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Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

Archive for June, 2010

Unmanned Drones in U.S. Airspace? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Monday, June 14th, 2010

File under “OMG! WTF?”

We took our eyes off the BP oil cam just long enough to see this headline : “Feds Under Pressure to Open U.S. Skies to Drones.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to issue flying rights for a range of pilotless planes to carry out civilian and law—enforcement functions but has been hesitant to act. Officials are worried that they might plow into airliners, cargo planes and corporate jets that zoom around at high altitudes, or helicopters and hot air balloons that fly as low as a few hundred feet off the ground.

Really? Something might go wrong?

. . . these pilotless aircraft come in a variety of sizes. Some are as big as a small airliner, others the size of a backpack. The tiniest are small enough to fly through a house window.

Cool. Maybe BP could use drones to shoo away those pesky reporters and photographers cluttering up BP’s beaches and wetlands along the Gulf Coast.

One major concern is the prospect of lost communication between unmanned aircraft and the operators who remotely control them. Another is a lack of firm separation of aircraft at lower altitudes, away from major cities and airports. Planes entering these areas are not required to have collision warning systems or even transponders. Simply being able to see another plane and take action is the chief means of preventing accidents. . . .

The National Transportation Safety Board held a forum in 2008 on safety concerns associated with pilotless aircraft after a Predator crashed in Arizona. The board concluded the ground operator remotely controlling the plane had inadvertently cut off the plane’s fuel. . . .


BP Oil Flood Brought to You by U.S. Supreme Court?

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

[cross-posted at Daily Kos]

Let’s play what-if: Would the BP Oil Flood have happened if the Rehnquist Supreme Court in its Bush v. Gore ruling had not stopped the state of Florida’s vote-counting? We think maybe not. We think it’s not too far a stretch to say that the BP Oil Flood is a direct consequence of the Supreme Court’s 5–4 ruling in Bush v. Gore, about which dissenting associate justice John Paul Stevens lamented:

“Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear.”

Even though the Clinton administration was not noted for its environmental activism, we can be sure that if Al Gore had gone from vice president to president—which he nearly did, at least by a half million popular votes—he would have been a tougher regulator of the oil and energy industry than George W. Bush. The Bush administration in effect was the oil and energy industry, with either direct or close ties (including substantial investments) held by the president, vice president, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, national security adviser and later secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, energy secretary Spencer Abraham, EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, commerce secretary Donald Evans, and on and on. The Bush method of cabinet selection—a sharpened version of the usual Republican way—was to appoint as secretary a person who came from the industry that would be overseen by the department in question, or disagreed with the department’s reason for being. For example, energy secretary Spencer Abraham, when he was a senator from Michigan, in 1999 had cosponsored a bill (S.896) to abolish the Energy Department and transfer the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to the Defense Department.


Oil Flood in Hot Water

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

It’s not like we really needed this extra twist of fortune, but the hurricane season that began June 1 and runs through the end of November (or as long as nature wants) is forecast to be “one of the most turbulent ever.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts 14 to 23 named storms this year, of which 8 to 14 will become hurricanes and, of those, 3 to 7 will grow into major hurricanes with winds of up to 111 m.p.h. or more. Yes, that is the same NOAA that has just begun to confirm that the “oil plumes” that scientists have been talking about for several weeks now, and whose existence BP continues to deny, do in fact exist.

(Click here for a NOAA “Hurricanes and the Oil Spill” fact sheet, and here for NASA Earth Observatory images of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, some of which are trippy. And click here to see “Visualizing the BP Oil Spill Disaster” at IfItWasMyHome.com. Key in your zip code and check the spread.)

