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Obama Negotiates with Himself on Oil. Again. May 16, 2011

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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President Obama’s position on oil has been one of the most disappointing and incoherent facets of his administration to date.   On Saturday, this trend continued as the President announced a series of shifts to increase domestic oil production.

Pundits say he had to respond to high gas prices (which presidents do not control).  This maneuver is political capitulation in the face of a mismanaged narrative in the public discourse.  For years, this “debate” about gas prices has been dominated by flat out lies and misinformation in one of the more disgraceful displays of unaccountability in contemporary American politics. 

I have attempted to clear the air (pun intended) on this topic a number of times.  For a fuller explanation, please see this previous post.

Here’s the short version: conservatives claim that high gasoline prices are caused by liberal overregulation stifling domestic oil production.  That just isn’t the slightest bit true.  Oil is a global commodity, so its price is determined on the global market.  We, the United States, represent 25% of world oil demand and about 3% of world supply.  The point here is that we simply don’t have enough oil to affect global supply and thus prices.  And the kicker is that even if we could, OPEC is a cartel; they could/would effortlessly decrease their production to offset any impact we could have. 

Here’s another inconvenient truth: domestic oil production is already up 11% under Obama and was down 15% under Bush.  That reality doesn’t match this GOP argument.  Increased domestic drilling cannot lower gas prices.  Period.  Don’t take my word for it, read for yourself – even the mainstream media have finally caught on recently. 

Domestic oil production does not drive gas prices.

So back to Obama.  After failing to enact a single piece of oil-spill legislation, the President was finally starting to sound like a progressive on energy again.  In an earlier address he even pointed out the supply/demand reality I described above, although he inexplicably refused to take it to its logical conclusion that drilling cannot be a solution.  To now increase drilling as a response to gas prices validates the baldly fabricated GOP narrative.  Much like the current deficit focus, we’re conceding not only the point but adopting their frame as well.  No good can come of that.  It just doesn’t make any sense.

Recall that last year, right before the Congressional energy debate, the administration unveiled a plan to dramatically increase offshore drilling.  For which it asked nothing in return.  Rational negotiators might reward unilateral compromise.  A GOP party that miraculously resurrected itself by vociferously opposing any- and everything Obama does would of course do no such thing.  So we gave away a bargaining chip for free [that most progressives would have rather kept] and no energy bill was passed.  Also, this episode occurred just one month before the BP oil spill, which prevented the administration from using that catastrophe as a catalyst for needed change.

In both cases, the only rationale I can see is political maneuvering.  We know the Obama campaign prizes the supposedly undecided independents and what moderate Republicans still exist “in the middle.”  They think that carving out GOP territory for Obama will undercut Republican attacks.  But even if they pick up some independents, if they sell out progressives to do it that is not a net gain.  Additionally, the GOP won’t care that oil production is up – more than they want these policy objectives, they want to keep their base angry.  Have Obama’s oil moves blunted their attacks on this president as anti-oil or trickled into the Fox Newsiverse?  No. 

Obama’s tactics seem to operate from a flawed premise on bipartisanship about which I have previously written, and I am concerned about this plan.

Drill, baby, drill is political welfare for Big Oil, plain and simple.  It does not help America, it helps oil executives.  If we’re going to cave on offshore drilling, leverage it for a coherent energy policy.  If we’re going to increase domestic oil production, call it the compromise that it is and justify it as job creation (with a side of pollution and risk); don’t validate their lies.  I can stomach a certain amount of political compromise, but I can’t start defending the Fox News reality as truth.  

Drill Baby Drill Crowd Eyes Alaska Refuge…Again February 3, 2011

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
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New post at the new and improved Change.org:

It’s one of those immutable laws of American politics: When oil prices go up, lawmakers inevitably try to get their hands on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Ans as oil prices rise inexorably back near $100 per barrel, Big Oil’s favorite senator, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), is at it again.

Year after year, we have to defend this unparalleled wilderness sanctuary and vital calving ground for the Porcupine caribou from Big Oil’s hired guns in Congress.  It’s time to protect this iconic treasure once and for all.

The Alaska Wilderness League is leading the charge to have the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge designated as a National Monument. Sign their petition here and join more than 32,000 other Change.org activists to tell President Obama to finally secure this natural legacy from special interest exploitation—right now, the petition is just shy of the 35,000 signature benchmark.

Read the full post here.

Clean Energy Lobby Outspends Big Oil! September 8, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Politics.
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No, that didn’t happen.  The mere thought of it is preposterous.  What actually happened is a recent report highlighted increased lobbying expenditures from renewable energy companies, and the conservative reaction has been predictably devoid of perspective.  Pot?  Kettle here.  Let’s get you a mirror.

But if they want to talk about energy subsidies, let’s do it.  The following passage from OpenSecrets.org was quoted in a post on the conservative blog RedState:

“By 2007, the alternative energy industry had begun to drastically increase its lobbying spending, almost doubling its expenditures from the previous year. In 2009, alternative energy organizations shelled out an unprecedented $30 million to protect and promote their interests on Capitol Hill, and this year, it’s on pace to equal that record output.

