Friday, May 28, 2010

The Federal Oil Spill Response - a little more reality if you please

There are a lot of calls all over the Internet and news media for the Federal Government to take over form BP the job of responding to the oil spill that is destroying the northern Gulf of Mexico. Some, like Mike’s, are based on the perceived lack of effective response to the oil in the marsh; others are rooted in a well deserved distrust of BP.

Being a Louisiana native, no one on the Internet aches more then I do for the marshes that now must absorb the fruits of our fossil fuel hubris. The areas now fouled will take a long time to clean, if they ever do come completely clean. We’ve learned, painfully, that cleaning Valdez Alaska was not really effective, and oil continues to seep from the beaches today.

That said, I’ve also had hazmat training, done federal disaster response from the Army Corps of Engineers, and read more then a little case law. So I have a few experiences and some knowledge to answer those calls.

First, oil spill response in the U.S. is regulated by federal statute – in this case the Oil Pollution Control Act of 1990 (OPA 90). In the Act, the principle liability for response and clean-up falls to the “the responsible party for a vessel or facility from which oil is discharged” which in this case is BP. The federal response is also laid out in the Act, and governed by the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP) and that starts with the Coast Guard and EPA taking joint charge (As they have in the Gulf). The NCP also lays out how and under what general headings each federal agency responds – directing NOAA, for instance, to run the scientific response, as it is presently doing. Specific Agency Responsibilities are found at § 300.175 Federal agencies: additional responsibilities and assistance. Interestingly, only the U.S. Coast Guard is authorized by the plan to contract for spill response, and only then with “appropriate state in order to implement a response action.”

So to say that the federal government is just sitting back and letting BP run the show is just wrong, both in statute and in fact. Hundreds of my federal colleagues are on the ground, on the beaches, and working really long hours to do really tough jobs. To say BP hasn’t pulled its weight is, however, also fair, as their contingency planning was clearly not up to snuff. That needs to be investigated, and since all federal agencies working the spill have been directed by the Department of Justice to preserve their records, I suspect criminal investigations will begin, is they haven’t already.

But more to the point, what more does the federal government have an obligation to do? And with what resources? I’ve heard that the Navy should be deployed, but to what end? Destroyers and guided missile frigates are too big to pull skimmers or boom; smaller in shore craft lack endurance for staying at sea for weeks on end. Most, if not all of the private sector vessels that are equipped for response are already contracted to BP, so the feds couldn’t really bring in any more boats or crews.

On shore, boom was pulled along hundreds of miles of coast line well before the oil arrived, and the oil got through anyway. Having done oil boom placement and retrieval, I know of no way the government could have done it that the shrimpers and BP’s contractors didn’t. And now that the oil is in the marsh, the real question of how do we get it out is raised. Here the federal government may be able to predict what the impacts to ecosystems and species are, but do you really want the Army Corps of Engineers pulling up giant bucket-fulls of marsh mud and plants to remove the oil? That’s the only real mechanical solution that a federal agency could undertake, and it would destroy – as much as the oil is destroying – one of our Nation’s most productive ecosystems.

So for those of you who think the feds need to ride in on a white horse, and that this is Mr. Obama’s Katrina, tell me what, specifically and LEGALLY you think we, who are your federal government, should do that we haven’t. Chances are for every idea you bring up, I can find all sorts of federal employees and contractors already doing it, or some really good reason why they aren’t.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wise Words - too little and too late

"Deregulation" is wonderful until we discover what happens when regulations aren't issued or enforced. Everyone is a capitalist until a private company blunders. Then everyone starts talking like a socialist, presuming that the government can put things right because they see it as being just as big and powerful as its Tea Party critics claim it is.

But the truth is that we have disempowered government and handed vast responsibilities over to a private sector that will never see protecting the public interest as its primary task. The sludge in the gulf is, finally, the product of our own contradictions.

E.J. Dionne is right of course - and he should have written this column two years ago when Wall Street nearly melted the economy in a shroud of non-existent regulation for an industry that Alan Greenspan said last year did the thing he couldn't understand - put short-term profits ahead of long-term survival.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Richard Cohen talks out of both sides - and his generation needs to stop it.

