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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.  

Ok, GOP, Let’s Talk About Compromise November 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Politics.
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I made the mistake of turning on the TV this morning.  Ms. Generic Correspondent was interviewing triumphant supporters from John Boehner’s district in Ohio about what their win means for America.  What I heard floored me.  This was live and I was too stunned to think to record it, so I’m paraphrasing:

OHIO RESIDENT:  “For the last 2 years, it’s been Obama’s way or the highway.  Finally we’ll get some compromise in this country.”

REPORTER: “You really think this election will result in more compromise?”

OHIO RESIDENT: “Yup.  That’s what this election said to Congress.  It’s time for Democrats to actually work with Republicans now.”

For starters, we really need to set the record straight on the alleged liberalism of Obama’s first two years.  He embraced tax cuts and offshore drilling and punted on much of the liberal agenda.  There’s a reason the base didn’t come out to support Democrats yesterday, and it’s not because we went too far.  More on this later.

Back to Boehner’s band of merry [white] men, this was not an isolated incident.  Most of the guys that were interviewed in this segment spoke about compromise.  What’s wrong with a conciliatory post-victory tone?  It’s a disingenuous 180-degree reversal.  Sure, one district’s Kool-Aid could go bad, but Boehner’s?  That’s bizarre.

Just last week, in Boehner’s own words:

“Now is not a time for compromise, and I can tell you we will not compromise on our principles.”

And you want to tell Democrats about misinterpreting a mandate?  Please.

I know conservative activists only listen to their Fox News echo chamber, but surely they must at least listen to their candidate when he’s on Fox News! Especially when that man is now a glowing beacon in the House of Representatives, piercing the darkness to guide them through.… ok, I don’t have an end to this metaphor – the man is orange.

The point is, the next two years will be nothing but gridlock.  Congressional Republicans have come right out and said that their single highest legislative priority is making sure Obama doesn’t get reelected.

That means the only “compromise” they will propose or accept is the kind that makes Obama less appealing to his base.  They will advance nothing that doesn’t detract from Obama’s re-electability.  House Republicanswill reach across the aisle, but they will extend a sword, not their empty hands; they will allow Obama to move forward only by pulling himself up their blade towards the hilt.

With this strategy in place, let me assure you, compromise is dead.  Conservatives hijacked the contemporary narrative, but in retrospect we will see that Obama briefly attempted centrist bipartisanship – and it failed.  Liberals were unsatisfied and conservatives either feigned or successfully deluded themselves into their trusty partisan outrage.

Obama’s attempt at compromise was unilateral disarmament, and the GOP hit with everything it had the moment he let down his shield.  Clearly, that was good short-term electoral strategy.  Obama had hoped that Americans would appreciate this effort to transcend partisan politics.  That did not happen.

So yesterday, the GOP won big.  But conservatives, don’t you dare for a second claim to have the moral high ground and make false overtures of cooperation.  That’s not what’s going to happen and it’s not even what you want.  You wanted gridlock and now you’ve got it.  Congratulations.

Now own it.  Or as your mercifully endangered Mama Grizzlies would say, “Man Up.”

President Obama Killed Bipartisanship September 20, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
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President Obama campaigned on bipartisanship.  We wanted a change, so he chose not to investigate the partisan excesses and likely transgressions of the Bush administration; he unhinged the pendulum and just laid it on the ground.  Instead of overcorrecting in the other direction, he tried to start anew as a united nation.  America was ready to move forward.  The Republican Party was not.

Ideally, in our two party system, each governing party has a different plan to move America forward.  When problems arise, Democrats propose to move forward slanting to the left, Republicans propose to move forward slanting to the right, and when they finally come together and compromise on necessary legislation, we as a country end up simply moving forward and addressing the problem (see graphic below).

It’s a little messier in practice.  Because one party controls the White House at a time and Congress is rarely evenly split, final legislation generally skews towards the ruling party rather than perfectly straddling the center.  It must also be mentioned that sometimes there is a right and a wrong answer.  And on a related note, a political compromise that pleases both parties is not ipso facto good policy: for example, the stimulus package contained both Democratic spending projects and tax breaks that Republicans would normally support, but it was not enough to promote a strong recovery.

Bipartisanship is not always the solution, but it is an important concept in a democratic republic like ours.  And President Obama bears some responsibility for its contemporary demise.  Although he acted with good intentions, his transcendent quest to achieve bipartisanship ironically doomed itself with partisan politics.

Had Republicans shared this bipartisan vision, Obama’s plan could well have succeeded.  Alas, insert two-way street aphorism here.

At the most basic level, in a two party political system, one party’s success is the other party’s failure.  The converse is equally true.  Again, ideally, a shared desire to address a crisis creates some middle ground for bipartisan compromise.  Yet a hyperpartisan mindset obliterates that middle ground.  Under current Senate rules that allow what should really be called a 41-member “superminority” to obstruct Congressional action, lawmaking grinds to a halt.  Problems progress, but legislation languishes.

Compromise Graphic

When both parties want to address a problem facing America, there is often (but not always) a middle path. When at least one party chooses to pursue political advantage at the expense of our nation’s well-being, compromise becomes impossible.

With surging unemployment and an anemic recovery, Republicans concluded that the painful status quo benefitted them.  They did not want to move forward.  Indeed, they were rooting against America because both America’s failures would be blamed upon the Democratic majority and administration and pay political dividends.  Sadly, in our toxic political climate, you do not earn points for bipartisan assists; all that matters is the score, Republicans vs. Democrats.

Yet Republicans initiated this confrontational scenario, so that much cannot be blamed on President Obama.  There is another variable that can.

Because Obama campaigned on bipartisanship, that middle compromise space between a Democratic policy and a Republican policy turned blue.  In that binary hyperpartisan world, cooperation became a win for Democrats and a loss for Republicans.  So via obstructionism, the GOP could now play legislative defense and political offense simultaneously.

Compromise Graphic2

Because Obama ran on bipartisanship, it had the effect of making bipartisanship a victory for him, and thus Democrats.  Therefore, it dragged the middle ground of what would be a “win” for both parties further to the right.

Of course this tactic held our country hostage and prolonged American suffering in the process.   Unfortunately, overly balanced media coverage combined with admittedly effective GOP spin (having your own network helps) enabled conservatives to pull off this maneuver without being called out for it.

