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Pull The Plug On … June 16, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, economy, environment, football, politics, sustainability.
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Did you catch POTUS BO’s Oval Office speech last night? I missed it live, but just saw it on YouTube. I didn’t realize that this was the first Oval Office speech POTUS BO has given—an analysis in the NY Times pointed this out. Strange given how long he’s already been in office and the potentially national course altering agenda items he’s already pushed through or is pushing right now—the Wall Street bailout, the economic stimulus, the troop surge in Afghanistan, the health insurance reform bill. Just shows what a political hot button this disaster has become.

I’m a fan of POTUS BO—he’s center-left on Mount Crushmore—and enjoy his speeches. This one was fine. I would have written a similar speech myself. I wouldn’t have delievered it with that gravitas and that charisma but the contents would have been the same. Mostly. Yes, “we will make BP pay for the damage they have caused.” And yes, we must “seize the moment” and “end our century-long addiction to fossil fuels.” But, do we really “need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of the region?” and do we really have to “make a commitment to the Gulf Coast?” I don’t mean to sound callous, but I hope not.

“The sadness and the anger the [people of the Gulf] feel is not just about the money they’ve lost. It’s about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost.” Technically speaking this is not an anxiety. Anxiety is apprehension about an imagined or intangible threat. This is fear of a known future. 30 years hence, Prince William Sound has not recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill. When it’s all said and done, BP will make EV look like a ketchup stain. Current estimates are that the well is spilling 65,000 barrels a day. That’s just a touch higher than the 15,000 barrels a day that was the official estimate just two weeks ago! We’ve deployed 5,500,000 feet of boom to contain the oil. But the first major storm will spread the oil all over the place, boom or no boom. Shoreline cleanup will be nearly impossible. Cleanup workers essentially “power-washed” the rocky coastline of PWS. The Gulf coast is marshy—power-washing will do more harm than good. And the number of people who make their living off Gulf waters? It’s many times over the number of people that made their living in the sound.

I hate to use this particular figure of speech in this particular case, but it’s time to “pull the plug” on the Gulf coast. The region has been taking a beating for years. Even before the BP spill, the oil and gas industry had robbed it of its “beauty”, “bounty”, and ecological value. As things stand now climate-wise, category 5—or will that be 7—storms will come with enough frequency that even communities that are not perpetually underwater will not be able to recover from one storm before the next one hits. Sustaining a sizeable human population on the Gulf coast—something that will require massive investment, endless cycles of rebuilding, and may not even work—is simply not sound strategy from a resource standpoint. Compensation followed by relocation—they can take the Saints with them wherever they go—and withdrawal is better. Some have suggested that the BP spill is “Obama’s Katrina” or “Obama’s 9/11”. But maybe this crisis will and should become known by another moniker of a famous man-made disaster—maybe this is “Obama’s Chernobyl.” After all, Chernobyl not only turned the world away from nuclear power, it also turned the Soviet Union away from Chernobyl! If I were any more morbid and any less cheap, I would buy the domain name http://www.gulfcoastexclusionzone.gov. Alec Baldwin wants to let BP die. Perhaps we should consider letting the Gulf coast die—at least as the center of human activity we like to pretend it can still be. AIG was too big to fail. But the Gulf coast is smaller than AIG. Maybe it’s time to pull an Aron Ralston on the Gulf coast region—to amputate the already-dead flesh before the rest of us die from blood poisoning and dehydration.

