Blue Marble - August 2011

Tar Sands Promoters Turn to Oprah Fans for Support

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 7:53 AM PDT

The promoters of the Canadian oil industry are now resorting to appeals to "women's liberation" to promote tar sands oil. A group calling itself "Ethical Oil" is running ads on the Oprah Winfrey Network asking women to support extracting and exporting oil from the tar sands as a means of protecting women in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, the ad says, "doesn't allow women to drive, doesn't allow them to leave their homes or work without their male guardian's permission." "Why are we paying their bills and funding their oppression?" it asks. The Michigan Messenger flagged the ad yesterday, which is posted below:

The website for the organization urges readers to "choose Ethical Oil from Canada, its oil sands and other liberal democracies."

The tar sands have been in the news of late because the Obama administration is considering whether or not to approve a giant pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta down to refineries in Texas. This has sparked a two-week protest at the White House, with opponents arguing that the detrimental impacts of both tar sands extraction and the higher carbon output of the oil should be taken into consideration. (See our backgrounder on the pipeline for more.)

Yes, Saudi Arabia treats women poorly. But that wasn't a big consideration a few years ago when President Bush was holding hands with the Saudi prince. Nor does the argument really hold water. Even if we increase output from the tar sands, it's not going to put a huge dent in Saudi Arabia's earnings, since Saudi Arabia will still have the largest oil reserves in the world and be the world's largest exporter. And there's plenty of concern that tar sands oil, if shipped to US ports, wouldn't stay in the US anyway, and thus really wouldn't put a dent in our imports from Saudi Arabia.

If you care about women's liberation in Saudi Arabia, you should support women's liberation efforts in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women shouldn't be used as a ploy to draw support for dirty oil extraction in Canada.

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Image-of-the-Week: Rider on the Storm

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus). Credit: Mdf  at Wikimedia Commons.Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus). Credit: Mdf at Wikimedia Commons.

A whimbrel named Chinquapin left his breeding grounds on Southampton Island in the Canadian Arctic on 22 August, passed over New England and was far out to sea when he found himself up against Hurricane Irene's strongest Category 3 winds last Wednesday. Shortly thereafter his satellite transmitter went dead and the researchers following his migration feared the worst. Whimbrels are capable of flying 3,500mi/5,633kms without stopping—but not in 130mph/209kph winds. As usual, in August, Chinquapin was en route to his wintering grounds on beaches near the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil to feed on small invertebrates captured in the sand with the help of his own specialized bill—the angle of which exactly matches the burrow curve of a fiddler crab (Uca spp.). Long-lived (≥19 yrs) whimbrels encounter many dangers in the course of their travels. Yet apparently crossing Irene only slowed Chinquapin in his tracks. On Friday last week his satellite began to transmit again—from Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas. Sweet spot to probe the sand.

The Right, Anti-bacterials, and the "Nanny State"

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 1:33 PM PDT

Earlier I blogged about the soap lobby's giant campaign to convince consumers that anti-bacterial products are safe, effective, and totally necessary, despite the fact that the science says otherwise. Well it turns out that industry has an ally in right-wing groups who argue that an EPA ban on anti-bacterials would bring us one step closer to a "nanny state"—and an anti-feminist one at that. Herewith, a few examples of the campaign:

Here's the conservative women's group Smart Girl Politics on triclosan for Andrew Breitbart's Big Government website:

Americans are living longer than ever due in large part to advancements in science, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to the wailing and gnashing of teeth by environmental extremists. It seems that every day brings news of some substance that will maim, injure or bring about Armageddon. The latest target of these extremists is the antibacterial agent Triclosan, a substance used safely and effectively for decades by millions of Americans.

Here's the Weekly Standard:

Our friends in the government have decided to improve our lives again by trying to get rid of anti-bacterial products. You know them—the gels, wipes, and soaps that we use to disinfect shopping cart handles, gym equipment, children’s toys, phones, hands—you name it. Anti-bacterials contain Triclosan and Very Concerned Citizens think that Triclosan is a Very Bad Thing. So they want it banned.

