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Oil Boom Means More Spilling and Drilling

Just a couple of weeks after BP agreed to fork over $7.8 billion to settle 110,000 claims by Gulf Coast residents affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, another of the so-called supermajor oil companies, Chevron, has been fined and censured due to sizable ongoing spills.

Several incidents at Chevron rigs in the Frade oil field (roughly 230 miles northeast of Rio de Janerio) since late last year—and as recently as this week—have oozed more than 3,000 barrels of crude into the Atlantic Ocean. Brazilian prosecutors have filed an $11.2 billion civil suit against both Chevron and, voila, its drilling partner Transocean Ltd., for the accidents. Add that to previously assessed fines topping $100 million.

“A sizable oil leak was first detected last November; today (March 20) the company admitted to a “new small seep.” An anonymous source tells Brazilian officials many more spills are imminent.”

Frade is the largest foreign-run oil field in Brazil, producing more than 80,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Though Chevron, the biggest foreign oil company working in Brazil, has temporarily shut down its production operations in the country, there’s talk among local politicians about banning Chevron from Brazil’s oil riches if it doesn’t shape up. Along those lines, 17 employees of Chevron and Transocean had their passports confiscated this week and are banned from leaving Brazil until a full accounting of the recent accidents is made.

According to a report in The New York Times, Brazil’s state-controlled oil giant Petrobas reported 66 oil leaks in the country in 2011, which spilled more than 60,000 gallons. Brazil’s boom, and leaks, are a reminder of just how closely tied drilling and spilling are:

1) While the future of the Keystone XL pipeline is still being hotly debated, a new report by Cornell University claims that spills from tar sands—a heavier and more corrosive oil product that puts greater stress on pipelines—are three times more likely to occur than conventionally accessed oil. The existing Keystone 1 pipeline, operating since 2010, has had 35 spills in its 2,100-mile run.

2) We reported here in 2010 about a one-million-gallon oil spill from tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that eventually drifted 40 miles upstream. More than 130 houses have since been abandoned along the river; hunting, fishing and other recreational activities in the area have been forbidden; and the cleanup has cost twice what pipeline operator Enbridge, Inc. originally estimated, so far topping $725 million.
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3) With the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion on the horizon (April 20), BP was happy to get that $7.8 billion worth of payoffs behind it. But as deepwater drilling picks up off the Gulf Coast, some drilling within Mexican and Cuban waters and out of U.S. cleanup jurisdiction, the company is far from off the hook. The Wall Street Journal reports that civil penalties of $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel (the total spilled was 4.9 million barrels) and additional penalties under the Clean Water Act could cost the company another $21 billion. BP needs to keep on drilling in order to pay off its fines, including ramping up its five deepwater rigs still operating in the Gulf and the three more coming online before year’s end.

4) In the boldest move yet in the exploitation-versus-environmental protection tug-of-war, Shell Oil has preemptively sued 13 environmental groups (Audubon Society, Oceana, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and more) before even drilling its first well. Though the company has spent $4 billion since 2007 on its Chukchi Sea project without sucking a drop of oil from the floor of the Arctic Ocean, it is requesting a federal court to declare in advance that its cleanup response plans are sufficient. The cynical lawsuit suggests the company is preparing not for if an accident may occur, but when.

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.’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

Can Walmart Money Save the Seas?

A little more than two decades ago I was among the first national journalists to question the social and economic impact of the fast spreading “Walmart-ization” of the U.S.

An Ocean Conservancy beach cleanup on South Padre Island, Texas. Walmart donated $3.7 million to the conservancy last year. (Photo: Ho New/Reuters)

The already huge, volume-buying, deep-discounting, low-wage-paying giant box stores were proliferating across rural America, many of them sucking business away from already bad small-town economies. For stories published in The New York Times Magazine and Mother Jones, I spent several weeks in the heart of Iowa—Independence, population 6,100—talking with Main Street shop owners, realtors, county politicians, and the town’s mayor about their fears and hopes as the economic landscape shifted around them. Given the inevitable loss of homegrown business they knew would accompany Walmart’s arrival, it was hard not to see it as bad for the town.

Back then, in 1989, there were 1,400 Walmart’s spread across the U.S., generating sales of $20.6 billion a year; Sam Walton was the richest man in the country, with an estimated worth of $6.7 billion.

Today the now-global enterprise has 9,600 retail units under 69 different banners in 28 countries, with sales in 2011 of $419 billion. While Bill Gates topped 2010’s Forbes list of wealthiest Americans ($54 billion), coming in at numbers 7, 8 and 9 were Sam Walton’s three kids (Jim, Alice and Rob, worth about $20 billion each). If papa were still alive and heading the company he started, he’d easily be the richest man in America.