In today's Washington Post, Richard Cohen - he of torture defense and Iraq ballyhooing - laments how the really difficult decisions about Vietnam his generation grappled with have been sullied recently:

But his most appalling lie was to turn a complex truth of that era into a simple matter of shame. It was obscene to send young men into a war that had lost its purpose and was being opposed by major political and intellectual figures in the United States. Opposition to the war was not merely a matter of avoiding duty but an agonized grappling with a hideous moral dilemma. I am not ashamed that I did not fight. I am not ashamed, either, that I did not want to fight. Neither do I denigrate those who did. I admire their bravery. I am humbled by their courage. I am mourning their deaths -- and I will never stop asking: Why?
Memo to Mr. Cohen - my generation is going through the same thing over Iraq and Afghantistan. We are asking WHY the very same way you did, and we thought your generation, having had an "agonized grappling with a hideous moral dillema" would have handled these two present wars differently - which is to say you all would have run screaming away from them as quickly as possible. That you and your generation, who now purport to "lead" our nation did not, says you have forgetton the hard lessons of your youths, and you are no more fit to preach to us in righteous indignation then you are to preach to a fellow generational member who extends his real service record to score political points.

Stop being such Hippocrits!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Climate Crisis goes on - and no one notices

The latest monthly climate averages are out from NOAA, and as usual they paint a . . . challenging picture for policy makers.

Hard though it may be to believe, the Earth experienced the warmest April, the warmest January-April period, and the warmest sea-surface temperature ever recorded. That’s right folks, actual temperature measurements by actual scientists the globe over show once again that we’re slowly edging up. Not computer models, actual temperatures.

So what does that mean in real, ecological terms? Well the 3 to 5oC rise in average temperatures over the U.S. and Canada are located squarely on top of our agricultural belt. If you look at precipitation data for, say, North Dakota, which is sitting on the 3oC edge of the warm mass, you also find that average precipitation is up over the last 180 days. Taking that into account, and looking at the annual average change in both temperature and precipitation, what you see is that our agricultural belt is heating up, and while it is wet right now, if annual and inter annual temperatures continue to rise, they will soon pass a point where existing agriculture can be sustained, since temperatures will become too hot for both the plants themselves, and for existing precipitation to keep the plants properly watered.

In other words, If this keeps up, we may well start seeing persistent drought in the upper mid-west and Canada, which would result in significant crop losses, or significant diversions of water for irrigation – unless we as a nation have the intestinal fortitude to move our agricultural apparatus to some other part of the country.

These, dear readers, are the kind of decisions we need to make NOW, not in 10 or 20 or 50 years when we have “better” data. Otherwise, our national economy may be imperiled, as well as our national food supply.

Think I’m blowing smoke? Consider this – “the global ocean surface temperature was 1.03°F (0.57°C) above the 20th century average of 60.9°F (16.0°C) and the warmest on record for April. The warmth was most pronounced in the equatorial portions of the major oceans, especially the Atlantic.” That means that we’re half way to the temperature increase needed to cause coral reefs to bleach (1-2O). And coral bleaching has nasty consequences. Not only do corals die, but the reef structure destabilizes, and becomes more susceptible to storm damage. This in turn leads to looses of local reef fish community productivity, and reefs, particularly in tropical areas serve as the fundamental nursery grounds for commercially important fish species. They also form the protein basis for some of the world’s poorest coastal economies. If a single degree or two rise in ocean temperature can lead to that sort of cascade – and evidence is now pointing that way – then a rate of global average temperature increase like we’re seeing here in the U.S. can just as easily threaten our purported “bread basket.”

Friday, May 14, 2010

Good Bye Sweet Angel

Last night this precious little girl named Hudson lost her life to bacterial meningitis at Washington D.C.'s Children's Hospital. Hudson became ill on Monday, and her parents and the doctors did all they could. Husdon is a classmate/playmate of my youngest daughter, and both I and my wife had looked forward to many years of friendship with Hudson and her folks. Even in the face of great tragedy, Ed and Mandy welcomed every friend, no matter how minor, to the hospital room, they used those 21st century technologies of Facebook and texting to send wide updates, and the displayed a calm composure that speaks to their strength as parents, and their love for their little girl.

