Saturday, July 31, 2010

More about Russian Heat Wave

From the New York Times:

This is a country that knows how to handle the cold, swaggering about during the most brutal of winters. But the heat is another story. And there has never been heat like this.

Here is how extreme it has become: Oymyakon in Eastern Siberia is considered one of the coldest places on Earth, with winter temperatures dropping to as low as minus 90 degrees. On Thursday, the thermometer also read 90 degrees. Plus 90. In the evening.

Much of Russia has been reeling. Forest fires have erupted. Drought has ruined millions of acres of wheat. More than 2,000 people have died from drowning in rivers, reservoirs and elsewhere in July and June, often after seeking relief from the heat while intoxicated. In Moscow alone, the number of such deaths has tripled in comparison with last year, officials said.

All week long, temperatures have been soaring to records, and on Thursday, they reached a new high for Moscow, 100 degrees. July has been the hottest month since the city began taking such measurements under the czars, 130 years ago, officials said.

At the Biserovsky Fish Farm in this suburb of Moscow, Ivan Tyurkin trudged along a pier and surveyed the breeding ponds all around him. He did not need a thermometer to figure out that the water was treacherously tepid. Dead trout, drifting like buoys, were evidence enough.

Last month, they were flipping and flopping and leaping, and Mr. Tyurkin was readying for another bountiful harvest. Now, with the weather finding seemingly endless ways of wreaking havoc across the country, the farm was in crisis.

“This is all just very difficult to believe,” Mr. Tyurkin said.

“There has never been a summer like this,” he said. “Never. Not once.”

That is a widely held view in Russia. New York, Washington and many other cities in the United States have certainly suffered from their own heat waves. But most Russians do not have air-conditioners, reasoning that they are not worth the investment given the typical summers here.

As if the heat were not enough, Moscow has lately been coated with a patina of smoke from fires that have broken out in dried-up peat bogs in the suburbs. Throw open a window in a desperate bid to catch a breeze and the unpleasant smell of smoke bounds in. One of the country’s chief medical authorities estimated that walking around Moscow for a few hours was the equivalent of smoking a pack or two of cigarettes.

The Kalamazoo River Oil Spill

One million gallons are estimated to have gone into the river.

Oil Spill Hits Kalamazoo River

The Kalamazoo River is the new recipient of 800,000 gallons of crude oil, resulting from an underground pipeline in the Midwest, spanning across Canada and the United States. Estimates suggest approximately 19,500 barrels surged through the river and its surrounding area as a result. The pipeline is owned by a company called Enbridge Energy Partners. Discovered on Monday morning, the leak was plugged shortly thereafter as the pipeline's operators ceased oil flow through the line.

Oil spill headed for Lake Michigan

Only about 60 miles away from Lake Michigan, the Kalamazoo River oil spill is quickly moving toward the lake. Residents are already reporting heavy fumes and oil-coated wildlife along the waterways.

Corrosion found in pipeline that fouled Kalamazoo River

Federal regulators say corrosion tests done as recently as last year found "metal loss anomalies" along the pipeline that sent thousands of gallons of oil rushing into the Kalamazoo River this week.

Just two weeks ago, the pipeline's owner notified the government it was considering replacing section of pipe rather than repairing it, regulators say.

Late Wednesday, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration or PHMSA - a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation - sent Enbridge Energy Partners Ltd a corrective action order in the wake of the spill, spelling out the steps that must be taken before the pipeline is reopened.

It also ordered that the section of failed pipe be given to the National Transportation Safety Board for testing and a 20-year review of any problems along Line 6B of the 1,900-mile Lakehead System be provided.

The rest of the line also was ordered evaluated.

No cause has yet been determined for the spill. On Wednesday, the Free Press found two PHMSA reports from early this year raising concerns about aspects of the Lakehead System - one about the safety of the particular kind of pre-1970 pipe that was used at the site of a spill in North Dakota and another questioning corrosion monitoring systems along the same line, 6B, where the west Michigan spill occurred.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Oil rig alarms turned off 'to aid sleep'"

From the Guardian.UK:

Vital warning systems on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig were switched off at the time of the explosion in order to spare workers being woken by false alarms, a federal investigation has heard.

The revelation that alarm systems on the rig at the centre of the disaster were disabled – and that key safety mechanisms had also consciously been switched off – came in testimony by a chief technician working for Transocean, the drilling company that owned the rig.

Mike Williams, who was in charge of maintaining the rig's electronic systems, was giving evidence to the federal panel in New Orleans that is investigating the cause of the disaster on 20 April, which killed 11 people.

