Weekly Mulch: Oil Spill Could Bring Mass Extinction to the Gulf Coast

A cap placed over a severed pipe is siphoning some oil from the broken BP well in the Gulf Coast, the company said today. The company’s CEO said this morning on CBS that it was possible that this fix could capture up to 90% of the oil, but that it will take 24 to 48 hours to understand how well this solution is working. Adm. Thad Allen, the former Coast Guard chief and oil spill incident commander, called the cap “only a temporary and partial fix.”

Despite the capping procedure, it became clear this week that the onrush of oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon rig will not cease any time soon. Even in the best case scenario, thousands of barrels of oil will still flow into the ocean. Destruction is already spreading along the Gulf Coast, and before the oil stops leaking, species might be extinct and industries destroyed.

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Weekly Mulch: BP Oil Hits Louisiana - But how Far Away is the Next Disaster?

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Oil has hit shore in Louisiana, and despite BP’s best efforts to keep the media away, reporters can now touch the greasy stuff with their hands and feet. The onrush of  oil into the Gulf has continued for over a month now, and while BP is still trying to staunch both the spill and media spin, the company is losing control over the information that’s reaching the public.

The Environmental Protection Agency demanded this week that the company use a less toxic dispersant to clean up the spill, and independent scientists are releasing estimates of the spills volume that dwarf BP’s numbers in terms of magnitude.

Right now, a catastrophe of this scope seems like an unprecedented, one-off event. But across the energy industry, at other drilling sites, in other industries, companies are taking risks and courting environmental disasters on the same scale.

“Bayou Polluter”

BP, which was operating the rig before the spill, has other sins on its head. In Louisiana, “fishermen say BP spills oil every year and they point out marshes still dead from dispersants that were sprayed there,” marine biologist Riki Ott writes for Yes! Magazine.

The latest disaster could cause more exponentially more damage, but it is far from unique. On Democracy Now!, former EPA investigator Scott West, describes a case in which one of the company’s Alaska pipelines burst, spilling oil out onto the frozen tundra. BP had ignored workers’ concerns about the integrity of the pipeline, West says, and during warmer months, the resulting spill could have reached the Bering Sea and created a much bigger mess.

“Now we’re seeing the same sort of thing in the Gulf, in this catastrophe,” West said. “And information is coming to light that corners were cut and that employees’ concerns were being ignored. It’s the exact same pattern that we saw with BP in Alaska.”

Beyond BP

But a new report, which combs over the oil industry as a whole, shows that “BP can’t be singled out,” writes Public News Service. The report “found that operating errors and incidents around the globe are more common than the public likely realizes because most events don’t make the news.”

As countries like the United States become more desperate for fuel, accidents like the spill in the Gulf Coast become more likely. Extracting oil from tar sands, hydrofracking, deep-sea oil drilling: these are tricky techniques for extracting fossil fuel that are becoming popular only because the world’s store of easily accessible energy is almost gone. In The Nation, Michael Klare writes about the new quest for “extreme energy options” and the contingent risks.

“By their very nature, such efforts involve an ever increasing risk of human and environmental catastrophe—something that has been far too little acknowledged,” Klare writes. “As energy companies encounter fresh and unexpected hazards, their existing technologies…often prove incapable of responding adequately to the new challenges. And when disasters occur, as is increasingly likely, the resulting environmental damage is sure to prove exponentially more devastating than anything experienced in the industrial annals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Tar sands a slow-motion spill

It’s not just BP that’s playing fast and loose with its environmental impact. Extracting fuel from tar sands, a source for oil that’s gaining in popularity as an alternative to off-shore drilling, takes a dramatic toll on the environment.

Inter Press Service writes that, according to a new report, “Oil sands development is “kind of like the gulf spill but playing out in slow motion.”

The extraction process demands lakes of water, which, once contaminated, are held in pools. “Those toxic ponds pose a hazard to migrating birds, risk contaminating nearby soil and water resources, present health problems to downstream communities and, the report notes, pose the risk of “a catastrophic breach,”” IPS explains.

A director at the National Resource Defense Council described tar sand extraction as “a slow-motion oil spill every day,” writes The Texas Observer’s Forrest Whittaker. The United States is poised to consume even more oil from this source, too, he reports:

“In the works is a 2,000-mile underground pipeline from Alberta to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, including BP’s Texas City facility. The high-pressure pipeline, proposed by TransCanada, would be capable of carrying 900,000 barrels per day, enough to more than double consumption of tar-sands oil in the U.S.”