Every afternoon for the last 5 months, when I go to pick Peanut up from daycare, Hudson would toddle over, touch my goatee, laugh, and toddle off. It was a small, simple act by a little girl who wanted to know and understand the world around her. But it was also a powerful act by a strong little girl who loved everyone she knew, and wanted to touch - literally - everyone around her. I can't even begin to plumb all my feelings on this, but I can tell you all that our hearts are broken, we are bent, and we are leaning on each other as much as possible. This post is dedicated to Hudson's memory.

Soar with the Angels, Sweet Little One.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What's in a Tea Party?

From a comment in Glenn Greenwald's post today on erosion of U.S. Citizen rights, comes a link that took me to this:

So are the Tea Partiers ordinary people with no political leanings, as they say they are? Definitely not. The findings cited above and other data in the polls indicate that the Tea Party is overwhelmingly stocked with Republican supporters. They are by no means "ordinary people," although the public's perception that they are is one of their strongest suits.

Are they just economic conservatives then? The Winston survey tells us much about Tea Partiers‟ economic views, and the "Contract from America" released on April 14, 2010 focuses on taxes, federal spending, and big government. But if you Google the questionnaires that local Tea Parties send to candidates, you will almost always find more than questions about these issues. You will often discover inquiries about religion as well (e.g., Do you support school prayer? Do you recognize God‟s place in America?). And often there are questions about abortion and gay marriage and teaching Creation Science in public schools. And you run into queries about gun control, law and order, and immigration. So while Tea Partiers overwhelmingly take conservative economic stands, which bind them together most, many seem to be strong "social conservatives" as well. Local groups often speak of wanting only "pure
conservatives" or "100 percent" conservatives as candidates.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Eulogy for the Bayou - Blogging the Gulf Oil Spill at The Intersection

My latest guest post over at Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum's The Intersection is up, and it begins a series they are working on of the impacts from the oil spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico. I won't give away the other authors, but when all is said and done, it will be some august company to be in.

Down the bayou, fishing, shrimping and oil are ways of life. They get passed from father to son, and generations of families shrimp, trap, fish, and go to the rigs together. For better or worse, they help feed the nation, and with 27% of our petroleum products going through south Louisiana, they fuel our Nation as well.

So as the oil comes ashore in the weeks and months ahead, the losses will be found across the spectrum of ecosystem components. Those dolphins, the shrimp and crabs whose descendents now ply those waters, and the Cajun fishermen and roughnecks who fled that sinking burning rig into the abyss will, and have, already suffered. All in the name of oil – and all in the name of our Nation.

UPDATE (Thursday 6 May 2010):

Joe Romm, continuing his fine service to the Nation at Climate Progress, shares this study on human dimensions and impacts of the oil spill:

We are in uncharted waters with this disaster. Sadly, it is likely to become an exemplary case study in how badly people and communities can be injured by an oil spill and its response. Experience with oil spills inside and outside the United States demonstrates that oil spills produce dramatic consequences for people’s lives. To better prepare for responding to spills, it is wise to learn from experience and be pro-active about planning for how to deal with impacts to humans. Hopefully, a broad understanding of the human dimensions of oil spill hazards can help these responders make wise decisions.

Congratulations to Science Cheer Leader - Getting Citizen Science Right!

My colleague Darlene Cavalier set some loft goals for herself when she founded Science Cheerleader:
1) help increase adult science literacy (see Brain Makeover). [Check!]
2) raise the ranks of citizen scientists and create a shared space for researchers and the public to socialize and work together. (see [Check!]
3) open doors to public participation in science policy (see this breaking news item) [Check!]

So its great to see her reach those goals, and in lightening speed - at least by Washington D.C. Standards! So I think an Internet round of applause is in order! And this slight poke - go check out her sight, find a local science project or issue, and dive right in. You will be glad you did!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Thought - human capitol management sounds great, but it probably sounds too lofty for folks to get one's head around. Perhaps that's why no one likes it.