Tag Archives: Bradford Plumer

Asking, Telling, Continuing

Uri Friedman at The Atlantic with the round-up

Greg Sargent:

Earlier this afternoon, just before Harry Reid went onto the Senate floor and gave a speech calling for a vote on repeal of don’t ask don’t tell — which has now failed — he turned to a Senate aide and shrugged his shoulders.

“I have to go to the floor, but I’m not going to like giving this speech,” he said, according to the aide.

Reid then went to the floor and called for an immediate vote on the defense authorization bill containing repeal, in the full knowledge that it was likely to go down. As Reid knew, he had not agreed to Susan Collins’s demand for four days of debate time, giving several Republicans who support repeal an excuse to vote No, dooming the bill to fall short of 60 votes needed for passage, 57-40.

I have now spoken to a senior Senate aide and put together what happened and why Reid did this.

Reid concluded that even if Collins was sincere in her promise to vote for repeal if given the four days of debate, there was no way to prevent the proceedings from taking longer, the aide says. Reid decided that the cloture vote, the 30 hours of required post-cloture debate, and procedural tricks mounted by conservative Senators who adamantly oppose repeal would have dragged the process on far longer.

“It would have been much more than four days,” the aide says. “Her suggestions were flat out unworkable given how the Senate really operates. You can talk about four days until the cows come home. That has very little meaning for Coburn and DeMint and others who have become very skilled at grinding this place to a halt.”

After spending several hours thinking it over today and consulting with other members of the Dem caucus, Reid decided to push forward with the vote today, the aide says.

The aide rejected the claim that Reid should have extended the session another week in order to accomodate GOP procedural demands, as Joe Lieberman and others had asked, arguing that extended debate would actually have dragged the session into January, what with other things on the Senate to-do list.

“Why do we need to extend the session?” the aide asked. “Republicans have blocked this bill since February. We’ve made offer after offer to try to reach agreement on this. Going through those procedural motions along with the START treaty and tax cuts would have taken us until January 5th.”

Andrew Sullivan’s round-up

Jonathan Bernstein:

Yes, Republicans could have dragged things out until January…but so what, if ultimately it gets done before the clock runs out?  And what exactly is the downside if they try and just can’t quite finish?

Meanwhile, Mark Udall just went to the Senate floor and said he’d like to see either another bite at this, or an attempt to bring back DADT as a standalone bill.  Reid’s office apparently believes that, too, could be blocked, but I’m not really sure why they believe that, if there are really 60 votes for it and, say, ten calendar days remain after the rest of their business gets done.

More Bernstein

Bradford Palmer at TNR:

Two Republicans in particular, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, had earlier said they were committed to DADT repeal. But both ended up voting against it, claiming they wanted to see the tax-cut bill resolved first and more time to debate. Principled! Meanwhile, West Virginia’s newest Democrat, Joe Manchin, also voted no, but here’s what one Democratic aide toldHuffington Post‘s Sam Stein: “I would say that if he was somehow the 60th vote, I do not think he would have voted the way he did.” In other words, there actually were 60 senators who wanted to end discrimination against gays in the military, it just didn’t work out that way because…

So is that it for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? It looks that way. Collins, Reid, and Joe Lieberman are planning to sponsor stand-alone repeal legislation that’s separate the defense spending bill, but as one Senate aide told the Post, the odds of success are slim because, once again, “such a move would be ripe for all sorts of procedural shenanigans.” What’s that? But repealing DADT would be the right thing to do, morally speaking? As if that had anything to do with anything.

Ezra Klein:

The bill repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell didn’t fail: The Senate did. The bill got 57 votes, not 49. As Dylan Matthews pointed out, a procedural failsafe that’s theoretically meant to protect the rights of minorities was just used to restrict the rights of minorities — which is how it’s always been, of course.

The various players are excitedly blaming one another. Anonymous aides to Harry Reid are arguing that Susan Collins’s demands would’ve meant so much conservative obstruction that there wouldn’t have been time for a vote. Collins was just on the television saying that if Reid had only given her more time, the bill would’ve passed.

I don’t care who’s right. And nor should anyone else. The diffusion of responsibility that comes from deciding law through complex parliamentary gamesmanship rather than simple majority-rules votes is the problem. What happened today is that a majority of the Senate voted for a bill that the majority of Americans support. The bill did not pass. Neither Harry Reid nor Susan Collins are ultimately responsible for that. The rules of the Senate are.

Dan Savage:

Well, gee. There’s still time—in theory—for the Senate to act. But fuck ’em: here’s hoping we get a ruling from a judge that stops all expulsions under DADT. That’s what Defense Secretary Gates warned the Senate about during his testimony; if they didn’t pass the DADT repeal, a judge was likely to step in and order an immediate end to DADT. (Hey, did you know that the bill being debated didn’t actually end DADT?)

And that will, of course, be good for the Republicans. They’ll get to scream and yell about judicial tyranny, liberal judges, and legislating from the bench—all because they successfully blocked all efforts to, you know, legislate from the legislature.

Allah Pundit:

Even more hope for Lieberman’s bill:

On Manchin, aide says: “I would say that if he was somehow the 60th vote, I do not think he would have voted the way he did”

If that’s true, then Reid doesn’t need Brown and Murky. He needs only one, and then the pressure of being the deciding vote will flip Manchin to yes too.

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Bringing Out The Hockey Sticks At The End Of August

Rosalind Helderman at The Washington Post:

An Albemarle County Circuit Court judge has set aside a subpoena issued by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to the University of Virginia seeking documents related to the work of climate scientist and former university professor Michael Mann.

Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. ruled that Cuccinelli can investigate whether fraud has occurred in university grants, as the attorney general had contended, but ruled that Cuccinelli’s subpoena failed to state a “reason to believe” that Mann had committed fraud.

The ruling is a major blow for Cuccinelli, a global warming skeptic who had maintained that he was investigating whether Mann committed fraud in seeking government money for research that showed that the earth has experienced a rapid, recent warming. Mann, now at Penn State University, worked at U-Va. until 2005.

According to Peatross, the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, under which the civil investigative demand was issued, requires that the attorney general include an “objective basis” to believe that fraud has been committed. Peatross indicates that the attorney general must state the reason so that it can be reviewed by a court, which Cuccinelli failed to do.

Peatross set the subpoena aside without prejudice, meaning Cuccinelli could give the subpoena another try by rewriting the civil demand to better explain the conduct he wishes to investigate. But the judge seemed skeptical of Cuccinelli’s underlying claim about Mann, noting that Cuccinelli’s deputy maintained in a court hearing that the nature of Mann’s fraud was described in subsequent court papers in the case.