P.S. Pulling the plug on the Gulf coast would have another side benefit—it would pull the plug on nutty first-generation-American Republican politicians. First, “Bobby” Jindal. Now, “Joseph” Cao. What is in the water in Baton Rouge? In case you hadn’t heard, Mr. Cao told BP America chief Lamar McKay to “commit hara-kiri” because “in ‘his’ culture, that’s how anyone who had so dishonored himself would ‘roll.'” By the way, if you have single-quotes inside double-quotes to end a sentence or a clause, does the period appear before both single-and double quotes or between them? Hmmm. Back to Mr. Cao. Evidently, this remark rendered many of his fellow Congressfolk speechless. I suppose that one third was stunned any politician should make such a comment in the first place. On the spectrum of George “makaka” Allen to Randy “baby killer” Neugebauer, to Helen “get the hell out of Palestine and go back to Germany” Thomas, it’s definitely between Neugebauer and Thomas. Another third was aghast that Mr. Cao—being a US Congressman and everything—would play the “Asian Culture” card. Does Mr. Cao suffer from Cultural Identity Disorder (CID)? The remaining third was probably dismayed that Mr. Cao —who is Vietnamese—would claim that Vietnam rolls by Samurai code. Perhaps, Mr. Cao suffers from not one but two cases of CID—dissociative CID (DCID) as it were. Mr. Cao, if I were you, I would put a golf-ball in my mouth and wait patiently for my congressional reprimand.

P.P.S. And for Mr. Boehner—who predictably reacted to POTUS BO’s call to non-inaction with “President Obama should not exploit this crisis to impose a job-killing national energy tax on struggling families and small businesses”—I have only this to say. In Bluejay culture, we would just hand you a knife and ask you to commit hara-kiri.

P.P.P.S. Here’s my two nickels for new offshore drilling regulations—and yes, offshore drilling will continue despite the bad karma now attached to it. My proposal is simple. No deep water well can operate without a ready-to-go relief well. Any existing deep water well without a relief well must suspend extraction until a relief well is drilled. How ’bout them golf-balls?

P.P.P.P.S. How in the name of “Joseph” Cao did North Korea make it into the World Cup tournament? North Koreans have nothing to eat! I suppose “Dear Leader” KJI divides his country’s limited resources exclusively among: i) the nuclear program, ii) the national soccer team, iii) his Courvoisier stash.

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Obama’s Katrina June 10, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, crime, drama, environment, politics.
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Several in the media—translation: mostly FOX “news”—have suggested that the BP oil spill is “Obama’s Katrina.” By this they mean that Obama’s milquetoast response to the disaster is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and is a similar indicator of weakness or an inability to lead. By the way, “Obama’s Katrina” is not to be confused with “Obama’s Vietnam” (the War in Afghanistan), “Obama’s Waterloo” (the Health care bill), “Obama’s Watergate” (the alleged White House job offered to Joe Sestak quid pro quo not opposing Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate Primary), “Obama’s New Deal” (ARRA), “Obama’s Hindenburg” (ARRA or Healthcare reform), “Obama’s Rasputin” (first Jeremiah Wright then alternatingly David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel), “Obama’s Ginger Rogers” (first Hilary Clinton then Chris Matthews), or “Obama’s Exxon Valdez” (strangely, Jeremiah Wright and notthe BP spill). It is, however, to be confused with “Obama’s 9/11.

What is the biggest difference between “Obama’s Katrina” and the rest of them? At least the rest of them fit. Kind of. Other than the fact that it is happening in the Gulf, how is the BP spill anything like Katrina? And how is Obama’s response now deficient in a way that Bush’s deficient response then? Different op-eds I have read and watched have accused POTUS BO of: i) not being harsh enough with BP, ii) giving BP too much time to try and fix the problem on its own, iii) not doing enough to help Gulf communities, iv) not being harsh enough with deepwater offshore drilling, v) being too harsh on deepwater offshore drilling, vi) abetting the disaster by not enforcing offshore drilling regulations strictly enough, vii) paying too little attention to the disaster, viii) paying too much attention to it, and ix) not taking sufficient advantage of the disaster to pound the message of alternative energy sources and to push through alternative energy legislation. At least we can all agree that he wasn’t actually on the rig during the explosion.

