Blue Marble - March 2012

Well-From-Hell Cynicism

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 4:07 PM EDT

Credit: Stig Nygaard via Flick.Credit: Stig Nygaard via Flick.

The five-day-and-counting mega-engineering challenge continues at Total's Well-from-Hell in the North Sea. That name was coined by Frederic Hauge of Bellona, a Norwegian group that monitors the oil industry:

"We estimate the total greenhouse gas potential of the reservoir is roughly 0,56 Gigatonnes CO2 equivalent," said... Hauge. "This is based on recoverable resources of 15 billion cubic meters of gas at the West Franklin Field. The pressure in the well is 200-300 bars higher than Macondo [the Deepwater Horizon field]. If no plugging is achieved, this leak is likely to continue for 10-12 years. This is truly the well from hell," he said.

The best-case scenario, Hauge notes, is if the leak is in a small gas pocket, not an enormous reservoir in the Elgin-Franklin gas field. From Bellona:

Should the gas be flowing from the reservoir, Hauge said, staunching the flow could be a long time operation. If, however it is coming from a gas pocket, it could well bleed itself out. 

I described Elgin yesterday as the North Sea's looming Deepwater Horizon—if for no other reason that it also lies at the farthest reaches of our technological abilities to drill and has already clearly exceeded our technological abilities to drill safely. And then there's the matter of our abilities to repair. Or know how to repair. 

The video provides a good explanation of the situation, particularly the explosive aspects of it. 

 

 

But the really pressing issue is the fact that the gas in the field is under extreme high pressure and high temperature. These crappy working conditions are some of the only options left to the UK, reports the Wall Street Journal:

These types of fields are thought to contain a significant proportion of the UK's remaining oil and gas, making them important enough to have been targeted with a specific tax break to encourage development. Yet documents show that the French oil-and-gas producer's Elgin and Franklin fields off the coast of Scotland—at the extreme end of the spectrum of high-pressure and high-temperature fields—have faced major technical challenges, from their discovery right up until the incident that triggered the gas leak.

And while Total claims there's no extremely toxic hydrogen sulfide (aka "Agent Orange" in the ocean) leaking from its Well-from-Hell... well, exactly how do they—or we—know that at this point?  

 Made with the help of LucidChart.

Made with the help of LucidChart. 

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It's Not Your Imagination: Republicans Really Don't Like Science

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 1:48 PM EDT

The premise of the 2005 book The Republican War on Science (by Mother Jones contributor Chris Mooney) was that conservatives in the US hate science. They don't like evolution, they don't like global warming—none of that stuff. Now a sociologist set out to figure out if that thesis really is true, and concluded that the right in the US is indeed growing increasingly distrustful of science.

Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina published these findings in the forthcoming issue of the American Sociological Review. He looked back at data from 1974 through 2010, and found that trust in science was relatively stable over that 36-year period, except among self-identified conservatives. While conservatives started in 1974 as the group that trusted science most (compared to self-identified liberals and moderates), they have now dropped to the bottom of the ranking.

Gauchat used data from the General Social Survey, which asked subjects to rate their level of confidence in the scientific community. Here's what he found: 

Gordon Gauchat/American Sociological Review Gordon Gauchat/American Sociological Review 

The reason for this, according to Mooney and others, is that the "political neutrality of science began to unravel in the 1970s with the emergence of the new right"—a growing body of conservatives who were distrustful of science and the intellectual establishment, who were often religious and concerned about defending "traditional values" in the face of a modernizing world, and who favored limited government. This has prompted backlash against subjects for which there is broad scientific consensus, like global warming and evolution—backlash that has been apparent in survey data over the past three decades.

Mooney, who also has a new book out titled The Republican Brain, also highlights one of Gauchat's more distressing findings, which is that this trend seems to be more common among conservatives with higher levels of education:

…conservatives with high school degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and graduate degrees all experienced greater distrust in science over time and these declines are statistically significant. In addition, a comparison of predicted probabilities indicates that conservatives with college degrees decline more quickly than those with only a high school degree. These results are quite profound, because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.

