Energy and Environmental News for April 25th, 2010; BP’s 42,000 gallon a day oil spill now covers over 1,800 square miles; Questions continue over Cape wind farm

Oil Spill Now Covering More Than 1,800 Square Miles

Coast Guard officials said Monday afternoon that the oil spill near Louisiana was now covering more than 1,800 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico, and they have been unable to engage a mechanism that could shut off the well thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface.

The response team was trying three tacks to address a spill caused by an explosion on an oil rig last week: one that could stop the leaks within hours, one that would take months, and one that would not stop the leaks but would capture the oil and deliver it to the surface while permanent measures were pursued.

On Sunday morning, officials began using remote-controlled vehicles to try to activate the blowout preventer, a 450-ton valve sitting at the wellhead, 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. The blowout preventer can seal off the well to prevent sudden pressure releases that possibly led to the explosion on the rig last Tuesday night.


If successful, engaging the blowout preventer could seal the well Monday or Tuesday.

The flow of oil from the leaks is about 42,000 gallons of oil a day. The authorities said it was still unclear what caused the explosion. Eleven crew members are missing and presumed dead.

BP struggles to cap leak as US oil slick spreads

British oil giant BP used robotic underwater vehicles Sunday to try to cap a leaking well and prevent a growing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico from developing into an environmental disaster.

Satellite images showed the slick had spread by 50 percent in a day to cover an area of 600 square miles (1,550 square kilometers), although officials said some 97 percent of the pollution was just a thin veneer on the sea’s surface.

BP has dispatched skimming vessels to mop up the oil leaking from the debris of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which sank on Thursday, still blazing almost two days after a massive explosion that left 11 workers missing presumed dead.

So far winds have been kind and the slick is not threatening the coast — more than 40 miles away — of Louisiana, where it could endanger ecologically fragile wetlands that are a paradise for rare waterfowl.

“In the trajectory analysis we don’t see any impact to any shoreline within the next three days,” Charlie Henry, scientific support coordinator of the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told journalists.

Pressure Is Building on Disputed Wind Farm

Political pressure continues to build on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as he prepares to announce his decision this week on the fate of a proposed wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass. that has been stalled for nine years. The governors of six East Coast states called on Mr. Salazar last week to approve the project, which is proposed by Cape Wind Associates and would be the nation’s first offshore wind farm.

The governors of six East Coast states called on Mr. Salazar last week to approve the project, which is proposed by Cape Wind Associates and would be the nation’s first offshore wind farm. Turning it down, they said, especially on the grounds that it would harm the view from historic sites, “would establish a precedent that would make it difficult, if not impossible, to site offshore wind projects anywhere along the Eastern Seaboard.”

Their states “” Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island “” all have offshore wind projects in the works. Four of the governors are Democrats and two, in New Jersey and Rhode Island, are Republicans, showing that views of Cape Wind do not break down along political lines.

Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, and Representative Bill Delahunt, a Democrat whose district includes Cape Cod, said in their own letter to Mr. Salazar last week that the project was fraught with conflicts.

An up-or-down decision, they said, would prompt years of litigation, so they encouraged him to try to forge a consensus among the stakeholders. That approach has proved problematic for several years and could take several more, given the intensity of interests on all sides.

Perhaps the most prominent opponents have been members of the Kennedy family, whose compound in Hyannis Port looks out on the proposed site. Senator Edward M. Kennedy called the project a special-interest giveaway and fought it until just before his death in August.

Senator John Kerry, the state’s other senator and a Democrat, has not publicly taken sides. When Mitt Romney, a Republican, was governor, he opposed the project.

The proposed 130-turbine farm would lie in Nantucket Sound about five miles from the nearest shoreline and would cover 24 square miles, about the size of Manhattan. The tip of the highest blade of each turbine would reach 440 feet above the surface of the water.

Mr. Salazar has said that he will announce his decision by Friday.

Bolivia ‘people’s conference’ calls for system change, not climate change

A fundamental critique of capitalism as the source of climate change pervaded the People’s World Conference on Climate Change, from the opening speech of Bolivian President Evo Morales on Tuesday to the final declaration agreed upon Thursday.

