Archive for the ‘Environment’ category

The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

May 22, 2017

While we focus on the various obvious bathetic catastrophes (from blowing secrets to the Russians to the big man’s collapsing in a heap after a mere one day on the road) committed by the shitgibbon and his band of merry (but never gay — oh no! not that) men, it’s important to keep at least some attention on the rolling, very real damage the Trump administration wreaks on a daily basis.

I’m so far behind on a book project that I can’t really keep up, and I certainly can’t blog with anything remotely resembling depth and insight, so I’m going to try instead to throw up quick posts as various bits of policy news cross my magpie’s field of vision.

This morning’s treat comes via a Saturday story in FTFNYT.*  Under Scott Pruitt, it seems, the EPA has become the Captain Renault of environmental regulators: everything has its price, and the Captain is always eager to make a deal:

Devon Energy, which runs the windswept site, had been prepared to install a sophisticated system to detect and reduce leaks of dangerous gases. It had also discussed paying a six-figure penalty to settle claims by the Obama administration that it was illegally emitting 80 tons each year of hazardous chemicals, like benzene, a known carcinogen.

But something changed in February just five days after Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general with close ties to Devon, was sworn in as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Devon, in a letter dated Feb. 22 and obtained by The New York Times, said it was “re-evaluating its settlement posture.” It no longer intended to move ahead with the extensive emissions-control system, second-guessing the E.P.A.’s estimates on the size of the violation, and it was now willing to pay closer to $25,000 to end the three-year-old federal investigation.

The administration’s response?

The E.P.A. has not yet made a public response to Devon’s new posture, and Mr. Pruitt declined to comment for this article.

Want to bet on how it will turn out?

In just the last three months, with Mr. Pruitt in charge, the E.P.A. postponed a long-planned rule requiring companies like Devon to retrofit drilling equipment to prevent leaks of methane gas — a major contributor to climate change — and to collect more data on how much of the gas is spewing into the air.

The Interior Department, meanwhile, announced this month that it would reconsider a separate rule limiting the burning of unwanted methane gas from wells drilled on federal and Indian lands, a process called flaring. That announcement came the same day the Senate narrowly rejected industry calls to repeal the same rule.

Interior officials have also announced their intention to repeal or revise a contentious rule requiring companies like Devon to take extra steps to prevent groundwater contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, a drilling technique in which chemicals and water are forced into rock formations.

You get the idea. Pruitt has a history of working with Devon Energy; the administration has both a pro-extractive industry bias and powerful faction and the always reliable motive of f**king with anything that Obama accomplished.  Some of what the shitgibbon’s people aim to do can, no doubt, be delayed, obstructed, tied up.  Much, perhaps most will go through, at least over the next year or so, up until the pressures of the next election begin to bite.

So:  constant vigilance and trust no Republican. They’ll load up anything they can on anything they can, transferring public goods (clean air, clean water, anything not nailed down) to private hands.

Over to y’all.

*Publication of such stories  is why I continue to subscribe. Their political desk is…dodgy…but they still field more fine reporters than just about anywhere else I can think of. YM, as always, MV.

Image: Elihu Vedder, Corrupt Legislation, mural in the Library of Congress, 1896.

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The Common Inheritance, The Common Defense

March 5, 2017

A bit of self promotion here, but I’ve got a piece in today’s Boston Globe that might be of interest to some here.

It’s a look at what the idea of the commons — not just the abstract, model commons of Garrett Hardin’s famous essay, but the historical commons as actually lived and used — can tell us about current problems.  The TL:DR is that commons are not inherently prone to tragedy, but that the preservation of communal goods requires…wait for it…communal action: regulation, self-regulation.

This is, of course, exactly what the Republican Party denies — more, loathes and condemns.  With Trump, they’re getting their way, but its vital to remember that the consequences that will flow from these decisions are not down to him, or simply so: the entire Republican power structure is eager to do this, and when we pay the price, we must remember who ran up the bill.

Anyway, here’s a taste from my piece.  Head on over to the Globe’s site if you want more.

The idea of the commons is deeply woven through the history of the English countryside. Shakespeare captured this idyllic approach to nature’s wealth in “As You Like It,” when the shepherd Corin explains to the cynic Touchstone the joys of his life. “I earn that I eat, get that I wear,” he says, adding that “the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck” — in the unowned, readily shared Forest of Arden.

There can be trouble in such an Eden, as Hardin pointed out in an influential 1968 paper. Hardin asked what would happen if access to a commons were truly unfettered — if Corin and every other villager ran as many sheep as they could there. In such cases, Hardin argued, the endgame is obvious: Too many animals would eat too much fodder, leaving the ground bare, unable to support any livestock at all.