The alternative energy industry’s lobbying expenditures have grown to 12 times from its 1998 level. In comparison, oil and gas spending and mining spending have grown less than three times their 1998 amount, and electric utility spending has grown to just twice its 1998 amount.” (emphasis added by RedState)

That sounds like a lot of money, and it is.  But of course the concept of context is lost upon RedState.  Let’s try adding some.

Renewable energy companies spent $30 million on lobbying in 2009.  Compare that to 2009 lobbying expenditures for:

  • Misc. Energy: $56,013,293 –  $30 million in renewables = ~$26 million*

Total: more than $373 million in 2009 lobbying.

*The “Misc. Energy” category contains dozens of companies, some from the renewable energy sector but others such as the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, which lobbies for “clean” coal.  OpenSecrets cited $30 million for renewables, so I used that number here.

In 2009 alone, dirty fuel interests outspent clean energy by a factor of 12.4.  The oil and gas industry outspent renewables by a factor of nearly 6.  And Exxon Mobil – alone – spent 90% as much on lobbying as the entire clean energy sector.

Since 1999, oil and gas companies along with electric utilities have spent over $2 billion.  In that period, the renewable energy sector spent $105 million.  So tell me again why we’re whining about the big bad clean energy lobby?

The author of this RedState blog post, writing under the pseudonym Vladimir, identifies himself only as “Operations Manager for a small Gulf of Mexico oil & gas explorer & producer.”  Vlad further explains the crippling burden imposed by tyrannical American energy subsidies upon the tiny, innocent oil industry:

“The wind industry is pocketing subsidies that dwarf those garnered by the oil and gas sector. …Wind subsidies are more than 200 times as great as those given to oil and gas on the basis of per-unit-of-energy produced.”

First of all, The per-unit cost difference is easily explained: oil industry is fully mature whereas renewables are still very much developing.  New industries, especially those with positive instead of negative social benefits, receive subsidies so that they can develop more quickly and their costs can come down.  These fuels are our future, and we’d like to get there as soon as possible.

Side note: That future isn’t just clean and renewable, it’s really cool: check out these self-healing solar cells.

But more importantly, NO wind subsidies absolutely do NOT “dwarf” oil subsidies.  That is patently false.  When one compares size, one generally compares…size.  A > B.  Not A/X > B/Y.

Below is a wonderful graphic produced by the nonpartisan Environmental Law Institute (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I currently work – this was compiled long before my recent arrival).

This chart is slightly dated.  For example, just this Tuesday, the Department of Energy pledged more than $575 million in stimulus funding for 22 different projects related to Carbon Capture and Storage (E&E News, subscription required).  But you get the idea.

You cannot make the serious claim that renewables get unduly preferential government treatment on account of their lobbying.  One look at the benefits these lobbying efforts reap dispels that notion.

The conservative self-delusion is irreconcilably hypocritical when subjected to the facts of real life.  That is why the two worldviews currently exist without much overlap.

Hat tip to Kevin Grandia at DeSmogBlog for his post on this.

Those who do not learn from oil spills… August 7, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Last week, the Senate failed to pass even an anemic oil spill response bill.  The oil industry learned a lesson from this episode, and it’s not the lesson we’d hoped to teach them.

The bill that was pulled contained commonsense measures to prevent oil spills.  Simple ideas like making oil companies fully liable for the damage they cause.  “You break, you buy” is not a tough concept, and the oil industry has zero goodwill with the public right now.  This should have been simple.

Yet for all of BP’s technical incompetence and possibly criminal negligence, they have thus far succeeded in minimizing the regulatory blowback from this terrible, preventable catastrophe.  Their formula is simple:

1)     Lie to downplay the spill size;

2)     Deny media access so that nobody can disprove the lie;

3)     Spend a tiny fraction of profits on lobbying; and, inevitably,

4)     …Repeat

We know that BP has consistently downplayed the size of the spill.  They used dispersants to keep oil underwater and then chose to measure the spill rate solely by the size of the surface oil slick.  That’s willful deception.

Yet because BP withheld video footage and denied reporters access, nobody could authoritatively challenge their claims (except maybe the government, but that’s another story).

And finally, over the last few months, the big five oil companies (BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell) have spent $18 million lobbying to kill the oil spill response bill.  Compared to their $21.7 billion in combined profits over the last quarter alone, that is a tiny investment.

And it worked.

Surely this legislative gridlock is influenced by the toxic political climate in Washington, but the industry has taken note of BP’s success.  In fact, we have already seen tactics from this new playbook employed elsewhere.  (Which means, unfortunately, that we have already had more oil spills since Deepwater Horizon…we didn’t pass this oil legislation how?)

In Michigan, there are numerous reports that Enbridge Inc. is denying media access to areas damaged by its recent oil spill.  In China, the amount of oil spilled when a pipeline exploded is suspected of being massively downplayed.  This pattern is not going to stop on its own.

Oily shoreline in Dalian, China, where BP's spill response tactics are already being replicated.

During future oil spills, what incentive does a company have to be honest or transparent about the damage it is causing?  None.

Not only have we failed to hold the oil industry accountable for unacceptable damage and deplorable safety records, we have taught them how to get away with it even when, for a few weeks, the whole country actually cares about the environment.

The oil industry has not learned from its mistakes.  Why should they?  It’s much cheaper to pay for lobbyists.  With limited liability, taxpayers and victims pay for much of the damage oil spills cause.