Americans for Tax Reform weighs in:

Both the FDA and EPA have a spotty past of overstepping their authorities to push aggressive and careless policy in the absence of legislative support for particular agendas. Indeed, recognizing the unsavory nature of his latest ploy to handicap consumer choice, Rep. Ed Markey has been pushing both the FDA and EPA to undertake efforts to ban an important antibacterial chemical used in antibacterial soaps, a product which research shows is used by nearly three-quarters of Americans. Clearly moving to eliminate a product used by almost 75 percent of Americans should be based on evidence stronger than speculation. None exists, and research clearly shows Americans would prefer being free to choose these products rather than being restricted by regulatory caprice.

And finally, here's my very favorite: a piece from the website Human Events (check out the seriously awesome picture of a raving enviro hippie) that argues that an EPA ban on triclosan would amount to a "war on women:"

Maybe environmentalists thought women would be too busy to notice the growing regulatory assault on them.  They were wrong.  Nothing gets women’s attention more quickly than dirty dishes, clogged toilets, grimy clothes, toxic materials, and budget-busting energy prices.  It’s time the fairer sex took environmental Neanderthals head-on.

[...]

A woman’s dream, on the other hand, is to lead an efficient, clean, healthy life, free of arrogant do-gooders’ relentless meddling.  Yet meddling is national sport for environmental elites, and their regulatory schemes steal women’s time and increase their workload and stress.

Well now. I beg to differ. What increases my personal stress level is having to worry about a potentially harmful ingredient lurking in my soap, toothpaste, and deodorant. And my dream? That after 37 years of foot-dragging on triclosan, regulatory agencies will quit listening to industry griping and make a decision based on science.

 

Bachmann Calls for Drilling in the Everglades

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 9:36 AM PDT
Drill here, drill now!

The Florida Everglades are a largest subtropical wilderness in the country. They're home to a number of endangered and rare species, and they're already threatened by habitat destruction, encroaching development, and agricultural run-off. But GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann thinks we should drill there—if we can do so "responsibly."

Bachmann discussed this at a campaign stop in Florida this weekend. She added the caveat that, "If we can't responsibly access energy in the Everglades then we shouldn't do it."

"No one wants to hurt or contaminate the earth," she continued. "We don't want to harm our water, our ecosystems or the air. That is a minimum bar." But Bachmann wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. So it's not entirely clear who would be charged with ensuring that we are protecting the environment in our bid to drill in the Everglades and any other part of the US.

The Bush administration allowed oil companies to explore for oil in other ecologically sensitive areas of Florida's wetlands. The question of whether to drill in the Everglades pops up every campaign season. But drilling there is not very popular; Everglades restoration is much more popular among Floridians. Besides, there's not a whole lot of oil there to be had anyway.

The Everglades Foundation issued a press statement responding to Bachmann's comment on Monday morning:

NRA card-carrying hunters, fishermen, waterfowlers, and other outdoors enthusiasts do not want to see oil drilling in their Everglades wildlife paradise. In addition, the Everglades is the source of fresh, clean drinking water for more than 7 million Floridians. Congresswoman Bachmann needs to understand that oil and drinking water do not mix.

Perhaps Bachmann's desire to drill in the Everglades is just a stealth attempt to protect us from the fearsome manatee overlords that Florida tea partiers are so worried about.

Can You Nuke a Hurricane?

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
Hurricane Floyd barrels in on Florida in 1999.

Could a "controlled" nuclear explosion disrupt a violent storm like Irene? Seems every time the United States is threatened by a big cyclonic system, somebody suggests lighting it up with a Fat Man or Little Boy; this week's Irene-mania has been no exception. The Huffington Post takes notes of the suggestion that "dropping a nuke into the eye of the storm would heat the cool air and disrupt the convection current, thus subsiding the storm." Okay, then.

Is the Soap Lobby Right That Anti-Bacterials Are Safe?

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 2:30 AM PDT

Update: Read about the right-wing groups who argue that an EPA ban on anti-bacterials would bring us one step closer to a "nanny state" here.

By now, you've probably heard of triclosan, an anti-microbial agent present in all kinds of personal hygiene products, from soap to deodorant to toothpaste. The New York Times recently reported on the raging debate between public health advocates and the soap industry over the product's safety.

If you're waiting for the FDA to weigh in with a final verdict on triclosan, don't hold your breath: The agency has been dragging its feet on the subject for 37 years. In 2010, it finally promised to release the results of its scientific review of triclosan by spring 2011. But spring came and went with no word, and as Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Mae Wu noted on her blog, the agency quietly extended its own deadline to winter 2012 on its website, without publicly announcing the delay. When I asked FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess about the silence on the delay, she told me, simply, "FDA doesn't normally make public announcements on the status of its rule-makings." So why'd you promise spring 2011 in the first place? 

