldn't have been watching. I had to point out that, while the estimate was still silly, 2 billion is actually only a third of the world these days. The exchange highlighted just how fast the human community is growing. The pace of change is hard to keep up with, and must seem almost inconceivable for older folks who grew up with much more gradual increases in human population.

Population came up again yesterday as I was discussing climate and energy issues on a live radio show. A caller inquired about population issues and why environmentalists never talk about them anymore. No matter what forum I'm in, I always get asked this question, and it's one that most environmental reporters dread. It's not that I don't have a good response. For me, the question isn't necessarily about population, it's about use of resources. And on that measure Americans consume far, far more than our more plentiful planet-mates in the developing world. But it's also about family planning and women's empowerment—when women have access to information and contraceptives and are able to use them, the number of children they have declines. (My colleague Julia Whitty did an excellent in-depth piece on what is often treated as a third-rail last year.)

For me, one of the most interesting elements of the UN's latest projection is the indication that these numbers could vary pretty widely if fertility rates change. The Population Division at the UN's Department of Economic and Social Affairs states that "a small increase in fertility" could mean that the global population is as high as 15.8 billion by 2100. At the same time, a small decrease could cause an overall decline, to 6.2 billion by the end of the century.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have revived the attack on funding for international family planning. But if we end up on the high-end of the UN's projections, we will have a whole lot of birthday parties to plan for come 2100.

*Corrected from 2010. Thanks, SecularAnimist.

Big Oil's Big Pay Day

| Tue May 3, 2011 1:15 PM EDT

The oil giants—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell—recently released their first quarter reports. Together, the big five's profits were 38 percent higher in the first quarter of 2011 than the same period last year. A new report from the Center for American Progress finds that several of these companies used quite a bit of that extra money to buy back shares of their own stock, increasing the value of their shares and enriching their shareholders, boards of directors, and senior managers at a time when most Americans are dealing with extremely high gas prices.

ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Chevron spent the most on share buybacks in the first quarter. Here's what that looks like:

This spending spree comes not only as the gas price debate has resurged in Congress, but also as companies lobby to keep the $40 billion in tax breaks and loopholes that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats want slashed from the 2012 budget.

The Million-Dollar Shark

| Mon May 2, 2011 7:00 PM EDT

Sitting in the Pacific Ocean near the Philippines, the island nation of Palau doesn't have much land. It is, however, surrounded by warm waters that make it a tropical getaway for tourists. One of its attractions is sharks, and a recent study shows that a single reef shark can generate nearly $2 million for the country during its lifetime. At a time when shark populations are very threatened due to overfishing and a renewed hunger for shark-fin soup, Palau has chosen to make its waters a shark sanctuary. And for good reason too: the new study estimates that shark-diving brings $18 million to Palau each year, 8% of the GDP. If killed and sold for meat and parts, a shark would only get Palau fishermen around $1000 each. It looks like sharks are worth far more to Palau alive than they are dead, from an economy-sustaining point of view as well as an environmental one. You can see a few of Palau's tourism stars in the video below.