Which is a circuitous way of attempting to weigh the pros and cons of what the Walton family chooses to spend its money on. In recent years the Walton Family Foundation has “tiptoed” into giving to environmental issues, particularly efforts to protect ocean and freshwater.
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While the bulk of the family foundation giving goes to education reform and much of it stays in their home state of Arkansas, it has generously given to environmental initiative. Last year alone they nearly donated $72 million, including more than $36 million to grantees working on ocean issues—the Ocean Conservancy ($3.7 million), Conservation International Foundation ($18.6 million), Nature Conservancy ($9.3 million) the Marine Stewardship Council ($4.5 million), the World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense Fund ($7 million)—and nearly $23 million earmarked for freshwater conservation.

“In recent years the Walton Family Foundation has ‘tiptoed’ into giving to environmental issues, particularly efforts to protect ocean and freshwater.”

“We focus our work in the United States’ primary river systems and in some of the world’s most ecologically significant marine areas,” says the foundation’s director of Environment Focus, Scott Burns. “It’s important to us to protect and conserve natural resources while also recognizing the roles these waters play in the livelihoods of those who live nearby.” The specific projects it funds are mostly aimed at encouraging sustainability and efforts to get fishermen working together with environmentalists.

The foundation’s effort has ironically been muddied by fishermen, who protest that one goal of the big environmental groups Walmart supports is to put more and more U.S. waters off-limits…to fishermen. New Jersey’s Recreational Fishing Alliance, for one, calls the gifts an effort to “fund the demise of both the recreational and commercial fishing industry.” The group’s biggest concern is the spreading of Marine Protected Areas, which it regards as taking away the inalienable right to fish wherever/whenever for whatever.

The RFA and others have organized boycotts of Walmart (Safeway, too, which has also supported the creation of MPAs). Protestors suggest the Waltons’ charitable giving may one day directly impact their stores cash registers; no sense buying all those fishing lures and tackle from Walmart if the fishing grounds are closed off.

The very real problem of “overfishing” clearly does not register with the protestors.

“Walmart apparently prefers customers buy farm-raised fish and seafood caught by foreign countries outside of U.S. waters, while denying individual anglers the ability to head down to the ocean to score a few fish for their own table,” says executive director of the RFA Jim Donofrio.

For their part, the recipients of Walmart’s charitable largesse have mostly kept quiet about the kerfuffle. EDF spokesman Tom Lalley represents the distancing the marine groups have tried to put between themselves and at least the reputation of the box stores: “It was the family, and specifically the family’s foundation, that made a contribution for sustainable fishing and ocean conservation, not the store.”

Regardless, Walmart the corporation has been invested in at least seeming environmentally responsible in more recent years. Wisely viewing it as both the right thing to do for the environment and simultaneously good for the bottom line, the company has been a leader among big corporations trying to green operations. Its environmental efforts include reducing waste, encouraging environmentally friendly packaging, using as much renewable energy as possible, promoting energy efficiency, improving its delivery trucks’ fuel efficiency and requiring factories around the world to comply with local environmental regulations. Specific examples on the shelves include being a top seller of concentrated laundry detergent, convincing CD, DVD and videogame makers to make lighter cases to reduce transport carbon emissions and encouraging light bulb makers to refine designs.

But Walmart is responsible for creating a variety of environmental messes that no amount of greenwashing can make go away, and some in the environmental community think that it’s all too little, too late. Walmart Watch, a nonprofit group run by the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, says the company has paid numerous fines over the last decade for violating air and water pollution rules, and that its green initiatives will easily be erased by its sheer growth, which will mean more energy usage, more delivery truck trips and even more miles driven by consumers to get to Walmart stores that displaced smaller, more local ones.

In addition, many of its stores run 24 hours a day, using up much more energy than the majority of other retail stores. The large parking lots are major contributors to “no point source” water pollution (a leading cause of water pollution in the U.S.). In 2010 Walmart was forced to pay $27.6 million to the government of California for violating environmental laws, a suit initiated after a health inspector observed a Walmart employee dumping bleach down a drain.

And what transpired in Independence, Iowa, after Walmart came to town? Main Street continued to shutter and its population dropped. Five years ago Walmart opened a 99,000-square-foot Supercenter in the town, one of 35 in the state. Five hundred people lined up to apply for the 125 new “associates” jobs, paying $10.30 an hour.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to

Marine Life Faces ‘Mass Extinction’

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse ….

A new report to be released via the U.N. this week strongly suggests that the ocean is in far worse shape than we even imagined (“a shocking decline”) and that marine life is entering a phase of extinction “unprecedented in human history.”

