BP Oil Spill Washes up on Potomac Shores

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: Oil-spill updates continue to gush out of the Gulf and Washington at volumes difficult to estimate. BP initiated its risky “top kill” maneuver Wednesday and the Coast Guard reported cautiously this morning that the oil stream has abated. If the effort works, BP will begin to plug the well with concrete in the next day or so. President Barack Obama held his first press conference in 308 days this afternoon. He placed a moratorium on new deepwater drilling permits for six months and ordered the Interior Department to expedite its reforms of the key oil-industry regulatory office.

Blame has lapped up on the shores of the Potomac as crude sullies the Gulf coast, destroying livelihoods and wildlife. Obama spoke today after a week when scrutiny of the disaster led directly to the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management. A report from Interior’s inspector general accuses officials there of gross conflicts of interest and misconduct prior to 2007 (The report was commissioned before the accident but accelerated after.).

Acting IG Mary Kendall writes to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar [pdf], “Of greatest concern to me is the environment in which these inspectors operate—particularly the ease with which they move between industry and government. While not included in our report, we discovered that the individuals involved in the fraternizing and gift exchange—both government and industry—have often known one another since childhood. Their relationships were formed well before they took their jobs with industry or government.”  The report catalogs gifts, drug use, pornography, and fraternizing between the regulators and the regulated, including an incident when an MMS official interviewed for a job while on an inspection. The official found no violations and later got the job. Earlier today MMS chief Elizabeth Birnbaum was fired or quit—the President wasn’t sure–knocking one question off this list.

U.S. Geological Survey scientists have concluded that the disaster has unleashed between 17 and 39 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, making it far larger than the Exxon Valdez, previously the worst spill in U.S. history.

Nicholas Institute colleagues, led by Director Tim Profeta, held a wide-ranging panel on the oil spill, the state of energy legislation, and other issues in climate policy. View the second Nicholas Institute EnLIST webinar here.

Let the Investigations Begin: A BP official argued with oil rig engineers 11 hours before the April 20 explosion, about whether or not to drain drilling mud that protected the riser where the well meets the rig.  The BP official, Donald Vidrine, was supposed to appear today at hearings conducted by MMS and the Coast Guard but called in sick. Earlier hearings revealed that BP was a month and a half behind operations on the rig it was paying $533,000 a day to use. Check out MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in a report on how little safety questions and technology have changed in a generation.

Some journalists in the Gulf report heavy-handed treatment from BP staff and the local and federal officials who are working with them. BP and civic employees have restricted or prevented access to contaminated beaches and interfered with flyovers. A Mother Jones reporter, Mac McClelland, explains how tightly BP reins in local law enforcement personnel, and a CBS News crew was threatened with arrest.

Renewable Renewable Forecasting: A month before the 2008 election, the New York Observer depicted presidential candidates McCain and Obama respectively as the original Star Trek‘s impetuous hot-head Captain James T. Kirk and cool deliberator Mr. Spock. That caricature of the now-president is probably a good starting point to Christopher Beam’s questions to Slate readers this week: Why aren’t Democrats exploiting the spill emotionally?  Shouldn’t the oil spill “make comprehensive energy legislation more likely, if not inevitable” rather than less likely? He writes, “There would come a point, you’d think, when the oil spill was such an unmitigated disaster, environmentally and politically, that Republicans would set aside their ultimatums about drilling, Democrats would set aside their paranoia about it, and members of both parties would support alternative energy legislation. Not all of them. Just a handful would be enough.”  As for Obama, the New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny describes his demeanor this way: “‘Every day I see this leak continue I am angry and frustrated as well,’ Mr. Obama said, his words not rising with volume or intensity.” The narrative in the legacy media appears to suggest that the downside to having a president that doesn’t lose is cool is that he doesn’t lose his cool.