First, what could POTUS BO—and by extension the US government—have done to prevent this disaster? Yes, they could have regulated offshore drilling more stringently and enforced safety measures more vigilently. But was there an outcry for this prior to the spill? I don’t recall one. Meanwhile, experts for years had warned that NOLA’s levees would not withstand a direct hit by a category 5 hurricane, but those warnings were ignored because that confluence was perceived to be a “100 year event” and 100 year events—perhaps incorrectly interpreted as “events that will only happen 100 years from now”—are a low priority item in the federal budget. Yes, the drilling industry has an overly cozy relationship with its oversight agency—and you can bet this will change—but this wasn’t perceived to be a bigger problem than the relationship any other industry has with its oversight agency. Or with congress for that matter.

Second, what is POTUS BO—and by extension the US government—supposed to do to help plug the leak or mitigate damage to coastal communities? Should POTUS BO don a deep sea diving suit and push golf balls into the leak by hand? Should the US Army Corps of Engineers get involved? Should other companies be allowed to try their hand? Who knows! But seemingly—as incompetent as they may appear—the entity with the best shot of fixing this problem—not to mention the entity most motivated to fix the problem—is still BP! And as for mitigation? There isn’t enough plastic boom to contain the spill and protect all the areas it will affect. Plastic boom doesn’t work in rough seas anyways—just in time for hurricane season! And there is doubt about whether any remediation actions make sense before the flow of new oil is stopped or safely diverted to container ships. In the meantime, all we can do is hose down birds. As for the human inhabitants of coastal Gulf communities? Their lives are not in danger. They have not been rendered homeless. They are not without adequate drinking water or medical supplies. They have lost livelihood and real estate value and for that they should be compensated. By BP! But the US government is not failing these communities now the way the Bush administration and FEMA failed the residents of NOLA in 2005.

And finally, what is to be the economic, regulatory, and political aftermath of this disaster? This is still to be played out of course, but a few outcomes are obvious. BP will emerge significantly diminished, if it emerges at all. You will not see me write a post with the title “BP Doesn’t Deserve This” the way I defended Toyota back in February. The Toyota scandal mushroomed quickly but blew over almost as fast because evidence of criminal negligence or malfeasance on Toyota’s part was scant. Toyota stock is down 20% off its one-year high but Toyota posted record earnings last quarter. I even got new floormats! Meanwhile, evidence that BP is guilty of criminal negligence is accumulating quickly. BP stock has lost over 60% of its value, shareholders have filed suit against the company, and Tony Hayward is holding on to his job simply because no one is willing to take his place—would you take over this mess? would you like to appear before congress to explain how this happened? BP can only hope that its payouts are not proportional to the amount of oil leaked. But things could be worse. If BP were an American company, it would probably ask for—and get—a Federal bailout! Offshore drilling safety should improve significantly. And this should happen with no revamping of the MMS. Eliminating the ridiculous 75,000,000 dollar Federal cap on liability—which may as well be a 75 cent cap for all practical purposes—will do the trick. The real question is will offshore drilling be scaled down in favor of more expensive but less EXPENSIVE energy sources. Moratorium or no moratorium, in the short term the answer is no. His outrage or lack thereof aside, POTUS BO will not pee on the embers of the economy by throwing an oil shortage on top of the current jobs crisis. But in the slightly longer term, one can only hope that this disaster is the final straw that turns the US away from oil and towards clean sustainable energy. That is the only possible silver lining in this brown plume. And it’s the only way in which Obama can detach the monikers of “Katrina” and “9/11” from it and replace them with one of his own choosing.

P.S. My favorite response to the BP oil spill so far has to be Rand Paul’s “accidents happen.” Is this guy really going to be a Senator? I might have to start DVR’ing CSPAN!

P.P.S. First, Al and Tipper call it quits. Now, Karenna and Andrew are on the rocks. At least Rush Limbaugh’s marital life is going well.

P.P.P.S. You know, Joran, you have to kill three people in order to officially be considered a serial killer. Looks like you’re only going to make it as far as “sick freak.”

