Wednesday, June 30, 2010

No Complacency

Good story on CNN about a famous New Orleans chef suing BP. Shout out to Susan Spicer, the chef filing the suit.

This is just one consequence of BP's catastrophe, and America's addiction to petroleum.

This comes on Day 69, when a third of the fisheries are closed, thousands of turtle eggs are being dug up and moved, and anywhere from 35,000 barrels, or 1.5 m gallons, to 60,000 barrels, or about 2.5 m gallons, are still pouring into the water everyday.

And the way it's looking now, BP is deferring to the relief wells in August rather than talking about a full solution before then. Let's see, relief wells in early August, about 32 plus more days of that undersea petroleum geyser pumping unabated. By the way, that timeline is IF the current operations are NOT interrupted by a storm. It's storm season in the Gulf.

No room for complacency.

See the whole CNN lawsuit story here:

Monday, June 28, 2010

Brighton Beach Without the Hippies

Saturday was expected to be a hippie day. The hippie theme actually started the evening before, when I went to the Broadway play Hair, a lively production about hippies in the late sixties finding their way through the Vietnam war draft, free love, and inner space. What does that have to do with ocean conservation? Nothing.

But Saturday was Hands Across the Sands, a symbolic gesture of support for renewable energy and a ban on offshore oil drilling. The idea was to gather at a beach somewhere, anywhere, all over the US, and join hands for a few moments. This could be safely but gently placed in the hippie slash new age genre of political protest.

Ready to let the sun shine in, and join hands with a stranger, maybe even a Russian, on the smoking hot beaches of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, I arrived on Saturday at the pre-announced location and time. I stood on the boardwalk and looked across a large empty swath of sand toward the water. There were hundreds of beach goers closer to the water's edge but no obvious Hands Across the Sands people.

Some guys closest to the boardwalk were playing a sweltering game of volleyball while people of all shapes and sizes, many from the heart of urban Brooklyn, some from the local neighborhood where all the signs are in Russian, streamed toward the beach. Most of them began to trot once their feet came in contact with the hot sand, umbrellas jostling and beach balls bouncing free.

But there were no medium or even small groups of people looking to form a line and join hands. I found only a two person local ABC News crew with camera who had received the Hands Across the Sands press release and were ready to get the good shot, and another guy who had come all the way out from Manhattan only to be disappointed. There may have been other people like us in the crowd who had come out and expected to see the obvious gathering of people -- the web site even said go here and you can't miss us -- but, once dispersed, it was hard to tell the modern hippies from the wildly diverse Saturday crowd at the beach. 

After waiting around a little longer for it to become clear the only one holding hands were the occasional couple strolling down the boardwalk, we went our separate ways. It felt like a missed opportunity for an interesting experience, perhaps even a chance to re-fresh my optimism reservoir, but alas, it did not happen. I was not terribly unhappy for I was still at the beach. A fully urban beach, for sure, but a beach nonetheless.

So I went back to a local grocery store a block away on Brighton Avenue and bought a canned beer with Russian writing all over it, and then walked across the no-man's land down to the water's edge, where the Atlantic Ocean looked like it too was lethargic from the midday heat. I sat as close as I could to the water and sat under my umbrella and sipped my beer looking at a few large sailboats with white sails make turns beyond the surf, and much farther out, huge vessels like small buildings set on their sides plied the commercial lanes.

I pondered getting into the water. It was a damn shame that I had to even think about it but given the thunderstorms two days ago, and the other times I've been in the water at nearby Coney Island and found it murky to say the least, I was hesitant.

When the rains come, especially lots of water in a short amount of time, the city sewage system backs up and untreated sewage and everything on the streets of New York City pours into the area's waters. There are 540 places where Combined Sewer Overflows, as they're called, happen on the edge of New York's natural waters including the Hudson River, the Atlantic Ocean, and the East River.

Eventually, though, I couldn't not go in. It's just too hard to resist; against my nature. I waded in and tried not to notice the tiny bits trash here and there or imagine the fecal coliform level. I plunged in closing my eyes and mouth much tighter than usual.

I popped up and stood in the cool water looking back at the sea of humanity on land. The clamouring masses on the sand, the brick-brown high rises right on the beach, the ferris wheel and parachute tower at coney, the hazy skyline of Manhattan farther off. It's no wonder the ocean takes a beating this close to so many people. Then I saw floating nearby what looked like something used for feminine hygiene. The swim was over. It was cool and refreshing of the body, maybe not so much of the mind.

Back at my patch of shade, I enjoyed the sounds of the beach. The little kids squealing for joy, the tinny jingling of the bells attached to the carts selling Italian ices, the occasional lifeguard whistle, and the heavy accents and thick languages borne in faraway places. The ocean mixed all of these sounds, and washed them in it's reaffirming rhythm. As the band Further would sing much later that day, substituting "river" for "ocean" -- "listen to the ocean sing sweet songs, to rock my soul."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Troubled Tuna & What's Up with the Japanese

As noted in previous posts, BP's catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico could not have happened at a worse time. It is breeding and spawning time in the Gulf of Mexico for many marine species including the bluefin tuna. What is more vulnerable to suffocating gobs of oil, not to mention questionable toxic dispersants, than an adult of a species? A newborn.

So imagine the fingernail-sized bluefin tuna larvae (infant fish) swimming around in those plumes of oil. The bluefin tuna spawn from April to end of May exactly where BP's undersea oil geyser is gushing. Add into that the already severely depleted bluefin tuna population due to overfishing. 