Before tempers elevated to the point where Obama called his first press conference, public management of the crisis took the president to Silicon Valley, where he visited thin-film solar panel maker Solyndra. In requisite remarks about clean energy, he also mentioned Tesla Motors’ $465 million loan from the Department of Energy and its work with Toyota to build electric cars. The San Jose Mercury News dangles this line into its piece about Obama’s Solyndra visit without elaboration: “The visit, Obama’s second to the Bay Area since becoming president, shone a spotlight on Solyndra, a Silicon Valley company that has tried to avoid publicity as it prepares for its initial public offering of stock.” Now, if you wanted to avoid publicity, would you invite the president over?

What will the future of renewable energy look like? Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations picks up a World Bank paper that analyzes 116 projections for renewable energy growth conducted over 36 years. The trend: No discernible trend?

Meanwhile, Back in Low Gear…: The international climate conversation remains in a holding pattern. China reduced expectations, such as they are, for some kind of formal agreement in Cancun later this year, striving instead for a “positive result.” (Cleaning up before the guests come? Cancun mayor arrested for drug trafficking and money laundering.) Outgoing UN climate chief Yvo de Boer said that international talks in Bonn next week will try to graft parts of the December Copenhagen Accord into the formal U.N. process. Europe, left out of the key meeting between the U.S. and developing powers in Copenhagen, unilaterally upped its greenhouse gas emissions goals from 20 percent to 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The EU’s chief climate official is under fire for failing to crack down on fraud in the Continent’s carbon market.

Developed nations have chipped in $4 billion to slow deforestation, a half billion dollars more than they agreed to at the Copenhagen climate negotiations in December. By 2030, U.S. farmers could see more than $200 billion in gains as avoided deforestation removes unfair competition from the global market.

Greenland Moving up in the World: Scientists continue to study ice loss in Greenland, a much-watched field of research. A new paper in Nature Geoscience reports that territory’s land itself (call it Greenlandland) is rising an inch per year as the ice above it recedes.

The 2010 hurricane season begins June 1. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a very active hurricane season: “If the 2010 activity reaches the upper end of our predicted ranges, it will be one of the most active seasons on record.”

The oil spill lays bare the difficulty at the heart of communicating climate change risk: There’s no single company or administration to denounce and no poisonous gunk killing fisheries and suffocating ecosystems. Nations of the world would have addressed the problem long ago if greenhouse gas pollution rained back down as tar balls. One mile of highway driving spews a pound of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Imagine if all drivers threw a pound of trash out their windows every mile they drove. The trash would pile up. (Climate Post Trivial Pursuit!: Whose analogy is this? Can’t remember or find it.)

So… with the spill looking like it might be capped, we expect to return you soon to your regular invisible, odorless, slow-acting, and globally dispersed pollution concerns.

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.

Defining Moment Still Seeks Definition

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman last week unveiled their draft energy and climate legislation, called the American Power Act, in a Senate committee room overstuffed with lobbyists, policy wonks, journalists and other observers. The bill’s authors must steer it through the “usual” complexity intrinsic to the climate debates, and now too through the political storms over immigration reform and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Economic modeling is expected to take another few weeks at executive agencies, although first impressions have emerged in the media and on the Web, including the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, Time, Peterson Institute for International Economics, Natural Resources Defense Council, Covington & Burling, and the Center for American Progress. In the meantime, Kerry held a mini-launch event in Washington with T. Boone Pickens, the oil-and-gas financier turned energy policy activist.

Within the next three weeks senators are expected to vote on a measure that would nullify the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 finding that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s resolution probably will not pass, but she and colleagues are eager to voice disapproval of the White House’s energy policy, particularly as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decides how to proceed on the issue.

A new Pew Research Center poll has found that just 32 percent of Americans agree it is “very important” for Congress to act on climate change, compared with 81 percent on the economy and jobs, and 67 percent on U.S. energy needs.

To Cap or Not to Cap: The Deepwater Horizon blowout continues to absorb time and attention from many people in the energy and climate space. The prospect of major legislation typically prompts a suite of committee hearings on Capitol Hill. The last two weeks, hearings about the Gulf have dominated the schedule. President Barack Obama won the news cycle for a day last week by calling the testimony of BP, Transocean, and Halliburton executives a “ridiculous spectacle.” Democrats would like to raise the cap on oil spill liability damages, from $75 million to $10 billion, or, as Reid prefers, no limit at all. Republicans have opposed such measures.