But far be it from the soap industry to sit idly by while the FDA deliberates. In April, the trade group American Cleaning Institute (ACI) launched Fight Germs Now, a site that claims to be "the official source on anti-bacterial hygiene products." Fight Germs Now's FAQ page assures consumers that despite the rumors they may have heard, triclosan and other anti-bacterial agents are safe, effective, and completely necessary in the fight against germs.

I was curious as to whether the ACI's claims could withstand scientific scrutiny, so I checked in with Wu and her colleague Sarah Janssen, a senior scientist at the NRDC. They handily debunked a few of the major points that Fight Germs Now tries to make:

1. "Sometimes plain soap and water is not good enough."

Actually, says Janssen, there's plenty of evidence that triclosan is no more effective than soap and water: See this study and this review of several studies for starters. (The one exception is toothpaste; there's some evidence that triclosan helps fight gingivitis.) Fight Germs Now likes to tout a study from 2007 that found that people who washed their hands with triclosan carried less bacteria onto their food than those who used soap and water, but Janssen points out that before you buy this line, you might want to consider the fact that the study was performed by Henkel, makers of Dial anti-microbial soap.

2. "Triclosan does not accumulate in food chains because it is excreted by animals and man by their metabolism."

While it's true that we do excrete triclosan, that doesn't mean it disappears from the environment. A 2008 study found that earthworms take up triclosan from the soil, showing that organisms "can be contaminated with these chemicals and raising concerns that this will make its way up the food chain," Janssen says. More worrisome, a 2010 study found that soy beans grown in greenhouses also absorb triclosan from the soil, which, considering the vast amounts of soy that we feed livestock, has major implications for our food supply. 

3. "Credible scientific data indicates that triclosan does not disrupt hormonal activity."

Au contraire, say Janssen and Wu. There's mounting evidence that triclosan and its close relative triclocarban do interfere with our thyroid hormone and sex hormones in both females and males. This 2008 study showed that triclosan disrupted puberty in rats, and this one found that male rats' sex organs got bigger when triclocarban was added to their food. Industry likes to claim that rats and people aren't comparable, but "the hormone systems in lab animals are actually extremely similar to our hormone systems," Janssen says.

4. "Insufficient evidence exists to demonstrate that the use of antiseptic drug products harms human health."

A number of recent studies have shown that anti-bacterial products might be contributing to antibiotic resistance (here are a few to start with).  Then there's the fact that triclosan is known to be completely ineffective against "gram negative" bacteria like pseudomonas and serratia, both of which cause major infections in hospitals. In fact, notes Janssen, a hospital outbreak of serratia was traced back to anti-bacterial soap dispensers.

For a good list of which products contain triclosan, check out this fact sheet from Beyond Pesticides.

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Five Good Things About a Hurricane

| Sat Aug. 27, 2011 2:12 PM PDT

Hurricane Felix over the coast of eastern Honduras. Credit: NASA via Universe Today.Hurricane Felix over the coast of eastern Honduras. Credit: NASA via Universe Today.

 
1. Tropical cyclones are important rainmakers, providing 25 percent or more of available rainfall to places like Japan, India, and Southeast Asia—not to mention Texas, which desperately needs a dousing ASAP.
  

In the course of a year, low latitudes gain more heat and high latitudes loose more heat. Tropical cyclones help transport heat from the equator towards the poles. Credit: NASA.In the course of a year, low latitudes gain more heat and high latitudes loose more heat. Tropical cyclones help transport heat from the equator towards the poles. Credit: NASA.

 

2. Tropical cyclones help maintain the global heat balance by moving warm tropical air away from the equator and towards the poles. Without them, the tropics would get a lot hotter and the poles a lot colder... A typical tropical cyclone releases heat energy of about 50 to 200 exajoules a day. That's equivalent to 70 times our worldwide energy consumption.

 

Long Island, New York, with multiple barrier islands. Credit: NASA.Long Island, New York, with multiple barrier islands. Credit: NASA.

