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Imagine the Gulf oil spill seeping into the Arctic waters off Alaska

Posted on May 29th, 2010 in ecology,Environment,General,Nature,Science by Robert Miller

Off the Northern coast of Alaska, in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, adjacent to the Alaska Arctic Wildlife Refuge, the Federal Government has given ocean oil drilling rights to Shell. Although these plans are now on hold because of the BP Gulf oil spill, if nothing is done more permanently,  Shell will begin drilling in these pristine wild regions, perhaps as early as this summer. Shell has already carried out seismic studies and the government-issued permits will allow them to initially drill five exploratory wells. Anticipation is high that oil will be discovered, though the company still faces challenges from environmental groups. However, given the behavior of the courts who make these decisions, the chances are good that objections to drilling, based on environmental impact issues, will be dismissed, though the EPA is yet to weigh in on air quality projections related to the project. Our gluttony for oil continues and seemingly has no boundaries;  few restrictions are now in place to limit access to drilling, even though the new off-shore drilling permits may be banned, at least temporarily by the states that are involved. The oil feeding frenzy established under GW Bush has given the oil giants a swagger that will be hard to contain. BP continues to press for exemptions from regulatory control, even in the face of the current Gulf oil disaster.  Even a significant reduction in our own oil dependency will not lead to an abatement of drilling in ocean waters, as international companies like Shell and BP view the problem as a global issue, not an American one. Just as we cut down our own forests to provide Japan with pulp for paper (and buy it back from them–operating like a third-world country for their needs), so too will we continue to drill for oil in our own environment, even if we reach a point where we do not have to depend on foreign oil. The rising need for oil to feed the industrial expansions of China and India, will continue to pressure for new drilling even in the most sensitive areas of America. Extract all the extractable oil is and will be the mantra of the oil industry, unless we dramatically change our demand for oil and force our own views and values on the oil companies and their behavior. But, even the temporary interruption of deep ocean oil well drilling has the oil companies threatening our economy with job losses of several hundred thousand employees, if we don’t resume drilling as quickly as possible. It’s not as if they don’t have tools and influence.

While the Obama administration does not have the same  “drill baby  drill” attitude of its predecessor, there are no environmentalists within the administration, at least none with the passion of a Teddy Roosevelt or a Stewartl Udall; historically, it seems that spending time in the wondrous U.S. West was essential training experience to acquire a protective attitude about the environment–the physical wonders that your eyes report to you.  The “I want to save this for my children and grand children syndrome,” is a mind state which you could acquire while seeing for the first time places like the Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, Yosemite Park, Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone, or any of the other places that are included in our fabulous national park system. Those searing experiences, faced with our inherent tendency to exploit and destroy the natural environment or privatize it,  has historically served as the stimulus for environmentalism and site preservation. But, that was then and this is now. Today, whether it’s an oil spill or the threat of global climate change, we need a far more sophisticated and knowledgeable plan that can begin to sort out the   “species interconnectedness;” this will require more knowledge of biology and environmental preservation, an emphasis which does not resonate well with the short-term problem solving that seemingly exists in the culture of the Obama cabinet meetings and our need for more oil resources. But, the biology we need to be studying can no longer be seen with the naked eye, for it is microscopic in size, yet fundamentally huge in its impact–it’s the ecosystem of our oceans and the threats that exist from oil spills, over fishing and salinity changes that might impair the fundamental biodiversity of the water and impact on the bottom of the food chain where life support is critical and the point at which it all begins.