"Thanks to 4 decades of overfishing, it (bluefin tuna) has been driven to just 3% of its 1960 or pre-longlining abundance - a decline of 97%," according to Jack Cashman, a fisherman.

It is clear the bluefin tuna are in deep trouble.

That is why one environmental group, Center for Biological Diversity, recently called for listing the bluefin tuna as endangered. Sounds good. Let's give the tuna a break. I would like to enjoy them as a sustainable seafood in the future, and I would like to know that the awesome, powerful fish continues to roam the seas and contribute to healthy marine ecosystems as a top predator.

But if past moves to protect tuna are any indication of how successful this petition will be, don't bet on it. Too many people are making very good money -- a single adult fish can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Besides, the Japanese seem determined to fish the bluefin tuna until there are none left.

This past March, the nation of Monaco proposed a trade ban on bluefin tuna at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The petition was completely rejected.

“I’m very disappointed, as a former tuna fisherman and as a conservationist, at the inability of countries to cooperate and make decisions in the interests of everyone,” Carl Safina said at the time, according to a story by Frank Nelson in Miller-Mcune. Carl Safina is president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute.

Other past efforts to protect bluefin have been swamped by an inability to form international consensus. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both sought to limit overfishing, but have been unsuccessful, according to the New York Times.

The only optimism is that the fish know that BP's oil is dangerous. An important question is whether the bluefin's instinct to spawn in their traditional waters will override their sense of smell, according to AOL News.

So maybe since we can't seem to help the fish at all, the fish will help themselves. That would be great.

What's Up with the Japanese?

The Japanese are making headlines lately around whaling and bluefin tuna. It's usually in the context of leading the opposition to conservation measures.

I have trouble understanding this. They love to eat bluefin tuna, it's practically part of their national identity. I understand that -- it is amazingly delicious. But with Japan like a mad juggernaut of demand for the fish, there won't be any tuna left to eat in the near future. Sure, they'll find a few more out there but a plate of sashimi will be out of reach of most everyone except the ultra-rich.

In 2007 Japan said it imported 32,356 metric tons of bluefin, while that nation's own vessels operating in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean brought in 2,078 metric tons that year. That is by far the world leader in consumption. They seem determined to fish the fish into commercial extinction.

Why not fish in such a way that there will be tuna next year, and ten years from now? In the case of the bluefin tuna, let's err on the side of conservation and give the fish time to recover.

Of course, it's a generalization to say all Japanese. When I say "they" above, I mean the Japanese people that fish, sell, buy, and eat blue fin tuna.

In the case of whaling, the Japanese recently shot down a ban on whaling and are trying to put a Sea Shepard whaling activist in jail. Maybe we just have to write them off. One cannot expect much from a country whose former lead whaling negotiator, Masayuki Komatsu, once referred to the cetacean nation (whales are cetaceans) as the "cockroaches of the sea," according to Deborah Bassett on her Huffington Post. Read her whole post here, she does a good job of showing how Japan is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Anyway, why not just leave those magnificent leviathans alone?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What Do You See?

Twisted Rorschach

Still looking at the aerial view of the giant oil slick in the Gulf everyday. The map on CNN showing the ominous blob, the extent of BP's oil across the Gulf of Mexico like some twisted Rorschach test.

The bespectacled doctor leans forward with an inquisitive look: what do you see in this picture?

My angry mother

A multi-headed dragon

A tragic flaw in modern society

The end of a thousands of livelihoods

An opportunity to move to a renewable energy economy

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Thar She Blows

My friends and I have been talking about this option half-jokingly for a while now. Blow up the well. Stop the flow. Here it is suggested as a very real possibility by a former US Navy submarine captain. No joke.

With the relief well way off and with BP's constant floundering, if detonating it stops the flow, even if it damages sea life around the well, it seems a worthwhile trade-off. Millions of gallons are still pouring into the Gulf as we speak.

Here's the full opinion piece by the former captain, Christopher Brownfield, that ran in the NYT yesterday:

TONY HAYWARD, the chief executive of BP, made an astounding admission before Congress last week: after nearly two months of failure, the company and the Coast Guard have no further plans to plug the Macondo oil well leaking into the Gulf. Instead, the goal is merely to contain the leak until a relief well comes online, a process that could take months.

Instead, President Obama needs to create a new command structure that places responsibility for plugging the leak with the Navy, the only organization in the world that can muster the necessary team. Then the Navy needs to demolish the well.

The Coast Guard, of course, should continue to play a role. But it should focus on what it can do well, like containing the oil already in the Gulf and protecting the coast with oil booms and skimmers. It should also use this crisis to establish permanent collaborations with other maritime forces around the globe, particularly those that can get to a disaster area quickly.

But control of the well itself should fall to the Navy — it alone has the resources to stop the flow. For starters, the Office of Naval Research controls numerous vehicles like Alvin, the famed submersible used to locate the Titanic. Had such submersibles been deployed earlier, we could have gotten real-time information about the wellhead, instead of waiting for BP to release critical details.

The Navy also commands explosives experts who have vast knowledge of underwater demolitions. And it has some of the world’s finest underwater engineers at Naval Reactors, the secretive program that is responsible for designing nuclear reactors for nuclear submarines. With the help of scientists in our national weapons laboratories and experts from private companies, these engineers can be let loose on the well.

