Blue Marble - September 2011

WikiLeaks: Chevron Sought US Help in Ecuador

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 2:15 PM PDT

In February, an Ecuadorian court ordered the oil company Chevron to compensate indigenous communities for environmental damage caused by oil drilling. The case started in 2003, so the $18.2 billion decision was a long time coming. Now Chevron is trying to block enforcement of the decision, arguing that it was "fraudulent."

There's a lot at stake for Chevron, which is why the company is trying so hard to block it. It's not just about the billions of dollars. It's also about the precedent the case would set if an oil company is forced to pay for past environmental harms. Now, several new cables that WikiLeaks has released shed additional light on how the company tried to get help from the US Embassy in Ecuador to have the case dismissed over the years. While some cables show that embassy officials seemed willing to help, it's not clear exactly how much they may have done to intervene on Chevron's behalf. Still, the cables are pretty interesting.

This from a March 2006 cable written by US officials in Quito:

In previous meetings, Chevron reps have suggested that the [US government] pressure the [Government of Ecuador] to assume responsibility for the environmental damage in the areas once operated by Chevron. Given the complex legal questions and the questions of fact disputed in the case, it does not seem likely that any available inducements would convince the [government of Ecuador] to assume what may amount to billions of dollars of environmental liability.

Another cable from April 2008 also provides insight into Chevron's attempts to get the government of Ecuador to help them get rid of the case:

Meanwhile, Chevron had begun to quietly explore with senior [government of Ecuador] officials whether it could implement a series of social projects in the concession area in exchange for GOE support for ending the case, but now that the expert has released a huge estimate for alleged damage, it might be hard for the GOE to go that route, even if it has the ability to bring the case to a close.

More cables about Chevron and Ecuador here, here, here, and here.

The plaintiffs in the case argue that the cables raise concerns that the US may have intervened on behalf of Chevron. "Chevron lawyers clearly felt that embassy officials were part of their team," said Karen Hinton, the spokeswoman for the plaintiffs, in a statement. "We find it disturbing that US embassy officials in Ecuador were willing to do the bidding of an American oil company that committed environmental crimes that have literally decimated the lives of thousands of people."

UPDATE: Chevron spokesman Justin Higgs sent this statement:

Chevron has indeed had discussions with U.S. Embassy officials and the [United States government] more broadly to secure its support in ensuring that Chevron's contractual and treaty based-rights in Ecuador are protected. Chevron consistently has communicated with the governments of Ecuador and the U.S. to try both to ensure that Ecuador honors its binding legal and contractual obligations reflected in the settlement and release agreements it entered into after Texaco Petroleum Company fully remediated its share of environmental impacts in Ecuador and to ensure that Chevron's ability to secure fair and neutral international arbitration is safeguarded.

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The Revolving Door, Keystone XL Edition

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 12:25 PM PDT

Environmental groups have been asking questions about the relationship between the top lobbyist for TransCanada and the State Department, which is currently evaluating the company's proposal to build a 1,660-mile pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Texas. Paul Elliott is now the director of government relations for the energy company TransCanada, but previously served as the national deputy director for Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign.

Friends of the Earth filed a Freedom of Information Act request several months ago to access communication between Elliot and State Department officials, which State denied. So FOE sued, and State eventually provided some of the documents, which the group released on Thursday. The Washington Post broke the story on what the email records contained:

Elliott — who served as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's national deputy campaign manager in 2008 — sought to broker multiple meetings between senior State Department officials and TransCanada executives. He offered to enlist TransCanada officials’ aid in helping State officials forge an international climate agreement. And he deluged administration officials with letters testifying to the virtues of the Keystone XL expansion project, which would ship crude oil from Canada’s oil sands region to American refiners.

See the whole piece for more insight on the back-and-forth between the lobbyist and federal officials. One thing that also struck me is the role of David L. Goldwyn, who was the US special envoy on energy until last January. In the emails, he seems to be coaching TransCanada about how to deal with various requests and questions. Now, Goldwyn says he didn't have a role in drafting the environmental impact statement at State. But he would have had a role in decision about whether to approve the pipeline. Emphasis there is on the "would have," though, because he left the department earlier this year for a private energy consulting firm. In that role, he has testified to Congress about the "importance of Canadian oil for US energy and national security" and advocated for the pipeline's approval.