Yikes. That's certainly not a good sign for fans of reality-based decision making.

In the Everglades, Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Industry's Mess

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Florida's Everglades National Park

The fragile wetlands of the Everglades have long been choked by pollution, especially phosphorus from fertilizers used in industrial agriculture. Sugar cane in particular makes up the largest share of the crop land that drains directly into the national park. But a new study shows that despite the fact that the preponderance of gunk feeding into the Everglades comes from agriculture, it is the taxpayers, not the industry, who fork over for clean up.

The study, which was commissioned by the Everglades Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the complex ecosystem, finds that although the agricultural industry is responsible for 76 percent of phosphorus contamination in the Everglades (the rest being urban runoff and wastewater), it pays only 24 percent of the cost of dealing with it. Even though Florida's "polluter pays" amendment requires those who sully the wetlands to be "primarily responsible" for its cleanup, legislators have declined to enforce the law, sticking taxpayers with 66 percent of the bill.

Why this state of affairs? "It's a little secret that the sugar industry is one of the most generous political donors on every level of government," says Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. The US Sugar Corporation spent $907,000 to lobby the Florida legislature in 2011 alone, and its rival Florida Crystals wasn't far behind, doling out $570,000.

The sugar daddies quickly issued a statement calling the study "hocus pocus." Gov. Scott's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Last year the governor cut funds for Everglades water clean up, and the Sunshine State has been fighting a legal battle with the feds for years over its responsibility to pay for pollution abatement in federally-managed areas of the Glades. Gov. Scott is currently in negotiations with the Obama administration to draft a new version of a decade-old state and federal restoration project

Could the study shift the balance of payments? Fordham thinks so. "Rick Scott ran on a platform of protecting the taxpayer, and there would be no better way to follow through on that commitment than to demand that polluters pay more than taxpayers."

Expect More Crazy Weather, Says UN Climate Change Panel

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 7:30 PM EDT

Wondering whether the heat wave that's been shattering temperature records across the Midwest has anything to do with climate change? A report on extreme weather events released today by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers strong evidence that global warming makes heat waves and record highs more likely. While there have been many studies on the link between climate and extreme weather, and plenty of speculation, this report, which synthesizes over a thousand studies on climate, weather, and disasters, offers an "unprecedented level of detail" on observed and expected changes in weather and climate extremes, says the IPCC. This is the first time the panel has taken a comprehensive look specifically at extreme weather, as well as the first IPCC report to consult social scientists in seeking to understand how communities are affected by climate change.

The IPCC warns that extreme temperatures and heavy precipitation have been on the rise since 1950, and that those trends are likely to continue throughout the 21st century. The heat impacts are particularly worrisome: The report says it's "virtually certain" that we'll see more daily temperature extremes at the high end of the scale going forward, and "very likely"—scientific lingo for 90-100 percent certain—that heat waves will increase in length, frequency, and intensity. Droughts are also likely to intensify in many areas, including central North America, central and southern Europe, and northeast Brazil. So while we'll probably never know whether this particular heat wave can be chalked up to climate change, we can be pretty sure that we'll be seeing more like it in the future. And there's a lot more to worry about (and some suggestions for how we can cope, like improving land-use planning and enforcing building codes) in the full 592 pages of the report, which you can read here

 

Massive Gas Leak Could Be the North Sea's Deepwater Horizon

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 3:20 PM EDT

 North Sea platforms: tjodolv via Flickr.North Sea platforms: tjodolv via Flickr. 

A natural gas well in the North Sea 150 miles off Aberdeen, Scotland, sprung a massive methane leak on March 25. The 238 workers were all safely evacuated. But the situation is so explosive that an exclusion zone for ships and aircraft has been set up around the rig, reports the Mail Online. And nearby rigs have been evacuated, reports the New York Times:

Royal Dutch Shell said it closed its Shearwater field, about four miles away, withdrawing 52 of the 90 workers there; it also suspended work and evacuated 68 workers from a drilling rig working nearby, the Hans Deul.