To allay any concerns over militarizing the crisis, the Navy and Coast Guard should be placed in a task-force structure alongside a corps of experts, including independent oil engineers, drilling experts with dedicated equipment, geologists, energy analysts and environmentalists, who could provide pragmatic options for emergency action.

With this new structure in place, the Navy could focus on stopping the leak with a conventional demolition. This means more than simply “blowing it up”: it means drilling a hole parallel to the leaking well and lowering charges to form an explosive column.

Upon detonating several tons of explosives, a pressure wave of hundreds of thousands of pounds per square inch would spread outward in the same way that light spreads from a tubular fluorescent bulb, evenly and far. Such a sidelong explosion would implode the oil well upstream of the leak by crushing it under a layer of impermeable rock, much as stepping on a garden hose stops the stream of water.

It’s true that the primary blast of a conventional explosion is less effective underwater than on land because of the intense back-pressure that muffles the shock wave. But as a submariner who studied the detonation of torpedoes, I learned that an underwater explosion also creates rapid follow-on shockwaves. In this case, the expansion and collapse of explosive gases inside the hole would act like a hydraulic jackhammer, further pulverizing the rock.

The idea of detonating the well already has serious advocates. A few people have even called for using a nuclear device to plug the well, as the Soviet Union has done several times. But that would be overkill. Smartly placed conventional explosives could achieve the same results, and avoid setting an unacceptable international precedent for the “peaceful” use of nuclear weapons.

At best, a conventional demolition would seal the leaking well completely and permanently without damaging the oil reservoir. At worst, oil might seep through a tortuous flow-path that would complicate long-term cleanup efforts. But given the size and makeup of the geological structures between the seabed and the reservoir, it’s virtually inconceivable that an explosive could blast a bigger hole than already exists and release even more oil.

The task force could prepare for demolition without forgoing the current efforts to drill relief wells. And even if the ongoing efforts succeed and a demolition proves unnecessary, the non-nuclear option would give President Obama an ace in the hole and a clear signal that he’s in charge — not BP.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Go Edith Widder

Today a shout out to Edith Widder, marine scientist and founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, for her work on BP's Gulf catastrophe. According to the Palm Beach Post, Edith is taking matters into her own capable hands. She is conducting independent research on the oil disaster while providing sobering insight into BP's involvement in the response effort.

From the story, here are two good quotes, one very informative and one hopeful:

"And she doesn’t want BP involved because after working as a consultant at an Alabama command post dealing with the oil spill, she has little confidence in the company’s leadership and sense of urgency when it comes to damage assessment.

'We cannot sit around and wait for BP to do the right thing,' said Widder, who created the conservation association ORCA in 2005 after 16 years at Harbor Branch. 'All of those oil command centers are completely under BP control and that’s the fox watching the henhouse.'"

And a simple and simply hopeful quote:

“We shouldn’t assume we can’t do anything,” Widder said.

Nice work and thank you Edith!

The full story by staff writer Kimberly Miller is here:

BP lacks sense of urgency, scientist says, taking testing into her own hands

Frustrated by BP’s control of the purse strings, and therefore the scientific efforts to monitor the largest oil spill in U.S. history, one South Florida researcher has launched her own effort to guard the state’s eastern shores.

Deep sea explorer Edith Widder, a former senior scientist at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce and founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, began collecting sediment samples this week at inlets from Miami to Sebastian, including those in Palm Beach County.

She wants baseline data so that if the oil seeps through the Florida Straits and into the coast-hugging Gulf Stream there will be comparisons to gauge short-term effects and long-term damage. Widder also hopes to place real-time sensors developed by her organization into the Atlantic Ocean to detect when the oil is coming and in what form.

And she doesn’t want BP involved because after working as a consultant at an Alabama command post dealing with the oil spill, she has little confidence in the company’s leadership and sense of urgency when it comes to damage assessment.

“We cannot sit around and wait for BP to do the right thing,” said Widder, who created the conservation association ORCA in 2005 after 16 years at Harbor Branch. “All of those oil command centers are completely under BP control and that’s the fox watching the henhouse.”

Since the Deepwater Horizon explosion April 20 that caused the gusher now believed to be releasing as much as 2.5 million gallons of oil each day, BP has faced criticism for being stubborn to acknowledge the worst of the spill.

For weeks, BP executives have doubted discoveries by University of South Florida researchers who identified a huge underwater plume of oil that scientists worry could cause as much or more devastation as the surface oil slick.

In the May 27 edition of the journal Nature, scientists complained of a lack of baseline data gathering in the gulf, information that it is probably too late to collect. They also had concerns about not knowing what kind of studies already were under way.

Widder’s group has experienced the same thing. BP already approved plans to collect sediment and water samples in southeast Florida waters, data that was taken last week, said Florida Emergency Operations Center spokeswoman Amy Graham.

“The general consensus is there doesn’t seem to be any sharing of information,” said Warren Falls, ORCA’s managing director, who had spoken to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection but said he didn’t know about the sampling.

Two other plans for sampling the waters off Martin County north to the Georgia state line await BP and Unified Command approval.

“The fact that it has to be approved by BP makes no sense. It’s scary,” said Widder, who acted as an oil consultant for the Department of Interior. “I wish I could report a strong, well-organized, science-driven oil spill response plan. Unfortunately, that is not the case.”

It may have improved this week with BP’s announcement of millions of dollars in grant money to scientists, including the University of South Florida-based Florida Institute of Oceanography.