So, how do you gain knowledge of species interconnectedness by watching birds drenched in oil and being treated with detergents? You don’t! Unless we are watching the event in the company of environmental and marine biologists and toxicologists. Yet, even these experts have limited knowledge of what the long-term impact of an oil spill will do to all the species in the ecosystem. Like global climate change, it’s too incomprehensible to imagine and, unlike global climate change, we don’t have computer models to help us figure out the real dangers of an oil spill of this magnitude. The historical reaction applies here: we can only shrug our shoulders and assume that eventually, all will be back to normal, that the ocean can and will deal with this problem, fixing it in ways that we don’t yet understand. After all, there is an equilibrium to nature, even when faced with increasing global temperatures or a slippery oily interface. We may not like the new steady-state, and it may be far less compatible with our expectations from the oceans of the world, but a new equilibrium point will be established and so far, we have shown ourselves to be completely impotent to facilitate one outcome over another. Ocean ecology is perhaps evolving in something less than a geological time scale. Something short enough that we will be able to gauge some of the impact of the Gulf oil spill, but we will be unable to do anything about it. By the time we recognize what happened, and a validate that a new balance point has been established, we will not be able to return to the old one, no matter how much we miss it, or what we do to restore it. New counter forces will be in place to preserve the new point of equilibrium and oppose any efforts we make to restore an older point of balance.

Krill are tiny crustaceans found in all oceans. They feed on phytoplankton and serve as one of the essential elements at the bottom of the food chain. Somehow we expect that these essential organisms will be unaffected and that no large mammals will start washing up on shore because of starvation. Should that ever begin to happen, the human population would of course already be stressed, yet probably  knowledgeable about the unfavorable imbalances within our oceans and its implications for planetary balance. What do we really know about the influence of oil on the ecology of a region? Did we lose species in the Exxon Valdez oil spill or the one in Santa Barbara? In the case of the Exxon Valdez, the salmon and herring fishing industry in the region collapsed. Slowly the salmon came back, but the herring never returned. One mayor in the region committed suicide, apparently related to his despair over the oil spill and its impact on the local economy. Have we done enough studies to understand the changes in the ecosystem that invariably happen with a major oil spill? Each major spill is probably very unique, given the variance in species and habitat of the surrounding region and relative size of the ocean volume involved.  We know that for each spill, the lives of commercial fishermen will be permanently changed and their chances of getting a fair compensation for their lost livelihood is about zero, as it will take many years to resolve the impending issues and suits within our heavily biased court system, one that rewards and protects big business and allows lower income recipients of the calamity to serve as mere cannon fodder. According to some studies, significant oil residue remains in Prince Williams Sound where the Exxon Valdez spilled oil onto 1200 miles of beach, killing thousands of animals. In some areas, oil was three feet thick. Current estimates are that it will take decades more or even centuries more for the oil to fully dissipate from the region: Litigation against Exxon continues.

If you’re wondering about long-term damage liability, to compensate for lost jobs and continued clean up operations, here is what happened on that issue with Exxon (From Democracy Now): “In 1994, an Alaskan jury found Exxon responsible and ruled the company should pay $5 billion in punitive damages to some 33,000 plaintiffs. Exxon appealed. In 2006, the 9th US Circuit Court cut the award of punitive damages in half to $2.5 billion. Then, in a 5-to-3 ruling last June, the Supreme Court cut the amount of punitive damages again and ordered Exxon Mobil to pay just $500 million in punitive damages, one-tenth of the original jury’s ruling. That equates to about four days of Exxon Mobil’s net profits.” You can see how favorably the courts treat these jury-determined settlement costs. For Exxon, it’s just a few days of profits and they have more lawyers to throw at these issues than almost anyone else on the planet, unless it’s our own government that operates by bringing criminal charges.

This country is badly in need of re-implementing the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) and staffing the organization with field and marine biologists who can participate in efforts to understand oil spills and the devastation they generate on species and their interconnectedness. I have commented on this acute need in a previous posting. We only see the damage at the top, on the shores, in the form of dead and oily birds, turtles and a few mammals. We don’t have the capacity to see the impact on the ecosystem beneath or the effects of the new menace–the large subsurface oil plumes riding at mid-level depths in the ocean; the oil companies would like to keep it that way. For them too much knowledge is a bad thing. They would like us to remember that the oil platforms they put down become havens for fish to collect in the service of sport fisherman. Isn’t that a good enough benefit?