But that's not the worst of it. The platform lies less than 100 yards/meters from a flare that workers left burning as crew evacuated. The French super-major oil company owner of the rig, Total, dismissed the risk, while the British government claimed the flame needs to burn to prevent gas pressure from building up. But Reuters reports:

[O]ne energy industry consultant said Elgin could become "an explosion waiting to happen" if the oil major did not rapidly stop the leak which is above the water at the wellhead.

Elgin Field.:  Adapted from map by NordNordWest via Wikimedia Commons.Elgin Field: Adapted from map by NordNordWest via Wikimedia Commons.And that may not be the worst of it either. The leak is not in the well apparently but in the chalky seabed around it. No one really knows how reparable that will be—especially with the risk of explosion so high for any workers on site

Plus, the field produces sour gas: a potent mix of natural gas, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide. Twenty years ago the cost of extracting energy from such messy stuff would have been prohibitively expensive. Now, not so much. But the true cost could be brutal, reports the BBC :

The major threat to the local ecosystem is the hydrogen sulphide, which is toxic to virtually all animal life. "You might as well put Agent Orange in the ocean," says [Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK]. Because the leak is below the water's surface, the hydrogen sulphide is bubbling through the sea water. This is the worst-case scenario, says Boxall, because it could lead to mass animal and plant deaths. Boxall says Total needs to monitor the water quality to see if this is happening.

 

No New Coal Plants! Great, But What About the Old Ones?

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 6:14 PM EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency made a huge step forward on Tuesday with the announcement of rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants—the first rules for power plants, ever. The rules are the beginning of the end of conventional coal-fired power plants, and have been cheered by environmental and public health groups.

Here's what the proposed rule states, from the National Journal:

The agency is proposing that new fossil-fuel power plants—namely those fired by coal and natural gas—emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon per megawatt-hour of energy produced. That's about the same amount of carbon emissions produced by today's natural gas-plants and about half the amount of produced by coal plants.

This basically means that going forward, anyone proposing new power plants has two options: build a natural-gas powered plant, or build a coal plant that has carbon-capture-and-sequestration (CCS) technology to significantly reduce the emissions from that plant.

The rules make it likely that there won't be any new coal plants built in the US—or at least not anytime soon. While there are currently demonstration plants in the works that feature CCS technology, they aren't to the scale of a new full-sized plant, nor are they cost effective. What's more, plants powered by natural gas, which is pretty cheap at the moment, can meet the new, lower-emission requirements pretty easily.

But here's why environmentalists aren't celebrating quite as much as you'd think they would: The rule doesn't apply to power plants that have already received permits to begin construction. Nor does it apply to plants that are already in operation—meaning that the approximately 300 older, dirtier coal plants that currently provide 39 percent of our energy will still be allowed to release CO2 unfettered. "We have no plans to address existing plants," said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. She noted that "in the future if we were to," that would require an additional and thorough rule-making process.

Jackson noted that she believes coal "will remain an important part of America's electricity generation mix for foreseeable future," and that the rule "is meant to provide a path forward for those new coal-fired power plants that choose to minimize their carbon emissions."

Even before the new rules, environmentalists and local activists had already stopped quite a few new coal-fired power plants. Since 2001, they've blocked the construction of 166 plants around the country. The EPA said that there are 15 plants currently pursuing permits that would not be impacted by the new rule. *

As the chart to the left shows, cutting emissions by only stopping new coal plants isn't as effective at reducing US emissions as an economy-wide cap-and-trade law passed by Congress would have been, because in this scenario old plants are still emitting with abandon. But stopping plants—either by EPA action like today's or by blocking them from being built—does eliminate a chunk of potential future emissions.

As one might imagine, the coal industry isn't a big fan of the new rules. The National Mining Association told the New York Times that the rule is a "big mistake," one "virtually calculated to drive coal, a very, very affordable generator of electricity, out of the US electricity."