Case-in-point: despite the looming phase-out of single-hulled tankers like the Exxon Valdez, Exxon still hires more of these risky supertankers than the next 10 biggest oil companies combined.

Failing to pass this weak bill will be even worse than having done nothing.  It will let Big Oil know they can bully and buy their way out of any transgression, no matter how heinous.   Those who do not learn from their oil spills are doomed to repeat them.

And right on cue comes news that in Alaska, just thirty miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, BP is gaming the system to loosen restrictions and oversight on a new drilling project…

“Energy” Bills Drop and Big Oil Plays Doctor July 27, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Early this week, the House and Senate unveiled their minimalist energy bills.

Far from the comprehensive energy reform our country desperately needs, these bills are largely just a direct response to the oil spill (an approach with which I strongly disagree).

Both bills are amalgamations of other, smaller oil spill/energy bills that have already passed out of their various committees.  The House and Senate bills differ slightly (which was bound to happen even if the House bill wasn’t 238 pages compared to the Senate bill’s 16), but here’s a summary of the Senate bill’s provisions:

  • Lift the $75 million oil spill liability cap (retroactively, to apply to BP)
  • Increase the per-barrel tax on oil producers that feeds the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund
  • Restructure the Department of the Interior to remove conflicts of interest and increase drilling oversight
  • Lopsidedly incentivize electric and natural gas vehicles ($6 billion for natural gas, $400 million for electrification)
  • Finally enact the HomeStar home retrofit program

A full 24-page “draft” summary is available here but subject to change, especially as this bill is likely to move quickly ahead of the looming August recess.  Debate on this bill is scheduled for Friday.

TNR’s Bradford Plumer described the scope of this Senate legislation:

“All told, it’s a tiny bill—the total cost comes to around $15 billion. And it won’t do all that much for the environment: When one reporter asked committee staffers whether anyone knew how much greenhouse-gas reduction this bill would lead to, several people laughed out loud.”

Notably absent from this energy bill (aside from comprehensive energy policy) is a Renewable Energy Standard (RES): a requirement that America generate a certain amount of its electricity from renewable sources by a given date.

Could an RES pass right now?   Renewable energy advocates and former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle insist that they have 60+ votes for the popular, no-brainer policy.  Curiously, Sen. Reid says he doesn’t have the votes.  Someone is misinformed or lying.

Daschle, pictured above, and Reid disagree about whether the votes are there for an RES. Obviously, politicians are quite capable of the seemingly impossible feat of arguing about whether a given number is above or below 60, but Daschle doesn't really have a reason to lie; Reid could be saving the RES as a strong foundation for a subsequent, real energy bill, but he has not given any such explanation.

Both the House and Senate versions are weak as an energy bill, but the House bill does contain some additional commonsense solutions to protect America from the intrinsic risks of offshore drilling.

For example, the House bill would block oil companies with a “significant history” of violating worker safety of environmental laws from drilling in federal waters.  The legislative language, which already passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee, defines that “significant history” as a company having at least one of the following:

  • 5x the industry average for willful or repeat worker safety violations at its facilities;
  • More than 10 deaths at any facility; or
  • $10 million in fines under EPA laws within the preceding seven years.

The package includes further safety provisions that the Natural Resources panel approved unanimously, including new standards for blowout preventers.

It is worth noting that even in the comparatively more aggressive House bill, drilling regulations that were not direct responses to the oil spill were dropped.

So, what does the oil industry have to say about these moderate safety regulations?

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is the oil industry’s main trade association.  And they oppose almost all of these regulations, of course.  As far as Big Oil is concerned nothing needs to change.

In a call with reporters, API president Jack Gerard took particular umbrage at the blowout preventer regulations.  In his eyes, new blowout preventer regulations are premature because we don’t even know what caused the Gulf spill:

“We’re going into surgery without a diagnosis.  This is the ultimate in malpractice.” –Jack Gerard, President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

Granted, I have never been pleased by anything these API lobbyists have said, but this is a remarkably bold statement.  We know fully well that current blowout preventer regulations and practices are not up to the job.

Hypocrisy is a familiar sight in Washington.  In the past, however, you usually had to wait until after an election before side-by-side comparisons of a single person arguing against himself began to show up a la the Daily Show.  But not anymore.

Just a few weeks ago, API spokesperson Bill Bush fought against the deepwater drilling moratorium because:

“The 33 now idle deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf have passed thorough government inspections and are ready to be put back to work.”

Let’s continue the API’s medical metaphor: We can’t operate on (regulate) the deepwater rigs because we don’t know for sure what ails them.  But somehow, at the same time, we can pronounce them healthy and let them keep on drilling?  That does not compute.

API’s Gerard went on:

“We believe what comes out of the discussions on the oil spill should be directly related to the oil spill.”

That makes sense.  The patient was admitted only because of his inability to keep his oil down – why set his broken bones or cure any additional diseases you find during his checkup?

And remember, as I said before, needed but less directly spill-related drilling regulations have already been dropped from these bills in accordance with this oil industry demand.  Such is the price of attempting to overcome Republican obstructionism.

