From the Wonk Room.
As Washington, D.C. wilts in the global heat wave gripping the planet, the Democratic leadership in the Senate has abandoned the effort to cap global warming pollution for the foreseeable future, unwilling to test a Republican filibuster. Instead of testing the hypocrisy of climate peacocks, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will instead attempt to pass a limited bill with new energy incentives and oil reduction policies next week. The decision was formally made at a meeting of the Senate Democratic caucus Wednesday. After the meeting, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), whose efforts to craft comprehensive climate legislation had foundered, focused on the challenge of overcoming a filibuster:
But we’ve always known from day one, that in order to pass comprehensive energy/climate legislation, you’ve got to reach 60 votes, and to reach those 60 votes, you’ve got have some Republicans. And as we stand here today, we do not have one Republican. I think that it’s possible to get there.
It is the ninth day of the latest 90-plus heat wave to hit Washington DC, part of the global heat wave caused by greenhouse gas pollution. Former vice president Al Gore responded to the announcement with a cold reminder of the realities the Senate has not confronted:
The need to solve the climate crisis and transition to clean energy has never been more clear. The oil is still washing up on the shores of the Gulf Coast and we’ve just experienced the hottest six months on record. Our troops are fighting and dying in the Middle East and our economy is still struggling to produce jobs. I continue to urge the President to provide leadership on this issue and urge the Senate to make this issue a priority for the remainder of this Congress. Ultimately – and sooner rather than later – these issues simply must be dealt with. Our national security, our economic recovery and the future of the United States of America – and indeed the future of human civilization on this Earth – depends on our country taking leadership. And that, in turn, depends on the United States Senate acting. The truth about the climate crisis—inconvenient as ever—must be faced.
Reid confirmed that the bill will have four sections: an oil spill response; a clean energy and job creation title; a section that deals reduction in energy consumption; and a broad proposal coming out of the Finance Committee that deals with the electric utility industry.
When asked if the legislation will include a cap on greenhouse gases, Reid said only he will “work on pollution.” Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NV) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) are both working on proposals for a climate regime that would be limited to the utility sector. Reid “said he was meeting with Carol Browner, Obama’s top energy and climate adviser, as well as Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Kerry was planning to meet with environmental groups and former Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla), now the CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association.”
From the Wonk Room.
The undersea cloud of “highly toxic” oil emanating from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster “is undoubtedly poisonous,” according to President Obama’s federal oceans chief. Marine scientist Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) director, described the threat posed by the “hidden” plumes of oil and dispersants diffusing into the Gulf of Mexico to its valuable ecosystem at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Tuesday. She told interviewer Andrea Mitchell that NOAA and independent scientists have identified “not a lake of black ooze” but a “cloud of very fine droplets spread over an area in the general vicinity of the well,” a prime spawning ground for bluefin tuna. This oil cloud “is undoubtedly poisonous” to the marine life in the Gulf:
As that oil, which is highly toxic, comes into contact with small larvae, with eggs, fish for example, or other creatures, it is undoubtedly poisonous to them.
“This truly is an environmental disaster but more a human tragedy,” Lubchenco said in her opening remarks. “Its impact is likely to be considerable,” she said of the oil hidden undersea, “but we don’t yet know what it will be.”
From the Wonk Room.
Johnnie Burton, former MMS director
As for allegations of lax enforcement at the Minerals Management Service, grossly inadequate spill response plans and other regulatory shortfalls, Burton said that as MMS director she was unaware of those problems. “I can’t answer all these questions at this point because when I was there it seemed to work well,” Burton said.