BP has siphoned up to 5,000 gallons a day from the broken pipe, and in the next few days should be ready to try to halt the gusher by jamming it. The EPA slapped BP for deploying toxic dispersants over the oil slick at the surface, and on Wednesday asked the company to provide a list of alternatives–and to start using one within three days.

A live shot of oil streaming from the sea floor is now available here, after a request from Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

Gusher from Climate Scientists: Markey’s committee held a hearing on science and climate politics today, which comes after  increased public activity in the scientific community. They’re aiming at critics who are unduly skeptical or dismiss the physical evidence of manmade climate change.

The National Research Council weighed in this week with three reports on climate science, mitigating against change, and adapting to impacts. In Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change, a panel led by Robert Fri of Resources for the Future argues for atypically strong policy measures. The researchers recommend that the U.S. abide by a strict carbon “budget,” to last from 2012 to 2050, a period when greenhouse gas emissions should drop between 80 and 50 percent below 1990 levels. The panel calls the recommendation “a significant departure from business as usual,” and bases conclusions in part on Stanford University’s Energy Modeling Forum. The implementation advice is pretty standard, even if the voice isn’t. The National Academy is saying here in no uncertain terms: “Adopt an economy-wide carbon pricing system.”

The reports came out a day after the price of a carbon dioxide emission permit on the Chicago Climate Futures Exchange fell 2.4 percent, to $2.05, on doubts that climate legislation will pass this year.

In Line With Predictions: Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Washington Post, recently brought national attention to how the national media missed the disastrous recent flooding in Nashville. But in doing so, he omitted the topic of global warming. Such floods are in line with climate change predictions. Kurtz quotes Mark Silverman, editor of the Tennessean: “In journalism, [Silverman] says, ‘everyone wants to have a villain. But there are no villains yet, except for Mother Nature.'” And, increasingly likely, except for unchecked industrial emissions and deforestation.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that last month was the warmest April on record, and the 34th consecutive April above the 20th century average. The 2010 January to April average was hotter than any similar period in the record.

Defining Moment Seeks Definition: This week the New York Times’ Tom Friedman stands out amid the cacophony of articles evaluating the Obama administration’s response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, mostly for putting forth this provocative argument: “No, the gulf oil spill is not Obama’s Katrina. It’s his 9/11 — and it is disappointing to see him making the same mistake George W. Bush made with his 9/11.” (If nothing else, the comparison is shocking to people whose primary association with 9/11 is mass murder.) Friedman writes that he’s disappointed with Obama for squandering momentum after a major event lays bare the dangerous core of our energy system. He laments that the president has offered no vision paramount to the problem, and has hidden his bullpen of science and policy advisors — Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, chief science adviser John Holdren: “I know endangered species that are seen by the public more often than them.”

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.

The Empiricist Strikes Back

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: Let’s first pause for a moment to recognize where we are. Three U.S. Senators took the mantle for climate and climate leadership in this Congress, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman. Over a series of many months, involving many colleagues, many industries, and many advocacy groups, they emerged with the seed of a new deal that might satisfy competing constituencies. The framework (reportedly) has something for everyone, a cost for emitting greenhouse gases, expanded nuclear power, and offshore oil exploration. Environmental groups, frequently splintered, circled their wagons to support the effort.

Then came two explosions, one political, one physical. In a surprise move last month, Senate leadership fast-tracked immigration reform ahead of energy. That caused Graham to step back from the climate legislation. And then came the Gulf oil disaster. What started out as an already ambitious climate effort is now engulfed with immigration politics and an intensified national fight over offshore drilling. That’s where we are. And yet…

…Uncertainty Springs Eternal: “Graham says ‘impossible’ to pass climate bill now” reads an online headline at the Washington Post (above an AP story). The finality of the statement promises to clear remaining doubt that the Senate will not be able to pass legislation in the wake of the oil spill. Some senators would never vote for a climate-and-energy bill without provisions for expanding offshore drilling. Some senators would never vote for a climate-and-energy bill with those provisions. Game, set, match, before immigration reform is even broached. Or vice versa–until you remember that in politics nothing is ever over.