Jillian Rayfield at TPM:

Mann, who now works at Penn State University, left UVA in 2005. As TPM previously reported, Mann was one of several climate change researchers who were connected to the “Climate-Gate” emails that “showed some scientists discussing ways to keep views skeptical of global warming out of peer-reviewed journals, among other things.”

Three major UK investigations have since exonerated the “Climate-Gate” scientists of any wrongdoing. Mann himself was additionally let off the hook after an investigation by his employer, Penn State.

Cuccinelli’s probe had been denounced by climate change believers and skeptics alike as a “witch hunt” and a threat to academic freedom.

Joe Romm at Climate Progress:

Mann is one of America’s top climatologists.  Few if any climate scientists in the world have been as falsely accused — and thoroughly vindicated — over both their academic practices and scientific results as Dr. Michael Mann (see Much-vindicated Michael Mann and Hockey Stick get final exoneration from Penn State — time for some major media apologies and retractions and Final ‘forensic’ UK report on emails vindicates climate science and research underlying the Hockey Stick).

Here is Dr. Mann’s response to this ruling:

Continue reading

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Phytoplankton Numbers Are Phalling

Lauren Morello at Scientific American:

The microscopic plants that form the foundation of the ocean’s food web are declining, reports a study published July 29 in Nature.

The tiny organisms, known as phytoplankton, also gobble up carbon dioxide to produce half the world’s oxygen output—equaling that of trees and plants on land.

But their numbers have dwindled since the dawn of the 20th century, with unknown consequences for ocean ecosystems and the planet’s carbon cycle.

Researchers at Canada’s Dalhousie University say the global population of phytoplankton has fallen about 40 percent since 1950. That translates to an annual drop of about 1 percent of the average plankton population between 1899 and 2008.

The scientists believe that rising sea surface temperatures are to blame.

Ed Yong at Discover:

Graduate student Daniel Boyce focused on some of oceans’ smallest but most important denizens – the phytoplankton. These tiny creatures are the basis of marine food webs, the foundations upon which these watery ecosystems are built. They produce around half of the Earth’s organic matter and much of its oxygen. And they are disappearing. With a set of data that stretches back 100 years, Boyce found that phytoplankton numbers have fallen by around 1% per year over the last century as the oceans have become warmer, and if anything, their decline is getting faster.  Our blue planet is becoming less green with every year.

Meanwhile, post-doc Derek Tittensor has taken a broader view, looking at the worldwide distributions of over 11,500 seagoing species in 13 groups, from mangroves and seagrasses, to sharks, squids, and corals. His super-census reveals three general trends – coastal species are concentrated around the western Pacific, while ocean-going ones are mostly found at temperate latitudes, in two wide bands on either side of the equator. And the only thing that affected the distribution of all of these groups was temperature.

Together, the results from the two studies hammer home a familiar message – warmer oceans will be very different places. Rising sea temperatures could “rearrange the global distribution of life in the ocean” and destabilise their food webs at their very root. None of this knowledge was easily won – it’s the result of decades of monitoring and data collection, resulting in millions of measurements.

Boyce’s study, for example, really began in 1865, when an Italian priest and astronomer called Father Pietro Angelo Secchi invented a device for measuring water clarity. His “Secchi disk” is fantastically simple – it’s a black-and-white circle that is lowered until the observer can’t see it any more. This depth reveals how transparent the water is, which is directly related to how much phytoplankton it contains. This simple method has been used since 1899. Boyce combined it with measurements of the pigment chlorophyll taken from research vessels, and satellite data from the last decade.

Boyce’s data revealed a very disturbing trend. Phytoplankton numbers have fallen across the world over the last century, particularly towards the poles and in the open oceans. The decline has accelerated in some places, and total numbers have fallen by around 40% since the 1950s. Only in a few places have phytoplankton populations risen. These include parts of the Indian Ocean and some coastal areas where industrial run-off fertilises the water, producing choking blooms of plankton.

On a yearly basis, the rise and fall of the phytoplankton depends on big climate events like the El Nino Southern Oscillation. But in the long-term, nothing predicted the numbers of phytoplankton better than the surface temperature of the seas. Phytoplankton need sunlight to grow, so they’re constrained to the upper layers of the ocean and depends on nutrients welling up from below. But warmer waters are less likely to mix in this way, which starves the phytoplankton and limits their growth.

Michael O’Hare:

What makes human life worth living? Content, obviously: news, art, music, conversation – social intercourse in all media.  What makes it possible?  Food and drink, broadly defined: fresh water and all the plant and animal products we eat and use.

This morning I came upon a paper in Nature whose abstract is as follows (emphasis added):

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth. Analyses of satellite-derived phytoplankton concentration (available since 1979) have suggested decadal-scale fluctuations linked to climate forcing, but the length of this record is insufficient to resolve longer-term trends. Here we combine available ocean transparency measurements and in situ chlorophyll observations to estimate the time dependence of phytoplankton biomass at local, regional and global scales since 1899.We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year. Our analyses further reveal interannual to decadal phytoplankton fluctuations superimposed on long-term trends. These fluctuations are strongly correlated with basin-scale climate indices, whereas long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface temperatures. We conclude that global phytoplankton concentration has declined over the past century; this decline will need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries. (paywall)

This finding – and I’m trying hard not to hyperventilate here – is not too far down the scary scale from discovering a small inbound asteroid. This is the whole ocean we’re talking about: the earth’s production of organic material is going down half a percent per year.  Oddly, I did not come upon it in the New York Times, which seems not to have run the story at all.  The Washington Post, I found only after I searched, did run the AP story somewhere way below whatever passes for the fold in a web edition, but I didn’t see it there either.  I found it, through a Brazilian accumulator, here.

How can this be? Well, the world’s production of traditional news (not newsworthy events, writing about them) is down along with the plankton (and the menu items at your favorite seafood restaurant…remember when you could have haddock for dinner?).  Every grownup, quality-conscious outlet is putting out less stuff every day, in fewer column-inches on smaller pages (or in more vacuous hours on TV padded out with ephemera that a small crew in a truck can get some meaningless video of).  The new, lean, pathetic Times just didn’t have room for this one (or salary to pay an editor to stay on top of stuff), a story I can make a case was the most important news of the week (why the Globo happened to put it on page one is not clear (as did the São Paulo paper), but muito obrigado, a Sra. da Silva também!).  I guess I can stay informed if I go to six web pages in four languages every day, but who has time, and why is that better than the way things were before the content markets fell apart?  And how long will even that strategy work?