Earth has already experienced five “mass extinction events,” going back some 500 million years, thanks to catastrophes like asteroid impacts and various big bangs. But it has long been considered fate that the next extinction, the sixth, would be thanks to man’s heavy footprint, as we continue to alter the planet’s physical landscape, overexploit a host of species, introduce alien species and pollute.

According to the panel comprised of 27 of the world’s top ocean experts – coral reef ecologists, toxicologists and fisheries scientists, assembled by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) — if trends are accurate this particular extinction will happen more quickly than previous ones.

Its conclusion does not mince words: “The findings are shocking,” says Alex Rogers, the group’s scientific director and professor of conservation biology at Oxford University. “As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realized.”

When it comes to scary reports, this one even outdoes the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark 2007 report, surpassing even its worst, worst-case scenarios.

The new panel took a big, collective step backwards and looked at the whole ocean scene at once. What it saw was not pretty. It was not one particular abuse or man-influenced evolution that was most worrying but the cumulative impacts of the combination of melting sea ice, sea level rise, the release of methane trapped in the sea bed, the amount of plastic in the ocean, toxic algal blooms (dead zones) caused by nutrient-rich farm runoff, ocean acidification, warming of the seas, a myriad local pollutions and overfishing.

Rather than criticize-only, the report makes some specific – if broad – recommendations necessary if ocean life as we know it is to be preserved:
1. Stop overfishing … now!;
2. Map and then reduce pollutants, particularly plastic, fertilizers and human waste;
3. Make sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

“We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation,” said Daniel Laffoley, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and co-author of the new report.

“And we are also probably the last generation that has enough time to deal with the problems.”

When Jellyfish Attack: Floating Menaces On the Rise

They’re back! We’re not talking hurricanes, though that season is officially underway.

Photo: Dani Cardona/Reuters

And, no, this is not about sharks; Discovery’s dubious Shark Week doesn’t start until the end of July.

No, it’s time for the increasingly unpopular annual return of jellyfish swarms to beaches around the world. Last year, the gelatinous, free-floating sea creatures made much of the western Mediterranean unswimmable. This past weekend—the unofficial start of summer—thousands of nasty, golf-ball-size jellyfish washed ashore on a 10-mile stretch of Florida’s east coast, stinging a reported 1,800 swimmers. Red warning flags were posted on beaches from Cocoa Beach to Cape Canaveral.

Thanks to the overfishing of big predator fish and warmer ocean waters, jellies are showing up sooner, in bigger numbers, and far beyond home territories. In Florida they clogged the shallows and took over the wet sand of the beach. Despite air temps in the 90s and a water temperature of 79, wetsuits were very popular. Innocent kids picked up the jellyfish and tossed them at each other, only to be stung. Tough guys waded into the shallows attempting to shrug the stings off, but quickly ran toward lifeguard stands that had stocked up with vinegar-and-water solutions to diffuse the itching, burning and rashes, which I guess beats urinating on them. Also, Benadryl cream is said to alleviate itching and swelling. At least two jelly victims were hospitalized.

The beachings are worse for the jellies than for man; as soon as the creatures hit the sand, they start to die. So many of them are massed in the shallows that they soon run out of food.

Even more surprising than the quantity of jellyfish in Florida was the species. The critters washing ashore by the thousands were so-called mauve stingers, which haven’t dotted Florida beaches for more than a decade (more common are the blue Portuguese man-of-war or cannonball varieties). Compact but fitted with long tentacles, mauve stingers are exactly the same jellyfish that harassed Mediterranean beaches during the summer of 2010.

Scientists believe the stingers were transported across the Atlantic in the Gulf Stream, which wraps around the coast of Florida, suggesting a steady migration of the mauves will menace Gator state beaches throughout this summer. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, biologists who study the Irish Sea are blaming the overfishing of herring for giving jellyfish an “exponential boost” in population. The trend has been growing since 2005.

Though routes taken by these jellyfish to these beaches are still under study, it’s clear that humankind taking 100 to 120 million tons of predators out of the sea in the past 20 years has left plenty of room for jellyfish populations to explode. Jellyfish thrive in disturbed marine ecosystems, loving dead zones and seabed’s that have been raked by trawling nets. Powerful currents and global shipping fleets give the bouyant pests free travel around the world.

In Florida, the only person happier than pharmacists selling out their Benadryl is a Cocoa Beach, Florida, coconut salesman. He claims the less time people spend in the water cooling off, the thirstier they are.