The second notable element is Elliot offering State his help in talking to the Canadian government about climate change, ahead of the 2009 UN meeting in Copenhagen. "TransCanada can be an asset for the state department and I hope you might see us as such," he wrote in one email to a Clinton staffer.

Now, is this concrete evidence of ethical impropriety at the State Department when it comes to the Keystone XL consideration? I think the sad truth is that it probably isn't. The revolving door between agencies and the oil industry is par for the course it seems.

The Ominous Arctic Sea Ice Minumum of 2011

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 10:34 AM PDT

 

 

This animation is compiled from satellite still images of the Arctic sea ice acquired between 7 March and 9 September 2011. The last image records 2011's lowest sea-ice extent, give or take a day or two. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) calculates 2011 to have lost more ice than any year since record keeping began other than 2007. Though the University of Bremen calculates that 2011 beat out 2007 for the lowest ever sea ice extent.

The NASA's Earth Observatory page explains why the 2011 melt is more ominous than 2007, regardless of where it falls in the final record keeping:

2011 proved to be a year of extreme melt. By early September, the area covered by sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was approaching a record low... In 2007—the last time sea ice reached similarly low levels—conditions were ideal for melt. Skies were clear, wind patterns thinned the ice, and warm air temperatures melted the ice. Weather patterns in 2011, by contrast, were typical. This means, say NSIDC scientists, that the ice was thin and spread out before the melting even started in the summer of 2011. It is a sign that Arctic sea ice is thinning. Indeed the last five years include the five lowest sea ice extents since records began in 1979, and much of that trend has been caused by global warming, says NASA Cryosphere Program manager Tom Wagner in his video interpretation of the 2011 sea ice record.

 

the 2011 Arctic sea ice minimum. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.The 2011 Arctic sea ice minimum. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Chart: How the Climate Change Deniers Won

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 10:24 AM PDT

Remember when Republicans still cared about climate change? Four years ago, GOP presidential candidate John McCain was proudly proclaiming that he'd cosponsored a bill to cap carbon emissions. But at this month's Republican debate in California, every presidential wannabe except Jon Huntsman denied that man-made climate change was a problem. And in another depressing sign of how far global warming has fallen off the political radar, hardly anyone on either side of the Solyndra tempest has argued that betting on the company was important for non-economic reasons. What happened here? In short, the climate change deniers won. Here's a handy chart of how they pulled it off.

Other must reads:
Josh Harkinson on "
The Dirty Dozen of Climate Change Denial"
Kate Sheppard on "Climategate: What Really Happened"
Chris Mooney on "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science"

Bonus reading: Inside the top-secret seminar that raises millions for the "Kochtopus"

Southern Lights From Orbit

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 10:12 AM PDT

 

 

From the NASA Multimedia Video Gallery:

Video of the Aurora Australis taken by the crew of Expedition 29 on board the International Space Station. This sequence of shots was taken September 17, 2011 from 17:22:27 to 17:45:12 GMT, on an ascending pass from south of Madagascar to just north of Australia over the Indian Ocean.

CIA Keeps Its Climate Work Under Wraps

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 9:45 AM PDT

As I reported last month, the CIA's Center on Climate Change and National Security has been keeping a low profile—probably because Republican members of Congress have been trying to ax the program. But apparently the CIA is going so far as to keep all information about the program classified, Secrecy News reported.

The CIA categorically denied a request under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of studies or reports from the center on climate change impacts. Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence historian with the National Security Archive, filed the FOIA request. And while it's conceivable that some of the work the center is doing should be classified, it seems rather unreasonable that all if their work should be secret.

Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News summed up the problem with this approach:

The CIA response indicates a fundamental lack of discernment that calls into question the integrity of the Center on Climate Change, if not the Agency as a whole. If the CIA really thinks (or pretends to think) that every document produced by the Center constitutes a potential threat to national security, who can expect the Center to say anything intelligent or useful about climate change? Security robots cannot help us navigate the environmental challenges ahead. Better to allocate the scarce resources to others who can.

