Blue Marble

US Fish and Wildlife: Oil and Gas Extraction Have Nothing - Nothing! - To Do With Arctic Habitat Loss

| Tue Jun. 17, 2008 1:40 PM PDT

Loath to go too many days without flouting some kind of law, the Bush administration last week granted permission for seven oil companies to harass and potentially harm polar bears while drilling for oil and gas in Alaska's Chukchi Sea, provided they do so unintentionally. Polar bears were just recently classifed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, an obvious lapse in judgment the administration apparently rushed to rectify. The "final rule" (.pdf) states that "The Fish and Wildlife Service has developed regulations that authorize the nonlethal, incidental, unintentional take of small numbers of Pacific walruses and polar bears." To "take", as defined in the document, means "to harass, hunt, capture, or kill" a marine mammal, or to attempt to do so.

So, if I read this correctly, Fish and Wildlife has just authorized oil companies to accidentally harass, hunt, and capture polar bears. While no extraction is yet underway, it seems fair to conclude that the government is covering its legal backside in anticipation of the inevitable havoc that seven companies' worth of oil and gas exploration will wreak.

Which would make sense, if the agency were not also claiming that the exploration won't cause any trouble at all. Speaking to an AP reporter, Fish and Wildlife director H. Dale Hall insisted that "the oil and gas industry in operating under the kind of rules they have operated under for 15 years has not been a threat to the species...It was the ice melting and the habitat going away that was a threat to the species over everything else."

But as the article continues, "exploring in the Chukchi Sea's 29.7 million acres will require as many as five drill ships, one or two icebreakers, a barge, a tug and two helicopter flights per day, according to the government. Oil companies will also be making hundreds of miles of ice roads and trails along the coastline."

All of which I'm sure has nothing to do with "the ice melting and the habitat going away."

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Gas Prices Driving You Crazy? At Least No One's Trying to Burn You Up In Your Truck

| Fri Jun. 13, 2008 3:00 PM PDT

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The London Evening Standard just published a harrowing report detailing the large-scale, violent fuel protests going on right now all over the world. In more than a few countries, shortages have all but halted the national economies as fishermen, grocers, farmers and truck drivers either refuse or find themselves unable to do their jobs.

You can read about it, but it's the photos that are really sobering: thousands of trucks blockading the road to the Thai capital city of Bangkok; protestors kicking a riot policeman; a lone injured farmer kneeling, arms outstretched, before a line of riot police. In Spain, where things seem particularly bad, a working truck driver narrowly escaped attempts by his striking peers to burn him alive in his cab; in Portugal, farmers say they will have to throw away over half a million gallons of fresh milk because there is no more fuel and no more storage.

This is not happening here in the US. Yes, gas prices are high, and they're disproportionately affecting our country's rural poor. And yes, our leaders continue to suggest startlingly short-sighted solutions. But so far, people seem to have decided to grin and bear it.

Why no riots? I'm not saying truck-burning is the way to go. But the national forbearance that's attended this year's jump in prices is a little unnerving. Even those suffering rural Southerners don't seem angry; just sad and mostly resigned. Have we lost so much faith in our government that we won't even bother demanding action? Or are we just not sure what to demand?

Evolution Before Our Eyes: How Macaques Learned To Fish

| Fri Jun. 13, 2008 11:25 AM PDT

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Scientists in Indonesia recently published a paper documenting their field observations of long-tailed macaques going fishing. Even better, they don't just reach into the water to grab their own fish—they watch other macaques at work and learn from their techniques. One researcher theorized that "perhaps a couple of generations back, one primate caught a fish and it was subsequently copied." The scientists suspect that the macaques fish when no other food is available, though they stress that not enough data exists to say for certain.

Okay, so this is cool. It's not often that we see species adapt to changing conditions at a rate that matches the change. (Recovery from human threat and habitat depletion is rare enough.) Further study of this species could teach us a lot, not only about how macaques adapt to changing conditions, but about how we might adapt as well. Unfortunately, if Congress is any indication of how we're doing, right now the macaques are coming out ahead.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from sebr.