We can’t live without the ocean, every time we look at climate change it’s worse than we thought, and we can’t get back from the precipice, or even know how close it is, without news.

We are so f____ed.

Kevin Drum:

So, anyway, as temperatures rise the plankton die. As plankton die, they suck up less carbon dioxide, thus warming the earth further. Which causes more plankton to die. Rinse and repeat. Oh, and along the way, all the fish die too.

Or maybe not. But this sure seems like a risk that we should all be taking a whole lot more seriously than we are. Unfortunately, conservatives are busy pretending that misbehavior at East Anglia means that global warming is a hoax, the Chinese are too busy catching up with the Americans to take any of this seriously, and you and I are convinced that we can’t possibly afford a C-note increase in our electric bills as the price of taking action. As a result, maybe the oceans will die. Sorry about that, kids, but fixing it would have cost 2% of GDP and we decided you’d rather have that than have an ocean. You can thank us later.

Megan McArdle:

The die-off of most of the phytoplankton would be a huge catastrophe.  However, here are some reasons that we shouldn’t succumb to outright panic quite yet:

1.  It’s one paper.  I am not casting aspersions on the authors or their methodology, but the whole idea of science is that even the smartest people can be wrong.  As with other attempts to reconstruct past climate, they’re using a series of proxies for past events that have much weaker accuracy than the direct measurements we’re now using.  That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but it does leave them more open to interpretation.

2.  All the carbon we’re burning used to be in the atmosphere.  Yet the planet supported life.  Indeed, the oil we’re burning comes from the compressed, decayed bodies of . . . phytoplankton.  This suggests that some number of phytoplankton should be able to survive high concentrations of the stuff.

3.  There are positive feedback effects, but also negative ones.  One of the things that drives me batty about environmentalists and journalists writing about climate change is the insistence that every single side effect will be negative. This is not really very likely, unless you think that every place on earth just happens to be at the very awesomest climate equilibrium possible as of 9:17 am this morning, or that global warming is some sort of malevolent god capable only of destruction.

Mind you, this is not an argument for letting it happen; I’m not a fan of tampering with large, complex systems that I don’t really understand, which is why I tend not to support much direct government intervention in the economy–and why I do, nonetheless, support a hefty carbon tax.

But there’s a certain tendency to ignore mitigating offsets, such as the fact that higher carbon concentrations make terrestrial plants grow more lushly, sucking up some of that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  At least, as long as we don’t turn them into biofuels, that is.  There’s also a tendency to ignore mitigation rather than reduction, on the grounds that emissions reduction is “easier”.  Well, I suppose it is easier if you assume away the political problems.  But no matter how hard I assume, I keep waking up in a world where we’ve made no meaningful progress on emissions reductions.  At this point, I’ve got more faith in America’s engineering talent than in her ability to conquer fierce political resistance to reductions at home and abroad.

Brad Plumer at TNR on McArdle:

She’s partly right. Not every side effect will be negative. Just this week, The New York Times ran a piece about how marmots will thrive in a hotter world. So, three cheers for marmots. But the bad news tends to far outweigh the good. As the IPCC concluded in 2007, “Costs and benefits of climate change for industry, settlement and society will vary widely by location and scale. In the aggregate, however, net effects will tend to be more negative the larger the change in climate.” No one’s ignoring the upsides. They’re just focused on the larger downsides. For instance, McArdle suggests that more CO2 in the air will boost plant growth, which in turn will help suck more carbon out of the air and ameliorate things somewhat. It might surprise her to learn that scientists are perfectly well aware of that fact. But recent modeling suggests that this effect will likely be offset by other plant-related factors—like changes in evaporation—and the net result will likely be more warming, not less.

One main point to note here is that, on the whole, global warming will be neutral for this round little rock adrift in the ether that we like to call Earth. You could even say this is an exciting time for Mother Nature. Big changes are afoot. Some species will thrive and many others will die. Evolution will proceed apace. There will still be some forms of life around even if the planet heats up by 5°C or 10°C. As McArdle rightly notes, there have been periods in the past, millions of years ago, when carbon concentrations in the atmosphere were even higher than today, and, to quote Jurassic Park, life found a way.

The problem here is for one very particular life form: people. As I wrote in this TNR piece on planetary boundaries, we big-brained hominids have enjoyed a relatively stable climate for the past 10,000 years—a geological period dubbed the Holocene. Sea levels have been kept in check. Temperatures have fluctuated around a narrow band. And that relative predictability has enabled us to stay rooted in one location, to set up farms and cities, to plan for the future. We’ve adapted very well to the planet we have, and we’ve grown quite used to it. Most of our infrastructure has been built under the impression that the planet will basically look the same tomorrow as it did yesterday. That means that wrenching shifts in our ecosystem run the risk of being extremely painful—in the same way a big disruption to our financial system was extremely painful.

The second problem is that we just don’t know what’s in store. By belching up millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we’re running a massive science experiment on the planet, one that can’t really be reversed. Maybe this phytoplankton stuff is just a blip. Or maybe it’s part of an ominous trend that’s going to rearrange the face of the oceans as we know it—oceans we’ve come to rely on for our survival. That doesn’t strike me as a gamble worth taking.

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They’ve Got No Energy For It

David Herszenhorn at NYT:

After a meeting of Senate Democrats, party leaders on Thursday said they had abandoned hope of passing a comprehensive energy bill this summer and would pursue a more limited measure focused on responding to the gulf oil spill and tightening  energy efficiency standards.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a champion of comprehensive climate change legislation, called the new goal “admittedly narrow.”

At a news conference, the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, blamed Republicans for refusing to cooperate. “We don’t have a single Republican to work with us,” Mr. Reid said.

Democrats said they would continue to pursue broader climate change legislation.

“This is not the only energy legislation we are going to do,” Mr. Reid said. “This is what we can do now.”

Allah Pundit:

Supposedly it’s merely a scheduling move, aimed at pushing the C&T debate into the fall when the Senate calendar is less crowded.

Really, though? Democrats, who are already terrified of losing Congress, are going to surf into the midterms with an eleventh-hour push for a hugely expensive new bill related to … global warming? With the GOP already armed with ad-ready video of Obama talking about how it’ll make energy prices “skyrocket”? Radical prediction: Reid’s going to end up deciding in September that the schedule’s still a little too “crowded” to take this up.