A brief New York Times article detailing the roll out of these bills summarized the likely resistance:

“The oil industry is expected to offer stiff opposition to some of the provisions…”

Maybe I’m reading into it too far, but this quote really irks me (because of the content, not the writing):

The oil industry screwed up, big time.  The damage to the Gulf of Mexico and its dependent economies is catastrophic.  In direct response, Congress is attempting to pass an anemic bill with long overdue and watered down regulations.

The ONLY opposition to this bill is from the very industry that screwed up in the first place and has long enjoyed a political free ride.

Are we really going to let them singlehandedly push back against the regulations they’ve so vividly demonstrated they require?  That’s like losing the bedtime argument with your young child.  This is pathetic.

Oil Spill Legislation Pt. 2 June 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Now that I have devoted two recent posts to what Congress isn’t doing, it’s time once again to look at what little they actually are working on.  There are a couple of interesting pieces of oil spill legislation that have been introduced recently.  These are the most noteworthy:

Let’s start with the bad ones.

S. 3461, introduced by David Vitter (R-LA) on 6/9.  This bill would create a system for resolving claims against BP, which is fine.  But it also seeks to renegotiate BP’s lease on “Mississippi Canyon 252” (where Deepwater Horizon was drilling when it sank).

Lease renegotiation is the Republicans’ preferred vehicle to increase BP’s liability. It has two main problems:

1) It requires BP’s cooperation. In order for this to work, BP would have to say, “Ok, we admit unlimited liability.”  As TPM reported, BP could refuse or even simply walk away from the renegotiation talks.  Public pressure might prevent them from doing this, but there is no guarantee.  And certainly no good reasons to choose this over just lifting the liability cap, which takes us to the second point.

2) Lease renegotiation establishes no future precedent for oil spills.  It is the legislative embodiment of not learning from our mistakes.  If we pass this bill and no other, the $75 million liability cap will still be on the books when the next catastrophic oil spill occurs.  This is why the only cosponsor on this bill is oil industry lackey Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).  Her co-sponsorship indicates that this bill is supported by the oil industry, which in turn indicates that this bill is far too weak.

Also, it could violate the Constitution.

S. 3497, introduced by Scott Brown (R-MA) on 6/16.  This bill would “require leases under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to include a plan that describes the means and timeline for containment and termination of an ongoing discharge of oil.”  The actual legislative text is not available yet, so I don’t know exactly what this bill would require, but that this seems weak to me.  Oil companies saying “and it’ll take us 4 months to fix this thing if it blows” would seem to satisfy the requirements of this bill, nor does this appear to address the strength and efficacy of the oil company plans – is there anything in here to prevent them from submitting plans to protect walruses in the Gulf of Mexico again?

Scott Brown has offered no evidence that his is to be trusted on energy/environmental issues.  That being said, he has found a bipartisan cosponsor for this bill in Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), so we will have to wait and see what is actually in this bill.

Now, the good stuff:

S. 3514: Amends the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to prohibit anyone from buying an oil or gas lease unless they pay into an Oil Spill Recovery Fund (unspecified amount so far) or post a bond equal to half of their outstanding liability related to oil spills or cleanups.  If the payment into the recovery fund is low, then what appears to be the intent of the bill – prevent companies in BP’s current situation from expanding their operations before paying up for oil spills – may be undercut.  But the legislative language is not available yet, so we’ll see.  Introduced by Mark Begich (D-AK) on 6/21 with 2 cosponsors.

S. 3492: In light of negligent emergency planning and the failure of all other containment options, this bill would amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to require leaseholders to prepare for and actually drill at least one relief well concurrent to the drilling of any exploratory well in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).  The bill allows for “alternative measures” at least as effective as a relief well to be employed instead of a relief well as authorized by the Secretary of the Interior.  Probably unlikely to pass, but an interesting idea. Introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) on 6/15 with no cosponsors yet.

H.R. 5513: “Spilled Oil Royalty Collection Act.”  Oil companies pay royalties on each barrel of oil produced.  In the “unforeseeable” event of a deepwater oil spill (defined as depth > 200m), this bill would charge oil companies royalties of at least 12.5% on every barrel that comes out of the well, regardless of whether that oil is recovered, burned, “dispersed”…anything.  This bill would come into effect retroactively, right before the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  Were this to become law, it would further highlight the importance of accurate flow estimates for gushers.  Those royalties would certainly not offer much more deterrent than legal liability, but can you think of any reason that spilled oil should be exempted from royalties?  I can’t.  Especially because they are recovering and selling some of it.  Introduced by Chellie Pingree (D-ME) on 6/10 and has 2 cosponsors.

H.R. 5503: Amends the 90-year-old “Death on the High Seas Act” to make it easier for those such as the families of the 11 workers who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion to sue for non-pecuniary losses such as pain and suffering.  The bill was introduced with a statement that read, “We should not allow reckless corporations to use 19th century laws to shortchange their victims.”  Sounds right to me.  Introduced by John Conyers (D-MI) on 6/11 and has 12 cosponsors.

The companion bill in the Senate (S. 3463) was introduced by Patrick Leahy (D-VT) first, on 6/8, and has 5 cosponsors.