The lack of a strong, passionate environmental presence sitting at the Obama cabinet meetings has made it difficult for our urban president to find his voice on the Gulf oil spill. Someone needs to drive home the environmental disaster to Obama in such a way that an urbanite, who seems to have learned nothing about species interdependency and the potentially disastrous magnitude of the BP spill, can quickly get up to speed talking about phytoplankton, krill and other members of the Zooplankton group. He very badly needs to go out on a boat with a group of marine biologists and toxicologists, who can explain to him the dimensions of the problem and how seeing a bunch of oily birds, while visibly shocking, coupled to the regular summary of the spill on CNN (mostly consumed by showing the undersea footage of the oil leak bulging out if the drill rupture), is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg for the local fishing economy and the long-term health of the Gulf ecosystem. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a lawyer by training, doesn’t quite have the sophistication or experience to recruit the kind of scientific expertise and visibility required to assure the public that some level of scientific accumen is being applied to this disaster. In keeping with the corporate motif of the new world order, science and scientists don’t speak for BP, except through the corporate elites of the company, who know virtually nothing about biology; their objective is solely the public relations message and BP’s liability. Yet, biology is what this spill is all about and it is where the effort must be focused with education, research and a good dose of corporate honesty. School children in the region could be enlisted in the research effort to gather samples, make measurements, much like school children in Minnesota discovered and studied three-legged frogs. How refreshing it would be to see and hear the BP CEO tell us that BP has no idea what the long-term damage of this spill will do to the environment, but that they will begin to fund significant grants for the region to be studied as the long-term laboratory environment they helped to create.  At least that would be a starting point from which we could launch some serious research. Yet, we have to admit that the problem cannot be researched in the sense that no long-term projections can be made because we do not understand, nor do we have models for comprehending the impact we are witnessing from this spill. The new oil plumes beneath the surface represent a form of oil we have not encountered before and we don’t even know the cause. But, they potentially represent vast dead zones due to the lack of oxygen that has been reported near these sites.

Hurricane season is nearly underway and each day we experience continued oil gushing from the well, we run the risk of a single hurricane serving like an ocean Hobart machine, circulating and mixing the oil and water until it reaches the loop current and begins marching up the Atlantic coast. The city of Fort Lauderdale, a major oil import region, has begun discussions on the impact of Gulf oil that might find its way moving into the Atlantic coast, an event that could devastate the tourist economy of the region, to say nothing of the damage already done to the seafood industry that serves Florida and much of the country.

But, back to Alaska. If a spill should occur anything close to what we are seeing in the Gulf, once drilling in the Beaufort and and Chukchi seas begins, it will be impossible to devote anything significant to the cleanup operation, at least not for many months. Even Shell executives have agreed that “there is no good way to clean up oil from a spill in broken sea ice.” The government has acknowledged that a major spill in the Arctic waters of the area could have devastating consequences in the Arctic Ocean’s icy waters and could be difficult to clean up. How about impossible? However, they concluded that a large oil leak was “too remote and speculative an occurrence” to warrant analysis. Well that was then (December, 2009) and this is now. The permit for drilling in the Arctic sea has been suspended, but that suspension could be lifted soon enough to see drilling this summer. Should a spill occur in these cold waters, the nearest Coast Guard facility is a 1,000 miles away, the nearest cleanup vessels and equipment are too few and at least 100 miles away, and the nearest airport where major supplies could be transported is Seattle, a few thousand miles away.

The Alaska waters where drilling permits have been issued, are vastly colder than the Gulf and any oil spill will take far longer to dissipate, no matter what the mechanism, be it biochemical breakdown or micelle formation and dispersal. For another, during the winter, weather patterns often include 65 mile per hour winds at temperatures in the -40 degree range, making rescue operations for any troubled rig virtually impossible. In the summer, the area serves as a huge breeding center for multiple species of birds that migrate from six different continents, including all of the other 49 states. Huge herds of caribou congregate on the Arctic coastal plane and Beluga whales have their calving season in these waters. To become more familiar with the region, check out Subhankar Banerjee‘s interview on TomDispatch.

