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Obama’s Ocean Report Card

Whether judged from land, sea, or sky, critiques of President Obama’s environmental policies, or lack of same, are growing.

Whether the debate is over new leases for offshore oil drilling, the plan for the Keystone XL pipeline, new regulations on ground-level ozone and smog, a dwindling focus on climate-change initiatives, or the future of a once-highly-touted ocean policy, many are concerned Obama’s environmental record may hurt him come reelection time.
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Part of the problem, according to a recent survey of science journalists by ProPublica and the Columbia Journalism Review, is the administration’s failure to maintain the open dialogue it promised when taking office. Long waits for requests under the freedom-of-information laws, restricted access to important sources, delayed interviews, and the presence of media liaisons—i.e. minders—during interviews is among the complaints. Without access to the top levels of science and information, goes the argument, it is hard to make the case for the administration’s plans. MoveOn.org’s executive director Justin Ruben went so far as to say the kind of environmental decisions coming from this White House were what “we’d expect from George W. Bush.”

The EPA, under constant attack from Congressional Republicans and presidential candidates (several of whom have said if elected they would abolish the agency on day one), is understandably gun-shy. Administrator Lisa Jackson has been very public in defense of her agency and her boss, reminding that the impacts of dirty air and water equally affect rich and poor, black and white. She wonders out loud how and why doing the right thing for the environment has become so politicized.

The hoped-for National Ocean Policy, instituted by the president by executive order in 2009, hasn’t even inched towards reality. The objective of the Policy was for a task force to recommend policies and set up regional planning bodies to implement them. The hope was to come up with a plan that spoke with one voice to address offshore drilling, commercial fishing limits, marine-protected areas, recreational use of federal waters, and other pressing ocean issues.

“[EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson] wonders out loud how and why doing the right thing for the environment has become so politicized.”

Instead, the so-called National Ocean Council has become mired in partisan politics. Democrats in Congress initially rallied around it, citing its positive inclusion of things like renewable energy conservation. Republicans and their lobbyists complained it would only create new regulatory burdens and give the regional councils undue power.

At a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee last week, intended to push the National Ocean Policy process forward, Republicans thwarted it, suggesting, according to NRC Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash), the plan was nothing but a bureaucratic waste of money, a way to create what it calls “ocean zoning.” The Republican-led committee made its feelings about the law clear in the title of the hearing: “The President’s New National Ocean Policy — A Plan for Further Restrictions on Ocean, Coastal and Inland Activities.”

“This White House policy has been driven under the claim that it’s only an ocean conservation measure, when its actual effects could be far-reaching and economically hurtful to American jobs and businesses both at sea and on shore,” said Hastings, as reported in Politico.

Democrats, led by California Congressman Sam Farr, argued the continued lack of a coordinated national plan, thus leaving the door open for conflicting regional laws and plenty of indecision, is the real creator of more bureaucracy and inefficiency.

In its blog, the White House quoted planning members of the National Ocean Council on how the law would create jobs and protect the environment.

“Contrary to the president’s political opponents’ efforts to portray this policy as a hyper-regulatory economic anchor, the principles contained in the National Ocean Policy actually pave the way for a more efficient, forward-thinking approach that will benefit both new and existing uses of ocean space,” argued an editorial in American Progress. “Meanwhile, the status quo supported by House Republicans is a cart-before-the-horse approach that will eliminate certainty, reduce likelihood of private investment, and delay development with an endless stream of lawsuits.”

The truth, certainly, lies somewhere deep in the middle.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to TakePart.com)

The Mighty Colorado: Trickling Down to Nothing

Floodwaters and winds wreak havoc on the narrow ravines and shallow-rooted forests of Vermont and New York; wildfires torch the desiccated Texas plains that have gone 300 straight days without rainfall; buckets pour down on the Gulf Coast once again, drowning ecosystems, hopes and dreams; and the great rivers of the American West are running dry. Sounds downright Biblical in its apocalyptic-ness, doesn’t it? Blame whomever you like, from heaven to hell to politicians to the Army Corps of Engineers to mall developers, but this is the reality of our environment in the first decade of the 21st century.