On the first day, as 15,000 people from 125 countries gathered for the summit, Morales laid out his view bluntly: “Either capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives.”

“The main cause of climate change is capitalism,” he continued. “As people who inhabit Mother Earth, we have the right to say that the cause is capitalism, to protest limitless growth. … More than 800 million people live on less than $2 per day. Until we change the capitalist system, our measures to address climate change are limited.”

Bolivia’s lead climate negotiator, Angelica Navarro, echoed Morales’ points: “You cannot create a climate market to solve climate change. You have to address the structural causes. These causes are not only to be measured in terms of greenhouse gases. They are trade, finances, and economy.”

The conference ended on Thursday — Earth Day — in Cochabamba’s downtown stadium, with world leaders and delegates presenting a final declaration that broadly outlined a path forward for addressing both the impacts of climate change and the economic and political structures that have brought it about. That statement will now be taken to the U.N. ahead of the next big international climate conference, COP16, to be held in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of the year.

The Bolivian government laid the groundwork for the declaration with a set of four demands: climate reparations from developed countries to developing countries; an International Climate Justice Tribunal; a Universal Declaration for the Rights of Mother Earth; and development and transfer of clean technologies. The final statement called for creating a multilateral organization to fight climate change and protect climate migrants; ensuring that knowledge related to technology transfer not be privatized; and acknowledging and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.

The conference sought to avoid the backroom deals and lack of transparency that plagued the U.N. talks in Copenhagen in December. “That is not democracy. That is not the U.N.,” Navarro said of the Copenhagen process. “For months, we were discussing our proposals with other countries. They did not listen. What we want in Bolivia is a true and participatory democracy. If the governments do not come up with a plan for climate change, the people have to lead with a plan.”

The “people’s conference” invited civil society into the process, creating a bottoms-up rather than a top-down approach. Seventeen working groups met over the course of the three days, and dozens of panels and countless informal strategy sessions were held too. The working groups had varying degrees of success. Some reached agreements that supporters can organize around and push for at future U.N. climate meetings.

The forest working group rejected the U.N. REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), arguing that by using market mechanisms to offset carbon emissions, it allows companies to speculate and get around actual carbon reductions.

The working group on climate refugees drafted a statement that was included in the final declaration, calling for protections for the hundreds of millions of people expected to be displaced by rising sea levels, droughts, floods, and dwindling water supplies. In his opening address on Tuesday, Morales had called for borders to be opened to climate refugees.

The conference also provided a boost to the climate-justice movement, giving advocates an opportunity to network, organize, and share stories about local and regional environmental and indigenous struggles.

But there was also dissent at the conference. Various organizations and an unofficial 18th working group focused on the discrepancy between Morales’ rhetoric on behalf of Mother Earth and his policy of resource extraction, emphasizing the environmental degradation brought about by mining and oil and gas drilling. Revenues from natural gas help to keep Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, afloat. Eduardo Gudynas has referred to this policy as the “new extractivism” of Latin America.

Oscar Olivera, who was active in organizing the “water wars” against privatization in Bolivia 10 years ago, argued that there are currently two kinds of movements: those on the inside of the government and those on the outside. He said, “Social movements in Bolivia are fragmented not because of ideological reasons but because of cooptation by the government. One of the characteristics of this government is that there is not room left for autonomous spaces, for grassroots organizing. Until 2004, the people of society in Bolivia were very strong and organizing horizontally. The issue of land distribution is not solved. Despite the rhetoric, oil and gas have not been nationalized.”

Still, most conference attendees rallied together around the main anti-capitalist message: to solve climate change, we must stop the push for unlimited growth that capitalism is based on. This is well summed-up by a slogan that got attention in Copenhagen and even more traction in Bolivia: “System change, not climate change

Green Monster

The gas guzzlers at the Pentagon are under orders to get ecofriendly. The impact could be huge. The U.S. military isn’t exactly underworked, what with salvaging Afghanistan, helping out Haiti, fighting off pirates, and getting out of Iraq. But now, it has been handed a new mission: leading the campaign to cut back on foreign oil, in the interests of both national security and saving the planet. The Defense Department certainly has the money, the technology, the intellectual capital, and the pull in the marketplace to make or break the environmental movement. And when it puts its top minds on a problem, there’s a long track record of world-changing breakthroughs (the Internet, for one). But will the Pentagon really make the move to go green when there’s so much else on its plate?