The institute will receive $10 million of an expected $500 million that BP pledged during the next 10 years. ORCA is not a member of the institute.

Vickie Chachere, news manager for USF communications and marketing, said the institute was promised that BP will not interfere with the research and that all data will be made public.

“There are no strings attached,” said William Hogarth, acting director of the institute.

Still, Widder said she has to act. She’s collecting private donations to place about 10 solar-powered water-quality monitors along the east coast. Each monitor, called a Kilroy, can take readings every half hour.

Widder wants to raise up to $200,000 to set up the monitoring system, something she wants to be totally separate from BP.

“We shouldn’t assume we can’t do anything,” Widder said. “But doing something means having the knowledge of what we are fighting.”

For more information go to

Monday, June 21, 2010

Happy Summer

Happy Summer. Today is the solstice and the official beginning of summer. Summer for me has always involved the ocean, happily. The ocean rejuvenates body and soul like nothing else. We feel the tug as we are drawn to our original home. It breathes life.

The solstice is also the longest day of the year. I’m going to enjoy the long light across the green-blue waves and the smooth-soft dunes, stand where land meets sea, gaze into it, and soak it in.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

No Apologies

US Representative Joe Barton, who apologized to BP for the big bill they're getting, is the kind of person we need to be leave behind as the US moves to a renewable energy economy.
Surprise, surprise, according to the New York Time: Individuals and political action committees in the oil and gas industry have been Mr. Barton’s biggest source of campaign money, it reported, contributing $1.4 million since the 1990 election cycle.

Of course he publicly apologized for his apology because the Republican powers told him to do so immediately.

We can't expect the Joe Bartons of the world to show the kind of leadership or political courage necessary to move the US to a renewable energy economy. He's steeped in the old ways, stuck in the status quo.

He's as outdated as those clunky first mobile phones. Remember those things? Imagine if the technology industry was as entrenched in its ways as much as the petroleum industry and automobile industry. Imagine if we still had computers the size of rooms.

The combustion engine essentially hasn't changed in over 100 years. Still fueled by petroleum and still running around on four wheels, rubber against road. No need for major changes as long as the petroleum and automotive folks are making trillions.

Joe Barton should get into his Model T and go home. He is obviously part of the problem, not part of the solution.

No apologies.

Here's the full NYT story on his apology:

Friday, June 18, 2010

Viva La Evolution

In reference to the post here a few days ago In Case You Missed It -- the Time is Now, Jon Stewart reminded me that every American President since Nixon made a call to arms to end America's dependence on foreign oil. Obviously, nothing was done (although Nixon needs to be credited with signing the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and creating the Environmental Protection Agency).

How is Obama's semi-tough speech this week any different?

Off the cuff, the difference is people are getting it, really getting it, that the US's addiction to petroleum is bad on several levels. Reagrdless of which side of the aisle you sit, pick your issue and petroleum is there. National security, the economy, the environment.

There is nothing to say though that Congress will actually come through. Ideally, those people we elected would initiate a Carbon tax, remove petroleum subsidies, and make the tough decisions, show the political courage, and imagine this -- the leadership -- necessary to move this country to a renewable energy economy.  Not by 2025, not starting in 2015, but now. Now is the time.

Yes, we will still need petroleum for quite some time, but there is a difference between continuing our addiction and weaning ourselves of it.

It's not all on the politicians, either. We the people must show our own kind of courage and try everyday to see the big picture. And we must stay focused and not let oursleves get distracted by the naysayers. Naysayers often have their own agendas; there are a lot of people making a lot of money on the status quo of the petroluem economy, and they have no interest in changing. It's time to find new ways to make money in the renewable energy economy, and leave behind those unable or unwilling to evolve.

We certainly can't rely on petroleum companies. Don't listen to them. They're still making billions of dollars giving us what we've always wanted, or what the infrastructure juggernaut has fed us for nearly a century. Automakers, too. Been there, done that. Time to shift our demand and our habits and evolve into a smarter, cleaner, and safer society. Send the message in our buying habits, our votes, and our voices. Let's move on.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Happy Birthday (Belated) Jacques

His 100th birthday was last week and in honor, his ship the Calypso was re-launched. With his siganture red cap, the smiling explorer fascinated generations with the deep blue. It's a little belated, but Happy Birthday Jacques.

The Christian Science Monitor did a nice little piece on him. Here's the bulk of it.

Ever since "The Silent World" hit movie screens around the world in 1956, Jacques Cousteau (1910 – 1997) and his red cap have been synonymous with ocean exploration.

Sailing around the world on his iconic ship Calypso, Cousteau captivated audiences with the unknown ocean and inspired future generations of ocean explorers. Friday marks the 100th birthday of Jacques Cousteau, whose legacy still lives on in the quest to unravel the ocean's mysteries.

Commander Cousteau's prolific career includes over 120 television documentaries, 50 books and the 300,000 member environmental foundation, the Cousteau Society.

"He shared his passion for the liquid abyss with hundreds of millions around the world," said Cousteau's grandson, ocean filmmaker Fabien Cousteau.

Pop-culture crossover

As the pioneer in underwater documentaries, Cousteau won Oscars for "The Silent World," "The Golden Fish" and "World Without Sun." He also won two Cannes Film Festival awards, including the Palme d'Or — the festival's top award — for "The Silent World." His television series "The Cousteau Odyssey" received two Emmy Award nominations.

The highest civilian award in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was awarded to Cousteau by President Reagan in 1985 and 1989. Cousteau was granted membership into the French Academy, France's preeminent scholarly body, in 1988.