The evolution of resistance to antibiotics fits that story perfectly. The first modern bacteria-killing drug, penicillin, came into widespread use in 1944, as American laboratories raced to produce millions of doses in time for D-Day. The next year, its discoverer, Alexander Fleming, used his Nobel Prize lecture to describe precisely how this wonder drug could lose its power, telling the sad tale of a man who came down with a strep infection. In his tale, Mr. X didn’t finish his course of penicillin, and his surviving microbes, now “educated” (Fleming’s term), infected his wife. When her course of penicillin failed to eradicate these now-resistant microbes, Mrs. X died — killed, Fleming said, by her husband’s carelessness. It took just one more year for this fable to turn into fact: In 1946, four American soldiers came down with drug-resistant gonorrhea, the first such resistance on record.

Go on — check it out.  You want to hear about the great Charnwood Forest rabbit riot.  You know you do…

Image: Jacopo da Ponte, Sheep and Lambc. 1650.

For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes Boing Boing Edition/Self Aggrandizement Alert

September 19, 2012

Late in getting this note up, but at 5 p.m. EDT this afternoon — less than an hour from now — I’ll be talking with Maggie Koerth-Baker on my monthly gig at Virtually Speaking Science.  That link takes you to the audio stream (and later the podcast, also available on iTunes) and this one will bring you to the spot in Second Life where you can heckle us in the “live”(ish) studio audience.

Maggie, as many of you may know, is the science editor at Boing Boing, and hence the ringleader and major producer of much that is wonderful in web-based science news, analysis and the odd oddity as well. She’s also just started a gig as a monthly technology-and-its-culture columnist for the New York Times Magazine. Her first column picked up on a subject near and dear to this blog’s community — what makes it possible for facts to matter in a political conversation.

We’ll spend part of the hour talking about her next column, on the concept of technological momentum, or why some seemingly great ideas do or don’t make it in the real world.  We may also get to some of the issues in science writing on the web raised by some of the troubling events of the last few months — think Jonah Lehrer, for one example, and the hype that overwhelmed much of the real science in the ENCODE story for another.  But the major topic will be energy, drawing on Maggie’s  wonderful book from earlier this year, Before the Lights Go Out — which is simply the sanest popular work on energy and paths to a non-disastrous future that  I’ve seen in many months of Sundays.

I’ll leave it there to give this post a chance to catch eyeballs before we go live.  Stop by if you’ve inclination and a moment.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, Vegetable gardens and the Moulin de Blute-Fin on Montmartre, 1887.

Captain’s Blog: Gulf of Mexico Oil Damage/Worse Than You Thought update

December 7, 2010

In blogging, as in much else, marrying well can make life a lot easier.

Case in point:

Through marriage to my wife I gained cousinhood with Captain Peter Wilcox, who at this point in an adventurous, well-lived life, is master of the Greenpeace ship M.V. Arctic Sunrise.

Which means that because of the family connection, I get Peter’s episodic updates, his Captain’s Blog.

What follows is his latest, from a Gulf of Mexico cruise designed to assess both the damage and decision making about the Deep Horizon disaster that will define the Gulf ecosystem for decades.

First, a work about Peter:  He grew up on boats (next door to my wife-to-be, as it happens in a lefty, multi-racial sort of cooperative housing development in Connecticut, right on Long Island Sound. It was the kind of place where children learned how to sail at about the time they started walking and were allowed to skipper on their own from the moment they proved competent enough.

From there, Peter got involved in water-borne environmentalism on the queen of the Hudson River, the sloop Clearwater (one of Pete and Toshi Seeger’s many give-backs to the community), and then he joined up with Greenpeace.  There he rose to become  captain of the Rainbow Warrior — and was in command when French terrorists spies government-employed-murderous-thugs sunk the ship with two limpet mines, killing one crew member, Fernando Pereira.

In other words, Peter has been there and back again, and has some very hard-won knowledge of what the real world is like — a view barred to those who cannot tear Galt’s glasses from their eyes.

So — what’s in the latest of Peter’s dispatches?

Nothing to make one happy.

Here’s a sample:

Corexit is mostly what BP has used on the spill.  There are a few things to know about Corexit.  One is that is was banned in U.K. over ten years ago because it is so toxic, as in poisonous to humans and sea life. According to the label on the product, it will irritate the eyes, it is not to be inhaled, and it can cause harm to red blood cells, your kidney and liver.  The OSHA data sheet states: component substances have a potential to bioconcentrate, that human health hazard is acute.  Nice stuff.

Also, according to EPA data, Corexit ranked far above other dispersants for toxicity, and far below other dispersants in effectiveness in handling Louisiana crude.