Ronald Bailey at Reason:

Instead, according to Politico, the Democratic leadership will attempt to pass a more limited energy bill in the fall that will have:

…low-hanging-fruit provisions dealing with the oil spill, Home Star energy efficiency upgrades, incentives for the conversion of trucking fleet to natural gas and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The death of the expensive and pork-laden carbon rationing scheme is good news for now. However, it is widely expected that the Democrats will lose control of the House of Representatives and reduce their membership in the Senate in the upcoming mid-term elections. Some commentators fear that defeated Democrats who are no longer beholden to their constituents will use the lame duck session in December to ram through carbon rationing (and much else).

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

That hasn’t and won’t stop Reid and the White House from blaming Republican lawmakers. But this is one accusation to which Republicans should be glad to plead guilty. If Reid wants to accuse them of stopping another job-killing, tax-hiking, mammoth piece of legislation, I don’t think Republicans will mind.

Andrew Restuccia at The Washington Independent:

Just got a readout of what’s likely to be included in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) scaled-down energy bill. According to an environmentalist source with close ties to the discussions, the bill will likely include:

– An oil spill response title based on the bill passed by the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee and the bill lifting the liability cap for economic damages in the event of a spill passed by the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, both passed out of committee last month.

– A title on energy efficiency that will be based on the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, which gives homeowners incentives to make their homes more efficient.

Significantly, the source says the bill might not include a renewable energy standard, which environmentalists and other groups have been pushing aggressively.

A spokesperson for Reid, Regan Lachapelle, declined to comment on the bill, saying more information will be available after a caucus lunch being held today on the issue.

More to come…

Steve Benen:

The “admittedly narrow” legislation won’t be completely useless; it just won’t do what we need it to do. The plan is to have this bill include new oil company regulations, cover spill liability issues, reinvest in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, put some money into manufacturing of natural gas vehicles, and create some jobs through Home Star (the program formally known as Cash for Caulkers).

The list of key provisions that aren’t in this bill isn’t short — any kind of cap-and-trade, renewable energy standards, etc. — but the leadership is convinced it just doesn’t have a choice. “We know where we are,” Reid told reporters. “We don’t have the votes.”

So, is that it? Is the congressional effort to combat global warming dead? Probably.

Brad Plumer at The New Republic:

This would be a no-brainer energy bill that should easily get 60 votes. The oil-spill response provisions largely entail reforming the Interior Department and tightening regulations for rigs. The only controversial section is the bit about lifting the cap on liabilities for oil spills. (At the moment, oil companies have to pay to clean up their messes, but they’re only on the hook for the first $75 million in indirect damages.) Even Home Star, which I wrote about recently, picked up a number of Republican votes in the House.

Trouble is, this bill won’t do much to address climate change. It doesn’t have a renewable standard for electric utilities. There’s no cap on carbon emissions. There isn’t a broader suite of efficiency measures that could really start chipping away at all the energy bloat and waste in the economy. Democratic staffers say that most of those measures will have to be brought up in a separate bill, after the August recess. Although then we get into the question of whether there will even be time to consider the climate provisions. Possibly not.

And there’s another question: Is it a smart strategy to separate the oil-spill provisions from everything else? The thing about the spill-response legislation was that it was popular. Moderate Republicans were relatively nervous about opposing it—who wants to be seen as protecting BP? Including rig regulations in a broader energy/climate bill might have improved the chances of passing the whole thing. But what happens if the two are split apart? The odds of a climate bill plummet.

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Don’t Drink The Water, Part III: Put On Your Caps, Everybody

Henry Fountain and Liz Robbins in NYT:

Oil stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in nearly three months, as BP began testing the containment cap atop its stricken well, a critical step toward sealing the well permanently.

“I am very excited that there’s no oil in the Gulf of Mexico,” Kent Wells, a senior vice president for BP said in a teleconference on Thursday, “but we just started the test and I don’t want to create a false sense of excitement.”

Oil stopped flowing at 2:25 p.m. local time, Mr. Wells announced, when engineers closed the choke line, the final seal of the well. Engineers and scientists will now examine the results of the pressure tests every six hours to determine the pressure levels. Read the updated article on the cap.

Steve Benen:

Watching the live feed, it’s clear the oil that was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico has, at least for now, stopped entirely. To put it mildly, it’s a welcome sight.

The new containment mechanism has been delayed a bit in recent days, but officials shut the various valves today as part of a long-awaited “integrity test,” and so far, so good. The “pressure test” will continue over the next 48 hours.

So, are we in the clear? Crisis over? Not yet. The seismic tests will tell us whether to the cap should stay on.

Bradford Plumer at The New Republic:

Still, the Macondo site won’t be fully and permanently plugged until BP finishes drilling a relief well. Kate Sheppard has a great piece today about some of the challenges involved there, including this useful warning: “A relief well drilled to quell last year’s Montara blowout off the coast of Australia took five tries before it succeeded—with an average of one week between them.” Now, BP claims it can bottle up the well once and for all by July 29, though do note that just happens to be the date of BP’s second-quarter shareholder meeting.

And this doesn’t mean the oil-spill disaster is over. There’s a lot of crude bobbing along in the Gulf right now: Scientists estimate that between 92 million and 182 million gallons have gushed out into the ocean since the Deepwater Horizon platform first blew up back in April. BP is still using dispersants to break up the oil and send it down to the sea floor, even though no one quite knows how the chemicals might affect marine life in the area. And note that oil’s still washing ashore, and Bobby Jindal’s artificial “barrier islands,” which were supposed to protect Louisiana, are now crumbling.

Patrik Jonsson at The Christian Science Monitor:

Six weeks ago, Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, received a late-night call from an apologetic “mystery plumber.” The caller said he had a sketch for how to solve the problem at the bottom of the Gulf. It was a design for a containment cap that would fit snugly over the top of the failed blowout preventer at the heart of the Gulf oil spill.

Professor Bea, a former Shell executive and well-regarded researcher, thought the idea looked good and sent the sketches directly to the US Coast Guard and to a clearinghouse set up to glean ideas from outside sources for how to cap the stubborn Macondo well.

When Bea saw the design of the containment cap lowered onto the well last week, he marveled at its similarity to the sketches from the late-night caller, whose humble refusal to give his name at the time nearly brought Bea to tears.

“The idea was using the top flange on the blowout preventer as an attachment point and then employing an internal seal against that flange surface,” says Bea. “You can kind of see how a plumber thinks this way. That’s how they have to plumb homes for sewage.”

BP has received 300,000 ideas from around the world for how to cap the well after decades-old methods failed. Everyone from amateur inventors to engineers, Hollywood stars to hucksters, have swamped the unified command with ideas.