Perhaps a more lasting tribute than awards and honors, Cousteau was a crossover star and is eponymous in popular culture. He has been name-dropped in even the most unlikely places, including in songs by the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan and the rock band Incubus. Even John Denver wrote a song called "Calypso" as a tribute to Cousteau and his crew.

In Star Trek, the captain's yacht of the USS Enterprise-E is named Cousteau. The 2004 film "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is equal parts homage and send-up of Cousteau's career.

Birth of a legend

The legendary ocean explorer was born Jacques-Yves Cousteau on June 11, 1910 in Saint Andre de Cubzac in southwest France.

At 33 years old, Cousteau and Emile Gagnan invented a device that allowed divers to plunge deeper into the ocean than ever before — the aqua-lung.

On a small beach along the French Riviera, Cousteau donned the first completely autonomous diving gear. He modified a regulator to supply divers with breathing gas on demand and at the proper pressure. This prevented the tanks from quickly running out of air, and was the crowning piece of the first Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA).

The invention allowed Cousteau and his divers the "freedom of flight underwater," said Fabien Cousteau. "He invented the tools that unchained man from the surface."

Despite having tools to explore deeper into the ocean than ever before, scuba diving only allows explorers to skim the ocean's surface. The record for scuba diving on compressed air is 509 feet (155 meters) below the surface. The deepest part of the ocean, at the Mariana Trench, is 35,814 feet (10,916 m). This part of the ocean has only been visited once, in 1960, by the bathyscaphe (deep boat) Trieste.

Water covers 70 percent of the Earth's surface, but what lives within the ocean's layers is still largely a mystery.

"Today we still know more about outer space than our ocean world," Fabien Cousteau said.

It's not due to a lack of interest on behalf of audiences. Today, TV events such as Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" draw big ratings numbers. But while these shows may be set in the ocean, they don't inspire the same adoration for marine life as Cousteau's underwater adventures.

"We don't have Jacques Cousteau's passion splashed across the screen daily, so people today are both terrified of and in love with oceans," said David Guggenheim of the Ocean Foundation.

Jacques Cousteau's exploration inspired people to care about the ocean, Guggenheim said, , and he firmly believed that "people protect what they love."

100 years of Cousteau

Cousteau's centennial celebration includes events that will attempt to recapture that spirit. The celebration is a year-long event highlighted by plans to re-launch the Calypso for a marine education tour.

In conjunction with the celebration, The Cousteau Society is developing an ocean monitoring program. Called Cousteau's Divers, the program will unite a community of divers that are concerned about the marine environment.

To bring the message of ocean conservation to people's living rooms, the National Geographic Society will begin a one-month filming expedition in the Mediterranean Sea. Sailing aboard the Cousteau Society Ship Alcyone, the film's goal is to document changes that have occurred in the Mediterranean since Cousteau's early films of the 1940s.

By Brett Israel
Link to story:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In Case You Missed It -- the Time is Now

Did you see President Obama's Oval Office speech about the Gulf tonight?

The second half of his speech was the best because he talked directly about accelerating our transition to the clean energy economy.  Nothing particularly eloquent or dramatic or profound but actually exciting for anyone looking for a better future and an end to America's addiction to petroleum.

"The most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now."

Lots of people will say that's just talk, let's see the plan, something tangible, but part of the job of leaders is to talk about the big ideas, to inspire, and to throw down the challenge to everyone.

"I make that commitment now tonight"

"political courage"

"the clean energy future is now"

"act now"

it is a matter of "national security, our economy, and our environment"

That last phrase comes with great potential. The clean energy economy has value propositions within the above 3 categories, categories that appeal to different kinds of people, and that may get us there.

You don't like the US's vulnerability to foreign fossil fuels (we consume over 20% and produce less than 2%)? The clean energy economy can happen domestically.

You don't like young Americans dying in the name of petroleum dressed up as democracy and stability? Clean energy economy.

You don't like the US losing its global edge to China (China invests already 6 times more than the US in clean energy)? Clean energy economy.

You don't like climate change and/or the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystems? Clean energy.

This is not some far off dream. This is not a fantasy. It's very real and it's now.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Is Bethuene a Noble Warrior or a Liability?

As a diversion from the Gulf catastrophe, some interesting news from the anti-whaling front recently.

Sea Shepard has dropped its affiliation with anti-whaling activist Peter Bethuene because he allegedly boarded a Japanese whaling ship with bow and arrows, or brought bow and arrows on an anti-whaling campaign. This brings up a bigger question -- these are the guys who harrass the Japanese whaling fleet, you may have seen them on Whale Wars on TV.

What do we think about all of this?

Maybe Bethuene is a fringe element who undermines the efforts of environmentalists everywhere who are trying to develop dialogues, work within the system, use the tools of science and legislation to make real change, etc. They are doing good work. Credibility is damaged. Maybe now it's just as hard to be taken seriously if labeled a "whale lover" as it is with "tree hugger".  But that's the opposition who came up with those words.

Maybe Bethuene is on the front lines of environmental activism, and he was thinking they've got harpoons, so I'll bring my own. Maybe he wasn't thinking at all. He was just acting.

Maybe Bethuene knows that environmentalists seem to be losing the war and maybe he should be lauded for trying to win a battle. We can sign our petitions and write our blogs and have out protests (as long as we have the proper permits) but environmentalists may be too soft, too compliant. It can't always be pretty.

