Tag Archives: Michael Grunwald

Wait, This Article Didn’t Appear In Slate?

Michael Grunwald at Time:

President Obama has called the BP oil spill “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and so has just about everyone else. Green groups are sounding alarms about the “catastrophe along the Gulf Coast,” while CBS, Fox and MSNBC are all slapping “Disaster in the Gulf” chyrons on their spill-related news. Even BP fall guy Tony Hayward, after some early happy talk, admitted that the spill was an “environmental catastrophe.” The obnoxious anti-environmentalist Rush Limbaugh has been a rare voice arguing that the spill — he calls it “the leak” — is anything less than an ecological calamity, scoffing at the avalanche of end-is-nigh eco-hype.

Well, Limbaugh has a point. The Deepwater Horizon explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it’s no leak; it’s the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It’s also inflicting serious economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it’s important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. “The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared,” says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana. (See pictures of the Gulf oil spill.)

Yes, the spill killed birds — but so far, less than 1% of the number killed by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska 21 years ago. Yes, we’ve heard horror stories about oiled dolphins — but so far, wildlife-response teams have collected only three visibly oiled carcasses of mammals. Yes, the spill prompted harsh restrictions on fishing and shrimping, but so far, the region’s fish and shrimp have tested clean, and the restrictions are gradually being lifted. And yes, scientists have warned that the oil could accelerate the destruction of Louisiana’s disintegrating coastal marshes — a real slow-motion ecological calamity — but so far, assessment teams have found only about 350 acres of oiled marshes, when Louisiana was already losing about 15,000 acres of wetlands every year. (Comment on this story.)

The disappearance of more than 2,000 sq. mi. of coastal Louisiana over the past century has been a true national tragedy, ravaging a unique wilderness, threatening the bayou way of life and leaving communities like New Orleans extremely vulnerable to hurricanes from the Gulf. And while much of the erosion has been caused by the re-engineering of the Mississippi River — which no longer deposits much sediment at the bottom of its Delta — quite a bit has been caused by the oil and gas industry, which gouged 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through coastal wetlands. But the spill isn’t making that problem much worse. Coastal scientist Paul Kemp, a former Louisiana State University professor who is now a National Audubon Society vice president, compares the impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes to “a sunburn on a cancer patient.” (See TIME’s interactive graphic “100 Days of the BP Spill.”)

Marine scientist Ivor van Heerden, another former LSU prof, who’s working for a spill-response contractor, says, “There’s just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good — I think they lied about the size of the spill — but we’re not seeing catastrophic impacts.” Van Heerden, like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid from BP’s spill-response funds. “There’s a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.”

The scientists I spoke with cite four basic reasons the initial eco-fears seem overblown. First, the Deepwater oil, unlike the black glop from the Valdez, is unusually light and degradable, which is why the slick in the Gulf is dissolving surprisingly rapidly now that the gusher has been capped. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Alaska’s Prince William Sound, is very warm, which has helped bacteria break down the oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water have helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. And finally, Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient. Van Heerden’s assessment team showed me around Casse-tete Island in Timbalier Bay, where new shoots of Spartina grasses were sprouting in oiled marshes and new leaves were growing on the first black mangroves I’ve ever seen that were actually black. “It comes back fast, doesn’t it?” van Heerden said.

Rich Lowry at The Corner:

I said last week that I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a major story in the mainstream press in the months ahead saying that the spill isn’t going to be as much of a disaster as advertised. And here come those stories, much sooner than I expected. First, we had the New York Times saying that the spill, at least on the surface, has gone missing. And, now, we have Time magazine reporting the environmental damage has probably been exaggerated (h/t Mike Allen’s Playbook)

Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones:

In short, the story is classic man-bites-dog, knee-jerk counterintuitivism. In reality, we have no idea yet how bad the damage in the Gulf is. The federal government is still only in the early stages of a natural resources damage assessment, a process to determine the full extent of the destruction. The government hasn’t even come up with an estime of how much oil leaked into the Gulf. And BP hasn’t yet finished the relief wells, meaning the disaster isn’t over yet. Meanwhile, the environmental impacts of the natural gas that has also been seeping into the Gulf remain unclear. And the article gives scant attention to the nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant applied by BP to break up the spill, which the country’s top environmental official has acknowledged is a science experiment of monumental proportions.