BP executive Doug Suttles says the new containment cap design came from weeks of trial and error. “We’ve been adding and trying new things constantly,” Mr. Suttles said last week.

The design was originally intended to increase BP’s ability to siphon oil from the well to containment ships on the surface. But in the past two weeks, it became clear to the company that the design, if it passed certain well integrity tests, could also be used to stop the flow altogether. If successful, the containment structure will be a turning point in the Gulf oil spill drama.

BP spokesman Mark Salt says, “There’s no way of finding out at the moment” whether Bea’s forwarded suggestion from the self-described “lowly plumber” made it into the design. “There’s also a good chance that this was already being designed by the time this [tip] came in.”

On the other hand, Mr. Salt adds, “I’m sure we’ve used bits and pieces of suggestions [from the outside] and have picked things out that could be used going forward.”

Tigerhawk:

The psychological impact of our inability to cap this damned hole in the bottom of the sea has been huge, and perhaps the hidden and unverifiable source of more economic damage than the actual spill. It was depressing and contributed to a wider sense that things are seemingly spinning out of control. The work is not done, but imagine the relief of those engineers, workers and executives — the unloved heroes — who have been struggling to deal with this problem for almost three months. I hope they get a few cold beers tonight, and maybe a nice steak.

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Filed under Energy, Environment

All This Presupposes That Elvis Is Actually Dead

Al Gore at The New Republic:

The continuing undersea gusher of oil 50 miles off the shores of Louisiana is not the only source of dangerous uncontrolled pollution spewing into the environment. Worldwide, the amount of man-made CO2 being spilled every three seconds into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding the planet equals the highest current estimate of the amount of oil spilling from the Macondo well every day. Indeed, the average American coal-fired power generating plant gushes more than three times as much global-warming pollution into the atmosphere each day—and there are over 1,400 of them.

Just as the oil companies told us that deep-water drilling was safe, they tell us that it’s perfectly all right to dump 90 million tons of CO2 into the air of the world every 24 hours. Even as the oil spill continues to grow—even as BP warns that the flow could increase multi-fold, to 60,000 barrels per day, and that it may continue for months—the head of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, says, “Nothing has changed. When we get back to the politics of energy, oil and natural gas are essential to the economy and our way of life.” His reaction reminds me of the day Elvis Presley died. Upon hearing the tragic news, Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, said, “This changes nothing.”

Jim Manzi at TNR:

For years, much of the political right has claimed that global warming is a scientific hoax perpetrated by statists in order to justify further government control over the economy. I have repeatedly pointed out that this is more or less nonsense, usually to audiences that are far less amenable to this message than the readership of The New Republic, with predictable results. It is certainly true, of course, that there are political actors for whom climate change is a convenient excuse for amassing power, and scientific researchers, bankers, and businesspeople who are just jumping onto a funding gravy train; but this doesn’t mean that the underlying technical risk assessment is invalid.

The political left has its own conspiracy theory on the issue. It was on almost perfect display in Al Gore’s article (“The Crisis Comes Ashore”) in the June 10 TNR. Gore argues that public confidence in the warnings of “looming catastrophe” presented in “the most elaborate and impressive scientific assessment in the history of our civilization” is being undermined by a “cynical and lavishly funded disinformation campaign” paid for by “carbon polluters.” It is certainly true, of course, that some oil companies and other interest groups have funded PR campaigns in pursuit of their narrowly-defined self-interest; but once again, this shouldn’t change our rational evaluation of the environmental impact of greenhouse gas accumulations one way or the other.

Gore agrees in his article that the proper response to this issue is not to be found in the political sound and light show, but in a rational assessment of risks, saying that “rather than relying on visceral responses, we have to draw upon our capacity for reasoning, communicating clearly with one another, forming a global consensus on the basis of science…”. Gore goes on to suggest a technical foundation for this reasoning process:

Over the last 22 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has produced four massive studies warning the world of the looming catastrophe that is being caused by the massive dumping of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere.

So, what does the IPCC actually have to say about what we should expect to happen as a result of our “massive dumping of global-warming pollution into the environment”

According to the IPCC’s currently-governing Fourth Assessment Report, under a reasonable set of assumptions for global economic and population growth (Scenario A1B), the world should expect to warm by about 3°C over roughly the next century (Table SPM.3). Even in the most extreme IPCC marker scenario (A1F1), the best estimate is that we should expect warming of about 4°C over roughly the next century. How bad would that be? Also according to the IPCC (page 17), a global increase in temperature of 4°C should cause the world to have about 1 to 5 percent lower economic output than it would otherwise have. So if we do not take measures to ameliorate global warming, the world should expect sometime in the 22nd century to be about 3 percent poorer than it otherwise would be (though still much richer per capita than today).

Prior to consideration of the more detailed economic issues—e.g., costs versus benefits of attempts to forestall the problem; the danger of worse-than-expected outcomes, etc.—pause to recognize that according to the IPCC the expected economic costs of global warming under the plausible scenarios for future economic growth are likely to be about 3 percent of GDP more than 100 years from now. This is pretty far from the rhetoric of global destruction and Manhattan as an underwater theme park.

[…]

The only real argument for rapid, aggressive emissions abatement, then, boils down to the weaker form of the uncertainty argument: that you can’t prove a negative. The problem with using this rationale to justify large economic costs can be illustrated by trying to find a non-arbitrary stopping condition for emissions limitations. Any level of emissions imposes some risk. Unless you advocate confiscating all cars and shutting down every coal-fired power plant on earth literally tomorrow morning, you are accepting some danger of catastrophic warming. You must make some decision about what level of risk is acceptable versus the costs of avoiding this risk. Once we leave the world of odds and handicapping and enter the world of the Precautionary Principle—the Pascal’s Wager-like argument that the downside risks of climate change are so severe that we should bear almost any cost to avoid this risk, no matter how small—there is really no principled stopping point derivable from our understanding of this threat.

Think about this quantitatively for a moment. Suspend disbelief about the real world politics, and assume that we could have a perfectly implemented global carbon tax. If we introduced a tax high enough to keep atmospheric carbon concentration to no more than 420 ppm (assuming we could get the whole world to go along), we would expect, using the Nordhaus analysis as a reference point, to spend about $14 trillion more than the benefits that we would achieve in the expected case. To put that in context, that is on the order of the annual GDP of the United States of America. That’s a heck of an insurance premium for an event so low-probability that it is literally outside of a probability distribution. Gore has a more aggressive proposal that if implemented through an optimal carbon tax (again, assuming we can get the whole word to go along) would cost more like $20 trillion in excess of benefits in the expected case. Of course, this wouldn’t eliminate all uncertainty, and I can find credentialed scientists who say we need to reduce emissions even faster. Without the recognition that the costs we would pay to avoid this risk have some value, we would be chasing an endlessly receding horizon of zero risk.