Sea Shepard has a policy of no weapons and that's the motivation for dropping Bethuene. So he broke policy. But aren't the rancid butter "bombs" and the ship itself weapons in the fight against illegal whaling?

But it's not really illegal because the Japanese have found a loophole in international law. The Japanese are culling these whales for research purposes. Really?

Whales are fantastic, charismatic creatures, and many of them are scarce and endangered. Can't we just leave them all alone?
Here is the news about it:

According to a ABC news online report: "The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has cut its links with anti-whaling activist Peter Bethune after he carried a bow and arrows during confrontations with Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean.

The New Zealand-born activist and former Ady Gil skipper is currently on trial in Tokyo after being arrested when he forced his way on board a whaling vessel in Antarctic waters in February."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Twice the Nightmare

It might be twice as bad as we think -- BP's disaster may have spewed twice as much petroleum into the Gulf as we were previously told or thought.

According to the Associated Press:

HOUSTON - New figures for the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico show the amount of oil spewing may have been up to twice as much as previously thought, according to scientists consulting with the U.S. government.

That could mean 42 million gallons (160 million liters) to more than 100 million gallons (380 million liters) of oil have already fouled the Gulf's fragile waters, affecting people who live, work and play along the coast from Louisiana to Florida — and perhaps beyond.

It is the third — and perhaps not the last — time the U.S. government has had to increase its estimate of how much oil is gushing. Trying to clarify what has been a contentious and confusing issue, officials on Thursday gave a wide variety of estimates.

All the new spill estimates are worse than earlier ones — and far more costly for BP, which has seen its stock sink since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered the spill. Most of Thursday's estimates had more oil flowing in an hour than what officials once said was spilling in an entire day.

"This is a nightmare that keeps getting worse every week," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. "We're finding out more and more information about the extent of the damage. ... Clearly we can't trust BP's estimates of how much oil is coming out."

The spill was flowing at a daily rate that could possibly have been as high as 2.1 million gallons (8 million liters), twice the highest number the federal government had been saying, U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt, who is coordinating estimates, said Thursday. But she said possibly more credible numbers are a bit lower.

Story by Harry Weber, Seth Borenstein

Wake me please!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

BP is Changing their Logo

Levity in catastrophe? Not really, the Gulf gets worse everyday. The oil keeps blocking out the light. But as I've said, people can only take some much depressing news.

So Greenpeace UK has been running a contest for a re-design of BP's logo. People have sent in many, and many good ones. Run them as a slide show and it might make you feel mildly better after awhile. Maybe. Click here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Happy World Oceans Day...Whoopeee

Happy World Oceans Day. Given the Gulf disaster, celebrating today is like having your birthday fall on the day you break up with your boyfriend, or celebrating a big anniversary on the day you get word that an old friend with whom you have lost contact has passed away.

With ninety seven percent (that phrase was a contender for this blog's name) of the Earth covered in saltwater, there are plenty of things to celebrate on World Oceans Day. It's hard to think of those things though, when the Gulf just won't stop bleeding.

As I attempt to walk the line between optimism and reality, I hope a collective rage does not turn to acceptance, followed closely by its insidious cousin -- apathy. Rage is a powerful motivator and could push people to do what they can to build a green energy economy. I wouldn't want people to write off the Gulf as gone, a done deal, as we look to cheer ourselves up by considering the hundreds of ocean places across the blue orb that are full of life and wonder. But human beings can only take so much negativity, and yes, those places are worth celebrating.

So, send an e-card to celebrate World Oceans day courtesy of our friends at the Nature Conservancy.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Residents of the Gulf

Sunday, June 6, 2010

What's at Stake: One Personal View

My parents live on a beautiful Gulf barrier island off the northwest Florida coast. Marine birds frequent the area including the ridiculous plovers running furiously from the last lick of each wave, and the preposterous, large heron that alights on my parent’s porch each morning even though they live a few blocks from the beach. Somebody named him Fred.

He appeared silently one morning while I sat there eating breakfast. The sun shone through his long, sharp beak making the blood vessels inside show like small rivers. His bright orange eye fixated on me a little too intensely though, so I quietly moved a few feet away, taking my bowl of Cheerios with me.

A little later, I walked to the beach with my goggles and a shirt. The light is so bright everywhere on this island you get the sense that it could penetrate even the coldest of hearts. Past the sprawling Banyan, the palms, the tall conifers, and the squat, leafy shrubs, I emerged on the brilliant white beach lining the waters of the Gulf.

I had to squint as the sand seems to blast pure white light into my eyes. I held my hand over my face to make a temporary shadow. I walked down to near the edge and sat down. A couple in their seventies walked by, probably on their daily morning stroll.

Two kids were on their hands and knees nearby as they combed the beach for shells. Just offshore, a lone brown pelican glided swiftly, a mere inches above the surface of the water. I took off my cotton t shirt and placed it next to me on the fine powdery sand. I replaced it with a thin rash guard with an emblem on the chest like a superhero.

Earlier I had wondered if I would actually get out to the water to do this.  But I am inspired, regularly, by this place. I walked to the edge of a young sand spit shaped like a ponytail swishing out into the water. I looked to the north, imagining for a moment all the habitats that line the Gulf, from this tropical haven to the panhandle, along the southern states’ wetlands and bayous and estuaries, and all the way to the Texas coast.

I waded in and spit on my goggles. The water was chillier than I wanted it to be. I looked at my pale feet kicking up sand in the clear water below. When I was waist deep, I put on the goggles and dove in softly.

