Blue Marble - August 2011

A New BP Leak in the Gulf of Mexico?

| Thu Aug. 18, 2011 1:15 PM EDT

There's apparently a new oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, and some believe that BP may again be at fault. The sheen was spotted in roughly the same region of the Gulf as last year's spill, but the company says it doesn't believe it's coming from BP's operations. Via the Associated Press:

BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said his company had sent several remotely controlled mini-submersibles into the water over the weekend to investigate the source of the sheen — a shiny coating that floats on the surface of the water which generally comes from leaked or spilled oil — but had concluded "that it couldn't have been from anything of ours."

The company indicated that it appears to be coming from two abandoned exploration well sites in the Green Canyon Block, which is southwest of the the site where the Deepwater Horizon blew up last year and unleashed millions of barrels of oil on the Gulf. Some residents of the region, including this New Orleans lawyer, are arguing that the new sheen is indeed coming from the site of last year's blowout. But the new leak looks to be pretty far away from that site, so I'd wait for more information before making any claims on that front.

But this is a good reminder of something we noted last year, which is that there is plenty of background leakage in the Gulf at any given time. We really don't have a very good idea of how much oil leaks into the water regularly, since we don't really monitor it. But small leaks from day-to-day operations, abandoned wells, and pipelines are fairly common. (There are, of course, also natural seeps.) The massive blowout last year got a whole lot more attention, but oil operations regularly wreak havoc on the Gulf.

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Perry: Climate Change a Hoax to "Keep the Money Rolling In"

| Wed Aug. 17, 2011 3:32 PM EDT

Rick Perry only entered the presidential race on Saturday and I'm already tired of writing about the wacky things he says about climate change. But on Wednesday the Texas governor managed to outdo even his own previous climate change claims, arguing that scientists created the whole issue in order to earn big research bucks.

Via TPM:

"A substantial number of scientists [have] manipulated data to keep the money rolling in," New Hampshire Union Leader editorial page editor Drew Cline quoted Perry saying on the stump in a tweet. Before that, Cline quoted Perry saying, "I do believe the issue of global warming has been politicized."
Another Granite State reporter listening to Perry, this one from New Hampshire Public Radio, tweeted that Perry said "Scientists are 'coming forward daily' to disavow a 'theory that remains unproven.'"

I'll make sure I relay that message to all the BMW-driving, mansion-dwelling climate scientists out there. Meanwhile, Perry has has enjoyed lavish support from the oil industry, to the tune of $11 million over his political career so far.

Perry is already a favorite among climate deniers for saying things like this. But he might find himself in hot water over climate change anyway. Earlier this week, he attempted to defend his work as the Texas state director for Al Gore's presidential campaign in 1988. Gore, of course, is the subject of much derision in the climate denial world. "This was Al Gore before he invented the Internet and got to be Mr. Global Warming," Perry said. (It wasn't. Gore was already campaigning on climate change at that time.) Anyway, Perry has mocked Gore on climate change for years. I don't expect any big changes of heart from Perry on this issue anytime soon.

Obama Administration Moves Against Alaska Oil Drilling

| Wed Aug. 17, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in remote northern Alaska is home to a surprisingly diverse array of wildlife: polar bears, caribou, wolverines, lemmings, and others all call the frigid, windswept place home. But one infamous strip of coastline in the massive refuge is also home to nearly two billion barrels of recoverable oil (enough, the feds estimate, to supply America for nine months), which has placed it squarely in the center of a decades-long controversy over whether to open the ecologically sensitive region for oil and gas development or keep it locked up as wilderness.

On Monday the US Fish and Wildlife Service took the first step in granting increased federal protection to a relatively small, oil-rich region within ANWR known as the "1002 area" by nominating it for wilderness designation in a lengthy report (PDF) on conservation plans for ANWR. Only Congress can declare wilderness areas, and the "preliminary recommendation" made in the report is only the beginning of a long (and possibly dead-end) road to approval. But it is the first time such a recommendation has been made since the area was set aside for study in a 1980 federal law (from which the area takes its name), and environmental activists and the FWS agree that it marks a major turning point in an ongoing struggle in Alaska between conservationists and oil and gas developers.