“The amount of oil and toxic dispersant pumped into the Gulf is unprecedented, and we know the marine impacts will be massive, we simply don’t know how long it will take for the ecosystem to rebound, and how significant the decrease in productivity will be until it recovers,” says Aaron Viles, campaign director at the Gulf Restoration Network.

Referring to the Time article’s author, Michael Grunwald, National Resources Defense Council lawyer David Pettit says, “I’m not sure what boats he’s been out on. When I went out from Plaquemines Parish two weeks ago, there were oiled marshes as far as the eye could see, plus all the islands we saw were oiled. I would agree that it’s too early to say what the long-term effect of that oiling will be, but by the same token I don’t think anyone can credibly say that there will be little or no effect.”

The article mentions the 488 dead sea turtles found in the Gulf, but says “only 17 were visibly oiled.” What it doesn’t mention, however, is that nearly 80 percent of those dead turtles are Kemp’s Ridley turtles, the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world. “When you get to that level of peril, every individual makes a difference,” says Doug Inkley, a wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation who was in the Gulf last week. Nor does a turtle need to be visibly oiled to die because of it; ingesting the oil, and the oil-dispersant mix, can also be deadly. And then there are the turtles that may have been burned alive.

I have quite a bit of respect for Grunwald, whose work on the Army Corps of Engineers and Hurricane Katrina was spectacular. But if he’s going to criticize folks for making premature doomsday predictions, then he, too, shouldn’t engage in making preemptive declarations that the problem is exaggerated, either. Doing so not only lets BP off the hook, but also contributes to the already waning interest in the disaster among the American public—nothing to see here, folks, back to your regularly scheduled environmental apathy.

Tom Maguire:

The oil was light, the water warm, and the bacteria feasted.  I recall a lot of talk that comparisons to the Valdez made no sense because Prince William Sound is so much colder, but still.

Here is a Rush flashback:

“The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there,” Limbaugh said. “It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.”

Well, doing nothing made no political sense, and I assume all the skimming and booms accomplished something.  That said, the after-action reports will be compiled by the same people that insisted Something Be Done, so the results may not be entirely unbiased.

Digby:

Rush Limbaugh has been saying the oil spill is nothing more than a little leak that has caused almost no damage. Time Magazine is backing him up saying since the news that the slick “disappearing” evidence points to the fact that the whole thing was over-hyped for ratings and fundraising by environmental groups. (Seriously.)

But perhaps “disappearing” the wrong word. The right word is “dispersing.” And there are just a few niggling issues to discuss about that

[…]

BP seems to have ably headed off the worst of the PR disaster by keeping the worst of the oil more or less off the shoreline. The actual disaster may have been made worse by the use of toxic chemicals. So it’s all good.

James Joyner:

It’s a fascinating contra-conventional wisdom story, although the bottom line seems to be not so much that the disaster was hyped but that we just don’t have the ability to forecast the effects of these incidents with great confidence.   And that nature seems to have enormously strong coping mechanisms.

Let’s hope this is right.

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He Does The Dishes, Too

Michael Grunwald in Time:

A bald man with a gray beard and tired eyes is sitting in his oversize Washington office, talking about the economy. He doesn’t have a commanding presence. He isn’t a mesmerizing speaker. He has none of the look-at-me swagger or listen-to-me charisma so common among men with oversize Washington offices. His arguments aren’t partisan or ideological; they’re methodical, grounded in data and the latest academic literature. When he doesn’t know something, he doesn’t bluster or bluff. He’s professorial, which makes sense, because he spent most of his career as a professor.

He is not, in other words, a typical Beltway power broker. He’s shy. He doesn’t do the D.C. dinner-party circuit; he prefers to eat at home with his wife, who still makes him do the dishes and take out the trash. Then they do crosswords or read. Because Ben Bernanke is a nerd.

He just happens to be the most powerful nerd on the planet.

Ed Morrissey:

Time then launches into Bernanke’s heroic efforts to save the world economy by propping up Wall Street — but that was a good argument for making Bernanke the PoY in 2008 rather than 2009.  The Fed took its most dramatic action last year, but many fundamentally misunderstood the effort.  While people were shrieking for the heads of Wall Street (and later arranging for protest tours of AIG executives’ homes), Bernanke understood that a total collapse of the financial system was in no one’s interest.