Williams told the hearing today that no alarms went off on the day of the explosion because they had been "inhibited". Sensors monitoring conditions on the rig and in the Macondo oil well beneath it were still working, but the computer had been instructed not to trigger any alarms in case of adverse readings.

Both visual and sound alarms should have gone off in the case of sensors detecting fire or dangerous levels of combustible or toxic gases.

The evidence of deliberate dilution of the rig's safety mechanisms is likely to have wide ramifications for BP and Transocean, the world's largest offshore drilling company. It switches the spotlight of blame away from BP and towards the subcontractor which took the decisions. Of the 126 crew on board the rig on 20 April, seven worked for BP and 79 for Transocean.

Williams said he discovered that the physical alarm system had been disabled a full year before the disaster. When he asked why, he said he was told that the view from even the most senior Transocean official on the rig had been that "they did not want people woken up at three o'clock in the morning due to false alarms".

Williams' testimony will raise questions about whether lives could have been saved had the alarms been properly set and the disaster mitigated.

He also revealed that a crucial safety device, designed to shut down the drill shack in the case of dangerous gas levels being detected, had been disabled, or bypassed as it is called.

When he saw that the system had been bypassed, Williams protested to a Transocean supervisor, Mark Hay, who dismissed his concerns. Hay responded: "Damn thing been in bypass for five years. Matter of fact, the entire [Transocean] fleet runs them in bypass."

In a third significant disclosure, Williams also revealed that a computer system used to monitor the drill shack was constantly freezing up, and on one occasion even produced wrong information. The system failed to indicate that a vital valve inside the blowout preventer, the device designed to shut down the well in case of problems, had been damaged.

Pressure is now likely to mount on Transocean to explain the discrepancies.

The New York Times reported earlier this week that a survey of workers carried out by Transocean shortly before the blast suggested key safety practices had not been followed.

Workers said that, while they were aware of unsafe practices on the rig, they were afraid to report mistakes for fear of reprisals.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"...U.S. Counties Face Water Shortages Due to Climate Change"

From NRDC:

Greatest Risks Seen in 14 States: AZ, AR, CA, CO, FL, ID, KS, MS, MT, NE, NV, NM, OK and TX;

WASHINGTON (July 20, 2010) -- More than 1,100 U.S. counties -- a full one-third of all counties in the lower 48 states -- now face higher risks of water shortages by mid-century as the result of global warming, and more than 400 of these counties will be at extremely high risk for water shortages, based on estimates from a new report by Tetra Tech for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The report uses publicly available water use data across the United States and climate projections from a set of models used in recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) work to evaluate withdrawals related to renewable water supply. The report finds that 14 states face an extreme or high risk to water sustainability, or are likely to see limitations on water availability as demand exceeds supply by 2050. These areas include parts of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. In particular, in the Great Plains and Southwest United States, water sustainability is at extreme risk.

The more than 400 counties identified as being at greatest risk in the report reflects a 14-times increase from previous estimates. For a look at county- and state-specific maps detailing the report findings (including a Google Earth map), go to and

While detailed modeling of climate change impacts on crop production was beyond the scope of the Tetra Tech analysis, the potential scale of disruption is reflected based on the value of the crops produced in the 1,100 at-risk counties. In 2007, the value of the crops produced in the at-risk counties identified in the report exceeded $105 billion. A separate study compared the Tetra Tech data with county-level crop production data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; state-specific fact sheets outlining the potential agricultural impacts may be found at

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Hundreds of dead penguins, birds wash up" (Brazil)

[AFP] Hundreds of dead penguins and other sea animals in Brazil have washed up on Sao Paulo's shores and scientists are investigating the causes, environment officials told Folha Online news agency.

The Institute of Environment and Natural Resources said 530 penguins, numerous other sea birds, five dolphins and three giant sea turtles have been found in the coastal towns of Peruibe, Praia Grande and Itanhaem, with more likely on other nearby beaches.

Sao Paulo University biologists and a wildlife research centre are looking into the possible reasons for the animal deaths, the institute said.

Praia Grande authorities have ruled out pollution, saying preliminary investigations point to starvation as the cause.

The most likely scenario for the penguin deaths is exhaustion and hunger during their long migration from the waters off Argentina's southern Patagonia region, said Andrea Maranho, a veterinarian for the Sea Animal Rehabilitation Centre in Praia Grande.

(Pollution or global warming could have killed off / displaced their food sources).

"Large China oil spill threatens sea life, water"

[AP] BEIJING – China's largest reported oil spill emptied beaches along the Yellow Sea as its size doubled Wednesday, while cleanup efforts included straw mats and frazzled workers with little more than rubber gloves.