Rising Oceans, a Story in Batik

| Tue Aug. 16, 2011 6:14 PM EDT

Great Barrier Reef II (Australia), 108" x 45," batik on silk. Mary Edna Fraser.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artist Mary Edna Fraser has a new exhibit called Our Expanding Oceans at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. These are beautiful batik pieces designed to use art as a vehicle to share scientific information. Many are featured in a new book, Global Climate Change: A Primer, by Orrin and Keith Pilkey, Duke University Press:

Global warming endangers coral reefs in two ways. If sea level rise is too rapid the reefs will drown and if maximum summer temperatures are too high, fatal coral bleaching (caused by loss of the symbiotic zooxanthellae algae) may occur. Bleaching has already killed portions of the Great Barrier reefs. Fortunately if conditions are right, reefs can recover. —Orrin Pilkey 

Mary Edna Fraser tells me of the outcome of her first snorkeling adventure in 2007:

And it was my initiation into underwater photography as well. The batik is a synthesis of that experience which was like flying under water with colors and shapes constantly in motion. This aquatic excursion changed my life forever.

 

Charleston Airborne Flooded, 95.5" x 35," batik on silk. Mary Edna Fraser.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The piece above is of Fraser's hometown, Charleston, North Carolina. It's based on a NOAA projection of a 4.5-foot/1.4-meter rise in sea level by the year 2100:

The dark green band along this Charleston regional shoreline is the area that will be flooded after a 4.5 foot sea level rise. The barrier islands along the outer coast have largely disappeared in this projection, though in reality the islands might instead grow narrower and migrate toward the mainland. Anyone planning on a property purchase in this area might be well-served by this beautiful piece of art. Already sea level rise has made the storm water runoff system ineffective and unable to drain the city during a simultaneous heavy rain and high tide. As the shoreline moves inland, so will future storm surge levels and storm waves. All told, coastal living in the lower coastal plain faces a challenging future. —Orrin Pilkey

You can see more of Fraser's art-science mashups here.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Maternal Deaths By the Numbers

| Mon Aug. 15, 2011 4:41 PM EDT

Today I stumbled upon this nicely designed infographic by the Maternal Health Task Force on annual maternal deaths globally. According to the graphic, India comes in first in maternal mortality with 68,310 deaths a year, followed by Nigeria (36,666) and Pakistan (20,091). These numbers are absolute totals, so it makes sense that India would have the most maternal deaths: they have the most deaths because they have the highest population. If you look at these numbers per capita instead of as totals, the context changes somewhat.

For example, using the same WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA/World Bank report the infographic was based on, India's per capita maternal mortality rate in 2008 was actually middle-of-the-road at 230 deaths per 100,000 people, while Nigeria's was much higher (840 per 100,000). So while the graph shows that India has the most maternal deaths in the world, it may be much riskier to be a mother in a country like Afghanistan (1400 deaths per 100,000) or Somalia (1200 deaths per 100,000).

It's also compelling that the OECD countries (developed countries with high standards of living) make up such a small portion of deaths in the chart. This is true by absolute numbers of deaths, but it's notable within the OECD group there is a decent amount of variance. For example, most OECD countries have very low death rates: Sweden has 5 maternal deaths per 100,000 people, Greece has 2, and Ireland has 3. The US is at the high end of the OECD range, with 24 deaths per 100,000: the same rate as Saudi Arabia and nearly five times Sweden's rate.

I guess my point here is that there are lots of ways to juggle the numbers, and ultimately I find the death rate per capita more useful than the total number of deaths. I also think charts like these obscure the point that the relative wealth and size of a country do have an affect on its maternal mortality, but they're not everything. At the end of the day, I find it disheartening that a rich country like the US, which prides itself on its treatment of women, has the same maternal mortality rate as a country that doesn't let women drive and a worse rate than countries with a fraction of its GDP per capita.