So Republicans holed up.  Elected lawmakers became fulltime law-stoppers, particularly in the Senate.  They voted against a stimulus package that was watered down on their behalf and full of conservative tax breaks.  They opposed an oil spill/clean energy jobs bill that contained entire sections unanimously approved by bipartisan committees and even cosponsored by Republicans.  The conservative caucus is united in lockstep against anything the Democrats attempt to accomplish, no matter how reasonable or nonpartisan the measure may be.

Even though Obama appears to have been sincere in his hope to work together in moderation (as demonstrated by his history of making compromises that please nobody), his plan for bipartisanship backfired because Republicans continued to operate from a hyperpartisan perspective.  Obama said he would end the mud-slinging; conservatives have defeated him simply by continuing to wallow.

In the meantime, the Democratic Party has wasted two years.

Republicans have triumphed at America’s expense.  Unless current electoral indicators are drastically mistaken, they will benefit handsomely from this strategy in November.  I am concerned about that outcome, but far more displeased with the precedent this could set for our country.

The Political Climate is now on Twitter!  Follow @PoliticalClimat for updates as well as daily tweets linking to important and under-reported environmental news.

Public Ignorance Polls August 23, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Media, Politics.
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News consumers are subjected to a daily deluge of polling data. Unfortunately, like much of today’s media coverage, this information is not leaving us better informed.

A conventional issue-specific opinion poll offers a choice between two valid responses.  For example, “Do you approve of the death penalty?”  This is an appropriate poll.  There is no right or wrong answer; there are substantive arguments to support both positions, and the poll attempts to gauge public support for a controversial policy that is directly relevant to our nation’s governance.

A regrettable distinction can be made between a prototypical public opinion poll such as that and the frivolous politically-charged polls we see more and more today.  I’m referring to polls such as, “Is Obama a Muslim?”

This question has a wrong answer.  The responses are not equally valid.  Such polls do not measure public opinion, they measure public ignorance.  Worse, they measure the successful pervasion of partisan misinformation.

These polls are everywhere, and the results are always shameful:

What angers me most about these polls is that the phrase “believe in” really means “understand that.”  These aren’t questions of choice.  There is only one right answer.  It’s indisputable.

The respondents in these three polls didn’t express their opinions, they betrayed their ignorance.  And that ignorance is not the innocent absence of education, it’s the sinister product of deliberate misinformation spread by well-funded special interests (for the polls above, evangelicals, big polluters and conservatives respectively…forgive the fuzzy boundaries between them).

Now, I am not saying that ignorance should be prosecuted like some Orwellian thoughtcrime.  To me, all these polls really show is that the media are failing. True, propagandists and politicians breathe life into these stories, but journalists are the ones who perpetuate this nonsense.

In the new era of “fairness and balance,” the media think they have to report every claim a partisan commentator makes without remarking on its truthfulness – because that would be “unbalanced.”  Think of birtherism, Obama’s supposed socialism, death panels…all these manufactured scandals started as baseless comments reported by the media without question merely because a partisan spoke them.  Apparently transcribing a press release or interview is now where a journalist’s obligation ends: We accuse, you decide.

Yet opposition does not confer equivalency.  Just because there are two sides to a story does not mean they’re necessarily equal.  For a journalist to automatically report them as such is misleading.

When a Wisconsin senate candidate says climate science is wrong and gives a scientifically disproven alternative “explanation,” it’s not partisan to say he’s lying – it’s accurate.  In fact, to merely parrot those proven lies isn’t balance, it’s active disinformation.

Real public opinion polls have obvious political value for politicians and advocates etc.  But what do public ignorance polls contribute to society?  Nothing.  They just validate the misconceptions they seek to quantify by presenting them on equal footing with actual facts.  This is another manifestation of the “bias of balance” in modern media coverage.

With one notable exception, today’s major media outlets are not trying to disseminate falsehoods, but they are succeeding nonetheless.  As long as we allow balance to trump accuracy in journalism, this type of ignorance will not only persist but continue to spread.

Back to the FutureGen: Obama Revives Coal Plant August 16, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Politics.
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Earlier this month, the Obama administration awarded $1 billion to revive FutureGen, a commercial-scale advanced coal power demonstration plant that was both proposed and killed during the Bush administration. As a coal-state senator, Obama has long supported projects such as this, and this funding is consistent with promises made on the campaign trail.  The resurrected project has been dubbed FutureGen 2.0.

Originally announced in 2003, FutureGen was intended to combine and test a number of different advanced coal technologies* (explained at the bottom of this post for those who are interested).

An artist's rendition of the FutureGen coal plant.

The most anticipated technology to be tested at  this plant was the underground storage of carbon dioxide emissions, known as Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), the subject of an entire previous post.  This technology could theoretically allow us to burn coal without releasing greenhouse gases.

If coal is to have any real future, it will be completely reliant upon some form of CCS technology; without it, “clean coal” does not exist and coal will not be able to compete with other energy sources if/when any kind of price or limit is established on carbon pollution*.  So coal companies have a prominent stake in this project.

It makes sense, then, that this project was a joint venture between the federal government and a corporate consortium called the FutureGen Industrial Alliance Inc.  Alliance members include major coal companies from both the United States and around the world; as I said, the future of coal power depends upon the development of CCS technology**.

The project was originally planned to cost $950 million, but expected costs continually rose.  After five years, in January 2008, the Bush administration cancelled funding for FutureGen largely because the expected cost had ballooned to $1.8 billion (with the government on the hook for a much larger share than the private sector**).

Interestingly, it was reported in 2009 that the Energy Department had made a $500 million accounting error in projecting those increased costs; the price tag had indeed gone up, but it had not actually doubled.  This adds another layer of intrigue to the already curious circumstances of the project’s first death.

Cost was the stated reason for cancelling FutureGen, but there were other plausible motives.  A number of states actively pursued the investment and jobs that FutureGen would create.  The final four potential sites were split evenly between Illinois and Texas.  Just three weeks before our nation’s most prominent Texan killed FutureGen, Mattoon, Illinois was selected as the future home of FutureGen.

So when the funding disappeared, the Illinois delegation immediately accused Bush and his Secretary of Energy of having ulterior motives.  And the accusations weren’t beyond belief, especially given the deceitful manner in which the funding was withdrawn: the administration announced its intention to pull the plug literally the day after President Bush highlighted federal investment in advanced coal technology during his State of the Union address.  Political promises are often broken, but not often within the first 24 hours.

Yet after all that effort to bring FutureGen to Mattoon, the Illinois town pulled out of the project last week.  Their decision makes some sense.