Several years ago, GW Bush wanted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development. Fortunately, environmental organizations defeated this idea. But that took place when every environmental organization, everyone interested in sane ecological management, knew they had a hostile President to deal with and opposition to his leadership on almost every front was widespread and passionate. Today, in the current climate, with a Democratic President, the environmental movement has been much more subdued and has become more passive about the ocean drilling plans of Shell Oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, particularly since Obama announced permits for that drilling operation a few weeks before the BP Gulf oil spill. Perhaps the Gulf oil spill will serve to re-invigorate the environmental opposition to drilling and help the country move rapidly to a state of reduced oil dependency. It is not clear to anyone that the drilling demands of the international oil giants is really necessary. You might want to read Michael Klare on this important topic. So far however, Obama has shown himself to be just as much of an oil man as we had with GW Bush. The Minerals Management Service, the government oversight function for the oil companies has for years been deeply corrupted. The recent shake-up in the government oversight structure may improve this relationship, but Obama has a lot of repair work to do if these oil companies are ever going to conform to the needs of our society, rather than their own needs of high profits and reckless drilling practices, with little financial risk to their bottom line. Maybe this will be his wake-up call for the environment and Big Oil.


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Sources of information on the oil spill

Posted on May 24th, 2010 in Economy,Health,Nature,Politics by Robert Miller

As the bp Gulf oil spill continues to grow unabated, the political dimensions of the spill also grow as Republicans now want to name this Obama’s Katrina. That’s why Obama needs to change his gears and keep the finger pointing at bp, something he has now started to do with a little more gusto. The Miami Herald has a good source of multimedia material covering many different aspects of the Gulf oil spill. Graphic display panels include things like the locations of fisheries, shrimp and crab breeding regions, turtle migrations (many Kemp’s Ridley turtles have shown up dead this year, though the cause has not been established). The Miami Herald site illustrates the methods and dangers of treating birds who have been inundated with oil. It is not merely cleaning feathers of oil by hand, using gentle detergents, but also paying attention to liver disease that they may encounter from ingesting oil, which may secondarily affect fertility. The Brown Pelican, the state bird of Louisiana, was recently taken off the endangered species list, but is now seriously threatened as the oil slick appears to be infesting regions of their rookery marshes. I don’t know how many birds a single person can clean each day, but clearly the need for a high human to infested bird ratio must be required: surely, there is job growth here.

The New York Times also has a multimedia site that is worth checking out; among other sources of information,  it has a history of major oil spills beginning with the oil well leak in 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara. In that instance, prisoners were used as a major source of labor for the cleanup which employed tons of straw. But, how desperate are we for oil such that some wells in the gulf have been granted permits to drill beginning at more than 9,000 feet below the surface? Is this oil-drilling chutzpa or are we pursuing true needs? Oil companies fear that if they don’t feed the never ending growth of the expanding  global thirst for oil, consumers will turn to alternative fuels and sources of energy, dropping the price of oil and making these more risky oil adventures less cost-effective. But is that really true? How desperate are we for oil and how scarce are the sources, if we are now drilling at such deep sites, without having a more foolproof method for handling accidents.  This is an issue, in which the biggest oil-consuming country on the planet, namely us, can have a huge impact on our economy, the environment and the need for ever increasing oil supplies by adopting more sensible restraints on oil usage: the new federal standards for improved fuel economy will help, but other measures are needed to meet the demands in front of us for global climate change. The Copenhagen agreement seems too little too late, even though it’s better than nothing.
So far bp has been reluctant to have scientists make more definitive calculations of the magnitude of the oil spill, because this measurement will have a direct impact on the financial liability of the company.  A government report on the spill magnitude, compiled by several different agencies,  is due out this week. In the meantime bp is sticking to 5,000 barrels a day, but other estimates, based on seeing the films of the oil leak, go as high as 70,000 barrels/day. Bp refers to these higher estimates as alarmist!