This is an issue that came up repeatedly in my reporting on the center. Several people in the national security community raised the question of whether our traditional intelligence-gathering programs are really the best way to deal with climate change and national security, for a lot of good reasons. Climate change is a threat much different than traditional security concerns, and the agency's experts might not be the best suited for looking at it. It's an international problem, and addressing it will require more openness, cooperation, and transparency with other nations and stakeholders, not less of it. And the sea level rise, droughts, famines, and extreme weather events associated with climate change aren't exactly secrets.

The agency's strategy, in light of attacks from climate skeptics, seems to be to lay low and hope no one notices them. (Trust me, I tried desperately to get info about the program for my story last month, to no avail.) But that makes it practically impossible to publicly justify the program's existence, given that we have no idea what they're up to over there.

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BP's Oil: Still Out There

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 9:37 AM PDT

A new study out this week finds that the tar balls that washed ashore during Tropical Storm Lee are evidence that oil from the BP spill isn't breaking down as fast as many predicted.

After the spill last year, there were a flurry of stories about how bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico had devoured much of the oil remarkably fast. And although it did appear that ravenous sea life made quick work of a lot of the oil, in the months after the spill other studies found that some of the oil and chemical dispersants were lingering in the Gulf longer than expected. This latest research from engineers at Auburn University in Alabama points to the black lumps kicked up in the tropical storm as evidence that much of the crude hasn't broken down much since last year.

From the Associated Press:

Auburn University experts who studied tar samples at the request of coastal leaders said the latest wave of gooey orbs and chunks appeared relatively fresh, smelled strongly and were hardly changed chemically from the weathered oil that collected on Gulf beaches during the spill.
The study concluded that mats of oil — not weathered tar, which is harder and contains fewer hydrocarbons — are still submerged on the seabed and could pose a long-term risk to coastal ecosystems.

The piece continues:

Marine scientist George Crozier said the findings make sense because submerged oil degrades slowly due to the relatively low amount of oxygen in the Gulf's sandy bottom.
"It weathered to some extent after it moved from southern Louisiana to Alabama ... but not much has happened to it since then," said Crozier, longtime director of the state sea laboratory at Dauphin Island.

The full study is here. It's yet another reminder that just because we (usually) can't see the oil doesn't mean its not still there.

The Worst US Cities for Breathers

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 8:57 AM PDT

Earlier this month, President Obama angered a lot of environmentalists, public health groups, and people who enjoy breathing when he announced that he was directing the EPA to abandon new smog rules. According to the American Lung Association, the current weaker standard for ozone pollution means that as many as 186 million Americans are currently breathing in unhealthy levels of smog—and a new report out today highlights the worst parts of the country when it comes to air quality.

Environment America took a look at the data on ground-level ozone pollution around the US, concluding that the five smoggiest major metropolitan areas last year were:

  1. Riverside- San Bernardino, Calif.
  2. Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif.
  3. Baltimore, Md.
  4. Washington, D.C.
  5. Philadelphia, Pa.

The Riverside and San Bernardino metropolitan area experienced 110 days of unhealthy smog levels, meaning the 3 million people who live there were breathing unhealthy air almost a third of the year. Twenty-four of those days were "red alert" days, which is when the EPA advises that people with lung disease or asthma, children, and the elderly should avoid spending a lot of time outside. Two were "purple alert" days, which is when the EPA advises that all humans should avoid outdoor exertion because the air is too unhealthy.

The report also ranks the smoggiest mid-sized metropolitan areas, or those with between 250,000 and one million residents. The worst:

  1. Visalia-Tulare-Porterville, Calif.
  2. Bakersfield, Calif.
  3. Fresno, Calif.
  4. Knoxville, Tenn.
  5. Wilmington-Newark, Del.

So far, 2011 hasn't been a great year for air quality, either. The Los Angeles area has already had 85 smog days, more than double the number of the second-smoggiest city so far this year, Atlanta.

All of these figures are based on the current smog limit of 75 parts per billion—weaker than those recommended by EPA scientists. If the EPA actually tightened the standard to 60 to 70 parts per billion, which the agency planned to until Obama stepped in, most metropolitan areas would have recorded a number of additional unhealthy air days.