This year, though, the Fed has hardly been the force in finance.  Democrats have undermined the dollar by spending in a manner that shames drunken sailors.  They have a regulation package passing through Congress that would give politicians even more power to warp markets for social engineering.  While derivatives need better oversight, Congress and the Obama administration are putting the crisis to use in order to go far beyond reasonable regulation into a form of corporatism for the banking and financial sectors.

My first observation is that Bernanke wasn’t really the most important figure for just 2009. Don’t get me wrong: I think he’s had a huge impact in the U.S. and global economies this year. I just think he’d be more aptly described as the “Person of the Last 18 to 24 Months.” Much of the most important work he did to stabilize the economy was done in 2008, not 2009. This year he had more of a stay-the-course philosophy.

Clearly, there are those who probably aren’t pleased with Time’s pick. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) comes to mind. He leads a charge in Congress to abolish the Fed, which is related to a portion of legislation to audit the Fed, recently passed as a part of the House’s financial reform bill. Other critics would like for him to have done more to curb unemployment. From a public standpoint, Bernanke’s public approval rating is only 22%, according to what I heard on CNBC this morning.

Some believe that Bernanke was partially to blame for the crisis. When he took the reins from Alan Greenspan in 2006, he could have worked for greater monetary tightening at that time, or more regulatory requirements. I’d argue, however, that the runaway train had already gained too much momentum by then anyway.

As for his performance during the crisis, I think it was incredible — which is why I support his reappointment. And I must not be alone — the market’s approval is why President Obama likely felt almost forced to reappoint him. Bear in mind that this is a President who has very, very different views from his predecessor who appointed Bernanke. I’m also pretty sure the President would have liked to have a Fed chief who he had a little more control over — a more trusted advisor. But Bernanke was so essential to the recovery that Obama recognized that and could not help but reappoint him, despite politics. (Final confirmation vote in the Senate tomorrow!)

Matthew Yglesias:

Time giving Ben Bernanke it’s Person of the Year honors seems to me to say a lot about where we are as a society.

Bernanke takes office in February of 2006 holding what’s probably the second most-important job in the United States and the most important job for determining overall macroeconomic conditions. He follows basically conventional thinking and doesn’t make any unusual errors. Unfortunately, conventional thinking and normal errors lead into a major financial panic and the worst recession in 70 years. Then during the desperate fall of 2008 Bernanke takes decisive action and helps put a floor on the collapse. By spring 2009 it’s clear that this will be the worst recession since the end of the Great Depression rather than, as some had feared, the second-coming of the Depression. At this point he basically unfurls a “Mission Accomplished” banner, says ten percent unemployment is okay by him, and if congress wants to do anything fiscally it should look at cutting Social Security benefits.

That’s not nothing. That’s not the worst record of any 21st Century public official (I dunno…Robert Mugabe?) or even of any major 21st Century central banker (Jean-Claude Trichet) or any Bush administration appointee (Don Rumsfeld) or anything. But it’s really not all that great. And it demonstrates a very specific class skew—extraordinary intervention into the market place just long enough to fix the situation from the point of view of asset-owners while leaving wage-earners holding the bag. But the owners and managers and editors of Time Magazine and the companies that advertise in it probably don’t care so much about that.

In a lot of respects it strikes me as the most fitting possible choice, an eloquent statement about where America is in 2009.

Free Exchange at The Economist:

Mr Bernanke has plenty of critics. There are those who blame him for missing all the warning signs before the crisis hit. There are those who blame him for managing the crisis in the most Wall Street-friendly way possible. And there are those who blame him for laying the groundwork for a future asset bubble or inflation crisis by dramatically cutting interest rates and adding to bank reserves.

Personally, I think his defining decision, this year at least, has been to conclude that 10% unemployment is acceptable—that having averted a Depression-style 25% unemployment scenario, his countercyclical work is complete. And that the risk of sustained high unemployment is outweighed by the risk of continued efforts to boost the economy (either by asking for more fiscal stimulus or targeting nominal GDP or generally committing the central bank to some level of inflation).

UPDATE: Douglas Holtz-Eakin at FrumForum

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