Pillar coral in the Florida Keys: NOAAPillar coral in the Florida Keys: NOAA

Today NOAA proposed listing 66 species of reef-building corals under the Endangered Species Act (ESA): 59 species in the Pacific (7 as endangered, 52 as threatened); 7 in the Caribbean (5 as endangered, 2 as threatened). The agency is also proposing that two Caribbean species already listed be reclassified from threatened to endangered. (You can see the full species list here.)

Today's proposal is part of an ongoing response to a 2009 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to list 83 species of reef-building corals under the ESA. 

NOAA identifies 19 threats to the future of corals, including the ecological impacts of fishing and poor land-use practices. But first and foremost are three daunting problems related to the continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions and a changing climate:


David Burdick / NOAA via FlickrDavid Burdick / NOAA via Flickr

Corals are biodiversity factories providing home and shelter to more than 25 percent of fish in the ocean and up to two million marine species. Their direct economic and social benefits are wide ranging, with one independent study finding they provide some $483 million in annual net benefit to the US economy from tourism and recreation and a combined annual net benefit from all goods and services of about $1.1 billion.

The annual commercial value of US fisheries from coral reefs is more than $100 million annually, with reef-based recreational fisheries generating another $100 million a year.

Following NOAA's proposal there will be a 90-day public comment period (you can submit a comment here) including 18 public meetings (schedule here, more will be added) before the listing is finalized in late 2013.  


Full reports downloadable here.

The EPA surprised quite a few people on Wednesday when it announced sanctions on BP related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. BP won't be allowed to get any new government contracts until it cleans up its act, the agency said.

This was announced in a short press release that wasn't really very specific about what that penalty means in practice. It could bar the company from new contracts for as long as 18 months—and potentially longer, if there are ongoing legal proceedings against the company. And it's not just BP's Gulf of Mexico affiliate—this suspension applies to all of BP's affiliates, barring the company from billions of dollars in potential future contracts.

This has been a long-time coming for BP. As a ProPublica piece from May 2010 noted, the company was already in trouble before spill:

Over the past 10 years, BP has paid tens of millions of dollars in fines and been implicated in four separate instances of criminal misconduct that could have prompted this far more serious action. Until now, the company's executives and their lawyers have fended off such a penalty by promising that BP would change its ways.

But many companies with federal contracts have been cited for misconduct. Apparently you just have to be really, really bad—like, 26-people-dead, Gulf-ecosystem-destroyed, lying-to-Congress bad—in order to get barred like BP did. The government regularly blocks companies from getting new contracts; there were 5,838 suspensions, proposed debarments, and debarments in 2011, an increase over previous years, but most of them are much smaller companies. 

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) maintains a database of contractors that have been cited for misconduct, including environmental, labor, and financial legal violations. But as POGO points out, "very few large contractors have been suspended or debarred over the years." BP tops the list with 62 instances of misconduct or alleged misconduct since 1995, but here are the ten other big companies right behind BP that are still allowed to obtain government contracts:

  1. Exxon Mobil, 59 instances of alleged misconduct
  2. Lockheed Martin, 58 instances
  3. Boeing Company, 46 instances
  4. General Electric, 44 instances
  5. Honeywell International, 41 instances
  6. ChevronTexaco Corporation, 37 instances
  7. Northrop Grumman, 35 instances
  8. Fluor Corporation, 34 instances
  9. Royal Dutch Shell PLC, 34 instances
  10. GlaxoSmithKline, 33 instances


There are several interesting things to note following Wednesday's announcement that BP has been barred from new federal contracts. First, the Department of Interior announced that the oil giant is also barred from obtaining new leases "unless and until" it resolves the issues that got it barred from contracts.