It’s hard to know what effect a storm would have on the oil that has been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for 50 days now (since Earth Day, April 20). A hurricane could blow oil all over hundreds of miles of land and make yet another unprecedented mess. It could help disperse the oil that has already spilled. Winds only churn down to several hundred feet of water, scientists say, so it would not roil the waters a mile deep where the leak is gushing (or are there multiple leaks?). Oil on the water’s surface might sap the storm’s energy to some extent, according to some scientists, though NOAA experts seem to discount that likelihood. Kerry Emanuel, M.I.T. professor of atmospheric science and author of Divine Wind, says that by reducing evaporation, oil could be heating the waters in the Gulf of Mexico—precisely the conditions that intensify hurricanes—but he said it is difficult to determine because the oil sheen on the water surface distorts satellite measurements of water temperatures. Click here for an interview with Kerry Emanuel, recorded shortly after Hurricane Katrina, on how warm water intensifies hurricanes.


Welcome Back, Mr. President, to Louisiana, the Dark Underside of the Nation’s Guilty Conscience

Friday, June 4th, 2010


[ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

Take a good look around. Our state bird, only recently removed from the Endangered Species list, now so soaked with crude oil it can’t lift its wings or even breathe. Our hearts are breaking for the dying pelicans and all that they represent, including the 11 dead oil rig workers and the idled shrimpers, oystermen, and fishermen.


It is probably a good thing that you have appointed former senator Bob Graham and former EPA administrator William K. Reilly as co-chairs of a BP Oil Spill Commission—though we hope they won’t be a blue-ribbon panel that serves only to justify further deep-sea drilling and oil addiction. We definitely do not want a return to oil business as usual. We are pleased that Attorney General Eric Holder has announced criminal investigations in the BP calamity. We like your call to roll back “billions of dollars in tax breaks” for oil companies to use the money for clean energy research and development—it’s about time. And it is good that Secretary Salazar is intent on cleaning house and reorganizing the Minerals Management Service by separating the regulation and enforcement functions from the oil exploration promotion and royalty collection part. But there’s more: We want your full backing of Senator Landrieu’s proposed Accelerated Revenue Sharing (see the Times-Picayune’s editorial “Louisiana Needs Its Share of Offshore Oil Revenue Now, Mr. President”). Louisiana has gone too long without its fair share of offshore oil and gas revenue royalties. We need that money now, not in 2017.

Large-Scale Action, and Action Now

. . . the time has come to aggressively accelerate that transition [to a clean energy economy]. The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean energy future.

Your remarks on the economy this week at Carnegie Mellon University were admirable in their breadth and priorities, but this vision is still not bold enough. We want you to Go Big—to push Congress to go big—for a full-blown energy reform movement. Administration officials’ insistence that “from day one” the federal government has been in charge of the oil spill response are meaningless and not reassuring. Actions speak louder.

Now is the time, Mr. President. Give us some audacity of hope, audacity of bold action, unmistakable action. Something equal to the U.S. war mobilization in World War II. (“Be Bold, Obama.” “Spend, Obama, Spend.”)

You have often spoken of the critical need to develop alternative, sustainable energy, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “Stimulus”) gave a strong injection of billions of dollars as “down payments.” Further, you and Vice President Biden have been vocal supporters of rail and public transportation and have allocated considerable federal funding, as with your announcement in January of $8 billion in funding for high-speed rail projects. But again, as you acknowledged at the time, this is only a down payment. We can’t—and we shouldn’t—wait any longer.

Mr. President, a major, massive, fully committed national shift toward alternative energy must begin now. (Talking to you, too, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, Jeff Bingaman, Mary Landrieu, David Vitter . . .) As your chief of staff says, let no crisis go to waste. Give us Energy Reform—change we can believe in. Push for Energy Reform on the scale of the Manhattan Project, the Interstate Highway System, the TVA, or the Apollo mission—or all of these combined.

Awaken the Green Giant

In addition to your full-throated, insistent support for the best elements of the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act and the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act (passed in May 2009) and the Cantwell-Collins CLEAR Act—press Congress to pass them ASAP—what America needs immediately in massive doses is funding for an Energy Independence Act (or some catchy name—call it “Green Giant” if it makes people happy). Just do it. The public will be with you in great numbers. But you have to mean it. Take your health care reform passion and quadruple it. A New York Times editorial (“While the Senate Fiddles”) said it well last month:

. . . the [Kerry-Lieberman] bill has no chance unless President Obama steps up. Mr. Obama pledged to “engage” with the Senate to pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill “this year.” This was one of those ticket-punching statements that isn’t going to change any minds. What he should have said is that he is going to hammer on the Senate until it does what this country needs. [emphasis added]

Push now, push hard, push soon—we’ll push with you—and then we as a nation won’t feel so damned, pathetically helpless. The time is right. The timing has never been better. It is the politically astute thing to do and it is the morally right thing to do. We know you care. Now put your empathy into action.