FutureGen 2.0 is notably different from its predecessor; instead of building a completely new plant, the new plan is to retrofit a currently mothballed coal plant 150 miles away in Meredosia, Illinois.  Mattoon was still a key player in the new plan, however: the town boasts one of the country’s most ideal geological formations to store carbon dioxide underground.  FutureGen 2.0 planned to store carbon dioxide beneath Mattoon via a pipeline from Meredosia.

As I have previously described, if CO2 were to leak out from an underground reservoir, the denser CO2 can displace all the oxygen near the ground and smother any living thing above. It has happened before.  A particular geological formation might be structurally sound and contain CO2 for now, but we are not talking about short-term storage, and geology is not permanent.  Mattoon residents were reminded of this just 6 months ago.

The Midwest is not commonly known for its earthquake activity, but Mattoon is just 100 miles from the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone.  On February 11 of this year, a 3.8-magnitude earthquake shook southern Illinois.  And in 2008, a 5.2-magnitude quake was centered 200 miles from Mattoon.

To make matters worse, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the nearby New Madrid Seismic Zone has a 90% chance of a magnitude 6 or 7 quake in the next 50 years.

Nearby seismic zones and the locations of earthquakes magnitude 2.5 or greater.

I’m not a geologist, but that worries me a little.  If I lived in Mattoon, I wouldn’t find the prospect of carbon storage in my back yard very attractive without $1 billion in investments either.

But other towns are already lining up to take Mattoon’s spot, and lawmakers from my native Illinois are doing everything they can to keep this project close to home.  FutureGen 2.0 is very much alive.


* FutureGen Technologies:

FutureGen is planned to be an “Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle” plant (aka IGCC).   Coal gasification is a process that breaks down coal into its chemical components and produces, among other things, a cleaner-burning gas that no longer contains many of the pollutants in coal.  Another product is hydrogen, and this plant is supposed to test the commercial viability of creating fuel hydrogen from coal.

The “Combined Cycle” refers to a more efficient design that uses two turbines to generate power instead of just one: the primary turbine is powered by that gasified coal, but a secondary steam turbine generates extra electricity from all the heat generated by the gasification process and primary generation.

In a traditional power plant (and the vast majority of industrial facilities around the world), vast quantities of heat are produced and wasted.  That heat could be used to generate electricity or heat facilities or water.  Anyone interested in more on this should look up “Combined Heat and Power” aka “Cogeneration.”

Additionally, FutureGen is designed to demonstrate oxy-combustion technology that produces a more manageable stream of carbon dioxide that is better suited for storage.

** Funding FutureGen:

America today is undeniably dependent upon coal power.  Carbon-free coal would certainly be in our national interest.  It would be a boon.  However, the coal industry, for obvious reasons, is entirely dependent upon coal power for its survival.  America can survive without coal; the coal industry cannot.  For that reason, it has always rubbed me the wrong way that the Department of Energy agreed to provide nearly three quarters of the funding for FutureGen, with industry exposure limited to just $400 million – to fund their own survival.  Why taxpayers should pay so that a polluting industry can have a future is beyond me.

It is also worth noting that according to a report released late last week by a CCS Task Force established by President Obama, the key barrier to CCS deployment is the lack of comprehensive climate change legislation. So coal companies are both taking taxpayer money to fund their only chance for a future and spending their own money to fight against that very same future.

Deeply Flawed Ruling Overturns Deepwater Drilling Moratorium June 24, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***UPDATE: Rachel Maddow has reported more information about Judge Feldman’s oil-related investments here.***

On Tuesday, Judge Martin Feldman granted a preliminary injunction brought by the oil industry against the Obama Administration’s 6-month moratorium on floating offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  That ruling lifts the drilling ban.

First of all, it is significant that Judge Feldman has reported extensive investments in the oil industry including both Halliburton and Transocean. Shockingly enough, his ruling does not read like it was penned by an impartial arbiter.  He uses phrases like “the government admits that the industry provides relatively high paying jobs” (p. 5-6).  Like that has anything to do with the safety of offshore drilling.

In describing the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Feldman even uses the exact same analogy trotted out by conservative pundits; “Are all airplanes a danger because one was?” (p. 19).  He also adds a few more analogies, including my personal favorite: “[Are] all tankers like Exxon Valdez?” (p. 19).  YES, FELDMAN, ALL THE SINGLE-HULLED TANKERS IN THE WORLD ARE JUST LIKE EXXON VALDEZ.  That’s why we’ve switched [embarrassingly slowly] to using double-hulled tankers!

Judge Martin Feldman. One of the 37 out of 64 active or senior judges in key Gulf Coast districts that have ties to the oil and gas industries.

Having read Feldman’s 22-page ruling, I am less than compelled by his arguments.

As I explained in my earlier defense of the moratorium, the logic for temporarily suspending deepwater drilling operations is very clear:

-Fact: We do not yet know what caused the blowout that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig.

-Fact: We do not have adequate prevention or containment methods for a deepwater blowout, so a massive oil spill is guaranteed if a blowout occurs.

-Fact: A massive oil spill is unacceptably destructive.

-Conclusion: Deepwater drilling must be halted AT LEAST until we know how to prevent and/or recover from deepwater blowouts.

Nobody has presented a counterargument to this logic.  This ruling does not contain one.  I don’t believe that one exists.

The oil industry and indeed Judge Feldman argue that the moratorium is a punitive action against innocent oil workers and that it would cause excessive job loss.  This is false.   Judge Feldman writes:

“Oil and gas production is quite simply elemental to Gulf communities” (p. 6).

As nice as that non sequitur would look on an oil billboard, all that says is that these communities need to diversify.

Employment has nothing to do with the justification for this moratorium. Even if it did, I have shown that blowouts such as this cause far more job loss in sustainable industries such as fishing and tourism than the moratorium would temporarily cost the drilling industry.

I find further faults in Judge Feldman’s ruling.

From a legal perspective, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act instructs the Secretary of the Interior to prescribe regulations,

“for the suspension or temporary prohibition of any operation or activity, including production…if there is a threat of serious, irreparable, or immediate harm or damage to life (including fish and other aquatic life), to property, to any mineral deposits (in areas leased or not leased), or to the marine, coastal, or human environment.” (p. 7-8).

This oil spill meets EVERY ONE of these conditions, ANY ONE of which justifies a moratorium.