Photo by Pete McBride

Among all that doom and gloom, who would have predicted that those big American rivers—especially the granddaddy of them all, the Colorado River—would today be so imperiled. Yet tapped for the past 80 years for farms, drinking water, urban growth, suburban sprawl and recreation by a human population of more than 25 million, the Colorado currently no longer even reaches the sea. The 1,450-mile-long river, which not so long ago boasted a fertile, life-enriching delta covering 2 million acres, peters out about 90 miles from the Sea of Cortez.

Thanks to the work of two Colorado-based journalists, writer and adventurer Jon Waterman and photographer Pete McBride, the Colorado’s near-demise and its future were the subject of a seven-month-long descent and new accounts in a pair of books, photos and a short film.

In June 2008 Waterman—an experienced wilderness guide, park ranger and writer—set out to paddle the length of the Colorado, from its headwaters to south of the Mexican border; McBride joined him for parts of the descent and spent months capturing powerful photographs of its length from a small plane (often piloted by his father John), often from just a couple hundred feet above.

The river’s complex history of dams and diversions, the construction of massive canals to further drain it down, and its natural power and beauty all lend drama to their modern-day stories. But it is the anecdote about where the river runs dry that is the most powerful of all.

The conclusion of the descent in January 2009, in Waterman’s words, (from an essay for the Patagonia company’s fall catalog), paints the harsh reality: “Two miles into Mexico, my hopes of a complete 1,450-mile descent ended in a foamy pond of congealed fertilizers, distillate of countless American lawns and 3.4 million thirsty farm acres. I splashed out in bare feet, worried that our most iconic white water river would make me physically ill. (Pete) stayed clean by climbing out through the tamarisk trees. We tried to wipe the river shit off our pack rafts with tamarisk fronds, cursing the system that has diminished the Mighty Colorado to a stinking cesspool.”

“The 1,450-mile-long river, which not so long ago boasted a fertile, life-enriching delta covering 2 million acres, peters out about 90 miles from the Sea of Cortez.”

What happened? “Engineered to death” is Waterman’s conclusion, detailed in his book Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River: “…more than 100 dams and 1,000 miles of canals divert its water to most every farm, industry and city within a 250-mile radius of the river. Each year, seven western states and northern Mexico take 16.5 million acre-feet (enough water to supply 33 million American households) of river water. Amid the 12th year of drought in the Southwest, climate models show that conditions will continue to dry the snowmelt-fed river. Add explosive population growth, increasing the demand for water, and the river’s future becomes a ticking time bomb.”

McBride’s dramatic book of photos and film (Chasing Water) are bringing the river’s sickness to an ever-bigger audience across the West. An exhibit of words and pictures—“The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict”—is currently on display at Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Having grown up on a cattle ranch near Aspen, McBride admits to having taken the river’s abundance for granted; now he’s an advocate for its continued protection, “alarmed” by what he’s seen.

Like most of our environmental messes, parts of this one are reparable. The Tucson-based Sonoran Institute is leading an effort to save what remains of the Colorado River delta and has specific steps for how individuals can help. Cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. would be a big help and is being encouraged by the International Boundary & Water Commission. Patagonia’s yearlong “Our Common Waters” campaign points to a handful of organizations working on water-related clean-up projects.

For the full story, check out Waterman’s book-length account and the pair’s book of photo-and-text.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to TakePart.com)

Photo by Pete McBride

Photo by Pete McBride

Photo by Pete McBride

Photo by Pete McBride

5 Ways the Ocean Can Help Us

It’s easy to understand why many smart people around the world consider the ocean to be at great risk today, thanks to a well-known handful of threats ranging from overfishing to the impact of climate change to acidification to plastic pollution.

Photo: bredgur/Creative Commons via Flickr

But a variety of those same smart people have some new thoughts on how we might better protect the ocean and its marine life and even tap it as a resource to improve some other planetary needs.

A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pinpoints four percent of the planet’s ocean which—if set aside as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)—would sufficiently protect the most at-risk marine mammal species.

Scientists from Stanford and the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico identified which four percent by layering maps of where the planet’s 129 marine mammals (seals, dolphins and polar bears) are found in most abundance and identified 20 ocean regions where they live. They went on to suggest that by protecting just nine of those 20 regions, locations with the highest “species richness,” 84 percent of the planet’s most at-risk marine mammals would be living under some kind of protection. The areas they encouraged to be protected were off the coasts of Baja, eastern Canada, Peru, Argentina, northwestern Africa, South Africa, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
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Meanwhile, over at the On Project (sponsored by the Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation), some clean thinkers are seeing the ocean less as one big mess and more as one big problem solver. Here are five ways they think the ocean can be tapped:

1) Clean Energy: Considered by some as “the other white meat” of alternative energy, ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is now available to harness the power of the ocean and produce clean base-load (24/7) energy.