 

3. Paradoxically, fragile barrier islands need hurricanes for their survival—especially now, when sea levels are rising. Although hurricanes erode beaches on the ocean side of barrier islands, they build up the back sides of the same islands by depositing new sediments via winds and waves. This dynamical process keeps barrier islands alive.

Global thermohaline circulation, aka the ocean conveyor belt. Credit: Avsa via Wikimedia Commons. Global thermohaline circulation, aka the ocean conveyor belt. Credit: Avsa via Wikimedia Commons.

 

4. Tropical cyclones stir up the ocean and drive the process of upwelling, thus playing a part in the thermohaline circulation—another important transport mechanism distributing heat between the equator and the poles and keeping the earth's temperature in better balance.

 

Credit: Bruno de Giusti via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Bruno de Giusti via Wikimedia Commons.

 

5. By stirring the ocean, tropical cyclones also cycle nutrients from the seafloor to the surface, boosting ocean productivity and setting the stage for blooms of marine life.

Koch Industries Fights Chemical Plant Safety Measures

| Fri Aug. 26, 2011 1:59 PM PDT

Among the Koch Industries lobbying crew's many agenda items—climate change denial, school segregation, a right wing media takeover—is the company's fight against legislation that would raise US chemical plant safety standards to protect against potential terrorist attacks capable of harming millions of Americans.

A new investigation published by the Center for Public Integrity reveals the extent of Koch Industries' efforts to combat safety measures recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Homeland Security:

The Center for Responsive Politics puts Koch at the top of its list of the 80-odd firms, local governments and other groups lobbying Congress to shape or prevent passage of a wide-ranging chemical security bill.…Chemical safety legislation has been one of Koch’s most important priorities in the last four years, during which the firm has spent $44 million lobbying in Washington on this and other issues.

Destructive environmental impacts and employee health concerns used to be the biggest risks chemical plants posed to their communities. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security became concerned with how attacks on these plants would harm the densely populated communities around them. The worst case scenarios the DHS found include chemical explosions, spills, and gas clouds that could either kill or seriously harm millions of people living in the plants' vicinities.

Yep, That's BP's Oil

| Fri Aug. 26, 2011 12:38 PM PDT

Remember last week when BP was like, "Oil leaking in the Gulf? What oil? Oh, that. We didn't do it."? Well, apparently the new leak off the coast of Louisiana really does belong to BP, and appears to be coming from the same well that unleashed 4.9 million barrels of crude on the Gulf last year.

The Press-Register reports today that tests have confirmed that the oil seen leaking last week matches the oil that leaked from BP's Macondo well. The paper took a sample, and sent it to Ed Overton and Scott Miles, two chemists at Louisiana State University who work on oil:

"After examining the data, I think it’s a dead ringer for the MC252 oil, as good a match as I’ve seen," Overton wrote in an email to the newspaper. "My guess is that it is probably coming from the broken riser pipe or sunken platform. ... However, it should be confirmed, just to make sure there is no leak from the plugged well."
In an emailed statement, BP officials wrote that the company had a vessel stationed at the site all day Thursday but never saw any oil.

But BP says they still don't think the oil is theirs:

"There is still no evidence that the oil came from the Macondo well," BP officials wrote in the emailed statement.

Well, I guess it's good to know that some things never change.

Image-of-the-Week: Hurricane Tracks

| Fri Aug. 26, 2011 10:23 AM PDT

Tropical cyclone tracks worldwide, 1985 to 2005. Points show locations of storms at 6-hour intervals, using the color scheme from Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale (right). Credit: Nilfanion via Wikimedia Commons.Tropical cyclone tracks worldwide, 1985 to 2005. Points show locations of storms at 6-hour intervals. Credit: Nilfanion via Wikimedia Commons.

The North Atlantic may feel like the epicenter of tropical cyclone activity, but it's not, since it generates an average of only 10 named storms a year compared to 36 in the North Pacific. If you really want to escape the clutches of these monsters, the place to be is the South Atlantic. As you can see from this composite tracks map, the South Atlantic generated only one tropical cyclone in the 20 years between 1985-2005. Why the tranquility? Well, it's less a factor of colder ocean temperatures than strong vertical wind shear, which shreds big systems before they can form. Plus the the South Atlantic typically has no intertropical convergence zone (the Doldrums, in sailor speak) to drive large scale spin and thunderstorm activity.