New Report Findings on Middle Class Health Insurance

| Wed Jun. 11, 2008 1:06 PM PDT

Universal health care might be something even the staunchest Republicans start to consider after this news:

According to a report released this week by The Commonwealth Fund, 25 million Americans were underinsured in 2007—a 60 percent jump since 2003.

And it's the middle class who's feeling the pain, again.

What does being underinsured get you?

New Pyramid Scheme Traps Wastes & Tourists

| Tue Jun. 10, 2008 6:49 PM PDT

800px-All_Gizah_Pyramids.jpg Here's a whacky idea you gotta love. A Dutch engineer suggests solidifying toxic wastes into concretelike slabs and building urban pyramids that trap wastes and tourists alike. Schuiling rightly suggests that it's dangerous and unsustainable to simply bury solid toxic waste in lined deposits underground, the current best practice. He says such waste should first be immobilized by mixing with a cement and immobilizing additives to reduce the possibility of toxic materials leaching into the earth and ground water. Cities could vie for the best ways to display their neutered toxins:

Great and award-winning works of art have been made from the most outlandish of materials from Chris Ofili's depiction of the Holy Virgin Mary encrusted with elephant dung and Damien Hirst's pickled tiger shark representing life and death to the unmade bed of Tracey Emin and the unspeakable bodily fluids of avant garde duo Gilbert & George. But all of these works will pale into insignificance if a plan to dispose of solid domestic and even toxic industrial waste by building solid monuments to waste is undertaken.

Brings to mind those municipal "art" projects (cows on parade, party animals), where many of the same blank sculptures are decorated by different stoners, er, artists. Think of it. Pyramids jauntily decorated with skull-and-crossbones, international biohazard symbols, warning signs, or logos of corporate polluters. Although if you really want to trap tourists, giant halftone images of fallen celebrities, or laser light show screens.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

European CO2 Cuts Working

| Tue Jun. 10, 2008 5:23 PM PDT

eu_Img.jpg Listen up, slacker senators. The EU's "cap-and-trade" system for carbon dioxide is working well and has had little or no negative impact on the overall EU economy. This according to an analysis for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change by MIT researchers. They conclude that although the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (pdf) was fast-tracked 3 years ago to criticism of its wobbly start, it quickly worked out its own kinks. A. Denny Ellerman, senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management, suggests the system doesn't need to be in perfect working order before start up. "Obviously you're better off having things all settled and worked out before it gets started," he said. "But that certainly wasn't the case in Europe, and yet a transparent and widely accepted price for CO2 emission allowances emerged rapidly, as did a functioning market and the infrastructure to support it. This important public policy experiment is not perfect, but it is far more than any other nation or set of nations has done to control greenhouse-gas emissions—and it works surprisingly well."

Okay, if I believed in the Imaginary Friend I might be inclined to say God Bless Europe. Instead, how about, thanks, and may our next president and our next Congress look to the Old World now and again for better ways to build a new one.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

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Top 10: Animal Planet Does Father's Day

| Tue Jun. 10, 2008 1:45 PM PDT

Animal Planet is celebrating Father's Day with an A-List of Nature's Best Dads.

Top contenders include the golden jackal (monogamous), the seahorse (pregnant), and the Emperor penguin, (good with kids).

But is the lion, (fiercely protective) really a "better" father than Eastern grey squirrels, which routinely eat their young?

Here's hoping Animal Planet will continue anthropomorphizing all year—plenty of holidays await!