But as Rena Steinzor, a professor of law at the University of Maryland and the president of the Center for Progressive Reform, points out, BP just won 43 new leases in the Gulf of Mexico in June. And in September, BP got $1.38 billion in new Department of Defense contracts. The debarment doesn't affect current leases. The DOD is the primary agency contracting with BP, and BP was its largest fuel supplier last year. And while DOD has said it doesn't plan to apply for a waiver from the debarment, either the agency or BP could still find ways of getting around it, writes Steinzor:

As DOD’s silence implies, the real question here is what will happen next. Under the law, a temporary debarment imposed without the company's consent cannot exceed 30 days. BP must be given the opportunity to rebut the charges and can challenge any final decision in court. Although some courts have concluded that parties do not have any right to do business with the government, others have said that contractors have a "liberty interest" in continuing to do business with the government unless they are cut off for "just cause," meaning that EPA will be compelled to explain itself quite thoroughly if the matter is litigated.
Even more disturbing, individual government agencies and departments may also waive debarment and do business with banned companies for "compelling reasons," a term every bit as loose and loophole-riddled as it sounds. If DOD goes this route and the President doesn’t back EPA, even this temporary debarment will vaporize as quickly as it materialized. There can be little doubt that BP lawyers have pitched a tent outside the office of the Defense Logistics Agency employee in charge of its case file.

The EPA's move to block BP from new contracts is laudable, but it might not be the final word.

There's a reason that American environmentalists might be green with envy this week: The Brits are racking up some notable environmental karma.

While the mere utterance of the words "climate change" in the US gets cheered by climate journos like me (and jeered by politicians still struggling with the science), the UK this week released a comprehensive (if complicated and controversial) new energy bill that triples subsidies for non-carbon energy, and opened a new green bank that will rush cash to alternative energy projects. All this against the backdrop of baby-stepping Doha talks, and the four-year anniversary of the UK's historic Climate Change Act... and the Brits appear to be glowing a deeper shade of green.

Here are four ways in which Britannia rules the waves (and the wind, and the sun...).

1. False Balance in Climate Change Reporting Called Out By Official Media Inquiry

US journalists hoping to penetrate the polarized world of climate reporting with fact can find a friend this week in Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the head of a wide-ranging inquiry into the UK's media practices. While phone-hacking and other press malarky takes up the majority of the near-2000-page Leveson report, a small part looks at "false balance", the idea that too much air time is given to minority opinions in the misguided pursuit of both sides of the story.

Leveson argues that "further consideration should be given to the need to provide balanced reporting without giving unjustified credence to minority views," and sites a specific example: The Daily Express's article 100 reasons why global warming is natural which Leveson says "resulted in a misleading and inaccurate piece of science reporting." (Hat tip to The Carbon Brief blog, which has a terrific round up of all the mentions of science journalism from the sprawling report).

Leveson argues that any future press regulator should set out strict science reporting guidelines [PDF]. Worth a read. The one I like the most: "When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other."

2. Tripling renewable investment by 2020

UK's renewable energy industry is mostly hailing a deal that will see more than £7.5 billion invested in non-carbon energy generation by 2020. RenewableUK, the leading trade association for wind, wave and tidal energy, predicts a (cough) windfall of jobs and investment: 88,000 jobs in the sector they represent by 2021.

But that's the icing on a cake some groups are having difficulty swallowing for other reasons. Most notably, the new energy bill puts off making any carbon reduction decisions for the power sector until after the next election—a kind of "fiscal cliff" for the low-carbon economy. Friends of the Earth has called it a "reckless dash for gas" that has "banged the final nail in the coffin of Cameron's pledge to lead the greenest government ever." Despite Energy Secretary Ed Davey's assurances to the contrary, the government has been accused of shoveling the cost burden to the consumers while exempting big, energy-intensive industries.

3. UK Green Investment Bank Open for Business

The £3 billion bank that opened this week will invest in green energy projects. Its first project will generate energy from waste through anaerobic digesters. The bank is hoping to attract a further £15 billion of private investment by 2015. Green groups have welcomed the bank, but say it should be able to borrow money above and beyond its stipulated £3 billion budget so it can start forking out larger amounts of cash right away.

4. Happy Fourth Birthday, UK Climate Action

While the US watches tumbleweeds, the UK is cueing confetti: this week marks four years since the UK introduced the Climate Change Act, a world-first that included legally binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 34 percent by 2020. And while most commentators foreground their ambivalence about how far the UK has come, at least they are not scrambling for ways to circumvent their legislature in the hope of securing any kind of climate action. And for that, we say Happy Birthday.

