Blue Marble - November 2012

Butterball's PR Staff Mysteriously Absent Pre-Thanksgiving

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 12:03 PM PST

A while back, the animal advocacy group Mercy For Animals turned up some alarming footage of workers at a Butterball facility kicking and throwing turkeys and hitting them with metal rods. MFA sent out a bunch of emails yesterday reminding reporters of that awful footage. I thought this might be a good opportunity to ask Butterball a few questions about its operations—including its reaction to MFA's allegations. So I sent the company a few questions, including: 

  • How many turkeys does Butterball sell every year?
  • How long does it take for an average Butterball turkey to reach slaughter age?
  • Are Butterball turkeys fed antibiotics? How about ractopamine (Topmax)? Any other growth enhancers?
  • How has Butterball responded to Mercy For Animals' allegations of abuse at factories?

I got an away message from the first spokeswoman I tried, so I forwarded it along to someone else. Here's what I got back:

I hope you're well today. I received your note below from my colleague, Bridget.
Unfortunately, resources who are appropriate to answer these questions are limited this week and are unavailable to respond by your deadline.

I wrote back:

Okay, but it does seem like this week of all weeks would be a crucial one for answering these questions! I'd really like to include Butterball's input if at all possible.

No dice. The spokeswoman responded:

Thanks, Kiera. Due to scheduling, we just won’t be able to make it work. Re: the MFA allegations, I can share with you the company statement if you’d like – let me know.

I wrote:

Okay. Can you at least tell me whether Butterball uses antibiotics, ractopamine, and/or other growth enhancers?

And...crickets. No company statement, no answers on growth-enhancers, nada. Mind you, this is the same company that runs a fully-staffed hotline to tell you how to cook your turkey. The company's website boasts that "No question is too tough for these turkey talkers, and they are ready and excited to tackle any challenge you throw at them." 

Except, it seems, when it comes to the turkeys themselves.

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Farewell, CIA Climate Center. We Hardly Knew Ye.

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 11:42 AM PST

Last year I reported on the CIA's Center on Climate Change and National Security, which opened in September 2009 to gather and analyze information about the effects of climate change on national security. The center had been a target of Republican ire, which is perhaps part of the reason that the CIA didn't want to talk about what they actually did over there when I tried to interview them for my article.

Apparently the CIA scrapped the Center earlier this year without telling anyone, Greenwire reports:

Multiple sources with knowledge of the center said it closed its doors earlier this year, with its staff and analysis continuing under other auspices.
CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz confirmed the change.
"The CIA for several years has studied the national security implications of climate change," Ebitz said in a statement to Greenwire. "This work is now performed by a dedicated team in an office that looks at a variety of economic and energy security issues affecting the United States."

Former CIA director Leon Panetta launched the center, but the piece notes that it did not receive as much love from David Petraeus when he took over in 2011. (I'll leave it to you to make jokes about that.) There's also speculation that the center was a preemptive cut, as Congress is expected to make further cuts to the intelligence budget in the next few years.

World Bank: "4°C Warming Simply Must Not Be Allowed To Occur"

| Mon Nov. 19, 2012 4:13 PM PST

The noted tree-hugging hippies at the World Bank have a new report out warning of the dangers of 4 degrees Celsius—or 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit—of global warming.

In an introduction, World Bank president Dr. Jim Yong Kim writes that he hopes the report "shocks us into action." The impacts of 4-degree warming cited in the report include:

 

  • By the end of the century, sea-levels will rise by one meter or more as the ice sheets in Greenland and the West Antarctic.
  • Drought and extreme temperatures will increase in areas like Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, Australia, and Southeast Asia.
  • Ocean acidity will increase 150 percent.
  • Agricultural production will decrease in many areas.
  • Water resources will be strained.
  • Major ecosystems like coral reefs and the Amazon rainforest will be destroyed.