Now, that same piece of legislation also preserves the right of any person “having a valid legal interest which is or may be adversely affected” by such regulations to sue to stop them (p. 8).  But those adversely affected workers do not make our oil rigs any safer or in any way reduce the threat that validates the moratorium.  If they have suffered financial burdens, make BP and friends compensate them.  Case closed.

The Administrative Procedure Act cautions that an agency action may only be overturned if it is “arbitrary” and “capricious”.  Lo and behold, Judge Feldman found this moratorium both arbitrary and capricious.

This moratorium is anything but arbitrary and whimsically impulsive.

Feldman contends that the government did not examine alternatives to the moratorium.  But until we know what caused the spill, there is no other effective preventative measure than not drilling (aside from blindly hoping it doesn’t happen again before we figure out what happened, but that’s not what I consider “effective”).

Feldman explains his ruling with the contention that the MMS report outlining the proposed drilling reforms “makes no effort to explicitly justify the moratorium: it does not discuss any irreparable harm that would warrant a suspension of operations” (p. 4).  Seriously Feldman?  Are you joking?  Have you read the news in the last two months?  You live in Louisiana for crying out loud.  Oh! I know, check the performance of your oil stocks.  Notice anything different?  Ya, something big happened.  It has consequences.

Feldman goes on to condescendingly demonstrate Secretary Salazar’s “pattern” of implying the catastrophic effects of deepwater drilling without explicitly stating them.

Instead of explaining the most convincingly implied point I have ever come across, I will take this moment to explicitly proclaim Judge Bubby Boy either decidedly dim or of integrity as oily and compromised as a deepwater blowout preventer.  Take your pick.

The points of contention continue.

Feldman repeatedly refers to the Administration’s “blanket” moratorium on offshore drilling.  If you’ve been following the oil spill, you may recall an earlier “mini-scandal” when the moratorium was announced: Secretary Salazar assembled a panel of experts to review the proposed safety reforms.  Those experts approved  – among many other reforms – a six-month moratorium on exploratory wells deeper than 1000 feet.  The final report proposed a six-month moratorium on exploratory wells deeper than 500 feet.  Everyone freaked out about DOI’s “blatant misrepresentation” of the experts’ recommendations (of which the moratorium was a small fraction).

Now, aside from sounding so far from impartial as to seem personally offended by these events, Judge Feldman wrote:

“[Eight of the experts] have publicly stated that they “do not agree with the six month blanket moratorium” on floating drilling.  They envisioned a more limited kind of moratorium, but a blanket moratorium was added after their final review, they complain, and was never agreed to by them.  A factor that might cause some apprehension about the probity of the process that led to the Report.” (p. 3)

First off all, that last sentence sounds like the script for a Fox News anchor.  My complaint here is for those experts that oppose the moratorium as well: just what kind of moratorium would you propose?  500 feet is the switchpoint between rigs that rest on the ocean floor and floating rigs.  That is, in Judge Feldman’s own words, “undisputed” (p. 18).

The oil industry (in this case, including Judge Feldman) isn’t angry that the Department of the Interior changed the moratorium depth by 500 feet.  They’re angry that it was implemented at all.  People talk about this “blanket moratorium” as if Obama tried to stop all offshore drilling.  In fact, he attempted to do nothing of the sort.

Feldman writes that he “is unable to divine or fathom a relationship between the findings and the immense scope of the moratorium” (p. 17).  Recurring oil spill delusion aside, “immense scope?”  Let’s look at what we’re talking about here.

The term “blanket” moratorium by itself is misleading.  The moratorium applied only to floating oil rigs drilling exploratory wells in depths deeper than 500 ft.  Existing production at those depths continued unaffected.  Shallower offshore drilling (the vast majority of offshore drilling) was unaffected.  The moratorium only applied to 33 oil rigs out of the ~4500 currently drilling in the Gulf!

How much more limited could the moratorium get? Should it only apply to deepwater wells owned by BP?  Only deepwater wells cemented by Halliburton? Only deepwater wells operated by Transocean rigs?  How about only those deepwater rigs that are about to explode and sink?

WE DON’T KNOW WHAT CAUSED THE BLOWOUT; how could we possibly refine the moratorium further? “Immense scale?”  This is the loosest-weave “blanket” moratorium in history.

Judge Feldman himself wrote that, “It is well settled that “preliminary injunction is an extraordinary that should not be granted unless the party seeking it has clearly carried the burden of persuasion” (p. 13).  That has not happened.  Yet Judge Feldman today rejected the government’s appeal to his Tuesday ruling. In doing so, he refused to delay his lifting of the drilling moratorium.    Why? For “the same reasons” given in his prior ruling. God bless America.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

An Appropriately Politicized Oil Spill June 16, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Republicans are accusing President Obama of politicizing this oil spill.  They say that he is unfairly pushing his energy agenda instead of solving this Gulf Coast tragedy.  They are wrong.

Obama recently addressed the nation about the oil spill in a speech from the Oval Office.  Even before he gave that speech, Republicans offered a preemptive rebuttal. House minority leader John Boehner (R-OH) released a statement entitled:

“President Obama Should Not Use Oil Spill Crisis To Push for Job-Killing Nat’l Energy Tax”

Mike Pence (R-IN) explained it from another angle:

“The American People Don’t Want This Administration to Exploit the Crisis in the Gulf to Advance Their Disastrous Energy Policies”

First of all, both of those titles and the press releases themselves are loaded with politicized spin and focus group-tested buzzwords.  Way to depoliticize the oil spill, Republicans!  Leading by example, as usual.

Secondly, I would ask Mr. Pence to look at the Gulf and tell me whose energy policies are really disastrous – Republicans’ or Democrats’?

Republican criticisms miss their mark because the ongoing oil spill is intimately tied to energy reform. It makes both political and logical sense to connect the two.  Even factors you might think are separate are closely related.

For example, retrofitting 75,000 houses would save as much energy – each year – as has spilled into the Gulf since the spill began (maybe a bit less, I don’t know what estimate this calculation used).  And the home efficiency legislation (“Home Star”) that recently passed in the House is expected to retrofit 3.3 million homes.  If our cars were electric instead of gas-powered, those energy savings could replace our gas usage and we wouldn’t even have needed the oil that is now gushing into the Gulf.

Republicans are complaining because right now because the American public is actually demanding change, and that conflicts with the Republican status quo agenda (see stats in final paragraph).