Here's a map drawn from Sierra Club's anti-coal campaign showing plants that have already been defeated around the country even before today's new rule announcement, as well as those that are currently in the works:

 


Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 15 plants would be impacted by the new rule, when in fact they will not. The sentence has been corrected.

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Barataria Bay Dolphins Severely Ill

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 5:48 PM EDT

 Researchers working with severely ill dolphins off Louisiana: NOAA.

Veterinarians collect samples from Barataria Bay dolphins, Louisiana: NOAA.

The bottlenose dolphins of Barataria Bay, Louisiana, are showing signs of severe ill health, according to a report from NOAA.

I wrote about the fate of these resident dolphins at the height of the BP's oil disaster in my Mother Jones' piece The BP Cover Up.

Barataria Bay, as you likely remember, in the northern Gulf of Mexico, was horrifically polluted by prolonged exposure to oil during the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Here's what NOAA says about the latest problems affecting dolphins there:

Based on comprehensive physicals of 32 live dolphins from Barataria Bay in the summer of 2011, preliminary results show that many of the dolphins in the study are underweight, anemic, have low blood sugar and/or some symptoms of liver and lung disease. Nearly half also have abnormally low levels of the hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function. Researchers fear that some of the study dolphins are in such poor health that they will not survive. One of these dolphins, which was last observed and studied in late 2011, was found dead in January 2012.

Veterinarians collect a urine sample from Y12, a 16-year-old adult male bottlenose dolphin caught near Grand Isle, LA. Y12’s health evaluation determined that he was significantly underweight, anemic, and had indications of liver and lung disease. After t: NOAA.Veterinarians collect a urine sample from Y12, a 16-year-old adult male bottlenose dolphin caught near Grand Isle, LA. Y12’s health evaluation determined that he was significantly underweight, anemic, and had indications of liver and lung disease: NOAA.

Since February 2010, more than 675 dolphins have stranded in the northern Gulf of Mexico—a much higher rate than the usual average of 74 dolphins a year. This has prompted NOAA to declare an Unusual Mortality Event and investigate the cause of death for as many of the dolphins as possible.

Some waters in the northern Barataria Basin, a larger area that includes Barataria Bay, remain closed to commercial fishing, as visible oil is still present along the shoreline where the closures are in place. The joint protocol directs seafood safety testing to begin only after visible oil is gone.

Deepwater Horizon Hammered Deep-Water Corals

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 3:51 PM EDT

 Healthy deep-water coral communities were observed in November 2010 from various sites >20 km from the Macondo well.: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

A healthy deep-water coral more than 12 miles (20 km) from BP's Macondo well, November 2010: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

A study published this week in PNAS finds BP's oily fingerprints on severely damaged deep-water coral communities in the Gulf of Mexico.

The new research also fortifies our understanding that the sheer magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe—notably its release at depth—made for a totally different beast than for spills occurring only at the surface. 

In the photo above you can see a healthy deep-water coral with a healthy brittle star wrapped around it. This photo was taken at a site more than 12 miles (20 km) from BP's Macondo well seven months after the blowout.

Brown woolly material and tissue loss was first observed on corals in November 2010 at sites 11 km southwest of the Macondo well: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.Oiled deep-water coral covered with brown wooly material and tissue loss from site 7 miles (11 km) southwest of the Macondo well, November 2010: Courtesy Chuck Fisher, PSU. Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Contrast that with the photo above of a sick, dead, or dying deep-water coral with a sick or dying brittle star attached to it at 4,300-feet deep (1,310 meters), 7 miles (11 km) from BP's Macondo well seven months after the blowout. 

So how do you know if it was BP's oil that was maiming these amazing communities that exist beyond the reach of sunlight?

That's where the interesting science comes in. Using the submersible Alvin, the researchers collected sediments and samples of the corals and filtered the brown wooly material off the sick corals. These materials were then analyzed using comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography—a method pioneered at WHOI specifically for use in oil spill research.