The agency worked so “well” that investigators found evidence of “cronyism and cover-ups of management blunders; capitulation to oil companies in disputes about payments; plunging morale among auditors; and unreliable data-gathering that often makes it impossible to determine how much money companies actually owe.”Burton was in charge during the development of the offshore drilling plan that expanded drilling to the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Her Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program 2007-2012 included 2008’s Lease Sale 206, in which BP purchased Mississippi Canyon Block 252 (MC252) for $34 million. MC252, also known as the Macondo Prospect, has been flooding the Gulf of Mexico with oil for months now. Burton’s plan dismissed the environmental threat of that sale, primarily because no huge disasters had taken place since the Ixtoc I blowout in 1979, as these excerpts show:
The analysis above shows that with regard to potential oil spill impacts, areas that contain wetlands and marshes such as the Central GOM are particularly sensitive. However, lessees have been producing oil and gas from the Central Gulf and other areas for over 50 years with a remarkable record of environmental safety. For more than 30 years, there have been no significant oil spills from platforms anywhere on the OCS. [p. 92]
No Environmental Justice impacts from accidental oil spills are expected because of the movement of oil and gas activities further away from coastal areas and, also, the demographic pattern of more affluent groups living in coastal areas. [p. 60]
The Central Gulf coastal area ranks second in marine primary productivity only to the Mid-Atlantic. The marine primary productivity of the Central Gulf does not appear to have been appreciably diminished by offshore exploration and production activities. The same is true of other areas of the OCS with existing operations and production. Thus, the size, location, and timing of lease sales in the PFP are consistent with the marine primary productivity of the areas in which lease sales will be held. [p. 95]
Overall, impacts on national parks, national wildlife refuges, national estuarine research reserves, and national estuary program sites due to routine operations are expected to be limited under the proposed action because these areas are restricted from development. Impacts from oil spills are unlikely because it is anticipated that 75 percent of the hydrocarbons developed, as a result of the 2007-2012 leasing program in the GOM area are expected to occur in deep water (>330 m) usually located far from the shoreline. [p. 57]
Any single large spill would likely affect only a small proportion of a given fish population within the GOM, and it is unlikely that fish resources would be permanently affected. [p. 57]
In areas with a large proportion of impact-sensitive industry, such as tourism, the potential incremental impacts of oil spills would likely result in a one-time seasonal decline in business activity. [p. 59]
Impacts of accidental releases to water quality would depend on the size of the spill, type of material or product spilled, and environmental factors at the time of the spill. However, there would be no long-term, widespread impairment of marine water quality. [p. 60]
I remember enough to tell you, for the five years I was there, we never relaxed any rules – never changed any rules to make them any less safe.
In fact, Burton’s MMS followed the Bush agenda of “increasing domestic oil and gas production, offering more incentives to drillers in the Gulf of Mexico and pushing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other wilderness areas to drilling.” The “department trimmed spending on enforcement and cut back on auditors, and sped up approvals for drilling applications.” Auditing revenues plummeted by 86 percent from its 2000 peak even though oil prices soared, as Burton slashed auditing, fired effective auditors who challenged oil companies for bilking the American public and she resisted efforts to recoup money.
These are amazing times in the Gulf of Mexico. We are entering the second decade of sustained expansion of domestic oil and gas development in the deep water area of the Gulf.
The praise heaped on BP and the safety of offshore drilling from Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, Burton’s boss, at the Thunder Horse celebration are painful in retrospect:
It is little noticed, and even less appreciated, but offshore production platforms have a remarkable safety record. Only about 1 percent of the oil in U.S. domestic waters comes from accidental spills, according to the most recent Oil in the Sea report from the National Academy of Sciences. . . .
My second message today is about the importance of energy to the American economy, and the need for America to have its own domestic sources of energy. I recognize that this message is somewhat ironic, since today we are recognizing the accomplishment of a company well known as British Petroleum. Clearly part of what we celebrate today is the strong alliance that extends across the Atlantic Ocean. We recognize once again that two nations have grown from a common root, split apart, and matured. We feel assured that a business venture involving both nations is as secure as one done within our national borders.
Five months later, in July 2005, Hurricane Dennis nearly sank the Thunder Horse platform at Mississippi Canyon Block 778. After the dangerously listing platform was repaired, it was returned to production, where it continues to pump oil for BP and Exxon to this day, only a few dozen miles from the Deepwater Horizon wreck.