Those who charge Obama with exploiting this disaster for pure political gain are misrepresenting the situation.  Political exploitation would involve only a tangential, non-casual relationship between the initiating disaster and the proposed response – in other words, if the proposed policy did not actually address the event or prevent it from happening again.

For example, political exploitation would be an appropriate accusation if a president attempted to ban wind power after a hurricane or tornado.  The connection is tenuous and the solution doesn’t prevent the problem.  That is not what’s happening here.

People keep drawing parallels between Hurricane Katrina and this oil spill, but there is a fundamental difference between the two: Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster; the BP oil spill is a manmade disaster in nature.  People caused it.  And people can keep it from happening again.  (The same is obviously not true of hurricanes.)

Hurricanes do not deserve a legislative response.  A preventable, manmade disaster of this magnitude most definitely does.

Cheap oil fuels the American life as we know it today.  It is our ravenous consumption of petroleum products that drives oil companies to drill ultra-deepwater wells.   As we continue to deplete the world’s cheaper, more accessible oil reserves, more dangerous, expensive drilling is the only option.

Yes, BP’s careless corner-cutting and deplorable disregard for safety caused this spill, but they would not be drilling there if we didn’t demand oil so greatly.

So when the President advances a plan to wean America off of its oil addiction, it is not opportunism or political exploitation, it is literally the appropriate response to this catastrophe.  The only way to completely eliminate the threat of another blowout is to stop the drilling altogether.  And the best way to do that is to end our addiction to oil.

Climate/energy bills, such as that passed by the House last year and the one expected in the Senate soon, essentially seek to accomplish 3 goals:

  1. Put a price on carbon dioxide emissions.
  2. Spur aggressive investment in renewable energy technologies.
  3. Increase our energy security/independence.

Oil is related to all three goals – negatively.

Greenhouse gas  (GHG) emissions, such as carbon dioxide, are what is known in public policy as a “negative externality.”  They are an additional cost that is not reflected in the actual price of a good.  Oil today is bought and sold at prices that do not reflect the damage that GHG emissions cause.  (A “positive externality” would be something like the pleasant smell wafting out of a chocolate factory, for which the company is not compensated for providing.)

Putting a price on carbon will enable the oil market to function more properly because the price of oil will be more accurate (this process is known as “internalizing” the externality).  For all their chest-beating about the “free market,” conservatives have done much to stifle the freedom of energy markets.

The only reason oil is so cheap today is because it is massively subsidized.  Fossil fuel industries benefit from $550 BILLON EACH YEAR in tax breaks and government subsidies.  These subsidies keep prices artificially low.

Our country grows incensed at $4 gas.  Did you know that gasoline costs well over $6/gal in many European countries?  That’s not because it’s harder to get gas there.  America would be in shambles at those prices today.  This is a serious vulnerability.  And as long as those prices remain so low, they stifle investment in newer, cleaner, renewable sources of energy, and ensure that continue to remain vulnerable to, and dependent upon, oil.

To become energy secure, we must free ourselves from our reliance upon oil.  The U.S. passed its oil production peak in 1970, and as we continue to literally run out of American oil, the distinction between “foreign oil” and “oil” will necessarily blur.  It is impossible for us to drill our way to energy independence, because we account for 20% of the world’s oil consumption but have just 2% of its remaining supply.

New drilling won't make us more secure. Only using less oil can do that.

Coal is not an option because of the horrendously large amount of pollution it produces and its outsized contributions to climate change.  Nuclear energy will be the topic of a different post, but will not be our silver bullet.  The only energy sources that can power our country for generations to come are renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal.  We must invest in their research, development, and deployment as quickly as humanly possible.

This is what the President proposes, and it is indeed what we must do.  It was the right decision before this oil spill, and it remains the right decision during/after it.

Crises are political opportunities.  That is a fact.  In such moments, the public demands action, and leaders enjoy leniency not afforded to them under normal circumstances.  It is true that leaders have abused these powers in the past: Julius Caesar and Hitler come to mind, and George W. Bush used an attack by a nation-less terrorist group to invade an arbitrary country.

But this is not one of those situations.  It is undeniably an opportunity to advance the long-stalled energy agenda, but doing so is a proper and responsible course of action in response to this oil spill.

To exploit this crisis to resurrect his climate change legislation is just wrong.” –Mike Pence (R-IN).

Fighting climate change and reducing our oil dependence are two sides of the same coin.  Doing one accomplishes the other.  To reform our energy policy right now without addressing climate would be criminally negligent.

There has been a flurry of energy polling in the wake of the oil spill:

  • 87% of Americans favor comprehensive energy legislation that encourages renewable energy sources.
  • 76% of Americans support regulating carbons dioxide as a pollutant.
  • 69% of Americans think that the US should make a large- or medium-scale effort to reduce global warming even if it incurs large or moderate economic costs.

Tell me, Republicans, who is defying the will of the people?

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

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Politics.
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4 comments

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.

Why the Drilling Moratorium Makes Sense June 9, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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6 comments

-Fact: We do not yet know what caused the blowout that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig.

-Fact: We do not have adequate prevention or containment methods for a deepwater blowout, so a massive oil spill is guaranteed if a blowout occurs.

-Fact: A massive oil spill is unacceptably destructive.

-Conclusion: Deepwater drilling must be halted AT LEAST until we know how to prevent and/or recover from deepwater blowouts.

We have instituted a 6-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in this country.  Makes sense, right?  Well politics take no heed of logic, and this drilling moratorium has plenty of critics, many of whom live right on the Gulf Coast:

“…the administration’s deepwater moratorium is a major mistake. Simply put, it will cost us more jobs and economic devastation than the oil spill itself.” -Sen. David Vitter (R-LA).

No, David, it won’t (read on for proof).

Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp., one of the world’s largest independent oil exploration and production companies, announced that it is closing 3 of its exploratory wells in the Gulf and moving the rigs to drill elsewhere.  Other companies are following suit.  And that is strengthening the moratorium critics.

You read that correctly: Oil companies are successfully creating political leverage against the moratorium on the oil industry.  And their political contributions are paying off.

Oil state politicians are attempting rhetorical acrobatics as they decry the oil spill and renounce the drilling moratorium in the same breath.  I would say they were walking a fine line if such a line existed, but one cannot rationally rail against and advocate for the same industry simultaneously.

That being said, here are their arguments:

“Shutting down the outer continental shelf, all that’s going to do is raise energy prices and cost American jobs,” Rep. Joe Barton* (R-TX).