From a tainted water supply in Wyoming to toxic air pollution in Colorado, there are concerns aplenty about the public health effects of hydraulic fracturing. While many communities investigate what we drink and breathe for answers, one new report from The Nation and the Food & Environment Reporting Network highlights a key yet overlooked complication—fracking chemicals could affect our food.

For the cover story in the magazine's December issue, journalist and author Elizabeth Royte visited a North Dakotan cattle farmer living smack in the middle of the Bakken oil boom. The rancher, Jacki Schilke, decided to largely stop selling her cows for Black Angus beef after several died or started displaying mysterious symptoms, like rapid weight loss or tails that would simply drop off. Schilke, Royte writes, is surrounded by 32 fracked oil and gas wells within three miles of her 160-acre ranch. The author continues:

Ambient air testing by a certified environmental consultant detected elevated levels of benzene, methane, chloroform, butane, propane, toluene and xylene—compounds associated with drilling and fracking, and also with cancers, birth defects and organ damage. Her well tested high for sulfates, chromium, chloride and strontium; her blood tested positive for acetone, plus the heavy metals arsenic (linked with skin lesions, cancers and cardiovascular disease) and germanium (linked with muscle weakness and skin rashes). Both she and her husband, who works in oilfield services, have recently lost crowns and fillings from their teeth; tooth loss is associated with radiation poisoning and high selenium levels, also found in the Schilkes' water.

According to Royte, the state's health and agriculture officials told Schilke this wasn't cause for concern. Another state air quality official told OnEarth magazine that in investigating Schilke's health complaint, tests never revealed pollutants above "normal background" levels. Of course, it doesn't help Schilke that there's scarce research into the connection between food and fracking. Earlier this year, an Ithaca veterinarian and Cornell professor published a peer-reviewed study (the first of its kind) examining health problems in animals from 24 farms across six drilling states. The authors, Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald, looked at several frack-heavy areas, and found that animals exposed to chemicals in fracking fluid or wastewater often died, couldn't reproduce, or had offspring with birth defects.

Still, much remains unknown—or disputed. Critics accuse the Cornell study of being un-scientific because of its use of anonymous sources, and also because the researchers didn't test the effects of specific chemicals on cows directly; instead, the authors relied on events they didn't control. Of course, controlled testing of the direct effects of particular chemicals is made all the more difficult because of legislative loopholes that allow companies to keep the identities and concentrations of fracking chemicals guarded. Bamberger and Oswald, for their part, attributed the report's reliance on anonymity to industry non-disclosure agreements.

The potential fracking-food connection is especially important to consider as New York's heavily delayed decision on how to regulate fracking approaches. In her interviews with concerned upstate New York farmers and Brooklyn gourmands, Royte shows how citizens' taste for locavore beef, dairy, and other meat products could come into direct conflict with a landscape compromised by drilling. If Governor Cuomo does decide to end the state's fracking moratorium, that could be a lot of 'splaining to do for New York's DIY-or-die foodie communities.

A worker cleans up oily waste on Elmer's Island, LA,  21 May 2010: Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard, via Flickr

A worker cleans up oily waste on Elmer's Island, Louisiana, on May 21, 2010: Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard, via Flickr 

In an attempt to deal with the 206 million gallons of light crude oil erupting from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010, BP unleashed about 2.6 million gallons of Corexit dispersants (Corexit 9500A and Corexit EC9527) in surface waters and at the wellhead on the sea floor. From the beginning the wisdom of that decision was questioned. I wrote extensively about those concerns in "BP's Deep Secrets."

In the short term the dispersed oil made BP's catastrophe look like less of a catastrophe since less oil made it to shore. But what about the long term?

In a new paper in PLOS ONE, researchers took a closer look. They examined the effects of oil dispersed mechanically (sonication), oil dispersed by Corexit 9500A, and just plain seawater (the control). They used laboratory-column experiments to simulate the movement of dispersed and nondispersed oil through sandy beach sediments.