2) Clean Drinking Water: According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 8 people do not have access to clean drinking water. Every day patients suffering from diseases associated with dirty drinking water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene occupy half of the world’s hospital beds. Through desalination, powered by clean electricity from an OTEC plant, the ocean can provide clean drinking water for people around the world.

3) Aquaculture: The ocean offers great potential for food production in many areas of the world. With sustainable practices, food security and environmental costs can be balanced.

4) Unemployment: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), approximately 1 of every 6 jobs in the United States is marine-related, including careers in the fishing, tourism, recreation, energy and ocean transport industries.

5) Air Conditioning: Using cold, deep seawater in place of polluting standard refrigerants, the ocean supplies a clean method of air-conditioning that reduces electricity usage by up to 90 percent when compared to conventional cooling methods.

Currently less than one percent of the planet’s ocean is protected by MPAs; it’s clear that the more ocean we set-aside in protected areas—just like we do on land, in parks and wilderness areas—the better for endangered species and wild fish. And maybe if we begin to think of the planet’s one big ocean as a resource rather than a giant trashcan, it can actually help us.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to takepart.com)

Environmental Hero Tim DeChristopher Jailed

Headlines across the country announcing the sentencing of environmental activist Tim DeChristopher were mostly underwhelming (“Man Gets Jail for Fake Bids at Energy Auction,” The New York Times; “Fake Oil-Bidder Sentenced to Two Years,” Alaska Dispatch).

But the long-expected meting out of harsh punishment for an act of civil disobedience has brought a glimmer of hope to the eco-world, which believes the sentencing will create a wave of like-inspired activism. DeChristopher himself encouraged the “wave” metaphor in a speech made from the Salt Lake City courtroom steps yesterday before being sentenced. “From the top of the waves you can see the promise ahead,” he said, “which cannot be broken even by the sharp rocks that line the shore.”

Angrier headlines denounced the sentencing as “unjust,” “an outrage” and “somber.”

Two years ago, a then-27-year-old economics student at the University of Utah, DeChristopher spoiled an auction of pristine Western wilderness—intended as a parting gift from the soon-departing Bush administration to some of its oil and gas buddies—by spontaneously bidding nearly $2 million for drilling rights to 22,500 acres. When it (immediately) turned out DeChristopher didn’t have the cash, nor serious interest in anything but protesting the sale, he was arrested, charged with two felony counts for interfering and making false representations. After several court hearings over the past two years and having been found guilty this past March—never being allowed to testify as to his motivations—when he arrived in the Salt Lake City courtroom yesterday he faced up to ten years in prison and a fine of $1.5 million.

Derogatorily labeled a “prankster” “lionized by environmentalists,” DeChristopher has been championed by climate change heroes, including James Hansen and Bill McKibben. An increasingly media-savvy DeChristopher has not kept the press at arms-length during the two-plus years since his arrest. Among the better newspaper profiles is this one in the Guardian and a radio interview with James Mills. YouTube has a slew of video interviews, something not available to Henry David Thoreau in 1849 when he was jailed after protesting by not paying his taxes.

Since DeChristopher’s arrest the Telluride-based husband/wife filmmaking team of Beth and George Gage have been documenting the struggle. With every postponed trial and court appearance, they’ve watched the film’s release—which hinges on DeChristopher’s sentencing—pushed back. I’ve seen various trailers for thier Bidder 70 (the number on the auction paddle DeChristopher used) and it is clear that the powerful, soon-to-be-completed film will go a long way to expanding DeChristopher’s trials and humanize what for many may still seem like a solitary act of protest.

Here’s how DeChristopher left it with the judge yesterday: “I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me. If you side with [prosecuting attorney] Mr. Huber and believe that your role is to discourage citizens from holding their government accountable, then you should follow his recommendations and lock me away. I certainly don’t want that.

“I have no desire to go to prison, and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false. I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government. I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience. If you share those values, but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them.