*Barton is quite possibly the most scientifically challenged member of our legislature now that Ted “Internet = A Series of Tubes” Stevens has…“retired.”

The last thing we need is to enact public policies that will certainly destroy thousands of existing jobs while preventing the creation of thousands more.”  Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA).

In my opinion, the LAST thing we need would be to go through this ordeal again.  Or potentially even at a second site concurrently before we cap this first one.  But that’s a risk Bobby is willing to take.

Some even argue that we need the drilling jobs now more than ever because the fishing industry is dead.  To them, I would say that the enemy of your enemy may be your friend, but the problem of your problem is not your solution.

Now, the first argument, oil prices/energy security, is just false.  As I’ve previously explained in more detail, U.S. offshore oil reserves are so insignificant compared to world oil production that we cannot affect supply-side prices (which are determined on the global market) by more than a few cents if even that.

An energy consultant estimated that the moratorium could reduce domestic oil production by 80,000 barrels per day in 2011.  That may sound like a lot on its own, but not when compared to the 19,498,000 barrels of oil we consume everyday.  Bear in mind, this moratorium applies to deepwater drilling only.  We are talking about up to 33 deepwater rigs leaving from among the approximately 4,500 total rigs currently in the Gulf.  This argument does not hold any oily water.

So what about the second argument – jobs?  Conservatives are gleefully pushing this point on account of our sluggish economy, but they are doing so in a decidedly dishonest manner.

It takes a remarkable amount of self-imposed tunnel vision to view such a massive catastrophe through the single lens of employment.  But if you’re going to do it, you have to include the whole picture.  This moratorium was not imposed out of arbitrary spite.

Yes, offshore drilling creates jobs.  You know else does?  Fishing and tourism.  Offshore drilling has at least temporarily destroyed these sustainable industries in the Gulf region.

Halting deepwater drilling for 6 months may cost 40,000 jobs around the Gulf.  Louisiana will be hardest hit, so let’s take a look there:

The moratorium could cost Louisiana 20,000 jobs if all the deepwater rigs currently off its shores leave.  Ok, but many jobs did deepwater drilling cost the fishing and tourism industries?  There are 13,000 commercially licensed fishermen in Louisiana, not including deck hands and crew.  None of them can work.  Louisiana’s nine coastal parishes supported nearly 15,000 tourism-related jobs.  Do you know anyone planning any trips to coastal Louisiana right now?  I sure don’t.  So that’s well over 28,000 jobs within just Louisiana that are likely gone for at least immediate future because of this oil spill (as promised above, this proves Sen. Vitter is wrong,).

Tourism in the Gulf region is responsible for more $100 billion annually, or roughly 46% of the Gulf economy.  Even more is generated through fishing, both recreational and commercial; the Gulf of Mexico accounts for more than 50% of U.S. recreational fishing and 40% of the seafood harvested in the contiguous U.S. (including 85% of our shrimp and 60% of our oysters – but most of the seafood we eat is imported).


Unlike temporary, one-time oil revenues, the billions generated by fishing and tourism can be relied upon to sustainably support families along the Gulf year after year after year.  But not if the beaches are covered in oil, and not if the fisheries are poisoned or destroyed altogether.  Thanks to offshore drilling, all the jobs that generated all that money are threatened.

The oil industry is fond of touting the one-time benefits of its extractive drilling while completely ignoring the recurring, sustainable benefits of the industries jeopardized by drilling.  In 2007, President Bush decided to reopen Alaska’s Bristol Bay to offshore drilling (it was protected in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill).  Industry spokespeople and their congressional allies explained that opening the bay offered compelling arguments both financially and for energy security.

I have previously explained how offshore drilling helps only oil companies, not America, and does not improve our energy security.  So let’s look at the financial argument: opening the Bay offered an estimated $8 billion in oil – over the next 20 to 40 years.  Meanwhile, sustainable fishing in that area brings in $2.2 billion ANNUALLY.  In just 4 years, fishing in Bristol Bay generates more money than decades of drilling there would.  And as BP is vividly demonstrating, that fishing is threatened by offshore drilling.  (Obama restored protection to Bristol Bay as part of his offshore drilling plan in April.)

Why would we trade sustainable revenue for one-time drilling that threatens that sustainable future?  Because it enriches oil companies that spend millions on lobbying.

By now you have probably heard some of the metaphors conservatives are using to [mis]characterize the moratorium:

Halting air travel because of one plane crash. –Sen. Vitter (R-LA).

Halting car production because of a 100-car pile up. –Lee Hunt, President of the International Association of Drilling Contractors.

You get the idea.

I’ll respond to ridiculous analogies with a ridiculous hypothetical: During World War II, the U.S. economy was as close to full employment as is likely possible.  We set historic lows for unemployment (~1% in 1944) that we will probably never reach again.  Was ending WWII wrong?  It caused unemployment to rise.  It cost millions of people their jobs as soldiers and workers in war-related industries.  Should we start World War III now?  It would solve our persistent unemployment problem (in more ways than one).  This argument makes sense if all you care about is employment.

Even ignoring the environmental devastation, the jobs argument for offshore drilling is not compelling if you consider even the broader jobs situation.  In some situations, there are other valid considerations beyond local job loss in one sector.  This is one them.

Besides, if we pass a climate bill, we’re going to need a lot of people to help build wind turbines and install solar panels.  Many of those wind turbines will likely go offshore…job training programs would be an appropriate component of either a Gulf recovery package or the climate bill.

In lieu of that, I hear there’s a big clean-up project ramping up in that area.

My research for this post was disheartening.  If you want to know what subtle media bias looks like, read this poor excuse for journalism courtesy of Fox News’ more reputable cousin, the Wall Street Journal.  This article presents startlingly narrow, one-sided coverage of the topic at hand, but most readers will never even know it.  Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets do an unfortunately effective job of dressing up spin to look like news.

To be clear, I do not object to anyone’s right to make this argument.  Or even to present only half of it as they have done.  But to allow such slanted coverage to be considered “fair and balanced” and to parade under the guise of objective journalism is nothing short of intolerable.

Full list of oil spill questions/answers here.

The Case Against Sand Berms June 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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5 comments

As it becomes more and more clear that the multi-month relief wells are the only permanent solution, it becomes more certain that the Deepwater Horizon oil gusher will flow for months to come.  Containment may be or may not be successful and we know there is a lot of oil traveling beneath the surface, where it cannot be skimmed or burned and oil booms cannot even attempt to stop it.