S. 3478: Would repeal parts of the Limitations of Liability Act of 1851, which Transocean has invoked to attempt to cap its liability at about $27 million.  This bill wins my personal award for Most Forced Acronym as its name is the “RESTORE Act,” which is supposed to stand for “Remuneration for Ecological and Societal Tolls Occasioned by Reckless Errors.”  Introduced by Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on 6/10 and has 3 cosponsors.

Bills to raise the liability cap:

S. 3472: “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Unlimited Liability Act.”  Completely lifts the standing $75 million liability cap for oil spills.  Introduced by Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on 6/9 and has 24 cosponsors.

H.R. 5520: Requires BP to pay at least $25 billion to a fund like the escrow the White House negotiated, but goes further by excluding this spill from the liability cap.  Introduced by Steve Kagen (D-WI) on 6/14 and has 32 cosponsors.

Bills to lift the deepwater drilling moratorium, which I fully support and have defended at length.


S.3489: Introduced by David Vitter (R-LA) on 6/15 and has 1 cosponsor.


H.R. 5499: Introduced John Mica (R-FL) on 6/11 and has 13 cosponsors.

H.R. 5525: Introduced by Pete Olson (R-TX) on 6/15 and has 28 cosponsors.

H.R. 5519: Introduced by Bill Cassidy (R-LA) on 6/14 and has 43 cosponsors, including some notable Gulf Democrats such as Charlie Melancon (D-LA).  Apparently Bill is more popular than John and Pete.

Sanders Amendment Defeated

Also worth mentioning but filed again under what Congress isn’t doing: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced an amendment to cut $35 billion in oil and gas royalties that don’t even add anything to the industry and would instead use $25 billion to reduce the deficit and $10 billion to encourage energy-efficient buildings.  The amendment was first blocked by climate-denier Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-KY) and then defeated in a vote, 61-39.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Climate Bill Skirmishes Pt. 1: The Murkowski Amendment June 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Politics.
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Energy reform is long overdue for this country and it was on the legislative agenda even before BP sponsored 2010 as “Oil Drilling Risk Awareness Year.”  The House of Representatives passed its climate/energy bill almost a year ago, and the Senate is finally preparing to attempt to follow suit.

The first skirmishes of the climate battle have already been fought in the Murkowski “Dirty Air” Amendment and a much less publicized incident regarding ocean acidification in the House of Representatives (which will be presented in a second post due to the unexpected length of this one).

Let’s start from the beginning.  As you may know, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases (GHGs) pose enough of a public health risk (via climate change) to be considered “pollutants” under the Clean Air Act.

That ruling imposed a legal obligation upon the EPA to do one of two things:

1)    Either issue an “endangerment finding” that carbon dioxide poses a public health risk – and then regulate GHG emissions, or;

2)    Provide proof that carbon dioxide is harmless.  Such proof does not exist, so the Obama EPA issued its endangerment finding in November 2009.

There were two years between the Supreme Court ruling and the endangerment finding.  Why?  The Bush administration.

Jason Burnett was a former associate deputy administrator of the Bush EPA.  The Supreme Court ruling came in April 2007.  The following December, Burnett emailed the EPA’s conclusion that GHGs are pollutants to a White House office.  When White House officials heard he was sending that email, they called him and ordered him not to send it.  When he told them he already had, they actually demanded he recall the email (this can be done in some email programs).  Burnett refused and resigned.

In June 2008, the New York Times discovered that because White House officials did not want to act on the information in that EPA email, they had simply never opened it.  They just left it in their inbox, unread, with the justification that they didn’t have to act on the email if they hadn’t read it. That actually happened.  And it was enough to delay climate action in the executive branch for years – until Obama’s election.

When Obama’s EPA finally released its endangerment finding last year, the ring wing threw a fit.  Republicans had been enjoying decades of legislative success in blocking climate and energy reform, and here was Obama’s tyrannical executive branch finally putting the nation’s interests first and actually acting against a grave threat.  How dare they?

Congressional Republicans were particularly angry about the endangerment finding because it could supplant congressional authority [not] to legislate on the issue.  So last January, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced an amendment to reverse the EPA’s endangerment finding.

For a senator with such a proven history of representing the oil industry, it seems like a basic piece of legislation: the endangerment finding gives the EPA the authority and obligation to act, so her amendment seeks simply to overturn the ruling to remove that impetus.  But consider what she was actually attempting to do.

The endangerment finding is a nonpartisan summary of science.  All it says is that a warming climate caused in part by human emissions of GHGs will present a public health and welfare risk.  That’s it.  No policy prescriptions, just scientists warning about a scientific danger.

Obama and Bush have very, very different stances on climate change.  Yet the Obama administration’s endangerment finding is very similar to the one that was produced and then buried by the Bush administration (it was released last October by a Freedom of Information Act request).  The science is settled.  Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) correctly described the Murkowski amendment as, “a choice between real science and political science.

The Murkowski “Dirty Air” Amendment sought to grant Congress the authority to determine what is scientifically true in our world.  It is the most inappropriate piece of legislation I have ever seen.  Moreover, it was a reprehensibly transparent demonstration of the level of industry involvement in our legislature – the Murkowski amendment was literally written by lobbyists for the oil industry!

Another post with no good visuals, so here's Murkowski in a different fishy situation.