During six dives in Alvin, the team collected sediments and samples of the corals and filtered the brown material off of the corals for analysis: courtesy of Chuck Fisher, Pennsylvania State University, and Timothy Shank, WHOI. Deep-sea time-lapse camera system provided by WHOI-MISO.Alvin collecting sediments and samples of corals for analysis: Courtesy of Chuck Fisher, Pennsylvania State University, and Timothy Shank, WHOI.

The results delivered an oily fingerprint traceable directly to BP's Macondo well spill.

What's not yet known is whether or not these corals and the communities that depend on them will will recover. Members of this research team are monitoring the site, including with time-lapse imaging.

 

I wrote at length about my adventures in the Alvin world in my Mother Jones' piece Gone.

Gender and Patents: Are Women Slackers?

| Mon Mar. 26, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Why don't women hold more patents? The National Bureau of Economic Research examined the question in a new working paper, and on Thursday, NPR's Marketplace featured a segment with Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner about the issue.

The radio segment was bothersome. Dubner started by blaming women for there being "room for improvement in the innovation field," then proceeded to argue that the disparity might be because men are bigger "risk-takers," and concluded by suggesting that segregating the work force is the best answer. The segment had an overarching tone of, "Geez, womens, would you get your act together? But do it somewhere else, the menfolk are busy."

That's not to say the data in the NBER paper isn't interesting. The Bureau found that overall, women hold 7.5 percent of all patents, and only 5.5 percent of commercial patents. Men hold the rest. Many people assume that this is because women are less likely to hold degrees in things like engineering or hard sciences, but that only accounts for 7 percent of the massive gap. And simply increasing women's representation in those fields "would have little effect absent other changes."

More important, the authors found, is increasing the number of women working in electrical and mechanical engineering, the "most patent-intensive fields," and increasing the number of women working in jobs that focus on development and design—a disparity that accounts for 40 percent of the gap in commercial patents. They also found that the fact that women working in the kind of jobs where they might develop ideas to patent tend to be younger than their male counterparts accounts for 29 percent of the gap. 

But here's what both Dubner and the NBER paper missed: women are actually closing the patent gap quite quickly already. The National Women's Business Council released a report earlier this month that found that women have doubled their share of patents in the last 22 years. Women hold 18 percent of the patents filed since 1990. And in 2010, the number of patents granted to women increased by 35 percent. So I'd say women are actually doing pretty well these days.

Docs on PA Gag Order: No Fracking Way!

| Fri Mar. 23, 2012 4:07 PM EDT

I have a new piece up today about a provision in a Pennsylvania law that critics have called a "gag order" for medical professionals. The provision would allow doctors to access information about chemicals in "fracking" fluid, the stuff injected into the ground to tap into natural gas resources, but would make them sign a confidentiality agreement stating that they won't share that information with anyone—not even the person they're treating.

Doctors in Pennsylvania have expressed concern that this would interfere with their relationships with patients, and with attempts to gain a better understanding of broader public health matters as they relate to oil and gas drilling. And the president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, Dr. Marilyn J. Heine, has also spoken out about the need for more information in the state as concerns about public health have increased. "We have no definitive answers to these questions because we lack data," she wrote in an op-ed last month.

But doctors in the national public health community are also worried about what the new law might mean. The provision "compromises both individual patient well-being and public health," said Dr. Jerome A. Paulson, director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children's Health & the Environment at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC, which serves Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. His group has been concerned about unconventional gas extraction the past few years and has been gathering information for families and for health professionals, he said. Pennsylvania's new law could interfere with that work.

Doctors would be forced to decide whether to sign a confidentiality agreement that would prevent them from sharing necessary information with patients, or not sign it—and then not have access to that information at all. "It's an untenable situation for a health professionals," said Paulson. "It really goes against our standard ways of getting and gathering information, and it goes against moral and ethical responsibilities for protecting the public health."