Whole-body scans, oil-sucking tubes, and the limits of technology

May 18, 2010 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

I had my first whole-body x-ray at the Denver International Airport last night. The amiable attendant jerked his head up and over his right shoulder as he explained that the scan was read by someone far above in the cavernous hall. He then listened for a moment to his earpiece and asked if I was sure I had nothing in my right front pocket. I reached in and pulled out my boarding pass, to which my checked-bag ticket had been affixed with a very small staple. The guy upstairs had seen it, and in an instant we had our hands on the tiny, inoffensive item, and I was on my way.

At about the same time, 5,000 feet of water above their target, BP engineers had finally managed to insert a tube into the gusher spewing untold thousands of barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico and wreaking havoc on a scale we cannot yet comprehend. At best the tube is only a partial, and temporary, fix.

Which is true of many technological solutions to our energy — not to mention our national security — challenges. They are essential, especially in the near term, but they are not sufficient. Greatly expanded renewable energy generation is critical. In the near term, so is substituting more efficient and cleaner fossil-fuel generation, like combined-cycle natural gas plants, for coal generation, while we build a new energy system. That system will rely on carefully selected and implemented technologies that are far more sustainable than the ones we use now.

But the technologies will not save us and the planet — only we can do that. We must summon the will to change the way we build, move around, and live on this planet, including how we support ourselves, feed our families, create wealth and maintain a high quality of life, for everyone on the globe. It is a fundamental mind-shift that will restore a semblance of balance to our ecosystems, ensure long-term prosperity, and promote peace. I believe it is happening. To all who are part of this effort: keep it up.

In the meantime, we can’t bring 4 oz. of liquids onto an airplane, but thousands of gallons of oil foul the Gulf every hour. We should tolerate neither and work hard to change both.

Our global over-reliance on fossil fuels is the crisis of our time. The solution to that crisis is not just plugging the hole in the Gulf.  It is changing our global economy.


Posted in: Ocean Conservation

What you can do to change the world . . . and the "tar balls" washing up in Key West tell you it needs to change !

May 18, 2010 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

As recently as this morning the Coast Guard was asserting that oil from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had not entered the “loop current” that travels around the tip of Florida over to the East Coast.

And now it appears the oil is hitting Florida as tar balls appear in Key West . . . they are being tested to determine to determine their origin.

Some commentators have, appropriately, noted that in addition to banning drilling in sensitive areas off our own coasts we need to appropriately regulate drilling that is underway and, to truly solve the problem, we must gain control and dramatically reduce our use of oil – a process that will involve building livable, walkable communities centered around transit.

Sadly, efforts are afoot in Washington to push in exactly the opposite direction – tell your Senator not to back Senator Lisa Murkowski’s Big Oil Bail-Out which would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to crack down on global warming pollution from oil and coal.

Comprehensive energy and climate legislation, combined with strong federal and state action using current law, can point us towards a cleaner and safer world where we don’t have to worry about tar balls on our beaches . . .

Mercy, mercy, mercy

May 10, 2010 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

In probably the most honest headline published since the start of the BP oil disaster, today’s Miami Herald writes “With no clear plan, experts brace for worst.” US Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen is contemplating an attempt at plugging the gushing well with a collection of shredded tires, golf balls and other assorted technologically advanced clogging materials. Meanwhile, the BP spokesperson on the scene says, “I have every confidence we’ll find a good temporary solution.” When asked for particulars he revised his confidence to say he has every “hope and prayer.” Another step towards honesty. “Sometimes we are not prepared for adversity,” as Cannonball Adderley once said. Why not approach adversity with honesty?

Oil booms, chemical dispersant, skimmer boats and prep to wash oily wildlife are the basic tenets of oil spill response. For all the creativity and commitment to get oil out of the ground, into your tank and the money in the bank we sure have not made much progress in disaster preparedness or oil clean-up. Every oil spill from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the Exxon Valdez and the smaller spill of fuel oil in Buzzard’s Bay in April of 2003 employed the same four components. What is being employed in the Gulf Coast today is the same approach on a larger scale. It’s no mystery why this is the case. Unless the oil industry feels the pain through fines, regulations and criminal responsibility there will always be an incentive to cut corners, cross fingers and place confidence in “hope and prayer.”