NASA Punts on New Scientific Integrity Plan

| Mon Aug. 15, 2011 2:47 PM EDT

In 2009, the Obama administration directed federal agencies to set new standards to help ensure that government decisions are based on sound science. As I reported last week, some watchdogs are unhappy with the scientific integrity plan that the Environmental Protection Agency released in response to the White House's orders. But at least the EPA bothered to come up with a plan; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration decided to take a pass.

On the deadline for filing the plans, NASA sent a 10-page note recapping what they already have in place regarding scientific integrity. The agency argued that the policies it already has meet the Obama administration's requirements. The memo is heavy on its expectations for NASA's scientists and engineers—ensuring that they are operating on the up-and-up when it comes to their science, finances, and ethics. It's notably light, however, on what it says about managers, political appointees, and public relations staff, and the expectations for how they will behave.

Of course, ensuring that the scientists within our agencies are operating with integrity is important. But most of the problems with scientific integrity stem from political appointees attempting to control the release of information, silencing employees that buck those in charge, or retaliating against whistleblowers. NASA's policy offers no protections beyond the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, which is in dire need of strengthening.

This is pretty significant at NASA, which handles a lot of crucial data about climate change. And it was NASA that attempted to silence climatologist James Hansen just a few years ago, under the Bush administration. (Granted, Hansen does all kinds of talking about climate change now—including getting arrested at a coal protest outside the White House.) So, having a firm integrity policy in place for scientists and the people in charge is crucial should, say, Rick Perry end up in charge of the country in the near future.

A White House blog post notes that NASA intends to "make modest changes by fall." It's not clear what those changes will be. I'd like to take the Obama administration at its word when it comes to scientific integrity. But the White House basically left the decisions on writing these plans up to the individual agencies. Perhaps there's still a possibility, then, that the administration will encourage the agencies that produced weak plans to tweak their policies.

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CNN Tries, Fails to Cover Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

| Mon Aug. 15, 2011 2:25 PM EDT

It's not often that cable news covers complex environmental or labor issues, so I was hopeful when I heard that CNN's Soledad O'Brien was doing a piece on the battle over Blair Mountain for the CNN In America series. I wrote about this site of a historic labor battle that coal companies are seeking to blow up in a piece last November, and the fight still rages on. Unfortunately, though, the CNN piece starts from the same tired tropes to talk about the issue and misses the bigger questions about mountain top removal coal mining.

The headline on the web piece is your first sign that the piece needs some help: "Steady job or healthy environment: What would you choose?" The story, posted in short clips online, has a number of flaws. Here are the top three:

1. The "jobs versus the environment" frame. The problems with this are numerous. First of all, mountaintop removal creates/sustains a whole lot fewer jobs than underground coal mining. Once you remove the coal, there are no more jobs there. The headline reference to a "steady job" must be some kind of dark humor, given the decline in coal jobs in this country.

Then, once you have created a monoeconomy based on coal, the disappearance of those jobs devastates the surrounding community—especially now that you've destroyed the mountains and polluted the surrounding areas, ruining property values and any potential for tourism. And then there's the health factor…but I'll get to that in my next point. In the meantime, here's what poverty rates look like in central Appalachia near surface mining sites, via Appalachian Voices:

2. Human health impacts are ignored. The "enviros vs. jobs" frame ignores that this isn't just an environmental question, it's a health issue. Areas near MTR sites have been found to have higher rates of cancer, more birth defects, and additional lung and kidney problems. Unfortunately, this gets short shrift in the film.

3. It's not just about "how a mountain looks." That's actually a direct quote from one of O'Brien's questions in the segment. Yikes. Yes, topless mountains do look bad, aesthetically. But the real problem issue is that you destroy the ecosystem on those mountains, and then ruin the nearby waterways when you dump in the toxic debris. And while mining advocates in the segment claim that reclaimed MTR sites look just like they did before the mining, that's far from the truth at many sites.

One last point is that it takes a while in the piece to get to the history of Blair Mountain, which is regrettable. It was the site of the largest labor uprising in US history, one that pitted coal miners against tyrannical coal barons and the state and national government. While the miners didn't win this battle, it was seen as a significant step in the long-term struggle to gain rights for workers in this country. I don't think it's some grand coincidence that coal companies now want to blow it off the map. That's clear from the shenanigans undertaken at the behest of coal companies to get the site removed from the National Register of Historic Places. So there's a layer of significance to this site beyond the broader conversation about MTR in this country.