Corexit was also used on the Exxon Valdez spill.  Now read carefully: Almost all the clean up workers who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill are dead.  According to CNN, who made efforts to warn the people of the Gulf about Corexit, the average lifespan of an Exxon Valdez spill worker is 51 years.  That’s almost 30 years less than that of the average American.   There were 11,000 people involved with the Exxon Valdez spill.

The whole thing is below the jump.  Don’t read it if you have a short fuse.  You will detonate.

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One last note: Peter isn’t a journalist and doesn’t claim to be one.

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He’s an environmentalist, one with decades of experience with ocean issues.  You can judge for yourself how well he gets the story below. FWIW, here’s my take, as a sometime journo:

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Peter lays out not just what he knows, but also from whence he gets his data. He distinguishes between that data and interpretation. He makes no secret of his presumptions, his starting point, and he clearly sees players who fill the roles of villain and fool.  I’m passing on this report both because it looks to me to be solid (and troubling as hell) and because Peter has given us all the apparatus we need to dig into his claims if we are so minded.

This is, if you were wondering, very different from what much more “credentialled” MSM pundits do. As soon as I have time, I’m going to write up a couple of recent offenders to illustrate the point, but truth is, no one reading this blog needs the crayon sketch.

Read on.  Peter’s got some serious sh*t to say.

What follows is Peter Wilcox’s most dispatch.  It’s a shipboard update, and you are getting it as is, with minor proofing from me.

Captain’s Blog
Gulf of Mexico 2010
5

That’s a wrap!  One more tour in the bag.  The panic filled weekend at Galveston, trying to get ready for that leg is slowly becoming a memory.  The near sleepless nights of doing multiple CTDs are fading away.  And, we saved the best for last!

After we unloaded the EARS gear in Gulfport, we waited a couple days for the truck to show up from California with a submarine.  We expected them sooner, but it took a day for someone in their logistics department to realize that Gulfport is in Mississippi and not Arizona.  A supporter loaned us his sub for the work.  A very nice supporter!

The Deep Worker 2 is the big brother to the Deep Worker we used in the Bering Sea three years ago.  Its really just two Deep Workers bolted together.  The advantage is you can take down a less trained person in the other chamber. I say less trained, because the “passenger” is still responsible for maintaining her or his own life support.

The idea is to take mostly scientists and a journo or two down to the bottom to see what — if any — damage was caused by the BP oil spill.

The sub crew cleaned up the sub from its cross-country ride in a container.  We then gave it a couple test dives in Gulfport harbor to make sure it was working.

Our first dive was a bit of an eye opener.  Many years ago, when I was on the Sirius, we bought a large jet rhib called the Hoolie.  It weighed close to 2.5 tons I am guessing.  Now the Sirius was a great roller. That boat could roll you head off your shoulders, and needed extra lines at the dock to keep her steady.  It was there I realized that for moving weights of more than one ton around on deck, four tag lines are required, not two.

The first launch / recovery we did with only two.  But give us credit of learning, or remembering fast.  The rest of the time, we used four tag lines, and we were all able to breath a lot easier (as in breath at all).  The first dive was plagued by bad visibility and poor communications.

Arctic Sunrise is a noisy boat.  I am not referring to what those of us living on board have to listen to.  I am referring to the underwater noise generated by the ship’s equipment.  When we were on the Espy in the Bering Sea three years ago, we were able to mount the comms antenna on a long pole that went in the water to a depth below the keel.  But it turned out the Sunrise was too noisy for this.  We used our pole (made in Galveston) to hold the sonar for location of the sub, but had to shift the comms to the jet boat.

The vis got better, the comms got better, and most of the dives were very successful.  I am happy to report that the Alabama Alps, the underwater ridge about twenty miles north of the BP accident did not show any signs of being damaged by oil.  There is more testing need to be done before the scientists are confident about their conclusions, but this is what our first looked showed.

I wish I could be as optimistic about everything else in the Gulf.  My biggest worry now is for the people who live near and work on the Gulf.

Maybe the biggest impression I got from the spill is that BP was very quick out of the gate in protecting its interests, without any concerns what so ever for the health of the people living on the Gulf.  As fast as BP was at controlling the damage, our governments, State and Federal, are completely clueless, and still do not know what they are doing. Still,… today.

Corexit is mostly what BP has used on the spill.  There are a few things to know about Corexit.  One is that is was banned in U.K. over ten years ago because it is so toxic, as in poisonous to humans and sea life. According to the label on the product, it will irritate the eyes, it is not to be inhaled, and it can cause harm to red blood cells, your kidney and liver.  The OSHA data sheet states: component substances have a potential to bioconcentrate, that human health hazard is acute.  Nice stuff.