The first thing I saw was the invisible energy of the waves mirrored in the sandy bottom. The symmetric ridges cast small underwater shadows. As I swam, a ray moved away from me. Sand burst off its wings as it stirred. Schools of fingerling translucent fish darted here and there. A few sand dollars lay half-shrouded in the sand, and buried clams sent up lines of tiny bubbles. Around the bend, at the main fishing pier, sons and daughters often catch jacks, grunts, scamp, and the occasional shark.

I push through the water and where it gets deeper and a little darker, I momentarily think about the beasts that may come and eat me. A five foot blacktip shark slicing through my soft liver with a shrug. A few of its gray-white razor teeth delving deep into my burgundy organ. My puff of blood briefly clouding the clear water. I realize how irrational that thought is for hundreds of reasons, but I still entertained it. It makes me smile into the blue.

I knew the current would make for a fast and easy swim going north, so I rode that up and turned around within sight of the towering pines about a half mile up. I ended with a strong pull against the powerful sea. I worked hard to get back to where I started.  When finished, I sat on the sand enjoying the burn in my muscles and the sound of the water.

I looked briefly for any trace of our bikes from last night. We had watched the sunset at the tiki bar a mile or so down the beach. For the daily event, people sat at the tables stuck in the sand or they sat on the sand. Everyone turned their faces to the setting sun and grew quiet.

In the smoldering afterglow, we rode rusty beach cruisers home along the water’s edge.  I had wondered if riding bikes unnecessarily erodes the beach -- probably not great for the beach -- but thought the impact was minimal between the fat tires and the hard packed sand. 

I gathered my shirt and goggles and walked off the beach past the spot where my sister years ago took all her wedding pictures. I remember she was laughing as she pulled up her white dress to avoid the waves at her ankles. I walked back through the neighborhood feeling capable and content. I glanced for Fred on the porch, but he had moved on.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Glimpse of What's at Stake in the Gulf

Probably because there is so much to report on BP's disaster, the ever-widening closure of the Gulf of Mexico fishery appears almost as a footnote. Yesterday, it was quietly increased to 31 percent. Meaning nearly a third of the fishery is closed to fishing because of BP’s mess. As long as oil keeps spewing, it’s entirely possible the whole fishery will be closed.

It begs a question. Aside from my lamentations and my pounding the Thesaurus for more ways to say “disaster”, what is really at stake in concrete terms? The excellent folks at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have already come up with answers in the form of a concise report.

Among other things including the dollar value of the Gulf, the report shows that BP’s disaster could not have come at a worse time. Spring is the time for renewal and reproduction in the wild world. Nearly every creature in the Gulf is doing what their most basic life force tells them to do -- procreate and carry on the species. What’s more vulnerable to a thick, ominous cloud of petroleum and toxic dispersants than an adult of a species? A newborn.

Highlights follow and you can find the full NRDC report here. A glimpse of what’s at stake:

“In 2008, the combined value of several key species groups for all five states in the Gulf region – shrimp, oysters, blue crab and red snapper – was more than $474.4 million.

Unfortunately, many of the Gulf region’s key species are likely to be the first casualties of the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill. Oysters are largely stationary and cannot flee the low dissolved oxygen areas caused by oil on the water’s surface.The timing of this spill will impact the newly spawned larvae of shrimps and crabs – the catch of the future – as they are largely immobile and likely to be closer to the water’s surface and any floating oil.”

In 2003, the Gulf of Mexico’s ocean economy:
  • employed more than 562,000 people
  • paid wages of more than $13.2 billion
  • contributed over $32 billion to the region’s gross state product
“Tourism and recreation comprised 71 percent of the employment in the Gulf region’s 2003 ocean economy. Unfortunately, beach communities in the Gulf region are already reporting hotel-reservation cancellations and fishing tournament postponements due to the spill.

The Value of the Ecosystem:

While some ocean ecosystem benefits, such as the market value of commercially harvested fish, are regularly calculated, many values that result from healthy, functioning ocean ecosystems are rarely tallied, but provide a large pool of extended benefits. Such ecosystem services include “… provisioning services such as food, water, timber, and fiber; regulating services that affect climate, floods, disease, wastes, and water quality; cultural services that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits; and supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling. “

In other words, the stakes are huge.

Any optimism from the front? Yes, actually. There are natural leaks of petroleum from cracks in the sea floor. Amounts to about a million gallons a year, which is far, far less than BP’s contribution. But anyway, scientists express guarded optimism that some sea life, such as deep sea corals, have adapted ways to deal with raw petroleum in their water. But there are serious open questions about the corals' capacity to deal with the quantity, the toxic dispersants, and the density of the petroleum plumes. Ok, I take it back. There’s no good news. Sorry.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Help This Nation

The New York Times hit upon it today. "The more confrontational tone from Washington underscored concerns within the administration about the long-term effect of the oil spill, not only environmentally, economically and politically, but on the national psyche as well."

In other words, it's depressing and frustrating and demoralizing. How does a nation respond to helplessness? Maybe it will be the wake-up call we need.

David Helvarg, of the Blue Frontier Campaign, tries hard to stay optimistic despite a simmering rage. This from his Blue Notes newsletter:

And Raging – Because it’s Personal

Nancy Ledansky loved the ocean. We spent years together diving, snorkeling, sailing and walking its shores.  When she died from breast cancer at the age of 43 we had a memorial service at her favorite beach on the Marin California headlands.