Rachel Maddow Reporting from Jean Lafitte National Park

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

When Rachel Maddow broadcast from the French Quarter the Friday night before the Super Bowl (how long ago that feels!), she surely did not imagine she would be back a few months later covering the hugest godawful environmental catastrophe this nation has ever seen. Since the Earth Day Blowout Rachel has been to Venice, Louisiana, down in the Birdfoot, as has her NBC comrade Brian Williams, and on Wednesday she broadcast from the west bank of New Orleans, with the city and the river behind her. Tonight (Thursday) she will broadcast from Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Today’s Lesson: Why Louisiana’s Wetlands Are Important

Rachel visited the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, about 15 miles from the Quarter, and spoke with park official David Muth and Dr. Larry McKinney, research director of the Harte Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M–Corpus Christi, about why coastal wetlands are important: not only for all the life within them but also because every 2.7 square miles reduces hurricane storm surge by about a foot. The swamps are a buffer for New Orleans and other human settlements in coastal Louisiana. But because the state is losing about 25 square miles every year, or 50 acres a day—1,900 square miles have disappeared in the past century—the 15-, 20-, and 25-foot storm surges that come with hurricanes grow more catastrophic every year. Parks official David Muth tells Rachel:

Our biggest concern is that as we enter hurricane season, when we have a storm in the Gulf, even if it doesn’t come ashore, it can push enormous amounts of water up into this estuary. And once that happens, then a lot of that oil has the potential to come much farther inland, even into a fresh water swamp like this than we might otherwise have thought possible.

We wrote a few weeks ago in some detail about how the oil slick threatens the vegetation that holds the wetlands together—the sea grass and cypresses whose roots hold the soil together and put the “land” in wetlands—and how the Oilpocalypse thus threatens the long-term survival of the Crescent City, long after it may wipe out the livelihoods of the shrimpers, oystermen, and fishermen along the Gulf Coast. We are grateful to MSNBC for sending Rachel and her crew, and to NBC for keeping environmental reporter Anne Thompson on the scene, and for sending, again and again, Brian Williams, whose affection for New Orleans and Louisiana is evident and, we hope, contagious. Thanks for keeping the spotlight on.

After “Epic Foolishness,” Time to Wake a Sleeping (Green) Giant

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Columnist Bob Herbert of the New York Times, a stalwart advocate for reinforced infrastructure and an eloquent defender of the unemployed, of over-stressed and under-supplied soldiers, and other victims of neglect, is usually moderate in temperament as he shows concern for the subject at hand. But in a recent column titled “Our Epic Foolishness” he’s hot under the collar—the frustration steams from his ears—and with good reason. We’re right there with him.*

For a nation that can’t stop bragging about how great and powerful it is, we’ve become shockingly helpless in the face of the many challenges confronting us. Our can-do spirit was put on hold many moons ago, and here we are now unable to defeat the Taliban, or rein in the likes of BP and the biggest banks, or stop the oil gushing furiously from the bowels of earth like a warning from Hades about the hubris and ignorance that is threatening to destroy us.

Then Herbert gets to the action part (that means us):

However and whenever the well gets capped, what we really need is leadership that calls on the American public to begin coping in a serious and sustained way with an energy crisis that we’ve been warned about for decades. If the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history is not enough to bring about a reversal of our epic foolishness on the energy front, then nothing will.

What can we as individuals do? Conserve more. Turn thermostats down, or up, depending on the season. Walk or ride a bike when possible. Conserving energy, says Herbert, is “a way of combating the pervasive feelings of helplessness that have become so demoralizing and so destructive to our long-term interests.” He also recommends a carbon tax.