Jeff Biggers has compiled some responses from area residents on Alternet that are worth a read. Even though the segment falls short of what I hoped for, I guess I am glad to see MTR getting any coverage on cable television. I just wish they'd done a better job of it.

Revealed: The Electric Hitler Kool-Aid Estrogen Test

| Mon Aug. 15, 2011 1:22 PM EDT

Giving you all the news you can use, the Telegraph of London filed this dispatch today:

Some tried bombs to neutralize the fuhrer, others tried bullets. All failed. Now it has come to light that British spies looked at an even more audacious way of derailing the man behind the German war machine—by giving him female sex hormones.

Agents planned to smuggle doses of oestrogen into his food to make him less aggressive and more like his docile younger sister Paula, who worked as a secretary.

Spies working for the British were close enough to Hitler to have access to his food, said Professor Brian Ford, who discovered the plot.

Ford, a professor at Cardiff University in Wales, says he uncovered the plot while working on his new book, Secret Weapons: Technology, Science, and the Race to Win World War II.

Why Bottled Water Companies Target Blacks and Latinos

| Mon Aug. 15, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

Over at Forbes, Nadia Arumugam writes that bottled water companies have been actively marketing their products to minority groups, with ads targeting black and Latino mothers, and endorsements from celebrities like TLC's Chilli and Hispanic TV host Cristina Saralegui

Below, Chilli talks about making the Dasani ad with her son:

Judging from a new study published by the American Medical Association, the PR push is working. Researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin found that Latinos and African Americans are more likely to give bottled water to their children and spend up to twice as much of their household income on bottled water as do whites. After surveying some 640 people they found that Latinos and African Americans are more likely to consume bottled water largely because they view tap water as a health risk. From the study:

Beliefs about tap water safety and cleanliness, preference for bottled water taste, and perceived bottled water convenience had the strongest association with the use of bottled water. Obtaining information about tap water from environmental organizations was also associated with greater odds of bottled water use.

Latinos and African Americans, the survey found, spent up to 12 and 16.7 percent of their household income on bottled water, respectively, while white Americans spent up to 6 percent. The racial/ethnic gap in bottled water consumption could be explained by "actual differences in current tap water quality," the study notes, and survey responses supported this notion, finding that "prior experience is related to water choices."

America's water system faces an annual funding shortfall of at least $11 billion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In their 2009 Report Card for American Infrastructure, the group gave a disappointing D- for drinking water, arguing that the country's ability to prevent failure in drinking-water systems and maintain them are inadequate. Disruptions in water delivery services "can hinder disaster response and recover efforts, expose the public to water-borne contaminants, and cause damage to roadways, structures, and other infrastructure, endangering lives and resulting in billions of dollars in losses."

Such weaknesses might be more acute in rural and low-income communities. According to the US Census Bureau (PDF), Latino and African Americans together make up almost half of the US population living under the poverty line. The Natural Resources Defense Council reported (PDF) in 2004 that 3 in 5 African and Latino Americans live in communities that are also home to Superfund sites, which are prone to releasing toxins into nearby groundwater supplies. In a March 2011 case study of California's San Joaquin Valley, the environmental group Pacific Institute warned that nearby communities were probably drinking water contaminated with nitrates above EPA-sanctioned levels and likely coming from agricultural fertilizers. Those most at risk, the report found, were disproportionately low-income households and Spanish-speaking residents.