Of course an average of 4 degrees warming across the globe doesn't look the same everywhere. Some areas are wetter. Some are drier. Some will actually be 6 degrees warmer. Some get cyclones. Some get floods. All together, the report finds that it will be very bad, particular for the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

Here's why the World Bank cares:

It seems clear that climate change in a 4°C world could seriously undermine poverty alleviation in many regions. This is supported by past observations of the negative effects of climate change on economic growth in developing countries. While developed countries have been and are projected to be adversely affected by impacts resulting from climate change, adaptive capacities in developing regions are weaker. The burden of climate change in the future will very likely be borne differentially by those in regions already highly vulnerable to climate change and variability. Given that it remains uncertain whether adaptation and further progress toward development goals will be possible at this level of climate change, the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.

The report comes just ahead of the 18th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which begins on Nov. 26. Three years ago, leaders agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees as part of a non-binding political accord. But that plan is really just on paper; the science shows that the world is on path to churn right past 2 degrees and hit 4 degrees by 2100. Nations don't seem likely to take the much-more aggressive measures necessary to hit that target any time soon.

Meningitis Pharmacy Update: Live Bird, Bugs Found in Sister Facility That Packaged Sterile Drugs

| Mon Nov. 19, 2012 3:51 PM PST

Water dripping from leaks, bugs, and a flying bird are just a few of the troubling things discovered in an FDA inspection of Ameridose's sterile drug manufacturing facility, which has been shut down since October 10 after its sister company, the New England Compounding Center (NECC), was implicated in the meningistis outbreak that has since killed 32 people. (Read our explainer to get up to speed on the outbreak.) Ameridose and NECC are both owned by the members of the Conigliaro familiy of Massachusetts.

Investigations in the wake of the meningistis outbreak revealed sterility problems at the NECC facility that made the tainted steroid injections. As scrutiny turned to its larger sister company, Ameridose followed NECC in shutting down production and recalling all of its products.

2 People Missing After Gulf Oil Platform Explosion

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 2:39 PM PST

A day after the Department of Justice and BP reached a settlement on criminal charges related to the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, another rig caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico.

An oil platform owned by Black Elk Energy exploded and caught fire 25 miles southeast of Grand Isle, La. on Friday morning. Two people are still missing, and at least four are in critical condition. The Associated Press reports:

The fire had since been extinguished, Coast Guard spokesman Drake Fore said. He said Coast Guard aircraft and boats were searching for two missing people. Nobody was believed killed in the fire, but [Coast Guard Capt. Ed] Cubanski said 11 people were flown from the platform to area hospitals or for treatment on shore by emergency medical workers.
Taslin Alfonzo, spokeswoman for West Jefferson Medical Center in suburban New Orleans, said four injured workers were brought to the hospital in critical condition with second- and third-degree burns over much of their bodies.

According to the Coast Guard, an oil sheen half a mile long could be seen extending from the platform, but they did not think it was an uncontrolled leak, as the platform was not currently producing oil. Here's video of the Coast Guard press conference from earlier today:

Story of Stuff's Black Friday Mayhem Video

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 1:56 PM PST

Look, it's a new Happy Black Friday PSA from the good folks at Annie Leonard's Story of Stuff Project.

I, for one, avoid shopping whenever I possibly can. I'm planning to spend my Black Friday playing soccer, practicing the fiddle, hiking with my peeps, making some killer granola, and finishing Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.

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GOP House Leadership Pledges To Oppose Climate Change Tax

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 11:02 AM PST
Is it getting hot in here?

Perhaps smarting from getting a zero percent return on investment from the $36.7 million spent bashing Barack Obama, the Koch Brothers' Super PAC Americans For Prosperity has narrowed its focus on a new enemy: a tax on carbon emissions. On Thursday the AFP announced that the entire House GOP Leadership Team, including Speaker John Boehner, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and seven other GOP Congressional leaders, signed a pledge to "oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue."

"It is heartening to see that for the second congress in a row the House of Representatives will be led by a team that is publicly committed not to use climate as a guise to grow government," said James Valvo, AFP Director of Policy. "Carbon taxes are once again being floated as a way to raise revenue so that Washington can skip the hard work of actually getting runaway entitlement spending under control."