Philosphers and theologians can weigh hope and prayer, but most of us use the standard yardsticks of oil disaster measurement. The BP oil disaster, although likely low-balled, now has its own ticker. The US Coast Guard estimates there have been 250,000 gallons of Corexit, the chemical dispersant of choice, sprayed on or in the ocean so far. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone was over 7000 square miles before the BP oil disaster. There are about 77,000 miles of coastline in Louisiana alone. And then we have about 900,000 feet of plastic oil containment boom placed along Gulf Coast shores. There are still 5280 feet in one mile.

Toxic waves create change

May 7, 2010 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The political landscape seems to be shifting in response to BP’s oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. An overnight poll of Florida residents shows a remarkable shift in public opinion on the value of oil drilling off of their coast. Are these results at all surprising since Floridians are seeing the approaching slick to their heralded beaches? Let’s put it in the context of the previous Florida oil storm, which came in the manner of a multi-million dollar lobbying onslaught by a secret group of out-of-state oil companies in late 2008 and through 2009. This secret cabal was so careful about hiding their indentities that their names are still unknown to Florida citizens despite creating a debate that was on the front pages for months. What a difference an exploding oil platform makes.  Now, the Democrats in the state legislature are urging a vote for a state constitutional amendment to ban offshore oil drilling.  Gov. Crist is leaning their way.

On the Left Coast, the Governator had a more direct conversion and made one of the more prescient observations since the Great BP Gulf Eruption. “Why would we want to take on that kind of risk?,” he asks. “Why indeed?,” responds Rep. John Garamendi who wasted no time in putting his money where his mouth is by introducing federal legislation to permanently ban new oil and gas drilling along the entire west coast. Garamendi won a special election this spring and may be a freshman, but he’s been around the block and knows his oil. He served as deputy secretary of the Department of Interior during the Clinton administration and as Lieutenant Governor of California where he nixed the silly drilling for cash ploy by Plains Exploration and Production oil company.

Back on the Jersey Shore long-time drilling opponents Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, along with Congressman Frank Pallone, are looking at similar legislation to ban drilling in the mid-Atlantic region. Our own New England environmental champions Rep. Ed Markey and Sen. John Kerry were never shy about protecting our beloved Georges Bank and Stellwagen Bank from drilling even at the peak of the Bush era clamor to eliminate the 20 year moratorium.  Unfortunately, the final legislation was never passed and New England’s ocean is still one bad administrative decision away from a return to the failed drilling proposals of the past. The politics of drilling flow like the motion of the ocean itself with the fate of the K-(G)-L climate legislation. Drilling, billions for nukes, a legislated override of a Supreme Court decision to allow regulation of climate pollution and promises, promises to herd in a stray Republican vote are all now up in the air. Sen. Kerry says the proposed legislation will be unveiled on Wednesday. Here’s hoping the proposed oil drilling provisions in that bill have been subject to the same moment of clarity that have awakened millions of Americans. We need climate protection legislation without adding to the oil-carbon disaster.

Dollars and Oil Sense

May 6, 2010 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

As the BP oil spill heads east the US Coast Guard, BP and the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection are planning a coordinated response in the event that oil reaches the western coast of Florida, reports Offshore Magazine, a publication dedicated to issues related to the offshore oil drilling industry. (The ability to plan is certainly a good thing because, as we all know, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.) Late yesterday NOAA predicted that impacts will not reach the western coast of FL for at least 72 hours at current rates. However, the reports are coming in of the oil slick now moving within a few miles of the Mississippi and Alabama coasts.

Preparing for a catastrophic oil spill on Florida’s famously white sand beaches reminds me of a House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee hearing in early 2009 where one rather certain freshman Louisiana Congressman gave a stern lecture to the Executive Director of the St. Petersburg Convention and Visitor’s Center about the fallacy of not embracing oil drilling a few miles from the Florida coast. D.T. Minich was testifying that the tourism industry drives in $300 million dollars in tax revenue to Pinellas County, Florida alone and tourism delivers $7 billion a year to just that portion of the state. Why would they risk a truly sustainable golden goose? Yet, the point was lost on the oily faithful.