Back in 2007, three scholars from the University of Illinois argued in the journal Geoforum that such a disparity is often ignored because people tend to assume that the United States provides universal access to safe drinking water. Not true, they say:

Contrary to reports of 100 percent access to safe water and sanitation in international surveys, the United States has a complex landscape of low-income water systems…The vast majority of urban and rural poor in the US do have access to water and sanitation. However, even cursory observation of poor areas in the US indicates residents who lack access to basic indoor water and plumbing. They include some among the urban homeless, migrant workers, residents of colonias along the US-Mexico border, and remote areas of Native American reservations…

You can't blame people for choosing bottled water when the tap water sucks. But unfortunately, bottled water comes with pretty serious environmental consequences. There's the obvious waste problem, to start. Somewhere around 2.4 million tons of polyethylene terephthalate plastic (commonly used for bottling drinks) is discarded in the US each year, and up to 41 percent of that comes from water bottles. Nor are bottled water companies the kind you'd want in your neighborhood. Mother Jones has reported extensively on Fiji Water's practices in particular, whether it's turning its cheek away from the island's oppression under the military junta, disregarding the local populace's lack of access to water, or burning its trash in nearby towns.

The underlying and perhaps most sobering threat here is that unsafe tap water, whether perceived or real, could be contributing to the financial burden on low-income communities. And if safe tap water were more widely available, maybe people wouldn't be so vulnerable to bottled water companies' marketing ploys, regardless of ethnicity.

Big Oil Front Group Chills at the Ames Straw Poll

| Sat Aug. 13, 2011 3:56 PM EDT
The Iowa Energy Forum's "igloo."

In addition to the tents of the six candidates who paid for the space, the Ames Straw Poll is home to issue-advocacy tents endorsing everything from the fair tax and gun rights to ending poverty and assisting the elderly. The Iowa Energy Forum, which supports a range of Republican-friendly policies and donated $100,000 to the Republican Party of Iowa, has one of the larger operations. It boasts an air-conditioned "igloo" (tent), another tent filled with power strips for poll-goers to recharge their laptops and cell phones, and a stage with a jumbotron screen that played the presidential candidates' Hilton Coliseum speeches for people without tickets to get inside.

The Iowa Energy Forum's website calls the organization "a community of concerned Iowa citizens who are dedicated to broadening the public's understanding of and support for a balanced approach toward increasing our supplies of energy." Not so visible is the "Sponsored by American Petroleum Institute" at the bottom of the page. Even less clear is that API, the country's largest oil industry trade group, lobbies for energy giants like BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil. Inside the so-called igloo are displays promoting hydraulic fracturing, the controversial practice of extracting natural gas from shale rock that can lead to groundwater contamination; and TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, which has come under fire for a number of environmental concerns. (Also, two of the group's members are connected to Tim Pawlenty's campaign.)

Of course, at an event full of conservative activists, none of this presents much of a concern. But Iowa Energy Forum representatives have been following the Republican presidential contenders around Iowa in the lead-up the the straw poll, passing themselves off as grassroots activists working to wean America off foreign oil. The practice is evidence of a sustained effort by the oil industry to meddle in presidential politics: In 2008, an industry front group pitched its "clean coal" agenda to unsuspecting Democratic voters during presidential campaign stops.

In fairness, the Iowa Energy Forum isn't hiding the fact that it's conservative, at least not at the straw poll. Iowa wrestling icon and outspoken Republican Dan Gable signed autographs alongside radio talker Laura Ingraham earlier today to raise awareness of the organization. Local radio-show host Jan Mickelson cohosted an interview with Iowa Republican House Leader Kraig Paulson on the group's stage; invoking Ronald Reagan, Paulson said, "If something proves to be successful, regulate it. If it starts making money, tax it, and when it stops making money, subsidize it. If we're not careful, that's exactly what we'll do."

Conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham signs copies of her book near the Iowa Energy Forum tent. (Photo: Gavin Aronsen) Laura Ingraham signs copies of her book near the Iowa Energy Forum tent. (Photo: Gavin Aronsen)

 The Iowa Energy Forum has had a big presence in Ames today, thanks to bright orange T-shirts bearing its logo that the group is handing out for free. Joy and Rick Waggoner, from Newell, part of Rep. Steve King's northwest Iowa district, both wore the shirts. Both Michele Bachmann-supporting tea partiers, their fingers were stained blue indicating that they had voted at the poll. They told me they supported extracting oil from the Dakota shales and drilling for it in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.