energy

Despite massive Gulf oil spill, offshore oil drilling starts soon in the Arctic Ocean

If you thought BP's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill would give the oil companies some pause about offshore drilling, you were sadly mistaken. Armed with a just-issued appellate court ruling against environmentalists and Alaskan native tribes, Shell is pushing briskly ahead with plans to launch exploratory drilling off the north coast of Alaska in matter of weeks.

Yes, just as BP's Deepwater Horizon spill is revealed to be on course to outdo the nation's worst oil spill, Alaska's Exxon Valdez, another oil company wants to open up vast swaths off the the 49th state's coast for drilling. These are the same waters that produce the nation's largest fish catch.

Recall that, as we recounted not long ago, government auditors have established that the U.S. Minerals Management Service scientists were ordered to do a shoddy job analyzing environmental risks of this new drilling campaign in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas of the Arctic Ocean.

Recall also -- and we're having trouble understanding why this isn't coming up more right about now -- that it wasn't that long ago that Minerals Management Service officials literally were having sex and snorting cocaine with the oil-company execs their agency was supposed to be regulating. In a novel, this would not be believeable. But it happened.

So now that we've covered the institutional background behind this Alaskan oil-drilling adventure, let's consider it in light of the Gulf spill.  

Federal scientists ordered to do half-baked analysis of Alaskan oil-drilling plans, audit finds

When the Obama administration not long ago went ahead with what could become a major expansion of oil drilling off Alaska's coasts, it did so with full knowledge that its scientists hadn't been able to do a proper environmental review.

That's the upshot from auditors at the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress. And it appears that oil companies' pleas to keep some information secret from the scientists also played a role in the half-baked look at environmental threats, a new GAO report states:

"According to regional staff, this (secrecy) practice has hindered their ability to complete sound environmental analyses."

Those analyses are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Although the GAO report just came out, drafts had been available at the Interior Department, which oversees the offshore oil drilling, since sometime before March 1, records show.

The report says some scientists who were sick of being told to do a lousy job on environmental analyses just quit, further complicating the task for doing a first-rate job taking stock of the risks as required under NEPA. Remember, folks, we are talking here about the Obama admnistration, which, as we noted recently, seems reminiscent of the Bush administration on some enviro matters lately. This latest finding flies in the face of President Obama's chest-pounding about how his administration would end the era of arm-twisting government scientists.

Obama's offshore-drilling OK may not be a flip-flop but it's sure Bush-like -- except the Alaska part

Did President Obama do a flip-flop when he opened up vast swaths of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil drilling? It depends on how far back you want to go in the President's record. In the Senate he supported efforts to limit offshore drilling. But as a presidential candidate he came around to accepting at least some offshore drilling as a way to build consensus on the energy issue.

Catharine Richert brings us this analysis for the worthwhile politifact.com website run by the St. Pete Times. Her post is worth a read.

Flip-flop or no, though, it's one of what seem like increasingly more common Obama decisions on the environment that could easily have been made by the George W. Bush administration (but probably not  by the George H.W. Bush team.) Example: On Monday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was going with a Bush-era interpretation of the Clean Air Act that delays a crackdown on regulation of greenhouse gases from stationary sources such as power plants. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, this will allow construction of another 50 coal-fired plants.

Other thoughts in the aftermath of Obama's drilling decision:

+ I couldn't resist retweeting David Roberts of Grist.org:

"Imagine Obama banning offshore drilling in the vague hope that environmental groups might some day support his bill."

:>)

VP Biden: Health care's a big bleepin' deal. Obama: Don't look for D.C to tackle climate change

It was hard not to chuckle when I learned that blooper-prone Vice President Joe Biden, thinking he was out of earshot of the cameras when President Obama signed the heath-care legislation today, told the prez: "This is a big f--king deal!"

But crying is more in order if you listen to what Obama said at the bill-signing in remarks about what's next. Why? Because it ain't climate legislation. Here's what our surpreme commander had to say about how he's going to use the health-care win to push Congress on other fronts (italics are mine):

  "We all know our journey is far from over.  There’s still the work to do to rebuild this economy.  There’s still work to do to spur on hiring.  There’s work to do to improve our schools and make sure every child has a decent education.  There’s still work to do to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  There’s more work to do to provide greater economic security to a middle class that has been struggling for a decade."

Notice the emphasis not on what would surely be a hard fight to pass climate legislation, but rather on something (almost) everyone can agree on: Escaping this precipice where countries that hate America control something so vital to our well-being.

No, Obama doesn't risk offending anyone with that sentiment.