“You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path. You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing. You can have me help disadvantaged communities or even just pull weeds for the [Bureau of Land Management]. You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”

Upon sentencing, DeChristopher was immediately taken into custody, handcuffed and transferred to Davis County Jail; his time will be spent in federal prison. Twenty-six protestors outside the court were arrested.

The auctions he interrupted in 2008? Declared “incorrectly administered” in 2009 by the Interior Department, which yanked the land off the auction block.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to takepart.com)

BP Well Capped One Year Ago … And Spills Continue

One year ago last Friday (July 15) the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico—brought to us by the team of BP and Transocean— was successfully capped after hemorrhaging 4.9 million barrels of crude oil.

Photo by P.J. Hahn

One year ago today (July 15) the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico—brought to us by the team of BP and Transocean— was successfully capped after hemorrhaging 4.9 million barrels of crude oil.

One year later impacts of the spill continue to affect the health of Gulf Coast residents, the safety of the region’s seafood and the economies of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Arguments continue over exactly who should be compensated from the $20 billion pot BP set aside for those whose lives and livelihoods were most impacted; so far less than $5 billion has been handed out, and BP, citing the area’s “robust recovery,” says that should be sufficient.

Meanwhile, around the globe, as our demand for oil continues to grow—now over 91 million barrels a day—oil leaks are hardly a thing of the past, nor relegated to the Gulf of Mexico.

Four big leaks and one very dangerous leak-in-the-making have been reported in just the past two weeks:

An Exxon Mobil pipeline burst beneath the Yellowstone River, flooding the pristine waterway with more than 42,000 gallons of crude oil. While the line was reportedly shut down within seven minutes, the leak managed to continue for more than an hour. With the river descending at five to seven miles an hour, the oil spread fast and far, making it tricky for the 350 emergency personnel armed with absorbent boom and pads to successfully capture it. With flashbacks to the Gulf spill—a slow response by the oil company, underestimations of how much oil was spilled, and a clean-up effort led by an oil company—it’s a reminder of how little has changed in our preparation for such spills since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April 2010.

On the other side of the planet, a pair of undersea leaks in the ConocoPhillips oilfield—Penglai 19-3, China’s largest—spilled up to 7,000 barrels of oil into Bohai Bay, spreading over more than 325 square miles. Slicks seven miles long and 500 yards wide were reported. This being China, the spills were not reported to the public or media for nearly a month; the initial fine was estimated to be about $30,000. But China’s top ocean watchdog, the State Oceanic Administration, predicts compensation could be far higher. At the request of the SOA, the faulty platform has been temporarily shut down.

An explosion and oil spill at the Pengrowth Energy Facility near Swan Hills, Alberta, dumped 1,000 barrels of oil into nearby Judy Creek, which flows into the Freeman River, a tributary of the Athabasca River. The company has given few details of how or why the mile-long, eight-inch round pipe carrying oil from a wellhead to a larger pipeline blew up. Earlier this year the company reported a fire and spill at an adjacent gas processing plant.

Back in the USA, a New Hampshire company—Sprague Energy—leaked up to 100 barrels of oil into the Piscataqua River via a “small hole” in a delivery pipe. Company officials admitted a pinhole resulted in a “spraying” of fuel for up to two hours. While much of the spill appeared to be contained within the company’s docking area, some of the river’s shellfish beds were closed out of caution. The fast-running river parallels the border of Maine and New Hampshire before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

A potential spill with historic roots was reported by NOAA, off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, where hundreds of World War II shipwrecks lie deteriorating on the ocean floor. NOAA is documenting more than 30,000 ships sunk along the coastline and its biggest concerns are for the battleships sunk by Nazi submarines in 1942. Nearly 400 ships, many with full fuel tanks, were sunk within 60 miles of the coast. So far the agency has put 233 ships on its “worst-threat” list, including an unarmed tanker—the W.L. Steed— which was carrying 66,000 barrels of crude oil. The concern is that as the tanks rust and leak, the holds filled with crude oil, fuel oil, diesel fuel and explosives, could have “devastating” impacts on nearby coastal communities. Once identified it’s hoped the tanks could be emptied, paid for by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is funded by the oil industry.