Also, according to EPA data, Corexit ranked far above other dispersants for toxicity, and far below other dispersants in effectiveness in handling Louisiana crude.

Corexit was also used on the Exxon Valdez spill.  Now read carefully: Almost all the clean up workers who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill are dead.  According to CNN, who made efforts to warn the people of the Gulf about Corexit, the average lifespan of an Exxon Valdez spill worker is 51 years.  That’s almost 30 years less than that of the average American.   There were 11,000 people involved with the Exxon Valdez spill.

When you try to get precise numbers on the spill, it is tough.  Lots of numbers exist.  But what I have found indicates 275 million gallons of crude oil leaked out of the busted well (Exxon Valdez spill was 11 million).  BP used 2 million gallons of Corexit.  On May 20th, the EPA told BP to stop using Corexit.  BP at that time said that they had a quarter million gallons in inventory, and they were going to keep using it.   This is going to be a fatal decision.

So not only should have the people who made Corexit know better, but so should have our government.  Why did not anybody think to call up someone in Alaska, and ask, “what happened when you tried to clean up form the Exxon Valdez spill?

Bob Naman is a chemist at the Analytical Chemical Testing Lab in Mobile.  According to Naman, the poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from this toxic mix are making people sick.  PAHs contain compounds that have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic (an agent that tends to increase the frequency or extent of mutation), and teratogenic (of, relating to, or causing developmental malformation). (I am afraid we all know what carcinogenic means.)   BP sprayed Corexit out of airplanes and injected it into the geyser where the oil was gushing out of the bottom.  Says Naman,”the dispersants are being added to the water and are causing chemical compounds to become water soluble, which is then given off into the air, so it is coming down as rain, in addition to being in the water and beaches of these areas of the Gulf.”

The second week of August while we were checking sponges at Dry Tortugas, WKRG New 5 took a water sample from the area to test for dispersants.  The sample literally exploded when it was mixed with an organic solvent separating the oil from the water.  Naman, who analyzed the sample said: “We think that it most likely happened due to the presence of either methanol or methane gas, or the presence of Corexit”.

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Hugh Kaufman, an EPA whistleblower and analyst, has reported this of the effects of the toxic dispersants:
“We have dolphins that are hemorrhaging. People who work near it are hemorrhaging internally. And that’s what dispersants are supposed to do … And, for example, in the Exxon Valdez case, people who worked with dispersants, most of them are dead now. The average death age is around 50. It’s very dangerous, and it’s (Corexit) an economic protector of BP, not an environmental protector of the public.”

By the middle of last summer, the Alabama Department of Public Health said that 56 people in Mobile and Baldwin counties had sought treatment for what they believed were oil disaster-related illnesses.  Have you heard the expression “tip of the ice berg”?

Yesterday morning, NPR said 1/3 of Gulf residents are showing some sign of trauma.  People lost jobs, their homes, and their lives.  And if BP is as good as Exxon was in fighting judgments, it will be years before some deserving people see any money.  When I was up in Alaska three years ago, some people still have not bee paid (20 years later).  Health care professionals see problems with anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression.

This morning NPR did a piece on the difficulties faced by people in the small fishing communities.  They drew similarities between the Exxon spill and the BP spill as opposed to natural disasters like Katrina. The report claims that natural disasters tend to pull communities together, while man made ones divide communities.

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Katrina did not cause people to lose their way of life.  An Iraq veteran who had been shrimping, lost his family when after he lost his job, the BP compensation payment only came to $1,700 for six month.  He had been paid mostly in cash, and was unable to document his income.  He feels like a failure, and has contemplated suicide.

Steve Pico tracked the problems of the Price William Sound communities after the Exxon spill.  “The communities were blindsided, they did not realize what was happening to them until the suicides started, divorces started and domestic violence became acute.”  Now he is seeing the same issues start sooner in the Gulf than they did in Alaska.  After four yeas in Alaska, there were seven suicides.  There are already two in the Gulf.

And all while this was going on, our governments were saying: “come on down!  The water is fine”.  President Obama went swimming for the cameras.  What was he thinking?  It was this type of attitude that caused scenes like this one:  families swimming and sunbathing on a beach, while ten meters away, people in has mat suits were digging up the beach to try and get to the oil.

Instead of protecting us, and talking about the dangers of the over use of dispersants, our governments were saying: “the BP spill is no big deal!  You can swim in the ocean!”  I ask again, what could they have been thinking?