In light of this situation, some have proposed building “berms,” giant levees of sand, in front of miles of sensitive coastline.  Even underwater oil cannot go beneath a berm.

Last week, the administration approved plans for six berm sites in the Chandeleur Islands aka Brenton National Wildlife Refuge. It has only committed to funding one so far, waiting to see if the $16 million project it worth replicating.  The money will come from either BP or the Federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

Note: the House recently passed legislation to raise the tax that feeds that trust fund from 8 cents/barrel to 32 cents/barrel.  The Senate has yet to act (shocking).

First, some background on barrier islands, courtesy of the wonderful blog ThroughTheSandGlass (which ironically linked my blog while I was literally writing this), written by geologist Michael Welland:

“Barrier islands are perhaps the most dynamic and ephemeral landforms on the planet, and imagery of the Chandeleurs vividly illustrates this. Even under natural conditions, the architecture and position of barrier islands are constantly changing – maps and charts are out of date by the time they are printed. The fundamental architecture and features of barrier islands is illustrated here (from the University of Texas glossary).

The complexity results from the interactions of tides, both coming and going, waves, currents, storms, sand supply and so on. And, as in the case of the Chandeleurs, this complexity is only enhanced by human interference – the need for constant dredging of shipping channels in the Mississippi Delta has essentially starved the islands of sand.

…The Chandeleur Islands have had a torrid history and today are but a shadow of their former selves.”

In principle, building sand berms should work. It is much easier to clean oil off of sand than out of marshes. Similar plans (for different purposes) have been planned for years and small-scale projects have been successful in the past.

So what have we been waiting for?  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  Since state officials submitted the plan on May 11, experts have expressed significant concern:

I understand that time is of the essence, but I really think that we’re taking a gamble here.” -Dr. Gregory Stone, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at LSU.

The Plan:

On May 27, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an emergency permit authorizing the construction of 45 miles of sand berm.  Original proposals sought 128 miles of barriers, and additional sections may be authorized pending the success of the first phase.

These berms will be 300 feet wide at the base, narrowing as they rise up to a height 6 feet above the water and 20 feet across the top.

This graphic was published on My 22 so it is not entirely accurate for the approved proposal, but it does give you a sense of the scope for this project.

Cost:

The application estimates the cost of the project at $3.8 million per mile, or $171 million for the initial 45-mile phase.  This is a deceptively low number; including the money that has already been spent mobilizing for a similar project to rebuild the Chandeleurs, the total price tag is likely closer to $500 million.

BP has agreed to pay an estimated $360 million for sand berm construction.

Will it work?

Below is an excerpt from a June 3 post at Yale’s e360 blog:

“A project that could cost as much as a half-billion dollars should warrant serious review. Yet it has been very difficult to find a public record or details of the proposed project design and how it was vetted. Obviously, there was never any intention to solicit public comment. This may be appropriate in an emergency, but it begs the question: Who designed the project? Have they used the best available science? And will it work as advertised?

The state of Louisiana has a wealth of fine coastal scientists who have been working on the coastal restoration of the Louisiana delta region for decades. Yet those who I have spoken with have indicated that they have not been consulted on the project. I have yet to speak to a scientist who thinks the project will be effective. The Corps of Engineers gave agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), less than a day to submit comments on the proposal after it was presented to the agencies during a teleconference on May 17. Certainly, the agencies had very little time to scientifically evaluate the potential environmental impacts of such a massive project, but in their brief submissions the agencies expressed major concerns.

The Department of Interior indicated that “we do not think the risks inherent in proceeding without more environmental study and knowledge are acceptable.”

The EPA directly questioned the proposed berm’s effectiveness, suggesting there is no evidence that the project will stop oil from entering the marshes and estuaries because it is constructed only in front of the barrier islands and will not block the inlets and deepwater passes. In addition, EPA questioned whether a project that will take at least 6 to 9 months to build would be completed in time to have any impact on the spill.”

Time:

This is a massive undertaking. Dredging up this much sand takes a long time. The EPA projected that this plan may not be completed for at least 6-9 months, and oil is already onshore. Even if we had started on Day 1, this project would not have been completed in time to protect the Mississippi Delta.

Additionally, erosion is expected to wear the wall away within months.  And that could happen even sooner if tropical storms come through the area, which I’m pretty sure they have been known to do.

Hurricane Forecast: [Bleak]

Incidentally, NOAA’s hurricane forecast was released on the same day that this project was approved last week.  They are expecting an “active to extremely active” season:

  • 14-23 Named Storms (top winds 39+ mph)
  • 8-14 Hurricanes (top winds 74+ mph)
  • 3-7 Major Hurricanes (category 3-5)

That includes a 95% chance of 2 Gulf hurricanes and a 50% chance of a Gulf hurricane in June or July.  Not good.

Sand Resources:

To build all the sand berms Louisiana officials have demanded, it has been estimated that the project would require 56 million cubic yards of sand – enough to fill 11.2 Superdomes.

And remember, that sand is coming from a river delta starved of sediment:

“Just think of digging 11 Superdome-sized holes in the delta you’re trying to save.  It seems counterintuitive.”  -Dr. Len Bahr, a coastal expert who founded the LaCoastPost blog.

Since we’ve been throwing huge numbers around for over a month now, let’s put that in the context of the oil spill.  56 million cubic yards of sand would fill nearly 270,000,000 oil barrels with more than 10 trillion gallons of sand.

The sand placed in these berms, while effective at stopping oil for a a few months, would be quickly eroded by normal wave action.  Berm lifetimes will be drastically reduced if struck by a hurricane.

Once sand is washed away from these berms, it cannot be used again for restoration purposes. Sand for these projects can only be dredged from certain places that have the right concentration of high-quality sand and that are far enough offshore that the dredging and deepening of waterways will not cause excessive damage (dredging destroys benthic life on the seafloor and deepening waterways can affect hydrology and even strengthen hurricanes and storm surges if conducted too close to shore).  Sand that washes off of berms is unlikely to end up in an area where it can be recaptured.  Additionally*, any sand that comes in contact with oil will be unusable in the future.

*Update: Thanks yet again to Mr. Welland at ThroughTheSandGlass for confirming the previously undocumented first point and offering the second explanation as well.