Congress DailyAM: “Graham Says Climate Measure Has a Chance Over Time”
E&E Daily: “Graham says he could vote for energy bill, but oil spill requires a timeout”
Roll Call: “Graham Sees No Hope for Climate Bill This Year”

and, not to be discounted…

Greenwire: “Senate bill to be rolled out on Wednesday”

Here’s what Graham  said in a release after the E&E Daily story ran.

Fly on the Wall: Der Spiegel obtained “audio recordings of historical significance,” two 1.2 gigabyte sound files “that were created by accident” at the 15th Conference of Parties (COP-15) climate negotiation in Copenhagen last December. The magazine reconstructs an hour and a half of a meeting with 25 heads of state. The prime ministers, presidents, and other leaders gathered to discuss undercooked material hurriedly assembled by advisers and negotiators in the waning days and hours of the conference. “When has it ever been the case at an international conference that world leaders had to concern themselves with such minor details?,” Der Spiegel asks, and finds an answer from UN chief negotiator Yvo de Boer: “I don’t think anything like this has ever happened, and I’m not sure whether something like this will ever happen again.”

Some participants and observers at Copenhagen have charged that China obstructed discussions, most vividly by dispatching a diplomat to a heads-of-state meeting. In those tension-filled days, China was already undertaking what the New York Times reports as history’s largest six-month increase in greenhouse gas pollution by one country. The emissions trend prompted Premier Wen Jiabao to call a special cabinet session to address the nation’s energy binge and decline in energy efficiency. The jump is a taste of what’s ahead as Chinese consumers continue to electrify their lifestyle, and the economy moves from light to heavy manufacturing.

Every week there are stories about “bad China” (see previous paragraph) and “good China,” the emerging world leader in clean tech. “Good China” is frequently wielded as a rhetorical bludgeon in op-ed discussions. Here’s this week’s contribution, from Bruce Usher, an executive-in-residence at Columbia Business School.

Scientists Clear Their Throats: Political attacks on climate scientists continue. The Washington Post editorial page, host to George Will’s occasional column-length scientific errors, labels “a chilling assault” the Virginia Attorney General’s ferocious, ignorant queries into a climate scientist’s records when he was a University of Virginia faculty member. Politicians have a responsibility to investigate fraud. But Michael Mann’s case had been picked over for years, even before the e-mails hacked from the University of East Anglia were released late last year. AG Ken Cuccinelli has accused Mann of defrauding Virginia taxpayers by receiving grants to study climate change. In heated rhetoric atypical of Post editorials on climate change, editors declare that Cuccinelli has “declared war on reality” and on free academic inquiry.

Scientists, who speak in nuance, not absolutes, have been slow to respond adequately to opponents in politics and elsewhere, who speak in absolutes, not nuance.  This week 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences howl into the stratosphere over public attacks on well-understood scientific observations, including:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A  snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human  activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth’s climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

The lead author of this important and timely statement from 255 scientists published a new book this week, called Bottled and Sold. Peter Gleick is a leading global expert in water and climate change, and co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland. He recently answered the question, What’s “the best argument against global warming”?

A Nudge in the Other Direction?: Behavioral and social scientists continue to offer intriguing glimpses into how people understand, and misunderstand, climate and energy issues, sometimes peppered with tempting ideas to “nudge” change along. One result: People are more likely to cut electricity use if they’re told how much more they use than their neighbors. Such studies launched innumerable discussions, from academia to cocktail parties, and at least one company.  New research suggests limitations to this particular nudge: Liberals might go for it more than some conservatives. The latter ignore the peer pressure in greater numbers, or even increase energy use as an “act of defiance.”

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.