Decades ago, the Defense Department was a world leader in developing new sources of energy. In 1961, the Navy commissioned the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Three years later, the sea service began looking into tapping the geothermal energy around its China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in California. But it took 29 years for China Lake’s geothermal plant to reach full power. A few Pentagon-backed alternative-power efforts have been more successful: a massive solar array at Nellis Air Force Base and a sizable wind farm at Guant¡namo Bay, for instance. Until recently, however, those projects were the exception, not the rule. Energy efficiency has often taken a back seat to other tactical or strategic considerations.

A new crop of green-minded Pentagon leaders has begun ambitious projects to change that. The military R&D arm that paved the way for the Internet is now focusing on algal feedstock for biofuel and next-generation solar panels. One of the world’s largest solar-power projects is planned for the Army’s main training center, at Fort Irwin, Calif. Billions in stimulus money were spent to green military facilities. Then again, we’re talking about transforming an organization that currently consumes a million barrels of petroleum every three days.

The Defense Department in recent years has warned over and over about the dangers of climate change and the risks in relying on unstable petro-regimes. The problem is that where the military uses the most oil — in fuels that power combat hardware — it also faces the steepest obstacles to technical and institutional reform.

The Pentagon recently set ambitious targets to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by a third in 10 years. However, that figure exempts the military’s bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the jets, ships, and ground vehicles that swallow up 75 percent of the military’s fuel supply. A single B-52 bomber, for instance, burns 3,500 gallons of fuel per flight hour. Efforts to green military vehicles have largely flopped. In 2004, the Army abandoned its hybrid Humvee project, supposedly because the electric powertrain wasn’t reliable enough. (It rebooted part of the project last year.) In 2006, the Air Force flew just a single B-52 test mission using a synthetic fuel blend developed more than six decades earlier, in Nazi Germany.

China debates whether human activity or nature is to blame for drought

An unusually long dry season, along with deforestation, pollution and dam-building, leaves farmers struggling. In some areas, people cannot even wash their hair regularly.

The images are heart-rending, farmers kneeling over the cracked earth that looks to be straight out of a post-apocalyptic movie, the dust swirling in the wind.

But what underlies China’s worst drought in nearly a century is a matter of great debate. Is it Mother Nature or human failure?

Beyond the official explanation of “abnormal weather,’’ Chinese environmentalists are pointing to deforestation, pollution, dams, overbuilding and other man-made factors. Scientists are searching for clues about why rain hasn’t come in some parts of the country.

At its worst, the drought has left parched more than 16 million acres of farmland in more than four provinces, threatening the livelihood of more than 50 million farmers, according to government statistics. Up to 20 million people have been left without drinking water.

The Chinese army and paramilitary have been deployed in some hard-hit areas to deliver water, while residents of some mountainous villages inaccessible by motor vehicle have had to hike hours downhill and climb up again lugging plastic jugs of water in bamboo backpacks.

An unusually long dry season “” which has stretched from September to the present “” is at least part of the problem, but the underlying reasons are less clear. Some Chinese scientists believe that abnormally cold, wet weather in the north of the country is also linked to the drought in the southwest.

“The Earth is reacting to climate change,’’ said Kuang Yaoqiu, a professor with the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, who predicted the drought last year. “China’s mainstream meteorologists haven’t accepted these theories. It will take time.’’

In Chinese government circles, many people still subscribe to Mao Tse-tung’s famous dictum that ‘’man should conquer nature,’’ but that’s proving difficult to accomplish.

The drought-related losses are both economic and highly personal. For all the tea in China, this year’s crop is expected to be a fraction of what it was in previous years because of drought conditions in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, home to much of the tea production.