Louisiana’s limited sand resources present an additional problem because there have been longstanding plans to properly rebuild the Chandeleur islands (as opposed to dropping sand in front of them) that could be blocked by this project:

“If we use the good sand that we have for this quick-and-dirty berm, and a storm comes in and spreads it around, we’ve lost the major sand resource that we wanted to use for barrier-island restoration. We could compromise the long-term restoration of the coast for a short-term gain.” –Dr. Denise Reed, wetlands ecologist, University of New Orleans.

If even that.

It has been difficult to evaluate this plan because it has been changing constantly since its submission.  As submitted, the plan called for sand to be dredged from just one mile directly in front of the islands themselves.  Geologists and several government agencies objected because those trenches could actually accelerate land loss through not one, but two different mechanisms!

Obviously, this sudden tragedy demands swift action, but reckless plans can do more harm than good.  If this is the kind of planning that went into this proposal, I am very glad the Corps took some time to review and amend the plan.

The approved plan has identified six potential “borrow areas” (a euphemistic misnomer, because that sand will never be returned) that are 20-100 miles from the berm sites.  This is no quick project.

Water Flow:

Barrier islands such as the Chandeleurs form with wide natural channels between them. This is what allows inland bays and wetlands to fill and drain each day with normal tidal action.  In order to fully protect the marshes from oil, these passes would have to be closed off entirely, but that would wreak havoc on the region’s hydrology.

Closing off those channels would greatly harm many of the species the berms seek to protect. Many of these animals’ lifecycles demand that they move into and out of the coastal wetlands through those channels, and their daily lives revolve around tidal rhythms.

So why not just close a few of them?  This is what will be done, but it presents its own problems.  If just sand were used to plug those channels, it would be washed away immediately, so the channels will have to be lined with rigid structures.  As the openings narrow (or become fewer in number), the massive influx of tidal water through smaller openings will cause more powerful currents to form; if any oil does enter through these openings, it will be sent shooting much further inland towards/into sensitive estuaries.  Oil could even become trapped there, with its exit out of the estuary blocked by berms.  There is additional concern that the altered water flow may send oil east into the Mississippi Sound.

Political Considerations:

Two Republicans, Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser and Lousianna Gov. Bobby Jindal (famous for his role as Kenneth the Page on NBC’s 30Rock), have been the loudest cheerleaders for this project.  Since the beginning of the spill, these two have been stomping their feet and demanding sand berms.  Critics accuse them of political grandstanding:

“We could have built 10 miles of sand boom already if [the feds] would have approved our permit when we originally requested it.” –Bobby Jindal.

“The federal government has got to move on this and BP has got to pay for it. Without closing as many gaps as possible, we’re going to get oil in the marshes.” –Billy Nungesser

I feel like I’m chastising children, and only partially because of their names: Bobby, blindly rubberstamping permits for large projects in the Gulf  is what got us into this mess.  The Army Corps of Engineers was not twiddling its thumbs, just letting your proposal sit there.  It was reviewing it as best it could and they caught a number of significant errors.  It is justifiable to exercise caution when considering a massive project with uncertain effects.  Billy, “closing gaps” in the barrier islands comes with its own concerns (outlined above).  Now run along and play nice.

Louisiana state officials have been trying to secure federal funding to rebuild the Chandeleur Islands since Hurricane Katrina literally destroyed them in 2005.  Jindal et al. are tapping into existing support and, to be fair, preparation for a much broader restoration plan for those barrier islands. Denise Reed at UNO put it, “There are six words to describe what people in [coastal Louisiana] want: barrier islands, barrier islands, barrier islands.”  But Reed is quick to clarify, “This [proposal] is not barrier island restoration.

The Chandeleur Islands before and after Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana officials have been planning to rebuild them in a similar manner for years, but that project and this temporary berm project are different and possibly even mutually exclusive.

The current, temporary berm proposal and the goal of long-term barrier island restoration have been largely conflated in the local, populist push for action.  But they are quite different. Especially because these temporary berms could use up valuable sand resources upon which the restoration project relies.

States’ Rights

While the Army Corps investigated actual policy concerns, Louisiana officials resorted to a different type of rabblerousing: they turned this into a states’ rights issue.  LA Attorney General Buddy Caldwell sent a letter to the Army Corps telling them Louisiana was within its rights to build the berms because the federal government does not have the legal authority do deny a state its right to conduct emergency operations.

As I understand it, the federal government wasn’t stopping Louisiana from doing anything at all – it was withholding federal money from a project that they weren’t sure was a good investment yet.  Jindal’s tantrum wasn’t about him not being able to act, it was about him not being able to get someone else to pay.  That’s not quite as presidential.

Conclusion:

Gloria Borger wrote a column yesterday entitled, “We got the president we elected.

“He was elected because he is cool, calm and analytical. That’s what we wanted to see after George W. Bush, so we made him president. But now the disaster in the Gulf has made many of us want to see someone else — with plenty of anger, emotion and bravado. We want him to yell at BP. We want him to loudly tell us he’s whipping the cleanup effort into shape.

We can’t tell BP ourselves, so we want him to do it for us.

Fair enough. But that’s not the person we elected.”

We don’t yet know the whole story of the administration’s internal response to this catastrophe.  It certainly appears from the outside like they were slow to react and fully engage.  In this case, though, I think they got it right in waiting to approve the plan.  I hope they waited long enough.  Time will tell.

If sand berms prove to be an effective bulwark against oil for the wetlands of Louisiana, I will wholeheartedly support this project.  But this plan has many unknowns – not just about its efficacy but even in regard to the ecological systems it seeks to protect – so caution was and is the correct course.

It is nice to be able to say that we are doing something, but I hope that it is the right thing to do and not action for action’s sake.  I am not convinced that this is the case.

The following is an excerpt from the Army Corps permit itself (thanks to Mr. Welland at ThroughTheSandGlass for pointing it out) :

“We understand that the BP oil drilling disaster is a disaster of unprecedented proportions. However, we are concerned that Louisiana is proposing to have such a large project covered under a general permit (NOD 20). General permits are intended to have negligible impacts individually and cumulatively, however this project will certainly have impacts that would normally require a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). While we acknowledge that this disaster requires regulatory flexibility, general permits were never intended to address massive projects with potentially significant environmental impacts. We find the precedent set by this action disturbing.

This is a big gamble.  For half a billion dollars, even of BP’s money, we better have more to show for this project than wasted sand beneath the waves and oil in the wetlands.  I would imagine $500 million could buy a lot more oil mitigation progress in other ways.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.  Check this out for more information on oil-eating bacteria.