I think we can all understand that BP’s complete aim was to limit their exposure to liability.  This is a company that has shown repeatedly it gives not a damn for the public health.  But where was our Surgeon General?  Where was the EPA?

But it is not just people who are suffering.  The toxicity levels of the petroleum found in Pensacola Bay at frightening.  In referring to Pensacola Bay, Heather Reed, the environmental expert for the city of Gulf Breeze said, “the numbers are off the chart. It’s extremely toxic to human health.”

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Lab workers had to dilute the sample 20 times just to get a reading. Reed said samples are usually diluted only once.
“The oil is very well preserved,” Reed added. “It smells very strong when pulled out of the water. It made me nauseated.” Reed in late September discovered a significant amount of oil buried in submerged sediment near Fort McRae in Escambia County while conducting independent research.

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“The oil was in about 3 feet of water and was buried pretty deep in the sediment,” Reed recalled. “The mats where between 6 inches and a foot in diameter, but some were more than 2 feet in diameter. I kept digging and finding more and more.  “Finding this submerged oil is very alarming to me because it’s in such large mats,” Reed explained. “I believe it came into (the bay) in June with the initial impacts.”
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Reed on Sept. 30 revisited the site and another near Barrancas Beach with BP and Coast Guard officials to inform responders of her discovery. She also discovered oil present at Johnson Beach, Fort Pickens and Orange Beach through research she conducted in September.  The topography near Fort McRae helped preserve the submerged oil. Because the area is a secluded cove, very little water flows through it – resulting in low oxygen levels.  “(The oil) is in an anaerobic environment, so there is not a lot of bacteria to break it down,” Reed explained.

Reed said that similar samples that might possibly remain submerged in the Gulf of Mexico could be extremely damaging to the marine ecosystem.  “I am concerned about upwelling events,” Reed said. “Strong currents draw up nutrient rich water and sediment from the sea floor that nourishes plankton and other organisms that are the foundation of the marine food chain.
“If an upwelling event brings up any oil material with these toxicity levels, it could be harmful to any animals near the upwelling plume.”

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“I would not recommend going into the water”, she said.

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She explained that the effects near the beach would be different because of more aeration.  Though no oil has been reported on Gulf Breeze shores or in local bayous, those areas could be at risk.

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“We don’t have any barriers, the Coastwatchers aren’t patrolling anymore, and there has been no communication to the city of this oil entering the bay,” Reed said.  If oil entered any of the Gulf Breeze bayous, Reed explained that it would sink and become submerged just as it had near Fort McRae.  “It would definitely sink and be preserved,” Reed said. “And it would be very difficult to find.

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This has been a very difficult letter to write.  I am not a dispassionate journalist.  Writing this drives my blood pressure up 20 points easily.

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I have seen many ugly situations during my life.  Many of them, like the U.S. Government’s purposely experimenting on Marshall Islanders to study the effects of radiation, I have partly shrugged off because they happened so long ago (50 years in that case).  But the BP spill and its effects on the people of the Gulf are happening now.  Today.  And tomorrow, and for the next 20 years.  There are people there who need help right now.

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And we know it.  We know that like the Exxon Valdez spill, the people who did the actual clean up will pay for it with lost years of their lives.  And BP will give out some money now, and then spend 20 years keeping itself and its lawyer’s rich, while the people of the Gulf suffer.  And if their track record is anything to go by, this won’t be the last time.

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My last night at sea, I went up to the bridge tonight at 18.00 to relieve Ivo, our chief mate from Croatia for dinner. I looked back on the deck, and Wendy, our cook is writing in her journal.  She is not cooking dinner, because Neil, the world’s coolest R.O. is making pizza.  Johanne from Denmark is re-sizing the pilot ladder; until (on a Sunday evening) it is so dark she cannot see any more.

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The rays of sunset are making spokes across the sky from the higher cumulus clouds. This is such a beautiful place, despite man’s best efforts over the last six months.  I really want to go home and see my family.   This has been one of my toughest tours in many years: the constant organizing for the next day’s activities, a crew who all worked very hard, without enough down time to catch their breath.  And in the backs of our minds, constantly the knowledge that while we were not always seeing oil float around on the surface, we were witnessing a huge disaster.

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But in spite of all that, I do not want Veracruz to poke its head over the horizon after lunch tomorrow.  I could do this job forever.

Images:  Joseph Mallord William Turner, Shipwreck, 1805.

George Seurat, Bathers in Asnières, 1883-1884.

Carly Fiorina Reveals the Source of Her Failure at HP: Can’t Walk, Chew Gum at the same time/shouldn’t be a Senator edition.

June 17, 2010

So, stylist/Senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina is turning her attention away from her opponents ‘do to more serious matters.