How to Find a Chimpanzee Colony [Video]

| Tue Sep. 20, 2011 10:59 AM PDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth and the Deadly 60 Team. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Waking at dawn and trekking into the forest to meet one of the most intelligent species on the planet is a dream for many people. And for Steve it was exactly that: A dream come true. But since chimpanzees have around five times the upper body strength of a typical human male, Steve had to tread carefully. Luckily, he had his trusty team and an experienced escort on side to ensure that this close up encounter was anything but deadly.

Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives and are likely the most intelligent non-human animal. In East Africa, the chimpanzee is found in the wild in Tanzania and Uganda, where Steve and the team went in search of them. Chimps are found in rainforests and wet savannas living in communities which can number anywhere from 10 to more than 100 individuals sharing a home range, which can cover thousands of acres. Chimps spend much of the time moving through the forest in search of fruiting trees, making them difficult to find and follow.

Here's how our team tracked them down:

  • The right location: They opted to go to Kibale National park, the most accessible of Uganda’s major rainforests.
  • The right guides: The deadly crew were escorted by Uganda Wildlife Authority guides, who were familiar with the parks and the chimpanzees.
  • Habituated chimps: Kibale is home to "habituated" chimps—meaning that they are used to seeing people and more likely to tolerate the team following and watching them.
  • Monitored chimps: The habituated group are part of a scientific study in Kibale where field staff conduct daily behavioral observations on a group of about 50 chimpanzees. This meant our team could be taken to the chimps because the guides knew where they had spent the previous night.

Here are the other places in Uganda you can see and track chimpanzees through organized tours:

For more great tips and moving moments, check out the Deadly Diaries, direct from Steve and the Deadly 60 Team.

 

The Incredible Shrinking Times Atlas Reputation

| Tue Sep. 20, 2011 10:58 AM PDT

The discredited Times Atlas map of Greenland showing 1999 (left) and 2011 (right) ice cover. Credit: The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the WorldThe Times Atlas still stands by its map showing Greenland ice cover in 1999 (left) and 2011 (right). Credit: The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.I posted here last week on the latest edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World and their accompanying statement claiming a 15 percent reduction in ice over in Greenland in the past 12 years. Almost immediately, glaciologists and climatologists challenged the data. HarperCollins stood by their work, saying it was based on the findings of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

Not so, said the NSIDC:

"[We have] never released a specific number for Greenland ice loss over the past decade...The loss of ice from Greenland is far less than the Times Atlas brochure indicates."

Today the Times Atlas issued a mea culpa:

For the launch of the latest edition of the atlas... we issued a press release which unfortunately has been misleading with regard to the Greenland statistics. We came to these statistics by comparing the extent of the ice cap between the 10th and 13th editions (1999 vs 2011) of the atlas. The conclusion that was drawn from this, that 15% of Greenland’s once permanent ice cover has had to be erased, was highlighted in the press release not in the Atlas itself. This was done without consulting the scientific community and was incorrect.  We apologize for this and will seek the advice of scientists on any future public statements. We stand by the accuracy of the maps in this and all other editions of The Times Atlas.

HarperCollins stands by their map. But researchers don't. Nature News reports:

Poul Christoffersen, glaciologist at the Scott Polar Research Institute, said he and fellow researchers had examined the atlas and found that "a sizeable portion of the area mapped as ice-free in the Atlas is clearly still ice-covered".

A better image for the Times Atlas might have been this NASA Earth Observatory map (below) showing the number of days in Greenland in 2010 that temperatures rose high enough for ice to melt, compared to the average melt-days in the period between 1979 and 2009.

 

Number of melt days per year in 2010 compared to average of 1979-2009. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, based on data from Marco Tedesco, City College of New York.Number of melt days per year in 2010 compared to average of 1979-2009. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, based on data from Marco Tedesco, City College of New York.By the end of the 2010, large swathes of southern Greenland had set a new record—with melting that lasted 50 days longer than average.

As for the 13th edition of the Times Atlas, get 'em while they last, collectors. Someday this flawed atlas will be one helluva a prize.