Lather. Rinse. Repeat? May 5, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, climate, environment.
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The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was and will continue to be a disaster. There are no two ways about it. 11 oil workers died. Cleaning up will cost between two and eight billion dollars. Much of the damage that has already done and will continue to be done—stopping the leak will require drilling sideways into the existing well to divert the flow and this will take at least a month—will not be reversed for many years. If ever. Gulf coast communities, human and otherwise, will suffer physically. The Human ones will suffer financially too. BP will bear the bulk of the direct cleanup cost. Fine. It remains to be seen how much of the indirect cost falls on BP. The cynic/realist in me thinks little. Gulf coast residents will bear most. The taxpayers will cover the difference. Don’t worry, it won’t be much compared to the 182,000,000,000 we gave AIG.

As important as the immediate physical and financial effects of the spill, perhaps the more important effects are the political ones, specifically those on future energy policy. Already, several states have placed moratoriums on offshore drilling. That’s a knee-jerk reaction, but it’s for the good. However, the other side of that coin is that expanded offshore drilling was presumably to be a (the?) major concession to the right in what I only hope will be an aggressive climate and energy bill. Without offshore drilling to allay their fears about “increased consumer energy costs” (translation: jobs for their states), what new, potentially worse, concession will be required to bring conservative Senators from coastal states aboard?

Here’s what should bring them aboard. The BP oil spill was an accident. But it’s the kind of accident that will probably start happening with greater frequency. Drilling for oil is expensive and there is already talk that BP was taking some shortcuts with its equipment, most infamously by failing to include an acoustic shutoff valve. Is BP the only company taking these shortcuts? On NPR’s Radio Times yesterday, Lisa Margonelli said that the Niger delta—where drilling regulations are more lax—experiences the equivalent of the BP accident every year! The BP accident took place at a well that was gently described as “technically challenging”—the oil is more than three miles below the ocean floor which itself is a mile below the ocean surface and ther rig. Are future drilling sites likely to be more or less technically challenging? Logic dictates that companies explore less challenging locations first and so future drilling is likely to be as challenging if not more so. And finally, are ocean conditions going to be generally less violent and more conducive to drilling or vice versa? Ironically, in part because of drilling, conditions are likely to get worse.

One argument that is strangely dormant in the fossil vs. renewable fuel debate is the increasing risk of disaster associated with extracting fossil fuel. Perhaps this isn’t talked about because the risk is still very low—despite the fact that we have had a both a deadly mine explosion and a deadly oil rig explosion in less than a month, mine and rig explosions are still the exception—and risks that low are seen as “the cost of doing business.” But the costs of fossil fuel disasters, especially oil disasters, are incredibly high. And a low, but non-zero, risk of a disaster with an incredibly high cost is not only a non-negligible average cost, it’s essentially a guarantee that eventually we will experience this disaster and its cost. Yes, wind is expensive and made more so by its own unpredictable nature. But as the BP incident shows, oil can get unpredictable and expensive too. Is any wind farm going to be eight billion dollars expensive? Is any wind farm going to be 11 lives expensive? And yes offshore wind farms kill birds and “ruin” beach vistas, but will any wind farm kill as many birds and ruin as many beach vistas as this accident?

If anything, to me, a spill like this underscores the fact that we need to switch to renewables as quickly as possible. Not only to avoid the chronic and inexorable disaster that is climate change but also to avoid the accidental and acute disasters that are BP. If we don’t, it’s going to be lather, rinse, repeat. Literally.

P.S. God love her, Mrs. Bluejay buys me many books. Almost as many as I buy myself. If you ever feel compelled or obligated to buy me a gift, a good non-fiction book is a safe bet. I am especially partial to social commentary and scientific thought. If you are not sure which social commentary or scientific thought book to get me, just get me an Amazon gift certificate. Or a Kindle. Anyways, one of the best books the Mrs. has gotten me is “What Should I Do With My Life?” by Po Bronson. If you’ve ever asked yourself this question—and let he who has the free hand cast the first stone—you will find this book quite … emotionally liberating.

P.P.S. I know that “let he who has the free hand cast the first stone” is not the appropriate adage there. But I like it and I try to use it wherever it even remotely fits.