Perhaps a special on financially responsible animals (those beavers, saving up all that wood) for April 15? A drone bee retrospective for Labor Day?—Daniel Luzar

Drilling Really Did Trigger Mud Volcano

| Mon Jun. 9, 2008 4:30 PM PDT

800px-Home_sunk_by_mud_flow.JPG Final verdict: the Indonesian village-eating mud-erupting volcano known as Lusi was triggered by oil and gas drilling two years ago. The eruption began in May 2006 when Lapindo Brantas, owned by the family of billionaire Indonesian Welfare Minister Aburizal Bakrie, began exploratory drilling of a borehole named Banjar-Panji-1. Since then Lusi's oozing eruption has inundated rice paddies and villages, destroyed 10,000 homes and displaced 30,000 people. Now a study published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters shows exactly how drilling caused Lusi's birth. Lead author Richard Davies says, "We show that the day before the mud volcano started there was a huge 'kick' in the well, which is an influx of fluid and gas into the wellbore. We show that after the kick the pressure in the well went beyond a critical level. This resulted in the leakage of the fluid from the well and the rock formations to the surface—a so called 'underground blowout'. This fluid picked up mud during its accent and Lusi was born.

Lapindo Brantas initially claimed the Yogyakarta earthquake, which occurred two days before and 155 miles away, caused Lusi's birth. However the oil and gas company now confirms the published data on Lusi are correct and their drilling was the trigger, reports Durham University.

The question now is whether, as some suspect, Lapindo Brantas will simply fold into bankruptcy to avoid paying penalties or reparations. Especially now since another study by Davies at Durham University suggests Lusi is beginning to collapse—precursor to becoming a huge sunken caldera, worsening the environmental disaster.

The ever-growing environmental disaster of fossil-fuels.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Behold the Sperm Remote

| Fri Jun. 6, 2008 10:45 AM PDT

From EcoGeek via Grist comes word of a nifty new birth control method for men:

The remote control, implanted device will allow users to 'press pause' on their sperm. (although it doesn't mention whether a 'rewind' function is in the works). The device has been developed by Australian scientists, and could herald a new dawn of even more convenient contraception for men, which has the potential to keep population growth under control more effectively.

Which of course raises the age-old question: Who controls the remote?

Dolphins Recovering From Tuna Nets at Last

| Thu Jun. 5, 2008 8:21 PM PDT

At long last the dolphins once caught in the Pacific tuna fishery seem to be recovering. Spotted and spinner dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific appear to be on the increase after severe depletion in the tuna purse-seine fishery. Between 1960 and 1990 their populations dropped by 80 percent and 70 percent, respectively, of pre-fishery levels. And though they've been (largely) spared capture and drowning in purse-seine nets since the early 1990s, due to severe restrictions on the fishery, their numbers have not rebounded. Until now. "We expected to see these populations begin their recovery years ago, because fishermen have been so successful at reducing dolphin deaths," said Tim Gerrodette of NOAA's Fisheries Service. "The new data are the first to indicate the beginning of a recovery." The news is tempered with caution though, since the numbers represent a short dataset (only the 2006 season), and since one of the four censused populations still seems to be declining. Nevertheless, it's the first glimmer of hope that maybe we didn't wait too long to take action.

On a personal note, this is the truly welcome news I've been hoping to hear for a long time. In 1990 I co-produced a documentary with Hardy Jones that included Sam LaBudde's heartbreaking footage, shot undercover, of dolphins being slaughtered in the tuna nets. We included an unusual plea at the end of the broadcast, asking viewers to send telegrams to a big-name canned tuna company to protest the dolphin kill. We aired a Western Union telephone number (yeah, that's how long ago it was). The response broke all Western Union records, and within two days, if I remember correctly, the tuna company announced it would no longer buy tuna unless it was caught with dolphin-safe methods. Others tuna companies quickly followed suit… So I for one will raise a glass in toast tonight to the people who worked so long and so hard on this issue, and who spilled a fair share of their lifetime's allotment of sweat and blood in hopes of today's good news. Thank you, ocean crusaders.

However, keep in mind, not all tuna labeled dolphin-safe really is. You can keep on top of what is and what isn't at Earth Island Institute's Approved Dolphin-Safe Importers, Distributors, Brokers, Retailers, Agents.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.