Unfortunately, she brings the same gravitas to the question of confronting the gulf oil disaster that she did to the matter of Barbara Boxer’s hair.

The AP reports today that while she supports President Obama’s success in compelling BP to come up with a $20 billion escrow fund to cover local losses, she disapproves of another part of his handling of the crisis:

Fiorina, who is trying to unseat Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, said the president should be focused on capping the leak and cleaning up the oil, not working with Boxer on greenhouse gas legislation.

“President Obama’s emphasis right now should be on cleaning up the spill, something (Sen.) Dianne Feinstein clearly recognized when she said, ‘cap-and-trade legislation isn’t going to clean up the spill,'” Fiorina said.

Instead, she said the president is planning to meet with Boxer to discuss the climate change bill.

“I think our commander in chief’s attention should be devoted exclusively to cleaning up the spill and to making sure that the residents of the Gulf Coast receive the relief that they so desperately need,” Fiorina said after her visit to Rex Moore Electrical Contractors and Engineers in Sacramento.

Oh FSM! Where to begin?

Last time I looked, American presidents have to be able to think about more than one thing at a time — and to do so beyond the next quarter’s results.  Actually, as people have been pointing out for a while, that’s President Obama’s particular strength.

Fiorina , it seems, would rather have it that Obama do nothing but don his scuba outfit and put what one blogospheric type called his magic tampon down the Deepwater Horizon well.  (Apologies to the mystery wit; lost the link in the day’s surf madness Thanks to commenter Courtney below for pointing to the correct attribution.  We love the blogosphere. 😉

Heaven forfend that he should also think about the context of the spill:  the fact that the need to drill in conditions in some ways more difficult than those of outer space is the direct consequence of an unsustainable dependence on oil as one of our chief sources of energy.

“Cleaning up the spill” is a critical task, of course — but after organizing the executive branch to do so, while fending off GOP resistance to, say, “making sure the residents of the Gulf Coast” get the help they need, there is a limit to the number of hours Obama can usefully give to that job out of every 24.  But there is a larger concern, one with several levels — which is how to prevent repeats of the disaster.

Clearly that involves looking at what went wrong at both the drill site and in the regulatory process that allowed BP and its drilling partners/subcontractors to get away with as many shortcuts as it appears they did.  Making the drilling process work better is clearly a good thing

But there is, of course, a larger context, which is that dependence on oil as a primary energy source is a long term loser, not simply in the sense that the peak oil concept suggests, but given the fact that exploitation of oil compels us to accept risk that over time will produce various disastrous outcomes.  Bad spills, cash flows to unstable regions and hostile folks, wars from time to time are all part of the cost of oil. They aren’t “accidents,” “natural disasters” or acts of God.  They are anticipatable, if not precisely predictable outcomes of what you have to do where to get oil out of the interior of the earth. Not to mention the use of oil carries with it significant, real environmental costs (and not just global warming).

Note also this map — versions of it been making the round of  the ‘tubes lately.  Note, as many have , just how much of that fossil fuel infrastructure is concentrated around the Louisiana coast in particular, and the Gulf Coast more generally

Put all that together, it seems to me that trying to work out how to reduce the role of oil (and other fossil fuels) as energy sources is an integral part of responding to this specific catastrophe — and it even seems like it would be directly relevent to what the folks on the Gulf Coast need if a total disruption (and/or extinction) of a lot of ways of life down there isn’t going to recur every few years.

To repeat: Presidents have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The last GOP hopeful who denied this lost, badly, to the man now in the office that requires such mental agility.

So:  Fiorina is an idiot.

But we knew that.

I’ll leave you with the thought that what’s actually interesting about Fiorina’s inadvertent self-revelation here is that her reaction is precisely that of someone incapable of thinking past the immediate horizon — nothing matters more than hitting the next quarter’s numbers, in the context of her experience.  That’s a crappy way to run a business — and it is a much worse way to run a government.

Image:  General view of Funkville in 1864, Oil Creek, Pennsylvania

In Which the Times’ Daddy Complex Escapes the Opinion Page for Wider Pastures

June 6, 2010

I just read Matt Bai’s piece for this week’s “Week in Review” section of the NY Times.  In it he makes the perfectly sensible point that administrations are undone by the fact or appearance of not just one crisis unmet, but a series of them.

Then he goes blooey, trying to place the Obama adminstration and the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster into the framework he identifies in describing the demise of the Carter and the second Bush II presidencies.  The result is incoherence, leading up to yet another wail for Daddy President to come in and make all the bad stuff go away.