Clean seawater, crude oil dispersed by sonication, or crude oil dispersed by Corexit and sonication were flushed through the sand columns by gravity. The effluent of the columns was collected as a time series in 4 vials each. PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050549.g001Clean seawater, crude oil dispersed by sonication, or crude oil dispersed by Corexit and sonication were flushed through the sand columns by gravity. The effluent of the columns was collected as a time series in four vials each. PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050549.g001

Their findings: Corexit 9500A allows crude oil components to penetrate faster and deeper into permeable saturated sands where the absence of oxygen may slow degradation and extend the lifespan of potentially harmful polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a.k.a. organic pollutants—a.k.a. persistently abominable hork—in the marine environment.

"The oil concentrations used in our experiments are at the lower end of those reported for coastal waters after the Deepwater Horizon accident, and the Gulf of Mexico beaches were flooded with consecutive surges of oil."

Furthermore, the authors warn, dispersants used in nearshore oil spills might penetrate deeply enough into saturated sands to threaten groundwater supplies. (Did anyone look at this in the BP settlement?)

How does dispersant change oil's behavior in a beach? The authors write:

The causes of the reduced PAH retention after dispersant application has several reasons: 1) the dispersant transforms the oil containing the PAHs into small micelles that can penetrate through the interstitial space of the sand. 2) the coating of the oil particles produced by the dispersant reduces the sorption to the sand grains, 3) saline conditions enhance the adsorption of dispersant to sand surfaces, thereby reducing the sorption of oil to the grains.

In other words, repeated flushing by waves washing up a contaminated beach may pump PAHs deep into the sediment when dispersant is present. Natural dispersants—those produced by oil-degrading bacteria—may support this effect when oil is present in the sand for longer time periods.

Furthermore the continuous flushing by waves on an oil-contaminated beach may result in the release of PAHs from the sand back to the water. And after PAHs are released from the sediment, UV light can increase their degradation but also increase their toxicity to marine life by up to eightfold.

As for what effects those long-lived PAHs have released back into the water, the authors cite recent research findings: 

  • Increased mortality in planktonic copepods exposed to dispersants with stronger effects on small-sized species. 
  • In early life stages of Atlantic herring dispersed oil dramatically impaired fertilization success. 
  • Grey mullet exposed to chemically dispersed oil showed both a higher bioconcentration of PAHs and a higher mortality than fish exposed to either the water-soluble fraction of oil or the mechanically dispersed oil.


Carl Pellegrin (left) of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Tim Kimmel of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepare to net an oiled pelican in Barataria Bay, La., Saturday, June 5, 2010: Deepwater Horizon Response via FlickrWorkers from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service prepare to net an oiled pelican in Barataria Bay, June 5, 2010: Deepwater Horizon Response via Flickr

The open access paper:

  • Alissa Zuijdgeest and Markus Huettel. Dispersants as Used in Response to the MC252-Spill Lead to Higher Mobility of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Oil-Contaminated Gulf of Mexico Sand. PLOS ONE (2012). DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0050549

It's not your imagination, or a bad trip: Your couch could be trying to kill you.

A new study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that 85 percent of the sofas researchers tested contained flame-retardant chemicals that have been identified as carcinogens and potential neurotoxins. The stats were even worse for newer couches—those made after 2005: 93 percent of those contained chemicals that were either confirmed toxic or had not yet been tested adequately enough to know if they pose a risk. The chemicals accounted for as much as 11 percent of the weight of the foam in the cushions, they found.

Manufacturers use 3.4 billion pounds of flame-retardant chemicals in couches, insulation, carpet padding, and electronics every year to, in theory, prevent them from catching fire. But studies have found that the chemicals aren't actually effective and only make the fumes from fires more toxic.

"Petty much everyone in the country with a couch or a chair with foam have as much as a pound of a chemical like DDT or PCB in their home," Dr. Arlene Blum, the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a coauthor of the paper, told Mother Jones. "Most people think the government protects them, and that if something's in their couch it must be safe." (Blum's flame retardant work was the subject of an excellent New York Times profile in September.)