So then, how should we confront this lack of certainty in our decision logic? At some intuitive level, it is clear that rational doubt about our probability distribution of forecasts for climate change over a century should be greater than our doubt our forecasts for whether we will get very close to 500 heads if we flip a fair quarter 1,000 times. This is true uncertainty, rather than mere risk, and ought to be incorporated into our decision somehow. But if we can’t translate this doubt into an alternative probability distribution that we should accept as our best available estimate, and if we can’t simply accept “whatever it takes” as a rational decision logic for determining emissions limits, then how can we use this intuition to weigh the uncertainty-based fears of climate change damage rationally? The only way I can think of is to attempt to find other risks that we believe present potential unquantifiable dangers that are of intuitively comparable realism and severity to that of outside-of-distribution climate change, and compare our economic expenditure against each.

Unfortunately for humanity, we face many dimly-understood dangers. Weitzman explicitly considers an asteroid impact and bioengineering technology gone haywire. It is straightforward to identify others. A regional nuclear war in central Asia kicking off massive global climate change (in addition to its horrific direct effects), a global pandemic triggered by a modified version of the HIV or Avian Flu virus, or a rogue state weaponizing genetic-engineering technology are all other obvious examples. Any of these could kill hundreds of millions to billions of people.

Consider the comparison of a few of these dangers to that of outside-of-distribution climate change dangers. The consensus scientific estimate is that there is a 1-in-10,000 chance of an asteroid large enough to kill a large fraction of the world’s population impacting the earth in the next 100 years. That is, we face a 0.01% chance of sudden death of a good chunk of people in the world, likely followed by massive climate change on the scale of that which killed off the non-avian dinosaurs. Or consider that Weitzman argues that we can distinguish between unquantifiable extreme climate change risk and unquantifiable dangers from runaway genetic crop modification because “there exists at least some inkling of a prior argument making it fundamentally implausible that Frankenfood artificially selected for traits that humans and desirable will compete with or genetically alter the wild types that nature has selected via Darwinian survival of the fittest.” That does not seem exactly definitive. What is the realism of a limited nuclear war over the next century—with plausible scenarios ranging from Pakistan losing control of its nuclear arsenal and inducing a limited nuclear exchange with India, to a war between a nuclearized Iran and Israel?

Brad Plumer at TNR:

Let me start by saying that Manzi is easily one of the smartest, most interesting conservative writers out there when it comes to global warming. Many people on the right, unfortunately, still stick to the crazed view that climate science is all a hoax. Manzi wants nothing to do with those folks. He agrees with the mainstream scientific consensus that human activities are heating up the planet and that this poses a problem (and he’s taken a lot of flak from conservatives like Rush Limbaugh for staking out this position). Where he parts ways with most liberals is on just how big a problem a hotter planet will be.

Manzi bases his argument on his reading of the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report. According to the IPCC’s own estimates, he points out, a temperature rise of 4°C can be expected to reduce global GDP by about 3 percent in 2100. And on the flip side, the IPCC pegs the cost of keeping carbon concentrations in the atmosphere below a “safe” level of 450 parts per million at around 6 percent of GDP. And so, Manzi concludes, mitigation probably isn’t worth it. (To be fair, he has elsewhere expressed interest in a small carbon price to fund clean-technology research, so he’s not in the “do-nothing” camp.)

I see a couple problems with this argument. The first is that Manzi is clinging way too tightly to the IPCC report. Yes, the IPCC puts out the best summary of scientific knowledge about our climate system. I rely on it all the time. But the 2007 report is also dated. Climate science is a rapidly moving field, and more recent research has suggested that things may be bleaker than was projected three years ago. What’s more, the 2007 report had some glaring holes in it. The panel avoided making predictions about how melting ice sheets would affect sea levels because, at the time, ice-sheet dynamics were too difficult to model. This isn’t me offering up a strained reading of the IPCC’s work—the 2007 report was explicit on this point. Given that sea-level rise is likely to be one of the costliest consequences of global warming by 2100 and (especially) beyond, this is a huge omission for any sort of cost-benefit analysis.

Second, it’s a bit too simplistic to use a single global GDP figure when talking about the effects of climate change. True, a 3 percent drop in global GDP may not sound so bad. We’ll all be much richer in 2100, we can take a hit. But that top-line figure can obscure some serious distributional issues. Climate change, after all, is expected to hit developing countries much harder than wealthier ones. And as Nate Silver once noted, you could completely wipe out the poorest 81 nations in the world, with a total population of 2.8 billion, and the blow to global GDP would “only” be about 5 percent:

From a cynical utilitarian perspective, sure, maybe it would be worth it to devastate a bunch of impoverished African countries if it makes the rest of the world richer on balance. But that raises quite a few glaring ethical questions, and I’ll just note that most conservatives wouldn’t leap at this trade-off in other contexts (very few on the right would support seizing property through eminent domain for the greater good of economic development, for instance).

Third point: Harvard economist Marty Weitzman has recently been arguing that there’s plenty of uncertainty in climate projections, and the worst-case scenarios could be really freaking bad. Like, civilization-destroying bad. And that prospect, even if it’s slim, is a great reason to cut emissions—think of pollution curbs as an insurance policy against total annihilation. In reply, Manzi accuses Weitzman of doing “armchair climate science.” But that’s unfair. There are plenty of actual climate scientists who are exploring these worst-case scenarios, too. A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there’s a roughly 5 percent chance that rising temperatures could render vast regions of the planet—like the eastern United States or most of India—simply uninhabitable. An insurance policy against that doesn’t sound too shabby.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

I’ve been waiting for Brad Plumer to write a response to Jim Manzi’s argument, which he’s been making for several years, that preventing climate change is not worth the cost. Now that he’s done it, I urge you to check it out. Like Brad says, Manzi’s argument is probably the most persuasive case you can find against reducing carbon emissions. But it’s still not very persuasive.

Mori Dinauer at Tapped:

Bradford Plumer‘s response to Jim Manzi on climate change addresses my No. 1 complaint about conservatives who, while not denying climate change is real, think the threat is exaggerated. The do-nothing analysis is that the economic impact of pricing carbon or curbing emissions will be so great that it will be worse than doing nothing. Plumer goes into the technical reasons why we should be skeptical about this position, but I want to note that Manzi shows little interest in the non-economic consequences of climate change — it’s just one big Econ 101 puzzle to be solved.