Meanwhile, fearing the White House is discreetly plotting to push through a carbon tax in the lame duck session of Congress, the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute has filed a lawsuit to force the Treasury Department to release more than 7,300 emails that include the word "carbon."

With a carbon tax, the government imposes a fee on carbon, then translates it into a tax on electricity, natural gas, or oil with the intent of curbing planet-warming greenhouse gases. But the AFP sees it as a lot of (regulated) smoke and mirrors to hide tax hikes to fund bailouts and big government spending.

Historically, a carbon tax has not been a politically winning issue. During his first term, Obama's plans to reduce emissions through a cap-and-trade legislation lost steam after stalling in the Senate. He also left a slew of other politically risky environmental reforms in limbo in the run up to the election.

But not everyone in Washington is opposed to the idea of a carbon tax. Even some conservatives are coming around. In 2010, Republican Congressman Bob Inglis was ousted from office in South Carolina in favor of a Tea Party candidate after saying he believes climate change is a real thing. Inglis now heads up the Energy & Enterprise Institute which promotes a "tax swap" plan to increase levies on carbon dioxide emissions while reducing taxes on personal income and businesses. The idea is backed by several conservative icons including former Secretary of State George Shultz and Reagan economic advisor Arthur Laffer. And on Tuesday, the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute held a panel discussion on the "economics of carbon taxes," making the case that the tax might serve as a possible solution to reducing the nation's debt as the fiscal cliff looms.

The Growing Costs of Natural Disasters

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 4:13 AM PST

This story first appeared on the Atlantic website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

As thousands of survivors of Superstorm Sandy still are unable to return to their homes and others remain without power, debate over public response is growing. Does the Federal flood insurance program need reform? Will a multibillion-dollar swinging gate, like one in Rotterdam, shield Manhattan at the cost of additional flooding in Brooklyn and Staten Island neighborhoods?

Historical geography helps. When I was starting to write about unintended consequences in the early 1990s, one of the most valuable books I found about risk was the second edition (1993) of Ian Burton, Robert W. Kates (who now has an indispensable website), and Gilbert F. White, The Environment as Hazard. The death toll from natural hazards is far lower in industrial than in developing countries; in the United States, deaths from hurricanes, floods, and other calamities have generally been reduced over the last hundred years—the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 probably took five times as many lives as Katrina in 2005—while property damage has continued to climb. Material losses in Galveston were $30 million or about $600 million today; Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York says his state's damages from Sandy could equal $33 billion.

Is the BP Criminal Settlement Enough?

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 1:55 PM PST

BP and the Department of Justice announced on Thursday that they had reached an agreement on a record fine stemming from criminal charges related to the 2009 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

BP pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts of misconduct and neglect related to the deaths of 11 workers on the oil rig, as well as one felony count of obstruction of justice for lying to Congress about the size of the spill. They also pled guilty to misdemeanor counts for violating the Clean Water Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

But in exchange for the record fine, they won't face any criminal penalties. The SEC charges deal with complaints that the company lied to investors about the size of the spill in its filings as well. (The US federal court still needs to approve the settlement.)

DOJ has also charged the company and two BP supervisors with manslaughter related to the deaths. CBS News explains:

A federal indictment unsealed in New Orleans claims BP well site leaders Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine acted negligently in their supervision of key safety tests performed on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig before the explosion killed 11 workers in April 2010. The indictment says Kaluza and Vidrine failed to phone engineers onshore to alert them of problems in the drilling operation.
Another indictment charges David Rainey, who was BP's vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico, on charges of obstruction of Congress and false statements. The indictment claims the former executive lied to federal investigators when they asked him how he calculated a flow rate estimate for BP's blown-out well in the days after the April 2010 disaster.

Regarding the $4.5 billion settlement agreement, some are wondering if it goes far enough in penalizing BP. The public interest group Public Citizen argues that the fine announced today is little more than a "slap on the wrist" for the company, since it does not include any penalties for the criminal charges beyond the fines. Tyson Slocum, energy program director at Public Citizen, says that the agreement should have included sanctions on the company—like barring it from future government contracts or from obtaining new leases.