The insistent reliance that Big Oil and their Congressional cheerleaders place on the worth of oil receipts seems to carry a different kind of value, almost a higher moral value than an equal dollar generated by tourism, recreation or the ecological services that are the basis for commercial and recreational fishing. Is it possible that the real value of an oil buck might carry a little more if it boosts an electoral campaign rather than just pay some short order cook’s light bill? Where does all that Big Oil money go? The Washington Post reports this morning that British Petroleum has already “mobilized a massive Washington lobbying campaign” and that BP has spent $20 million on Washington lobbying since that February 2009 hearing where Rep. Freshman tried to proselytize the Florida tourist industry. We know that Congressional campaigns get more expensive each cycle and there are always open checkbooks willing to help finance them, but somehow there is still a well dressed emperor strutting down New Orleans’ Canal Street who has no shame about defending an industry that puts ocean wildlife, coastal workers and their communities, and the health of the planet at grave risk.

Profiles in Leadership

May 5, 2010 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

As the Great Oil Gush of 2010 continues we look to our elected leaders for solutions, consolation, inspiration and really good sound bites. Right there on the ol’ Gulf Coast, down around Mississippi way there’s a man by the name of Gene Taylor, Democrat, Member of the House of Representatives. Congressman Taylor hustled up a Coast Guard plane ride to get a good look at the millions of gallons of oil headed into the shores, estuaries and highly profitable fishing grounds. After investigation he offered these soon-to-be-regretted words: “It’s not as bad as I thought it’d be.” Expounding on the fruits of his research Rep. Taylor concluded, “A lot of people are scared and I don’t think they should be.” The oil, you see, will break up naturally and even looks like a rainbow on the water with patches of “chocolate milk.”

I don’t think the fishermen of Prince William Sound, among others, would give the “break down naturally” theory a positive response. They still have to deal with oil on the beach after 20 years.

Not to be outdone, right there on the ol’ Long Island Sound, down around Connecticut way there’s another man of the people who goes by the name of Joe Lieberman, U.S. Senator. Being an expert in political matters he informs us that there are larger concerns to be heeded in the halls of democracy than a complete disaster that killed 11 people, will destroy millions of animals and leave coastal communities in poverty. As reported in the May 4 edition of Congress Daily Joe the Senator waves us on in “nothing to see here” fashion when he insists that a bill to save the climate needs to have pro-drilling language that would codify oil development 75 miles off the Atlantic coast. “There were good reasons for us to put in offshore drilling, and this terrible accident is very rare in drilling,” Lieberman said. “I mean, accidents happen. You learn from them and you try to make sure they don’t happen again.” This from a man who fought for years to permanently ban oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

It appears the Senate vote counting will need to be re-visited as Sen. Bill Nelson (FL-former astronaut) has vowed to filibuster any legislation that allows new offshore oil drilling.

Who caused the oil spill? After all, it was you and me . . .

May 4, 2010 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

Only Rush Limbaugh’s fevered imagination could have hatched the idea that environmentalists caused the Deepwater Horizon oil spill:

RUSH: I want to get back to the timing of the blowing up, the explosion out there in the Gulf of Mexico of this oil rig. Since they’re sending SWAT teams down there now this changes the whole perspective of this. Now, lest we forget, ladies and gentlemen, the carbon tax bill, cap and trade that was scheduled to be announced on Earth Day. I remember that. And then it was postponed for a couple of days later after Earth Day, and then of course immigration has now moved in front of it. But this bill, the cap-and-trade bill, was strongly criticized by hardcore environmentalist wackos because it supposedly allowed more offshore drilling and nuclear plants, nuclear plant investment. So, since they’re sending SWAT teams down there, folks, since they’re sending SWAT teams to inspect the other rigs, what better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I’m just noting the timing here.

Really, he said it.

Texas Governor Rick Perry has a different suspect:  God. An observation that has been treated with some derision even in Texas.

While the list of direct suspects is long and includes government regulators, British Petroleum, the actual operators of the drilling rig and Halliburton.