Here's how the situation was sized up in a note to clients and other contacts by Capitol Hill veteran Frank Maisano of the lobbying firm Bracewell & Giuliani (yes, that Giuliani!), whose clients include a number in the energy business:

Consumers really can affect global warming -- particularly if they live in the United States

I've always been just a hair skeptical about all those admonitions to consumers to save the world -- you know, the "Live simply, that others may simply live"-type instructions. They felt a little too much like guilt-tripping to me, with perhaps not enough corresponding actual environmental good being done. It seems like a way for consumers who are feeling guilty about something -- say, those SUVs they drive -- to assuage their guilt by doing something that doesn't really hurt, like turning off the lights when leaving a room. And of course, we've seen how this mindset can backfire:

Obama's State of the Union punts on climate change... but what did you expect?

rm iwest mugWell, President Obama certainly did go on at some length tonight in his just-concluded State of the Union address. But he once again failed to elevate the climate issue to urgency. I have to agree with David Roberts over at Grist.org: "Pretty weak tea." (Hat tip to Roberts for posting the transcript of that part of the speech before Obama was even done talking.)

Now, some of our faithful correspondents and even some friends thought it curious that Dateline Earth faulted Obama for falling short on the climate and energy issue in his inaugural address a year ago, after which we held forth thusly:

 That is not the speech of a man who intends to launch a World War II-style domestic campaign -- think Rosie the Riveter and the Manahattan Project. And that's what scientists are saying we'll need.

He did it again tonight. The president -- wisely -- started out talking about jobs or, as we've put it before, "Fighting climate change = ending the recession." He was clearly aware that Americans are saying in polls now that climate is pretty low on their list of concerns. And just a day before the talk, Republican Lindsey Graham caved on Cap'n Trade, provoking Roberts, for one, to accept that we probably won't be going down that road this year, if ever in Obama's presidency.

But the sheer brevity of what Obama had to say tonight portrays a president so pummeled by problems that on climate, he punted.

Scientist whose e-mails were stolen in 'climategate' calls for new view of science, public

rm iwest mugA leading climate scientist whose pirated e-mails were bared for world scrutiny in the so-called "climategate" incident is making some points about the climate-change debate, and scientists' relationship with the public, that have needed saying for some time.

Hat tip to Matt Preusch of The Oregonian for spotting one piece in The Wall Street Journal by Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia in England. Hulme also held forth in a longer and more involved column, written in conjunction with science critic-questioner Jerome Ravetz, for the BBC. (It's also worth noting that Hulme is the author of a book I intend to find, Why We Disagree About Climate Change.)

Now, I have to say that I was taken aback by the way scientists involved in the email exchanges seem to have been trying to squelch the dissemination of data, and even schemed to block publication of science they found ... sorry, can't help myself... inconvenient.

The e-mail exchanges between prominent American and British climate researchers revealed some disturbing points about how some of the scientists involved in this field have conducted themselves.

But as I read Hulme's piece, it came to me that he is on point about this: We are all arguing about the science of climate change, when what we ought to be arguing about is our value systems and our political inclinations.

Hulme's WSJ article, which is fairly short, is worth a read.

"Battery of Southeast Asia"? Or harbor for dolphins, rare dragon, spiders the size of dinner plates?

In yesterday's post we described the eight-nation investigation that found the tactics employed to fight climate-change legislation in the United States are being used across several continents.

Today we think we've found a kind of perverse example, a situation that serves as a harbinger of the hard choices ahead:

In Laos, Living On Earth's Mary Stucky recently spotlighted a dam whose construction has buried 19 villages, displaced some 6,000 people and covered 174 square miles with water.

That's the human cost. Consider, though, that this region is one of those rich repositories of rare and largely unexplored species of plants and animals. In a recent 10-year period, more than 1,000 new species were discovered there, including a rat thought to be extinct for 11 million years; a hot-pink, cyanide-producing dragon; and a species of spider that's as big as a dinner plate, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund. And the Mekong is the home of about 80 Irrawaddy dolphins, a species that is declining rapidly.

Stucky interviewed the World Wildlife Fund's Stuart Chapman, who -- after treating her to Loa delicacies such as the cricket -- discussed the affects of the dam construction in an area where the dolphins come to feed:

Opponents say the dam at Siphandone would devastate the remaining dolphins and affect fish catches dramatically. The World Wildlife Fund's Chapman says areas like Siphandone should be avoided but he supports allowing some dams in less sensitive places and wants to be sure people are provided with a way to make a living. 

OK, so what does this all have to do with climate change? Just this: These folks are in need of jobs and economic growth.