Heather Horn at The Atlantic

Joe Romm at Climate Progress

Why would you trust a magazine that doesn’t trust itself?  In a baffling display of ‘balance as bias’ — or perhaps ‘balance as baloney‘ — The New Republic has hired right-wing misinformer Jim Manzi to spread confusion about their articles.

Maybe magazines don’t bother employing fact checkers anymore, but when I coauthored the cover story for the Atlantic Monthly in 1996, “MidEast Oil Forever?” Drifting Toward Disaster, the magazine not only edited the piece, they made me provide a credible published source for every claim.  Even today, I know magazines like Wired fact-check every article.

But TNR appears to have proudly hired Manzi to un-fact-check their articles — at least in the area of energy and the environment, Manzi mostly spreads misinformation.   Indeed, as I will show, Manzi utterly misrepresents the important work of Harvard economist Martin Weitzman, which he discusses at length but doesn’t appear to know the first thing about.

I say TNR “proudly” hired Manzi because editor Franklin Foer has a June 22 column bizarrely titled, “The In-House Critics: Keeping TNR Honest” touting this self-inflicted wound to its credibility:  “it is an honor to be the subject of their criticism.”

I know, you probably thought that the “center-left” magazine paid Foer and Martin Peretz and a slew of other editors (and, one hopes, fact checkers) to keep them honest.  How wrong you are!

As an aside, what’s doubly annoying is that you can read Manzi’s full on misinformation, “Why the Decision to Tackle Climate Change Isn’t as Simple as Al Gore Says,” in full here, but the piece he is nominally debunking, Al Gore’s, “The Crisis Comes Ashore,” from the June 10 TNR is behind their firewall.  You can read extended excerpts of Gore’s accurate piece here.

Manzi’s debunking has already been partly debunked by Time’s Bryan Walsh and TNR’s own Bradford Plumer.

Joseph Lawler at The American Spectator, responding to Romm:

It seems as if it is because of Manzi’s track record of being honest, open, and accommodating that Romm is unable to stand his arguments in a liberal publication without trying to undermine his credibility. It was for that same reason that many conservatives found Manzi’s criticism of Levin so grating — it’s in a way easier to deny global warming altogether than to argue on Manzi’s level. At the time, a number of liberals cast the reaction to Manzi-Levin as a sign that conservatives are close-minded, despite the fact that National Review did publish the piece, after all. But now that the tables have turned and Manzi is writing for TNR, some of the same liberal observers are questioning his motives and accusing him of “lowering the standard of discourse.”

It is to National Review‘s credit that they published Manzi then, it is to TNR‘s credit that they publish him now despite the left-wing outcry, and it is to Manzi’s credit that his soldiers on producing impeccably factual articles only to be derided as dishonest by both the right and left. If only the same could be said of Romm about his willingness to consider reasoned challenges to his assumptions.

(By the way, Romm’s post originally contained a clear factual error: he cited someone who incorrectly claimed that Manzi was the CEO of Lotus (I can’t find a cached version, but it’s noted in a comment left in the morning). Since then Romm has fixed the error, but there is nothing in the post indicating that it has been changed. A meaningless mistake, but suffice it to say that the “misinformer” Manzi would not make a factual error and then fail to acknowledge it in the post.)

Ezra Klein here and here. Klein:

Letting greenhouse gases build in the atmosphere is a bit like letting a tree grow roots beneath the foundation of your house. It may not be that bad this year, or next year, or even the year after that. But with each year that goes by, the problem becomes incrementally more severe, and harder to reverse. So even if Manzi is right that the costs are manageable into 2100 — a century, after all, is a long time for a human, but not for the atmosphere — what does that do to our descendants who have to deal with a scorching planet between 2100 and 2200? And then into 2300, and then 2400?

I think Manzi’s answer is that technology will save us by then. And maybe he’s right. But maybe he’s not. And if he’s not, then we’ve let the problem become unimaginably bad for our descendants. If you bet on technology and you’re wrong, it’s not like we’ve got another of these planets waiting in the back somewhere.

The appropriate technological approach, it seems to me, is to pair a strategy of aggressive emissions reduction with a huge effort to develop technological solutions. Then, if the research begins to pay off, we can transition over to those technologies and ease up on the regulations. But if we don’t so mitigation and instead trust in technology, we may let the situation get so bad that by the time we’re ready to do mitigation, the problem is essentially irreversible.

Manzi responds to Klein:

When thinking about taking actions now to shape the future environment, we should start with the recognition that our ability to make meaningful predictions generally declines as we look further and further into the future. This proceeds in shades of gray from, illustratively, “2030” to “10,000AD.”

At several points in my post I described the projected impacts of climate change through about the year 2100. This is because numerous IPCC forecasts are done through about that point in time, due to the view that projections beyond this point are too speculative.

When thinking about time after 2100, we have, in cartoon terms, two choices: (i) simply treat it as unknowable fog, or (ii) attempt to guess. I think that if we take the first choice, then we simply try to forecast through the next century, and let future generations worry about the world beyond 2100 (though I’ll point out that it is a very unusual political debate in which we call trying to manage the entire world for about the next 100 years as “short-termism”).

If we take the second approach, how far out do we try to guess? The Nordhaus economic calculations that I cited in my post as formal attempts to compare odds-adjusted costs versus benefits actually extend out for 250 years. That is, they consider expected costs and benefits to about 2250. Therefore, Klein’s point is really about potential damages beyond 2250,not 2100. That’s a long way off.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t care about problems that might occur hundreds of years from now, just that I don’t care much about current predictions about those problems.

UPDATE: Bryan Walsh at Time

Matthew Yglesias

UPDATE #2: Jim Manzi has a round-up at The American Scene

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That Missing Ounce Of Prevention

Chris Rovzar at New York Magazine:

The Times takes an exhaustive look this week at the so-called “blowout preventers,” complex devices that wrap oil pipes deep underwater, near where they emerge from the earth, and are designed to shut off leaks in the event of a catastrophe. Specifically, the paper looked at the effectiveness of “blind shears,” contraptions that cut through pipes in times of emergency and seal them off. The shears have to create thousands of pounds of pressure to get through the tough metals of the pipes, and have to create a perfect seal. The devices are incredibly complex and contain many parts that can easily fail and render the enter machine ineffective. It’s not that the oil companies and the government don’t know about these risks — the devices have been tested many times over the past ten years — the problem is that the known problems weren’t compensated for, and in the case of the Deepwater Horizon well currently gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a commonly installed backup blind shear wasn’t even built.