Bai begins his Obama thumbsucking this way:

The man-made catastrophe in the gulf does not yet constitute an existential threat to Mr. Obama’s presidency. (There’s not much Mr. Obama can do about it at this point, anyway, short of slapping on a scuba suit and sticking his hand in the pipe until the relief well is completed.)

Pretty sensible, right?  There is a lot of blame to go around for the Deepwater Horizon wreck, and this administration was at least caught unawares of the risks involved in deep water drilling, but no one is claiming that the primary failures were Obama’s.  And Bai seems to understand that when you are dealing with a very difficult technical problem, you can’t ask that much of the President.

But then he goes on to make his core point, that thought about accumulating appearances of incompetence or failure in the face of crisis.  In essence, he argues, that the Presidency is a matter of theater, and what matters most is being seen to be in control, and not necessarily  actually accomplishing anything in the crises.  He acknowledges, for example, that Carter was probably done in by runaway inflation, but it was everything from tanks in Afghanistan to the fall of Skylab (no, really) that made him vulnerable.  On the other side, Bai tries to argue that Clinton’s high approval ratings had as much to do with his calm after the Columbine shootings as it did with low inflation, budget surpluses and high employment whilst the nation was at peace.

This is, I think, handwaving of the highest order.  Bai caps his analysis by noting, again correctly, that one of FDR’s strengths coming in was to seem active in the face of the Great Depression.   But this misses the point that more of it worked than not, with the exception of the decision to go for deficit hawkery rather than continued stimulus — and that sustained rise in output and economic activity may have had rather more to do with FDR’s lasting popularity than the mere appearance of effort.

Worse, this passage in the piece signals the moment at which Bai goes in for full self-parody, telling us that “Roosevelt and his intrepid New Dealers would probably be thinking about ways to drain the Gulf of Mexico right about now.”

“Just do something,” you can almost hear Bai scream at Obama.  “Anything.”  Doesn’t matter if, as Bai has already told us, he can’t.  He should be seen to be solving an unsolvable problem (or at least, one that is unsolvable swiftly and to order).

And why is that so important now, more so than in previous periods of real crisis in American history?  Why, of course, because we know that government cannot actually accomplish anything.

In part, this is probably a function of our having lost so much faith in the ability of government generally. There is, after all, a short distance between believing that government doesn’t solve our problems to believing that government actually causes them, and a lot of Americans in the last few decades have made the leap. If tar balls are turning up along the Gulf Coast, then some bureaucrat somewhere must be to blame — and why not the bureaucrat-in-chief?

Here he drinks the kool-aid. It would be a different (and better) piece if Bai were to think just a bit about his easy use of that convenient word “our” having lost faith — who is this we, and how were we constructed?  There is no data at all to support this statement — rather, it’s presented as a truth universally acknowledged, and one that emerges (as we will see) organically from social and economic change over the last forty years.  That Bai can’t bring himself to note the sustained thirty year attempt to erode government capacity under a succession of GOP presidents is a tell, in my view.

But the headscratcher in that paragraph is the assertion that, for non-tinfoil-hat-wearing Americans, it is a short step to go from saying government is incompetent then government blew up the damn well.  I don’t know the polling on this, but I’m going out on a limb and say this is Matt Bai just throwing sh*t out there.

Then there’s this

On a deeper level, though, we may be reacting to our own lack of control as workers, providers and parents. For about 40 years, since the onset of industrial decline, Americans have been trying to negotiate an increasingly unstable economic and cultural landscape, the effects of which are clear in any community where factories or farms (or often both) have withered away — substance abuse, failing schools, higher rates of crime and divorce. The chaos is all around us, and what we ask of a president, increasingly, is to somehow use the instruments of government to rein it in.

Huh?  Crime rates are down, and so are divorce rates (see table A3) over the last several years — both facts that have been widely reported, including just two weeks ago in the pages of the distinguished journalistic organ for which Mr. Bai also writes.

If the chaos is all around us it is a creation of something other than the facts on the ground — that GOP attempt to portray an American in crisis, for example.  And more important, it doesn’t give the reader any confidence in the analytical skills of a writer when they toss around such easy — and wrong — “facts.”  This is basic journalism here:  before you say something is so make sure that it is.

Let me offer just a guess, here.  I don’t deny that there is frustration and a sense of inadequate governmental response to problems right now. But I don’t think it has much to do with with a cultural landscape in which over forty years or so women got to decide if they wanted to have sex for fun and African Americans learned that they could in fact, by law, vote (this is my interpretation of what the term “cultural landscape” means, more or less).

The economic landscape is more important — but the actual angst derives from what this chart is telling us, and not from any existential sense that we aren’t a steel forging nation anymore.  (Bai, born in 1968, may not remember what deindustrialization actually felt like.  We are in a vastly different economy now, and its stresses are very different from those days as well.)

