Blue Marble - April 2012

Update: North Sea Gas Leak

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 4:58 PM EDT

 Credit: © Julia Whitty

Credit: © Julia Whitty

Recent developments at the Elgin Well head platform—the Well-from-Hell—in the North Sea, where a massive gas leak has been underway since 25 March:

  • The operator of the platform, supermajor oil giant Total SA, says it's losing $2.5 million a day on the leak—$1 million daily on efforts to stanch the leak and $1.5 million in daily revenue,reports AFP.
  •  Greenpeace members aboard the German research vessel Koenigin Juliana sailed to the edge of the exclusion zone within three nautical miles of the platform and reported seeing oil on the water in the form of a multicolored sheen, plus a faint smell of gas in the air. Total claims what they saw was a gas condensate sheen and that it poses no threat to marine life, reports The Maritime Executive.
  • The flare on the platform that had been burning when the rig was evacuated extinguished itself Saturday.
  • Total has outlined plans to stop the gas leak by 1) boarding the platform to control the well, while also 2) drilling a relief well and 3) drilling a backup relief well. The operations are being planned as follows, reports the Oil & Gas Journal:
Total already mobilized two rigs to drill the relief well and backup relief well. Both rigs will move to Elgin after final suspension of their current operations. Both rigs already are working for Total. The Sedco 714 semisubmersible currently is drilling on Fettercairn field north of Elgin. Transocean Ltd. owns and operates Sedco 714. The second rig is a jack up owned by Rowan Cos. Inc. The Gorilla V currently is drilling on West Franklin field. Total said it also is considering additional drilling rigs to maintain the widest possible options available for the response. Two support vessels also are standing by. One is a vessel to deploy remote-operated vehicles for underwater inspections in the vicinity of the Elgin platform. A second vessel is on standby to conduct seabed surveys of possible sites for relief wells.

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America's Top 10 Most-Polluted Waterways

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

If you are a fly-fisher, a rafter, or heck, just a person who drinks water, here is some troubling news: Our waterways are in rough shape. An eye-opening new report (PDF) from Environment America Research and Policy Center finds that industry discharged 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals into America's rivers and streams in 2010. The pollution included dead-zone-producing nitrates from food processors, mercury and other heavy metals from steel plants, and toxic chemicals from various kinds of refineries. Within the overall waste, the researchers identified 1.5 million pounds of carcinogens, 626,000 pounds of chemicals linked to developmental disorders and 354,000 pounds of those associated with reproductive problems.

In the report are a few goodies (or baddies, really) that are worth ogling. First up, there's this map of the most heavily polluted waterways in the United States, broken down by state:

And if you're curious about which waterways suffer from the most pollution, here's the top 10:

Finally, a list of the top 20 polluters—composed mostly of steel manufacturers, chemical plants, and food processing operations:

It's important to note that the vast majority—if not all—of these releases are perfectly legal. I reached out to all of the companies on the list above and received a response from several. They all basically told me the same thing: "All discharges meet permit requirements," Cargill said. "This is a natural process that is fully licensed, and included as part of our wastewater discharge reporting," echoed McCain Foods.

We'll have to take their word for it, since the companies are not required to release the results of their chemical safety testing to the public, nor do they have to reveal how much of each chemical they are releasing. The Clean Water Act doesn't even apply to all bodies of water in the United States; exactly how big and important a waterway must be to qualify for protection has been the subject of much debate. Rivers get the big conservation bucks; they're the waterway equivalents of rhinos and snow leopards. But pollutants in oft-neglected ditches, canals, and creeks—the obscure bugs of the waterway world—also affect ecosystems and our drinking water quality. Sean Carroll, a federal field associate in Environment America's California office, estimates that 60 percent of US waterways aren't protected. "The big problem," he says, "is that we don't know how big the problem is." 

The situation has gotten slightly better since the last time Environment America conducted a study; overall waterway pollution decreased by 2.6 percent from 2007 to 2010. There's still a lot of room for improvement, Carroll says. Environment America is calling on Obama to extend the protections offered by the Clean Water Act before the end of his first term. A list of the group's specific recommendations is here.

A Photographer's View of Big Coal

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

The River Rouge coal plant near Detroit is the perfect test case for the challenge facing anti-coal activists: On one hand, its pollution is responsible for an estimated 44 deaths, 72 heart attacks, and 700 asthma attacks. On the other, the plant provides a significant chunk of the town's revenue, as well as decent-paying blue-collar jobs. As the Beyond Coal campaign zeroes in on its target of shutting down one-third of the nation's coal plants by 2020, its success will depend on whether it can help communities, and workers, find alternative ways to survive.

Photographer Daniel Shea, who has spent nearly five years working on a project about the coal industry in Appalachia, documented the plant and its surroundings for Mother Jones.

At the time of its construction, in 1956, the River Rouge plant was the largest in the world.

For miles in each direction from the plant runs a vast industrial area.

 

Rhonda Anderson grew up in the neighborhood; today, she's an organizer with the Sierra Club, which is working with the community to figure out how to replace the jobs and tax revenue provided by the plant.

Anderson remembers her father taking her to Belanger Park, adjacent to the plant. Today she takes granddaughter N'Deye Anderson-Mack.

The River Rouge, not far from the plant.

Homes in the town of River Rouge, pop. 7,903.

Calculator: How Much Does Using Coal Really Cost?

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Each month, Americans households spend an average $111 on electricity—chump change considering we need it to do just about everything from watching television to charging our laptops to just getting around in the dark. Much of our electricity comes from coal, a relatively plentiful and accessible energy resource in the United States, but coal's abundance masks a dirty truth: Burning coal fills the air with toxic pollutants, with scary and sometimes fatal health consequences, particularly for people living near the power plants that fuel your home. What would happen to your monthly bill if utilities actually paid for these hidden costs? Use our calculator to find out.

Figures rounded to the nearest dollar. Sources: Clean Air Task Force; Energy Information Administration (PDF); EPA; Paul R. Epstein, Harvard Medical School. Additional reporting by Alyssa Battistoni and Hamed Aleaziz.

Read Their Lips: No New Coal

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

As so often with the Obama administration's environmental policies, there is less than meets the eye to the new global warming rule the EPA proposed this week. In a new article for the next issue of Mother Jones, published online today, I reveal how a network of grassroots activists actually beat the EPA to the punch by imposing a de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, America's top source of greenhouse gas emissions.

On March 27, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson proposed a regulation that would sharply reduce how much carbon dioxide America's power plants can emit—to 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced. Coal defenders squawked, accurately, that the EPA rule, if adopted, would make it all but impossible for new coal plants to operate. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, accused the EPA of waging "a war on coal."

But the real war on coal had been won well before this by grassroots activists of the Beyond Coal campaign. Alarmed by the Bush administration's 2001 push to build 150 new coal plants, a network of local environmentalists, public health professionals, students, farmers, and ordinary citizens employed classic retail politics—mobilizing friends and neighbors, packing regulatory hearings, lobbying local officials and news media, demonstrating before city halls and statehouses—to say no to coal. With national coordination by the Sierra Club, the Beyond Coal campaign has helped to block 166 (and counting) new coal plants over the last decade, most of them in the red states of the South and Midwest.

These defeats reduced America's greenhouse gas emissions by roughly two-thirds as much as Obama's cap-and-trade legislation, rejected by the US Senate in 2010, would have achieved (assuming, generously, that cap-and-trade worked as well as its proponents claimed).

The new EPA rule will lock in these gains, and thus is important. But as a practical matter, the EPA is merely ratifying what Beyond Coal has already achieved: an end to new coal in the United States.