One year later impacts of the spill continue to affect the health of Gulf Coast residents, the safety of the region’s seafood and the economies of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Arguments continue over exactly who should be compensated from the $20 billion pot BP set aside for those whose lives and livelihoods were most impacted; so far less than $5 billion has been handed out, and BP, citing the area’s “robust recovery,” says that should be sufficient.

Meanwhile, around the globe, as our demand for oil continues to grow—now over 91 million barrels a day—oil leaks are hardly a thing of the past, nor relegated to the Gulf of Mexico.

Four big leaks and one very dangerous leak-in-the-making have been reported in just the past two weeks:

An Exxon Mobil pipeline burst beneath the Yellowstone River, flooding the pristine waterway with more than 42,000 gallons of crude oil. While the line was reportedly shut down within seven minutes, the leak managed to continue for more than an hour. With the river descending at five to seven miles an hour, the oil spread fast and far, making it tricky for the 350 emergency personnel armed with absorbent boom and pads to successfully capture it. With flashbacks to the Gulf spill—a slow response by the oil company, underestimations of how much oil was spilled, and a clean-up effort led by an oil company—it’s a reminder of how little has changed in our preparation for such spills since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April 2010.

On the other side of the planet, a pair of undersea leaks in the ConocoPhillips oilfield—Penglai 19-3, China’s largest—spilled up to 7,000 barrels of oil into Bohai Bay, spreading over more than 325 square miles. Slicks seven miles long and 500 yards wide were reported. This being China, the spills were not reported to the public or media for nearly a month; the initial fine was estimated to be about $30,000. But China’s top ocean watchdog, the State Oceanic Administration, predicts compensation could be far higher. At the request of the SOA, the faulty platform has been temporarily shut down.

An explosion and oil spill at the Pengrowth Energy Facility near Swan Hills, Alberta, dumped 1,000 barrels of oil into nearby Judy Creek, which flows into the Freeman River, a tributary of the Athabasca River. The company has given few details of how or why the mile-long, eight-inch round pipe carrying oil from a wellhead to a larger pipeline blew up. Earlier this year the company reported a fire and spill at an adjacent gas processing plant.

Back in the USA, a New Hampshire company—Sprague Energy—leaked up to 100 barrels of oil into the Piscataqua River via a “small hole” in a delivery pipe. Company officials admitted a pinhole resulted in a “spraying” of fuel for up to two hours. While much of the spill appeared to be contained within the company’s docking area, some of the river’s shellfish beds were closed out of caution. The fast-running river parallels the border of Maine and New Hampshire before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

A potential spill with historic roots was reported by NOAA, off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, where hundreds of World War II shipwrecks lie deteriorating on the ocean floor. NOAA is documenting more than 30,000 ships sunk along the coastline and its biggest concerns are for the battleships sunk by Nazi submarines in 1942. Nearly 400 ships, many with full fuel tanks, were sunk within 60 miles of the coast. So far the agency has put 233 ships on its “worst-threat” list, including an unarmed tanker—the W.L. Steed— which was carrying 66,000 barrels of crude oil. The concern is that as the tanks rust and leak, the holds filled with crude oil, fuel oil, diesel fuel and explosives, could have “devastating” impacts on nearby coastal communities. Once identified it’s hoped the tanks could be emptied, paid for by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is funded by the oil industry.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to takepart.com)

Jail Terms Handed Out for Oil Spill … No, Not That Oil Spill

Finally someone has been held responsible for a sizable oil spill in Louisiana and sentenced to a jail term for the environmental degradation caused by the accident.

But it is not anyone who worked for BP, Transocean or Halliburton. Nope, it is one Randall Dantin, 46, of Marrero, Louisiana, who is going to jail for 21 months for his role in an accident on the Mississippi River that spilled 283,000 gallons of fuel oil into the river in the heart of New Orleans in July 2008.

The Gulf spilled close to 5 million gallons. To-date, no one involved in that spill has been charged with a crime.

I was in New Orleans when that 2008 accident happened, and watched as the spilled fuel oil quickly coated the river and its banks for 80 miles, all the way to Venice, LA, shutting down New Orleans access to drinking water for nearly a week.

After a two-and-a-half-year investigation by the Coast Guard, responsibility for the accident goes to a “sleep-deprived” tugboat driver who was pushing a barge loaded with oil across the river when it was errantly t-boned by a tanker coming down the Mississippi.

(For the rest of my dispatch, go to takepart.com)

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