Can Obama change the country?

Posted on May 22nd, 2010 in Culture,Politics,Science,Technology,War by Robert Miller

The morning after the Massachusetts Senatorial election earlier this year, when Scott Brown, the Republican, was elected to fill the remaining term left in Ted Kennedy’s seat, Obama’s presidency looked as if it had reached a moribund state, from which it would not recover, smothered by its own lack of resolute behavior and an overdose of centrist policies. Yet, his response to that election, beginning with the healthcare summit, helped to re-energize his presidency by going toe to toe with Republican ideas for their opposition to his healthcare bill. Most revealing in that daylong session what how much more knowledgeable Obama was on the details of his bill and how effectively he exposed the Republicans for their lack of ideas. It was clear then that the Republicans were not interested in insuring the 44 million Americans who lack health insurance and, while the healthcare bill that was passed won’t reach down to all the uninsured, Obama was able to get a healthcare plan through congress in relatively quick succession, re-invigorating his commitment and focus for achieving other objectives. Down the road we will surely have to fix the healthcare plan that was passed, but at least we have something to work with. Obama stopped short of advocating Medicare for all, but he would probably not be opposed to the idea if we had a resounding congress which expressed that goal with resolute assertiveness.

With the new financial reform bill close to agreement, it has become clear that Obama intends to un-Reaganize the American economy and reshape how the government spends its money. In place of the GI bill at the end of WW II, which gave us a new vibrant middle class, Obama believes that increasing access to education, improving our public school system and putting more money into research and technology, can achieve the same objectives by reshaping government spending priorities.   David Leonhardt, a New York Times financial writer, has an excellent article in the Times today that briefly covers the major historical trends of the New Deal, the GI Bill, Civil Rights and Medicare and Medicaid under Johnson followed by the Reagan years, which really lasted from the time he was elected President in 1980 until 2009 when Obama took over. You could actually include the Jimmy Carter presidency in many ways, as a component of the Reagan era, since he began the march towards deregulation when he began the process with the airline industry, and by not recognizing the strength of the Democratic Party resting with workers and unions, both he and Clinton fractionated the very party that got them elected.
In retrospect, the last 16 months of the Obama Presidency have provided a new vision, one that has been partially obscured by the financial crisis and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, looking around the corner, if Obama can get elected again and continue with his policies of reshaping the way Federal expenditures get distributed, his visionary zeal might just change America to a country we can, once again, feel good about or at least feel better about our future as a livable country, one for which we don’t have to apologize.   This year’s election will surely be the most fascinating in many many years. The Teabaggers have taken some primary elections and unseated standard Republicans, like Bennett in Utah. If Democrats insert truly liberal and progressive candidates to oppose them (a big if), we may see, for the first time in our life time, political contests that will have the most dramatic impact on congressional composition and philosophy, because candidates will be promoting truly opposite views that can impact government in significant ways. Perhaps this will be the election year, when the nation decides whether they want to continue the cultural wars or whether such engagements are beneath a serious country with a set of serious problems.
During Obama’s first year as President, I was disappointed in his centrist, cautionary policies, including his cabinet selections. But, since the Scott Brown election, I see a different Obama, one who is trying to reverse Reaganism, but needs to be elected a second time before he can tackle the really big issues, like reducing the military budget and more wisely investing in education to reduce its cost. Remember, that until Ronald Reagan was governor of California, tuition at the University of California system was free and we didn’t concern ourselves about whether creationism should be taught in science classes (as governor, Reagan first proposed that as a test balloon to see if it resonated with the country). We could return to that long lost previous iteration of ourselves as a functional country, if we return to morphing our prior selves, when we had  a country committed  to education, science and technology as the driving engine for better jobs and a better economy. Then, in my opinion, the cultural wars of today will rapidly disappear and we could have a real culture again.


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