It was a windy day, feisty like the gal.  Although she used to say I never looked happier than when I was coming out of the water after getting beaten up by the waves, the ocean can also provide solace, remind us that we are part of something larger, even when large parts of our own soul have drifted away.

Five years later I returned to Rodeo Beach where oil had come ashore.  Behind the orange plastic fencing and pollution warning signs fifty-eight contract workers in yellow hazmat suits were removing oil stained boulders and scraping away the contaminated sand with a front loader called a Bobcat.  We’d seen real bobcats around there and I just hoped they didn’t find any dead seabirds to feed on as toxins tend to bio-accumulate up the food chain.  I’d come to the beach for a Coast Guard press conference before going out with them to do a damage assessment in parts of Richardson Bay where Nancy and I used to live, and it all felt like sacrilege.

This was during the 2007 Cosco Busan spill when a large container ship hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge spilling 53,500 gallons of toxic bunker fuel into the Bay, though the initial estimates by the Ship’s captain were far lower.  Three years later you can still find remnant oil in the wetlands near where I live and the Bay’s herring fishery has yet to recover.

According to conservative government estimates the BP Deepwater Horizon’s almost mile-deep wellhead has pumped 400 times a Cosco Busan spill worth of raw petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico so far since the rig exploded in April.

I remember after Hurricane Katrina spending an evening with a dozen displaced Cajun fishermen who were living in a carport below a three-story office building in Bell Chasse Louisiana.  They slept at night on dry patches of carpet in one of the water damaged law offices above.  They insisted on sharing the food and beer they had in big coolers with me and told me they weren’t sure they’d move their families back to Buras or Empire or other storm devastated towns I’d seen in Plaquemines Parrish where the world had turned upside down with boats on the land and houses in the water.  They would keep catching fish out of the Bayou however.  Of that they were certain.  Now their livelihoods are at risk from BP’s oil spill as are the wetlands that have sustained their people and culture since 1699 when Pierre Le Moyne landed on the Gulf Coast and reported an abundance of game, “and some rather good oysters.”

Oil, unlike some chemicals and vast amounts of plastic polymers we’re also dumping into the sea, will biodegrade over time.  In about 40 years much of the damage we’re seeing as the BP spill begins to come ashore will naturally remediate.  Of course by then changing weather, ocean productivity and sea level rise linked to the burning of oil and coal will also have radically altered the 40 percent of America’s coastal wetlands now at immediate risk.

I’m deeply tired of wake up calls that don’t seem to wake us up to our intimate and essential connections to the everlasting sea.   If the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice linked to climate change won’t do it, if the industrial overfishing of the world’s oceans that threaten commercial extinction of edible fish by mid-century won’t do it, if the loss of over a third of the world’s coral reefs in the blink of an eye in which I’ve lived my life won’t, then I’m not sure an oil spill the size of Connecticut  spread throughout the water column and still growing will do it either.

What’s most frustrating is the solutions are known.  If you stop killing fish faster than they can reproduce, if you stop producing 100 million tons of single use plastic every year, if you don’t build and dump on salt marshes, mangroves and other protective coastal habitat, if you repair aging sewage systems and don’t use storm drains as toilets, if you move from oil and gas to new energy systems including offshore wind, waves and tides, you can turn the tide.  All it takes is our personal and political will.

After Nancy died I thought about returning to war reporting because I knew it was an effective antidote to depression.  Instead I founded a non-profit group dedicated to the ocean and seaweed (marine grassroots) organizing thinking that while we’ll probably always have wars we may not always have healthy and abundant seas – or coastal wetlands.  I don’t know if it’s too late.  All I know for certain is if we don’t try we lose and this salty blue world of ours is too beautiful, scary and sacred to lose.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Day 43 Becomes Day 104

Doesn't sound too bad. 43 days. More than a month, less than two, a mild jail term, a short appliance warranty, half a summer...but don't be fooled. It's bad. Day 43 of the worst environmental disaster in American history. BP's broken pipe is still pumping thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Every second, twenty four seven. It'd be fascinating if it wasn't so disheartening. I have to ask again: When can we get off our addiction?

I tend to think optimistically yet BP's spill challenges that every day now. What's at stake today is BP's fabulous engineers are trying again the containment dome, the large bell-like contraption that clogged up with frozen methane the first time. If it works it won't stop the disastrous geyser of oil but will siphon it off, diverting it from pouring into the Gulf.

The catch is it might not work. Plus, BP has to act fast because hurricane season begins tomorrow. If a storm kicks up, they would have to suspend the fix. If the dome actually works and the oil is diverted to ships on the surface, the ships would also have to take cover if a storm kicks up. Who knows what that would mean for the dome and more oil into the Gulf. Worse, this appears to be their last option.

The word "August", as in the month, has begun to appear in media and in words around the disaster. This is when the surefire fix would be available. The surefire fix is drilling sideways through the bedrock to cut off the oil before it reaches the busted pipe on the seafloor. But it's as if the containment dome is a mere distraction and talking about August now is to soften the blow of it as reality. 

August. August 1st would be Day 104. That's just shy of the worst environmental disaster in American history tripled. Imagine if the containment dome doesn't work, and now we're being told the oil will possibly continue to pour into the Gulf unabated into August. How in the world is any of this acceptable?

I have to ask: Can we please put our collective wills and resources together to build a renewable energy economy and get off petroleum?