As the Wall Street Journal reported during the spill, BP is "the single biggest supplier of fuel to the Department of Defense, with Pentagon contracts worth $2.2 billion a year." That means that in two years, the US government pays BP just about as much money as the company has agreed to pay to settle the criminal complaint. In its announcement of the agreement, BP said it has not been advised of any intent to block the company from future contracts.

This is far from the first time BP has found itself in trouble with the law. The company previously paid record-breaking fines related to a March 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery that killed 15 employees. And just a few days ago a subsidiary of the company was forced to pay compensation to Alaska for two 2006 oil spills on the North Slope.

"This is a habitual corporate criminal and this settlement will do absolutely nothing to deter corporate crime," Slocum said.

In a press conference in New Orleans on Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the "criminal investigation remains ongoing," leaving the door open for additional charges. He also indicated that he believes the settlement is significant. "This is unprecedented, both in terms of the amount of money, and that a company has been charged, and individuals have been charged as well," Holder said. "I hope this sends a message to companies that would engage in this kind of wanton conduct that there is a price to pay."

To be clear, this isn't the grand total of what BP will have to pay out. The company still faces civil fines based on the number of barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf under the Clean Water Act, which alone could run it another $21 billion if the company is accused of "gross negligence" (which comes with a higher fine than regular "negligence" under the law). BP also faces fines based on the damage to natural resources—like the birds and turtles killed and the impact on fisheries. The company also faces separate lawsuits from cleanup workers and local residents impacted by the spill, as well as suits from several of its investors. That also does not include the money that BP agreed to pony up for a victim compensation fund shortly after the spill.

"This is a good down payment on the massive restoration needed for the Gulf’s ecosystems and the people and communities that depend on them."

Holder indicated that DOJ and BP have been in negotiations but have not reached an agreement regarding the civil penalties. "We have not reached a number I consider satisfactory in order to resolve those civil claims," he said. DOJ and BP will be back in court over those civil penalties in February 2013, he said. In his statement, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg said the company "will continue to vigorously defend itself against all remaining civil claims and to contest allegations of gross negligence in those cases."

The $4.5 billion fine will be paid out over 5 years. Of that money, $2.4 billion will go to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and another $350 million will go to the National Academy of Sciences. Affected states will also receive a portion of the funds, according to the DOJ.

Conservation groups said Thursday that they hope the record fine is a good signal of what will come in the civil case. "This is a good down payment on the massive restoration needed for the Gulf’s ecosystems and the people and communities that depend on them," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement. "There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to penalizing the parties responsible for the Gulf oil disaster through the civil provisions of the Oil Pollution Act and the Clean Water Act, but this criminal settlement marks important progress and devotes much-needed resources toward restoration."

BP and DOJ Reportedly Reach Settlement on Deepwater Horizon Disaster

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 10:34 AM PST

The Department of Justice, the Securities & Exchange Commission, and BP have reportedly reached a settlement agreement over the criminal charges related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, with the oil giant agreeing to pay $4.5 billion in fines.

The Washington Post reports that the BP will pay $4 billion over five years to settle with the DOJ, and another $525 million to settle SEC complaints:

"We believe this resolution is in the best interest of BP and its shareholders," said Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP’s Chairman. "It removes two significant legal risks and allows us to vigorously defend the company against the remaining civil claims."

To reach the settlement, the company pleaded guilty to a handful of criminal complaints:

BP agreed to plead guilty to 11 felony counts of misconduct or neglect of ships’ officers relating to the loss of 11 lives on the drilling rig that caught fire and sank; one misdemeanor count under the Clean Water Act; one misdemeanor count under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; and one felony count of obstruction of Congress.

BP could still face enormous civil penalties for Clean Water Act violations based on the number of gallons of oil released, and for damage to natural resources. The settlement with the DOJ and SEC does not include a deal with cleanup workers and local residents impacted by the spill and does nothing to end private lawsuits filed by investors.