“Who elected the Environmental Protection Agency?” asked a furious Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY).  Answer me this, John: who elected the oil lobbyists who wrote this amendment?  Scientists are qualified to address scientific concerns.  If scientists tell us carbon dioxide is irrefutably a pollutant, that point should be legislatively unimpeachable.  I should never have had to make that point.  The only people overstepping their bounds here are the senators who voted for this amendment.  And they’re doing it to preserve their right to continue shirk their duty to that electorate Barrasso pretends to care so much about.

The measure came up for a vote last week.  It failed, but barely: 53-47.  Every Republican and six Democrats* voted for the amendment.  And more Democrats than that expressed support for this resolution before cowing to party pressure.  Sen. Rockefeller (D-WV) even has his own pending version of the proposal that would undermine EPA authority for (at least) two years.

*Landrieu (D-LA), Lincoln (D-AR), Pryor (D-AR), Nelson (D-NE), Bayh (D-IN), Rockefeller (D-WV).

In reality, the Murkowski amendment was never going to become law.  It had very little chance of getting through the House, and even if it miraculously did, it would have met an Obama veto.  Everybody knew that, including Murkowski.  This was grandstanding.

Most people, even within the administration, don’t want the EPA to have to regulate carbon dioxide.  There is general agreement that Congress should be the body to address an issue as big as climate/energy.  Politically, this EPA action just puts a deadline on Congress…a much-needed deadline, as they have postponed this issue for decades.  It also manufactures a talking point for Glenn Beck et al. about Obama’s plan to take over the country.

Conservatives who oppose progress have concluded that delay and doubt are more successful strategies than full denial.  That’s why Republicans always call for “more research” and tell Democrats they need to “go back to the drawing board” whenever we actually try to tackle an issue.  You saw it for healthcare reform and you will see it again for climate.  It lets them pretend to care about the issue in general and claim to just have problems with the specific way that Democrats are doing it.

But, like healthcare and a host of other issues, climate change is a threat that has already been put off for too long.  We must act now if we are to have any chance of preventing this crisis.  Congress has had ample time to act on this issue.  At some point, enough is enough.  If legislators refuse to take action yet again, it is fully appropriate for the EPA to do so. In fact, they are obligated by law.

The Murkowski amendment was the first round of this year’s climate battle.  And it demonstrates what a tough fight we have ahead.

This was not a bill to regulate GHGs.  The implications were clear, but no specific proposals were included here.  There were no numbers to argue about, no regional winners and losers yet.  This was an argument about whether or not to pass a law at all.  And the actual amendment didn’t even go that far – it was basically just a congressional rejection of climate science.  And it nearly passed.

2010 Oil Spill Answers (Pt. 1) May 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Since the explosion on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, many people are trying to understand what happened.  Traffic to this page has spiked significantly because I recently wrote about the dangers and strong cases against offshore drilling in general.  But I have not yet addressed the current crisis.

This post and those to follow shortly will explain what has happened and is happening.  Below, you will find basic questions about this disaster and answers to them.  I will add additional questions and answers later today, but I want to get this out as soon as possible.  If any of you have additional questions, please add them as comments and I will try to address them.

These are the questions answered below:

  • What was the oil rig doing?
  • What caused the explosion?
  • How much oil is spilling?
  • Where is the oil spilling from?
  • Can we stop the spill?  How?
  • Could the spill get any worse?

What was the rig doing?

The oil rig in question was drilling an exploratory well called “Macondo” to see if that site could be used for large, commercial-scale production.  Signs were promising, and the attempt was soon to be labeled a success.  That has changed, but the site will definitely still make it into the history books.

This was a deepwater operation, even riskier than shallower “normal” offshore drilling, but at this point, the world’s oil companies have tapped all the easily accessible resources.  At that site, the ocean floor was nearly a mile beneath the surface.  The oil formation was another 3 miles underground.

What caused the explosion?

The exact causes have yet to be determined, but educated guesses can and have been made.  You may recall old time footage or photos of oil geysers shooting into the air after big oil finds in Texas.  Many oil formations are pressurized such that if a drill pierces the geological formation, the oil escapes under its own power.  This is a cheap way to get oil out of the ground since it comes up on its own.  Rigs like the iconic grasshopper oil derricks you may have seen around the country must be used if the pressure is not high enough.  For offshore drilling, the pressure is always high enough.

Anything that lies 4 miles beneath the surface of our planet exists at very high pressures.  To visualize this, imagine a huge, full water balloon encased in a block of cement.  Imagine that cement casing fits so tightly, that the balloon is squeezed beyond the bursting point but is unable to release its water because the cement is solid and there’s nowhere for the water to go.  Now imagine somebody drilled into the cement block.  When that drill pierced the chamber with the water balloon, that water would shoot back up through the tunnel the drill bored.  Depending on the pressure involved, it might do so explosively.

In the case of this oil rig, we are dealing with pressures that are hard to visualize.  What is less difficult to visualize is that instead of water, this rig had pierced a balloon full of highly combustible oil.  Furthermore, the company had been warned that this reservoir likely held pockets of volatile natural gas.

The exact cause is unknown, but we do know that in a matter of seconds, a huge blast of oil and gas shot up through the 4 miles of pipe and shot clear through the floor of the rig.  One spark lit all that fuel and suddenly the Deepwater Horizon was engulfed in a massive fireball. Drilling Ahead has a well informed and richly presented explanation of the ordeal those workers went through.