These blind shears are “remarkably vulnerable,” says the Times, and at 5,000 feet underwater, incredibly complicated to fix. As the oil spill worsened, before the Deepwater rig exploded, engineers frantically tried to engage, and then fix, their own failed shear. There would have been a second shear had the Minerals Management Service acted on one of their own studies, which revealed that two of the devices vastly increased the likelihood of avoiding a major spill. Studies in 2002 and 2004 revealed the following:

When the team examined the performance of blind shear rams in blowout preventers on 14 new rigs, it found that seven had never been checked to see if their shear rams would work in deep water. Of the remaining seven, only three “were found able to shear pipe at their maximum rated water depths.”
The Times study is full of a lot of very obscure facts and technology, and while it casts some blame on the “Obama administration,” it’s impossible to imagine that the president himself, or even anyone in the White House, knew anything about these subjects before April 20. Not that this matters when, as the evidence increasingly suggests, the government has systematically failed to protect us and the environment from exactly the disaster that unfolded so quickly this spring.

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig had a man-made cause. We have an eyewitness survivor of the blast now willing to say that the blowout preventer was leaking for weeks before the explosion, and BP and Transocean failed to repair the valve in response, merely shutting it off instead. If they actually repaired it, that would shut down production. The last line of defense, the “blind shear ram,” designed to slice the pipe and seal the well in the event of a disaster, malfunctioned, and BP never had to show proof that the technique would actually work. In fact, the Deepwater Horizon, unlike every new BP well, had only one blind shear ram; two are now standard.

A legitimate Minerals Management Service could have known about the leaking blowout preventer before the blast. It could have acted on the inherent problems with the blind shear ram and the oil industry’s failsafe measures in general (blowout preventers have a 45% failure rate, according to a confidential Transocean report). But we didn’t have a legitimate MMS to deal with this disaster. We have 62 regulators dealing with over 4,000 offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chris Morran at The Consumerist:

According to a memo released by Congressman Ed Markey, BP put a top level estimate on the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf at around 100,000 barrels a day. That’s significantly higher than even the current U.S. Government guess of around 60,000 barrels/day.

A rep for BP tried to downplay the numbers in the document by saying that this was a worst-case scenario estimate, which would apply only if the blowout preventer was completely removed: “Since there are no plans to remove the blowout preventer, the number is irrelevant.”

The rep maintains that, regardless of the amount of crude being pumped into the Gulf waters, the company’s position has always been that it “would deal with whatever volume of oil was being spilled.”

Speaking of the blowout preventer, a worker on the Deepwater Horizon, the offshore oil rig whose collapse killed 11 and kicked off the worst spill in U.S. history, says that he and his employers attempted to notify BP of problems with the blowout preventer weeks before the April 20 disaster.

The blowout preventer has two control pods that work to operate the device that should have stopped the massive amount of leakage into the Gulf. But, speaking to the BBC over the weekend, the worker says that BP ignored warnings from those aboard the rig.

“We saw a leak on the pod, so by seeing the leak we informed the company men,” he recalled. “They have a control room where they could turn off that pod and turn on the other one, so that they don’t have to stop production.”

Marian Wang at ProPublica:

Regulatory reliance on industry, recruitment troubles, and lax enforcement have long plagued the Minerals Management Service, but according to congressional testimony given by the Interior Department’s inspector general, Mary Kendall, the agency’s problems are bigger than that [1]. [PDF]

“The greatest challenge in reorganizing and reforming MMS lies with the culture—both within MMS and within industry,” Kendall told the House Natural Resources Committee in little-noticed comments last Thursday.

Regulations are lacking and are “heavily reliant on industry to document and accurately report on operations, production and royalties,” Kendall said.

A recent example of that? BP’s letter to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in which the company said that it was “not aware of any MMS practice [2]” [PDF] to demand compliance with a law requiring oil companies to provide proof that blowout preventers’ shear rams could function effectively. (Shear rams are used to stop a blowout by closing off a pipe by cutting through it. But as a great investigation in this morning’s New York Times shows, not only did the shear rams fail on the Deepwater Horizon, but they’ve frequently failed in other blowouts too [3]. The Times cites an industry study showing that in the case of deep-water wells, the shear rams failed nearly half the time. What’s more, as the Times notes, MMS failed too: The agency did not require testing on the shear ram or other key safety equipment.)

The training programs for MMS inspectors are “considerably out of date,” and “have not kept pace with the technological advancements occurring within the industry,” Kendall said.

In the Gulf of Mexico region, there may not be enough inspectors to begin with. According to Kendall, MMS has about 60 inspectors to cover 4,000 facilities, while the Pacific Coast has 10 for 23 facilities. (It’s worth mentioning too, that the frequency of inspections of key safety equipment such as blowout preventers was halved more than a decade ago [4].)

Edward Tenner at The Atlantic:

Remember the Ixtoc I well blowout of 1979, that released about 3.3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over more than ten months? Not many North Americans do — because they were less environmentally conscious, because it occurred in Mexican rather than U.S. waters, because Iran’s Islamic revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan filled the airwaves and the headlines, or even because many of today’s adults were too young to notice, or even unborn.

And that’s one of the big problems behind the BP oil spill. In 1977 the University College London civil engineers Paul Sibley and Alistair Walker published a paper suggesting that major bridge collapses occurred at approximately 30-year intervals as new designs succeeded old as a result of the failure’s lessons, new generations of designers became increasingly confident in the safety record of their innovations, until they finally pushed them over a tipping point, beginning a new cycle. The civil engineering professor and historian of technology Henry Petroski has developed this idea, which last came to the fore in the Minneapolis bridge collapse of 2007, as discussed here and here. My graduate teacher William H. McNeill coined a mordant phrase for such recurrence of disasters partially as a result of confidence in reforms, the Law of the Conservation of Catastrophe.

Bradford Plumer at The New Republic:

“The last time you saw a spill of this magnitude in the Gulf, it was off the coast of Mexico in 1979. If something doesn’t happen since 1979, you begin to take your eye off of that thing.” That was what a senior administration official recently told a McClatchy reporter, in regards to the Gulf gusher. As it turns out, this is a pattern with engineering accidents, be they bridge collapses or oil-platform blowouts. Disaster strikes, a flurry of safety improvements follow, but then engineers get over-confident in their new innovations, and eventually disaster strikes again.

[…]

As long as we stay addicted to crude, it’s hard to see us escaping this cycle—especially since we’re using up all the “easy” oil, and companies need to keep foraging deeper and deeper into the ocean, continually pushing the boundaries of safety technology.

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