(For the rest of my dispatches, go to

Branson’s Plans to Go Deep

The first time I met Richard Branson, we were in the kitchen of a small bed and breakfast in the high-Arctic Inuit village of Clyde River. Taller and blonder than I expected, the Virgin entrepreneur was dressed in full cold-weather gear and had just flown in by private plane to join a dogsled expedition. Slightly bemused, he was struggling to figure out how to microwave a cup of tea.

I picture that scene whenever Branson announces that he’s setting off on a new adventure—whether by hot air balloon, cigarette boat or, as of last week, in a one-man submarine. While the intention to explore the bottoms of the five oceans, by diving deeper below the surface than any man or woman before, is exceedingly bold, Branson’s microwave fumbling worries me that technology may not be his strong suit.

His $10 million Virgin Oceanic continues a project begun by Branson’s friend and former ballooning partner Steve Fossett (whose small plane mysteriously disappeared over the Nevada desert in 2007). The goal is to take the ultra-lightweight sub to the deepest, least-explored parts of the planet. These dives might be conducted simultaneously with the launch sometime later this year of the first Virgin Galactic rocket carrying paying passengers ($200,000 per seat) into space.

Branson’s become the Steve Jobs of high-end adventure. Anything he proposes is quickly bought up by wealthy folks who seem ready to follow him anywhere. Sir Richard’s attitude is equal parts measured and cavalier. “I have a great difficulty saying no,” he admits. “Life’s so much more fun saying yes.”

The Deepflight Challenger is the brainchild of renowned ocean engineer Graham Hawkes and was built by Hawkes Ocean Technologies of Point Richmond, California, the leader in sophisticated submersibles. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Moss Landing Marine Labs have signed on to support what Branson’s calling the Virgin Oceanic Five Dives project. The 18-foot-long, 8,000-pound craft will study marine life, the tectonic plates and help Google Ocean map the ocean floor in 3D.

Hawkes has constructed submarines for explorations of the Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan, and a multi-year ocean expedition led by venture capitalist Tom Perkins.

“I love a challenge,” says Branson. “When I learned that only one person had gone below 18,000 feet under water and the sea goes down to 36,000 feet, it seemed too unbelievable. And talking to scientists and finding out that 80 percent of species on earth haven’t been discovered yet—that’s unbelievable. Knowing there are thousands of shipwrecks on the bottom of the sea that never have been discovered is pretty good fun as well.”

A leak or engine malfunction at depths where pressure is 1,000 times normal won’t be much fun, for man or machine.

The first of the Five Dives—which are intended to set 30 world records—will take place as early as this summer. Explorer Chris Walsh is expected to captain the sub to the bottom of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, more than 30,000 feet below sea level. Branson intends to captain the next trip, to the bottom of the Atlantic’s Puerto Rico Trench, a mere 25,000 feet below.

The other three areas to be explored are the Indian Ocean’s Diamantina Trench (26,041 feet), the southern Atlantic’s South Sandwich Trench (23, 737) and the Arctic Ocean’s Molloy Deep (18,399).

The carbon fiber and titanium submarine should be able to drop seven miles below the surface and snoop around for up to 24 hours. The hope is that each descent and return will take no more than five hours. The craft’s “wings” will essentially allow it to “fly” over the ocean floor collecting data.

Before each dive, remote-controlled vehicles (ROVs) armed with bait will be sent down to stir up marine life, which will be filmed by the submarine that follows.

Branson already owns a three-person version of the sub, also built by Hawkes—the Necker Nymph—which he rents for $2,500 a day at his Caribbean island resort.

“This experimental trip to the bottom of the ocean could lead to bigger crafts,” said Branson. “We’ve coined the phrase aquanaut—anyone who goes below 20,000 feet—there’s only one person at the moment, and it would be fun to make as many aquanauts as there are astronauts.”

Branson is familiar with adventuring risks. In 1972, marlin fishing off Cozumel, he swam two miles to shore when his boat was swamped by 10-foot waves. He’s been nearly killed skydiving and rappelling down a Las Vegas hotel, and plucked from the ocean on numerous occasions when his balloons went down. In 1977 he was the first to fly a kind of tricycle with wings and managed to land it after soaring hundreds of feet off the ground; its inventor was killed a week later doing the same thing.

When we traveled together in the Arctic, Sir Richard (only his mother still calls him Ricky) told me about getting lost in the north woods of Canada when one of his ballooning adventures went awry. “We called on the radio and told the guy who responded that we were on a frozen lake surrounded by fir trees. He paused a minute before saying, ‘Well, this is Canada … you could be in any of 10,000 places.’ “

A rescue chopper picked up the expedition eight hours later.

Swooping rescuers won’t be an option at 25,000 feet below; if something goes wrong down there, dashing Sir Richard will need an extra set of wings.