The state-of-the-art Deepwater Horizon rig goes up - and then down - in flames.

How much oil is spilling?

The ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is worsening at an exponential rate.  BP’s initial lowball figure (and likely lie) pegged the spill rate at 1000 barrels/day. 1 barrel = 42, gallons, so 1000 barrels/day = 42,000 gallons/day.  Government officials examined the data and quickly realized that the rate was more like 5,000 barrels/day (210,000 gallons).  Since then, the spill pattern suggests that the rate is increasing rapidly.  On May 1st, experts determined that the oil could be spilling at a rate of 25,000 barrels per day (1.05 million gal/day). Unfortunately, this is only the beginning and this catastrophe stands to get far, far worse (See “Could the spill get any worse?” below).

Where is the oil spilling from?

It appears that there are three leaks: 2 from the crumpled remains of the pipe that ran from the ocean floor to the rig at the surface, and one from the point on the ocean floor where the subsurface pipe connected to that pipe that rose through the water.  It is this third site that presents the greatest problem.

Where the pipe meets the ocean floor, there is a giant valve called a “blowout preventer.”  In the event of a gusher or other dangerous, high-pressure event, the valve clamps shut, protecting the rig.  It is built with many redundancies as the last line of defense against this very kind of event.  Somehow, that valve failed, and is still leaking a high volume of oil from the reservoir.

There are 2 efforts underway to stop the spill. One has failed; the other will take months. Image Credit: Times/Picayune

Can we stop the spill?  How?

This is the question that makes this situation so dire.  A crashed oil tanker like the Exxon Valdez has a limited amount of oil that can spill.  A tapped reservoir like this has massive amounts of oil to release – it is estimated that this block could contain as much as 100 million barrels (3.1 billion gallons).  As the diagram above demonstrates, there are 2 efforts underway to stop this spill.

1)   Remotely operated submarines are attempting to engage the blowout preventer.  So far, they have been unable to do so.

2)   Another rig has moved into place to build a “relief well.”  To do this, it must drill down to the ocean floor, through the 18,000 feet of sea floor, and then they will attempt to drill into the subsurface pipe laid by the original rig.  If they succeed in doing that, they can stop the oil flow.  But this could take 2-3 MONTHS.

3) A final approach is to build a kind of dome to place over the spill site to funnel the oil up where it can be collected.  This has only been tested in shallow water.  As oil companies and the rest of the world now know, deep water is a whole different ball game.

If the current estimates are correct (and don’t get worse), within 2 months this spill will dump 6 times as much oil as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.  In 3 months, there would be nearly 100,000,000 gallons of oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico, if not beyond.  And that’s assuming this spill rate doesn’t get continue to increase.

Could the spill get any worse?

Yes.  The blowout preventer isn’t closing like it is supposed to, but it is creating an artificial bottleneck and reducing the amount of oil that can escape at a time.  However, there is concern that behind that valve, the high pressure is circulating a mixture of water, hydrocarbons, and sand.  That sand is moving with considerable force and may be scouring the area behind the valve.  If a part of the valve or the support structure were to give way, the rate of the spill could increase by several orders of magnitude, experts say as much as 150,000 barrels/day (6.3 million gallons).  That would be an Exxon Valdez EVERY TWO DAYS.

More answers to come.  Check back later today and as this crisis develops.

Kill, baby, kill April 2, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***This post has become much more relevant since the BP oil spill began.  For a complete list of offshore drilling/oil spill questions and answers, click here.***

On Wednesday, President Obama unveiled a proposal to open vast swathes of American coastlines to new offshore drilling.  I have never opposed one of the President’s decisions more strongly than this, which makes sense because this move was made purely as a concession to congressional Republicans.  Conservatives would have you believe that science is a political debate, but there are some things that just cannot be spun.  Offshore drilling is one of them.

Below, I will demonstrate that there is literally no good reason to increase our offshore drilling.  Not one.  …Unless you’re an oil company.

Domestic drilling CANNOT lower oil or gas prices. Just last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) analyzed what would happen if we fully opened our coasts to offshore drilling.  Their conclusion: by 2020, gas prices remain unchanged. By 2030, US gas prices would be $0.03/gallon lower. That’s it.  And it’s easy to see why:

We just don’t have enough oil to make a difference. We, the US, represent 25% of world oil demand and <3% of the world’s supply.  The price of oil, as a global commodity, is determined on the global market.  We produce so little of the global supply that we simply can’t affect prices from the supply side. The only exception to this is when regional refining capabilities are temporarily decreased (as in the wake of hurricanes), but this scenario can only raise local prices above the global market price, not lower them.  Additionally, since OPEC is a cartel, even if we were miraculously able to significantly affect prices, OPEC could simply reduce their supply to negate that effect.

We don't have enough oil to drill our way out of this problem.

As of 2009, the US consumed approximately about 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. So even in a recession, we use roughly 8 billion barrels of oil per year.  According to the EIA, the federal drilling moratorium only blocked drilling for 18.17 billion barrels of offshore oil (a little over 2 year’s worth) out of an estimated 59.09 billion barrels offshore in the Lower 48 states, with most of that unavailable oil off of California, which is wisely united in bipartisan support against offshore drilling.