Twenty-four percent of the sofas tested positive for chlorinated Tris, a carcinogen banned from children's clothing back in the 1970s. While no longer in baby clothes, the chemical is still relatively common in mattresses and car seats and, as this study found, your couch. The researchers also found that some of the 102 couches they tested contained PentaBDE, a chemical that the United States phased out in 2004 because, as the EPA said, the chemicals are "persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment." But as the researchers note, most people keep their couches for an average of 15 years, meaning the older couches are still in many people's homes.

The real problem is that the chemicals don't stay in your couch. They end up in dust and air in your house, which is particularly problematic for children that crawl around on the floor. And for you, too, if you spend a lot of time on your couch or crawling around on your floor.

The researchers also note that it's hard to tell if your couch contains these chemicals. If it has a label noting that it meets California's standards for flammability of upholstered furniture—that it can resist bursting into flames for 12 seconds—then it most likely does have a bunch of chemicals in it. But 60 percent of the couches they tested that didn't have those labels still contained the chemicals.

All of this raises interesting questions about what you should do with your couch. Blum tossed her chemical-laden furniture years ago, when she found out that she had 93 parts per million of toxic chemicals in her home, which was pretty high. After four years without the toxic furniture, she's is now down to 3 parts per million. The Green Science Policy Institute's primer on "cancer-free couches" is a useful place to start if you want to know more.

This story first appeared on Scientific American's Extinction Countdown blog.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that African lions (Panthera leo leo) may deserve protected status under the Endangered Species Act. The decision, published November 27 in the Federal Register, comes in response to a petition (pdf) filed in March 2011 by five conservation groups that argued that American hunters pose a major threat to a species that is already in serious decline.

African lion populations have declined by about 50 percent over the past three decades. Current estimates put the total number of the big cats at fewer than 35,000.

Trophy hunting hardly poses the greatest threat to lions—which also suffer from habitat loss, the bushmeat trade, exotic diseases, conflict with livestock farmers and the often illegal trade in lion parts for use in traditional medicine, most of which is fueled by poaching and smuggling—but when you add up the numbers, hunters do have a significant impact on the big cats. According to data gathered for last year's petition, more than 7,000 lion body parts were traded internationally between 1999 and 2008 for recreational trophy hunting purposes, representing more than 5,600 lions. The vast majority of those trophies were imported into the U.S. by, or on behalf of, American hunters.

Susan Rice

Susan Rice, thought by many to be Obama's No. 1 pick for secretary of state, holds millions of dollars in investments in Canadian oil companies and banks with stakes in the  $7 billion Keystone XL Pipeline, according to a piece out today from OnEarth, a magazine published by the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council. As head of the State Department, Rice would have ultimate authority in determining the fate of the pipeline, which would link northern Alberta's remote oil sands fields to Texas' Gulf Coast refineries.

The piece reveals that Rice has significant holdings in more than a dozen Canadian oil companies and banks that would benefit from the growth of the Canadian tar sands industry and the construction of the controversial pipeline. OnEarth's Scott Dodd finds that nearly a third of Rice's personal net worth—estimated in 2009 to be between $23.5 million and $43.5 million—is invested in Canadian oil producers, pipeline operators, and other energy companies, including several with egregious environmental records on both sides of the border. Financial disclosure reports further show that Rice has between $300,000 and $600,000 invested in TransCanada, the company that is seeking the permit from the State Department to build sections of the pipeline from Oklahoma to the Canadian border.

"It's really amazing that they're considering someone for Secretary of State who has millions invested in these companies," Bill McKibben, founder of the activist groups 350.org and Tar Sand Action, which have organized protests against the Keystone XL project, told OnEarth.

The decision on whether to build the pipeline was delayed in 2011 when the State Department ordered a review of alternate routes to avoid cutting through an ecologically sensitive section of Nebraska. This saved Obama the political cost of having to make a decision on the controversial project in an election year. The Keystone XL decision could be one of the first tasks of the new secretary of state in 2013.  

To read OnEarth's full story, click here. To see a larger version of the document below, click here.