Government intervention

As Whittaker reports, the Obama administration has been supportive of these sorts of efforts, and this week questions about the government’s leniency towards BP and the energy industry started bubbling up. In this climate, the government should be stepping in to defend the safety of the country’s people and its environment; instead, even the Obama administration is giving the energy industry a long leash to pursue its projects. On Democracy Now!, Scott West, the EPA investigator, described the pattern he saw during his investigation:

“What the government has done over the past several years is taught BP that it can do whatever it wants and will not be held accountable. So, decisions have been made, very poor decisions have been made, to increase profits and put workers at risk and been allowed and endorsed by the federal government.”

The current oversight has not much improved. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and his colleagues are pushing for a $10 billion cap on liability for oil companies, for instance, but the administration has argued for a lower limit, the Washington Independent reports.

Without real accountability from the government, BP could escape with little damage, Riki Ott explains in her Yes! Magazine piece.

“In the Exxon Valdez spill, people counted on the oil company to respond to and clean up the mess, and we counted on Congress and the legal system to hold the oil industry accountable for damages to the environment and local communities and economies. In hindsight, these turned out to be bad ideas,” she writes. “Exxon dodged penalties through long court battles,  systematically underestimating the scope of the spill, and leveraging the costs of clean-up to avoid fines and penalties.”

BP doesn’t need to escape accountability in the same way, though; Ott has suggestions for actions that anyone can take to ensure the company pays the price for the damage it has caused.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.



You Betcha Sarah Palin Has a Higher Calling

While everyone is trying to figure out what Sarah Palin was thinking when she resigned as Alaska's governor, award-winning investigative journalist and satirist Walter Brasch has the answer.

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Sarah Palin's Numbers Tank in Alaska

All I can say is ouch.

Hays Research, 400 adults, 5/4-5/09 (7/24-25/08), MoE +/- 4.9%

Would you say you feel positive or negative about Sarah Palin?

Favorable: 54 percent (80 percent)
Unfavorable:32 42 percent (16 percent)

In the time since Sarah Palin became a national political figure, here favorable rating within her home state of Alaska has dropped more than 25 points while her unfavorable rating has doubled. While a scant 5 percent viewed her negatively last summer, fully one quarter of the state (24.8 percent) now views her in an unfavorable light. With numbers like these, and particularly a trajectory like this, it's not at all beyond the realm of possibility that Palin could find herself in a competitive reelection campaign next year -- or even, for that matter, a competitive re-nomination campaign. Quite the rising star, indeed!

Update [2009-5-7 15:41:59 by Jonathan Singer]: My math was a little off -- Palin's unfavorable numbers are 42 percent, not 32 percent.

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Sarah Palin Wants New AK-Sen Election

Yesterday, Think Progress noted that in the wake of the charges against Ted Stevens having been dropped, the Alaska GOP had called on Senator Begich to resign to allow for a new election.

The Alaska Republican Party further believes that current Senator Mark Begich should resign his position to allow for a new, special election, so Alaskans may have the chance to vote for a Senator without the improper influence of the corrupt Department of Justice.

Turns out, Sarah Palin concurs.

Gov. Sarah Palin on Thursday echoed a call from the Alaska Republican Party for U.S. Sen. Mark Begich to resign after the Justice Department asked a judge to toss out corruption charges against former Sen. Ted Stevens.

"I absolutely agree," Palin responded in an e-mail Thursday to the Daily News-Miner.

She said Begich should step down and a special election should be held to fill the seat.

"Come to find out, (the Department of Justice) is now revealing (Stevens) should not have been found guilty," she said. "This drastic change in circumstances, wherein truth is finally being revealed, leads me to support the call for a special, fair election -- free from the improper influence of a conviction that DOJ now tells us was improper."

I know it's becoming pretty standard for Republicans to claim election results that don't favor them are invalid, but this is pretty crazy stuff, even for Palin. Hell even Don Young is making sense.

Young dismissed those demands, calling them "a lot of noise."

"Sen. Begich, in all due respect, won the race," he said. "There is no other recourse. He has taken office, he is now the new senator."

Something else Young said gives a clue as to why Palin may have decided to show just where her allegiances lie:

Now that the corruption case against former Sen. Ted Stevens has been dropped, Alaska Rep. Don Young wants Stevens to run for governor -- a move that would set up a Republican primary between the veteran lawmaker and Sarah Palin, if she decides to seek a second term in 2010.

"Personally I'd like to see him run for governor, and that's my personal feeling," Young told the Alaska Public Radio Network on Thursday. "So, we'll see what happens down the line. He probably won't, but I think that would be a great way to cap off a great career as being the governor of the state of Alaska."

If you'll recall, Palin threw Young under the bus last year, endorsing his primary challenger and then refusing to support his bid for re-election. Now, payback's a bitch. Between Young's victory last year and the charges having been dropped against Stevens, things just aren't going Palin's way. You gotta think Palin intends to run for re-election next year, so that she can run for president as a sitting governor. The potential for that re-election to be a shaky one just made 2010 a little more interesting.

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