Bai goes on to write

The problem here for Mr. Obama is that, almost 18 months after assuming office, he still seems to regard himself as something of an intellectual critic of government, when, in fact, what Americans expect from him now is markedly different. The transition is long behind us, which means the president embodies the government he once assailed and is held accountable, fairly or not, for its failures.

Obama sees himself as an intellectual critic of government?  This Obama?  Not with you here, man.

The disconnect was on vivid display during Mr. Obama’s news conference late last month, when, despite professing full responsibility for his administration’s response to the leak, he referred several times to what the “federal government” was doing, as if he himself were merely a disappointed spectator like the rest of us.

I guess this means Bai doesn’t like it when a President acknowledges in his rhetoric that he cannot, in fact, scuba dive down to 5,000 feet below sea level and slam his own Presidential hand into a gushing oil well.  It might just take one or two other folks, an agency or two, you know, the federal government.

He railed coolly against the “cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship” between oil companies and the government, despite the fact that his administration had been governing for more than a year. And he seemed unbothered admitting to reporters that he didn’t know whether his own director of the Minerals Management Service had been fired or resigned.

I’ll give Bai this one: Obama should have his story clear on the MMS head.  The problem is that he is actually right about the cozy and corrupt relationships, which proliferated under his predecessor and have not yet been adequately dealt with.

By the time the president spoke again at the White House and then revisited the gulf on Friday, he seemed genuinely enraged at BP. The writer in him, perhaps, sensed that the oil from a snapped-off pipe on the ocean floor might yet come to signify something deeper about his administration.

Or maybe the President in him sensed that an ocean destroying gusher is something to be enraged about.

But chaos-weary Americans no longer needed him to share their outrage at the leak. They needed him to finally shut it off.

Except, Mr. Bai, see Mr. Bai above: he can’t do that, at least not without enormous technical effort led by the offending party, BP.

This is Bai just giving up.  (Or channeling his inner MoDo.)He can’t stand the difficulty of being an adult in the world — or rather, worse, he thinks the rest of us can’t — and he is reduced to wailing, “Papa!  Make it stop!”

I get that the polls are saying that Obama has taken a hit over his response to the oil gusher.  I think he should:  not because he could have solved it any sooner, but because he did in fact, in my view, fail to convey the scale of, the risks inherent, and the time commitment required to confront the crisis as pointedly and as swiftly as he should have.   He is the teacher in chief, and he didn’t quite get there this time.  Also, I think it is fair to say that the original government response was slow and disorganized, and needed to be much more rapidly reformed.

But this notion that all of America somehow thinks that over the last forty years of significant change in American culture, we’ve suddenly decided that we can only surivive if the President is our daddy is nonsense — or more formally, an assumption not in evidence that cannot therefore be taken as a reliable conclusion.

(And I’m not even going into the ahistoricity of Bai’s piece.  This is hardly the first time in American history when cultural and economic change has seemed overwhelming.  We’ve gotten by without parental Presidents in the past, and I rather expect we will do so again.)

So , to channel my inner Brad Delong even though it’s important to note that Matt Bai himself is far from terrible, most of the time)…we do need a better press corps.

Images:  Jean-Baptiste Charpentier le Vieux, “Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon with his daughter Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon,” 18th c.

Civilian Conservation Corps constructing road, 1933

Georgios Iakovidis, “The Naughty Grandson,” 1884.

Conservatives are always wrong: Death of the Oceans edition

June 1, 2010

As part of my attempt to return to blogging after a case of end-of-semesteritis combined with some grims magnified by sad family news, here’s the first of what I hope will be some resurrections of posts begun but not completed during the last month or so that might (he fondly hopes) retain some relevance.

To begin:

Some while back, as in before BP et al. wreaked havoc on the Gulf, Andrew Sullivan flagged this TED talk by Jeremy Jackson.

In it, Jackson covers some, but by no means all of the disasters wrought by last fifty years spent demonstrating the tragedy of commons on the world’s oceans. The BP/Global Horizon catastrophe is signal in the size of the single incident, but, as Jackson begins to convey, is itself dwarfed by the accumulation of thousands, then millions of much smaller bad decisions.

The key point that emerges from Jackson’s talk as much as it does from the more spectacular market failure evident in the Gulf of Mexico tragedy, is that self correcting invisible hands do not work their magic on a resource in which the logic of the commons leads to uncontained exploitation of a resource.So watch the talk — it’s worth the full twenty minutes or so.

Full disclosure: it will ruin your day, the more so when you realize that every word was spoken before we ever heard the terms “top kill” or “junk shot.”

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