Approps panel to discuss Obama’s rail request

Senate appropriators this week will discuss President Obama’s fiscal 2011 funding request for the federal rail program.

The Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee will meet Thursday to quiz Transportation Department and Amtrak officials over the president’s proposed budget, which allots $1 billion for high-speed rail, $1.6 billion for Amtrak and roughly $300 million for the Federal Railroad Administration’s safety and oversight programs.

The Amtrak request is roughly in line with the $1.56 billion lawmakers gave to the government-owned passenger rail corporation in fiscal 2010. The high-speed rail request is less than half of the $2.5 billion lawmakers appropriated in 2010 but is the same amount Obama asked for in last year’s budget.

Senate appropriators had originally planned to provide $1.2 billion for high-speed rail in the fiscal 2010 budget but that number grew to $2.5 billion during negotiations with the House, which had proposed to spend $4 billion.

FRA has traditionally served mostly to regulate rail safety, but the DOT agency has been thrust into a higher-profile role since last year’s stimulus package gave it $8 billion to implement Obama’s high-speed rail plan.

The agency decided to split the stimulus cash mostly between three large-scale projects: a new high-speed line linking Tampa and Orlando, Fla.; a new high-speed line connecting Southern and Northern California; and incremental upgrades to existing lines in the Midwest. But FRA also sprinkled $2 billion among projects in 20 other states.

Republicans and some Democrats have criticized Obama’s decision to spread the cash so widely, arguing the money would have been better invested in only a few major projects that could rival the top speeds of the European and Asian bullet trains many in Congress have lauded.

A number of lawmakers have also complained that the administration overlooked Amtrak’s Acela service in the Northeast Corridor, which links Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. That line received $112 million from the high-speed rail stimulus pot. It is the only line in the United States that is capable of reaching speeds of 110 miles per hour, which is the minimum top-speed required to be deemed “high-speed” by DOT.

The president has said he hopes to spend a total of $5 billion over the next five years on high-speed rail through the appropriations process, with additional cash possibly coming in the next multiyear highway and transit bill.

A $500 billion, multiyear bill drafted by the bipartisan leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would give $50 billion to high-speed projects. But work on that proposal has been stalled as lawmakers search for ways to raise the revenues needed to pay for it.

Powerful ocean currents off Antarctica factor in climate change

Oceanographers said on Sunday they had measured a system of mighty currents off Antarctica that are a newly-discovered factor in the equation of climate change. The system, known as Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW), is generated in clockwise movement in four big sea shelves that abut Antarctica — the Weddell Sea, Prydz Bay, Adelie Land and Ross Sea.Extremely cold water sinks to the bottom of these shelves and slides out northwards along the continental shelf.

Extremely cold water sinks to the bottom of these shelves and slides out northwards along the continental shelf.

At the edge of the shelf, some of the water mixes with a well-known ocean movement, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which sweeps around the abyss off Antarctica.

The rest of the AABW, though, makes its way northward through a maze of ridges and gullies, reaching into the southern latitudes of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and into the Atlantic as far north as southern Brazil.

The study, led by Yasushi Fukamachi of Japan’s Hokkaido University, is published online in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Fukamachi’s team used an array of eight seabed sensors, anchored at a depth of 3500 metres for two years over 175 kilometres on the Kerguelen Plateau, east of Antarctica, where current exits from the Prydz Bay shelf.

On average, about eight million cubic metres of water colder than 0.2 degrees Celsius were transported northwards over this narrow section, the researchers found.

That is four times more than the previous record documented in an AABW flow, at the Weddell Sea, on the other side of Antarctica.

Over two years, the Kerguelen monitors recorded the current’s average speed at more than 20 centimetres per second, the highest ever seen for a flow at this depth.

The findings are important because ocean currents are major players in climate change.

They circulate heat, moving warm waters on the surface to the cold ocean floor. After this water is chilled, it is eventually shuttled back by currents to the surface, for warming again.

Currents also help determine the success of oceans as storage of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas.

Microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton take in CO2 at the surface under the natural process of photosynthesis.