However, it is very clear that all of us who drive cars bear some responsibility here. The fundamental truth is that as long as humanity is in the business of piercing the protective shell of the earth and pulling out oil there will be calamities like the one  currently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.  As Lisa Margonelli of the New America Foundation, correctly, recently wrote in the New York Times: “All oil comes from someone’s backyard, and when we don’t reduce the amount of oil we consume, and refuse to drill at home, we end up getting people to drill for us in Kazakhstan, Angola and Nigeria — places without America’s strong environmental safeguards or the resources to enforce them.”

Yes, we need to stop drilling off the shores of the United States.  But we need to also recognize that so long as we consume oil in anything like current quantities there will be spills somewhere and (not incidentally) we will continue to put dangerous greenhouse gases causing global warming into the atmosphere.

And where do we use oil in the U.S. ?  The federal government reports that the answer is that 71% of our petroleum use is “for transportation” – in our cars, trucks and airplanes.

As CLF noted in our “5 Steps in 5 Years” Climate Vision, the state and federal governments are literally paving the way  towards a car-dependent future by spending 75 percent of our transportation capital budgets on roads and highways and 25 percent on transit.  To be blunt, the old hiker slogan has some truth to it – that “The Road to Hell is Paved.”

So the next time you are in the drivers seat of a gasoline powered vehicle take a look at yourself in the rear view mirror and stop to consider your own complicity in what is unfolding in the Gulf.  But don’t be paralyzed by guilt – take action.  Urge your elected representatives to pass comprehensive climate legislation and to make a massive investment in transit and smart, livable and walkable communities.

Whales, oil spills and whose fault is it in the end?

May 2, 2010 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Understandably, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (which seems to be the first oil spill to have a Facebook page) has been the subject of intense interest on this blog (repeatedly), in New Orleans (which incredibly finds itself in the cross-hairs of ANOTHER disaster) and in nearby Florida, where brilliant and acerbic environmentalist Carl Hiaasen (buy his books, especially the ones for kids) makes his mark on the subject.

But here is a different angle on the disaster. Consider the recent episode here in New England where a quarter of the population of Right Whales were spotted feeding in an area where whales are not normally found. This reminds us that putting an inherently dangerous activity like oil and gas drilling anywhere in the ocean is like playing Russian roulette with the lives of the animals that live in the ocean and our oceans generally.  A lesson that is playing out among the sea turtles who rely on the Gulf of Mexico as a safe place to reproduce.

So what can we do? The first thing is to not open up even more of our coastline to drilling, especially as part of a climate bill that is intended to protect and restore our environment. But the ultimate answer is to reduce use of , and therefore demand for, oil. And that means, more than anything else, reducing our gasoline consumption. How do we do that? Building smart walkable communities with transit options and using far more efficient cars would be a great start.

We have the seen the enemy and it is us . . . but it doesn’t have to be that way forever.


Apr 30, 2010 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Increased wind speed late yesterday started putting oil on Gulf Coast beaches about 10:00pm last night. Our colleagues at the Gulf Restoration Network are working hard to deal with the oil onslaught. The federal government is stepping up their response and making sure we all know they are. White House political chief David Axelrod announced this morning that they are putting off any new drilling until the administration conducts an “adequate review.” Let’s hope that means at least an immediate moratorium for the Atlantic coast and the Arctic, where drilling could go forward this summer. (Could you imagine a similar spill scenario that occurs under Arctic sheet ice? With no oil booms, skimmer boats, 100-ton steel caps or airplanes dumping “dispersants” in sight?) Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida has already announced he will introduce legislation to ban drilling off the coast of Florida, and Senate Dems are becoming more vocal against the starkly illustrated threats of drilling. It seems like the political currents might be shifting.

Ocean currents are themselves fascinating forces of nature. The currents and internal waves in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank are what help to make New England’s ocean so incredibly productive. The currents are corridors of life for all ocean wildlife from migrating whales to free-floating larvae. They also connect the kelp on the coasts to the deepwater corals in far offshore canyons. CLF has fought hard in the past and again in recent years to make sure Georges Bank was protected from oil drilling, but really Georges Bank is just as threatened by oil drilling that occurs off the coast of Maryland, not to mention across the Canadian border.  So, when you are looking south to the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico don’t forget to look to the north to see what our Canadian neighbors are proposing.

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