Oil companies already have access to about 34 billion barrels of offshore oil that they have yet to develop. When you take into account realistic production rates, the fact that this oil would have to be extracted over the course of many decades and the scope of the current proposal, we are talking about displacing from imports just 1-1.5% of our annual consumption.  That DOES NOT make us more energy independent or secure.

Offshore drilling is still a dirty, dangerous risk. Just last year, an oil rig off the northwestern coast of Australia sprung a leak that couldn’t be plugged for nearly 3 months.  An estimated 9 million gallons spilled into the ocean, covering more than 9,000 square miles of ocean. The drilling rig and platform in question were all the newest technology, having been built in the last 3 years, and they caused a spill nearly as large as Exxon Valdez.  Offshore drilling poses a grave threat to our nation’s beaches, oceans and wildlife.  Not to mention billions of dollars and millions of jobs in sustainable tourism and fishing industries along the nation’s coasts.  We risk so much to obtain so little.

This is the new, modern oil rig that spilled oil for almost 3 months just last year, causing an oil spill big enough to be seen from space. And this exact thing could happen off of any of our beaches here in the U.S.

Drilling is a long-term proposition. Any politician who touts offshore drilling as an immediate fix for gas prices (or anything, for that matter) is flat out lying to you.  Even if we opened the continental shelf and/or ANWR tomorrow, oil wouldn’t begin to flow for at least 10 years, and maximum production wouldn’t be achieved before 2027. Only THEN could we get our prices lowered by mere cents per gallon.

“American” oil doesn’t help America. We don’t have nationalized oil companies. In many other countries, oil companies are government-run.  A country taps its own resources and distributes them as the government sees fit.  That, for better or for worse, does not happen here.  “Our” oil companies are huge, privately owned companies that span the globe and act solely in the interest of their stockholders.  It is true that freeing ourselves from our dependence upon unstable, unfriendly countries for their oil would be better for America.  But offshore drilling does almost nothing to accomplish this.

Industry front groups try to set up cost-benefit analyses to show us how much money we save/earn by drilling domestically, but the American people (who do not own stock in Exxon) don’t benefit from US oil company profits.  We still pay the same money for the same gas.  I’m not endorsing foreign oil, I’m just saying that US oil companies are not our saviors or even our friends.  They are just companies trying to make as much money as they can.

And just for the record, oil companies already have access to about 34 billion barrels of offshore oil that they have yet to seriously develop.

“All of the Above” is not a solution. Whether we’re talking about federal dollars or private investment, money is limited.  Every dollar spent on a needlessly dangerous and unsustainable fuel source like oil could be more efficiently and effectively spent on renewable energy for our future.

So why did Obama do it? On the surface, the political calculus is there: combined with his recent concession on nuclear power, offering conservatives another of their major energy objectives could pave the way for a comprehensive climate/energy bill.  But this really doesn’t do it for me.  Only a handful of Republicans were “in play” for climate change anyways, and this doesn’t appear to have convinced anyone else.  Indeed, most congressional Republicans angrily panned the plan as “job killing” because it doesn’t jeopardize every last beach in America.  The most moderate Republicans offered only tepid praise for the plan as “a good first step.”  It has been suggested that this centrist tack removes this issue from the upcoming midterm elections amidst the inevitable higher gas prices of summer, but as long as any coast remains protected, I think that talking point remains (and John Boehner clearly agrees).  I really don’t have a good explanation for this.

Sen. Lautenberg put a more accurate spin on the omnipresent conservative mantra proposed by the President today: “kill, baby, kill,” because offshore drilling threatens not only marine wildlife but also coastal economies and jobs that rely on clean beaches and healthy oceans.   The day after this unfortunate announcement, the President released his long anticipated tougher gas mileage standards for cars.  This move will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the program.  That’s 1.8 billion barrels of oil we don’t have to drill for or buy, and we can achieve these savings without sacrificing the Chesapeake Bay, North Carolina’s gorgeous Outer Banks, or that beach you go to that you love so much.  These are the solutions we need.  Drilling just isn’t the answer.

This graphic shows the new areas that would be open to drilling in President Obama's new proposal.

One final point worth mentioning:

Big Oil profits from our suffering. With soaring gas prices in recent years, the oil companies have been posting record profits while the American public has struggled.  The fanatical support oil companies enjoy from the rank and file Republican is sadly ironic as these companies profit at the expense of regular people.  While they do contribute handsomely to campaigns, these companies do nothing for the everyday conservatives who champion their cause.  It really is a testament to the expertise with which the GOP and industry advertising/lobbyists manipulate the public.  And to add insult to injury, the Big 5 are spending most of their profits on buying back their own stock.  They are spending under 4% of their profits on exploration for new oil and even less on research and development.

This makes me pretty angry, but I’ve had people tell me “well, they’re private companies making a profit.  Good for them.”  Just because I am a Democrat does not mean I automatically begrudge businesses for their success.  This is different for one fundamental reason: the oil industry is very heavily subsidized.  Oil companies receive millions and millions of taxpayer dollars and tax breaks each year.  If they are going to continue to be supported by the American people, they must act on our behalf.  Their expenditures clearly indicate that they do not.