An official warned the spill posed a "severe threat" to sea life and water quality as China's latest environmental crisis spread off the shores of Dalian, once named China's most livable city.

One cleanup worker has drowned, his body coated in crude.

"I've been to a few bays today and discovered they were almost entirely covered with dark oil," said Zhong Yu with environmental group Greenpeace China, who spent the day on a boat inspecting the spill.

"The oil is half-solid and half liquid and is as sticky as asphalt," she told The Associated Press by telephone.

The oil had spread over 165 square miles (430 square kilometers) of water five days since a pipeline at the busy northeastern port exploded, hurting oil shipments from part of China's strategic oil reserves to the rest of the country. Shipments remained reduced Wednesday.

State media has said no more oil is leaking into the sea, but the total amount of oil spilled is not yet clear.

Greenpeace China released photos Wednesday of inky beaches and of straw mats about 2 square meters (21 square feet) in size scattered on the sea, meant to absorb the oil.

Fishing in the waters around Dalian has been banned through the end of August, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

At least one person died during cleanup efforts. A 25-year-old firefighter, Zhang Liang, drowned Tuesday when a wave threw him from a vessel, Xinhua reported.

Officials, oil company workers and volunteers were turning out by the hundreds to clean blackened beaches.

"We don't have proper oil cleanup materials, so our workers are wearing rubber gloves and using chopsticks," an official with the Jinshitan Golden Beach Administration Committee told the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper, in apparent exasperation.

"This kind of inefficiency means the oil will keep coming to shore. ... This stretch of oil is really difficult to clean up in the short term."

But 40 oil-skimming boats and about 800 fishing boats were also deployed to clean up the spill, and Xinhua said more than 15 kilometers (9 miles) of oil barriers had been set up to keep the slick from spreading.

China Central Television earlier reported an estimate of 1,500 tons of oil has spilled. That would amount roughly to 400,000 gallons (1,500,000 liters) — as compared with 94 million to 184 million gallons in the BP oil spill off the U.S. coast.

The cause of the explosion that started the spill was still not clear. The pipeline is owned by China National Petroleum Corp., Asia's biggest oil and gas producer by volume.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hydrofracking for Natural Gas in Pennsylvania

What is Hydrofracking? (from
Slick water hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydrofracking, is a new development in natural gas extraction. The process was created by Halliburton Inc. (well known for its work in Iraq and elsewhere), Schlumberger Inc., and Messina Inc. This process makes mining for natural gas in dense shale more economically possible, where before it was not.

Hydrofracking for Natural Gas - Worth the Risk? (
Russia and the Middle East have, by far, the largest proved reserves of natural gas on the planet. But the Marcellus Shale Play, a mile-deep, rock-bound reservoir stretching through New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is the closest approximation this country has. Experts have described it as "the most drilled but least explored" natural-gas basin in America. They say it could yield 400 trillion gallons of natural gas--20 times the current national annual output.

Gas company geologists have known about Marcellus for years. (The name of the shale formation comes from the town of Marcellus, New York, where some of the rock is visible.) But it wasn't until the oil-price spikes in 2008 that the economics of drilling it began to make sense. Since then, U.S. supplies of both oil and natural gas have increased and prices have dropped sharply, but the momentum to tap into new energy sources continues. Although drilling for gas deep below the surface of the earth is expensive, the Marcellus Play could produce riches for industry and landowners, as well as billions of dollars in tax revenues for states. Pete Grannis, New York State's environmental commissioner, calls the furor set off by Marcellus a "modern day gold rush."

However, to get at the Marcellus gas, drilling companies have to employ a controversial boring technique called hydrofracking that involves mixing water with a cocktail of sand and toxic chemicals and then injecting that at high pressure into shale more than a mile underground in order to fracture the rock and release the gas.

This process, known as hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking, has been utilized before in several states. But environmentalists claim that it causes everything from earthquakes to above-ground explosions, that it can irredeemably pollute groundwater, and that it drains streams of the water that in many places is a resource as precious as the gas it's helping to recover.
While the industry disputes that hydrofracking is the cause of such mayhem, nobody disputes that setting up wells is an intensive industrial procedure, and that the drilling process itself uses and pollutes huge amounts of water. A single well requires between 1 million and 5 million gallons of water. About 40 percent of what's injected into the wells is pumped back out, and it comes out dirty and salty and needs to be treated before it is discharged back into public waterways. Pennsylvania already has reported incidences of unacceptably salty water from hydrofrack wells being discharged into rivers.

That is why the Marcellus Shale wars have been fully engaged, as the irresistible search for energy resources and riches collides with arguments over environmental disaster. The battle pits neighbor against neighbor, full-time residents against weekend homeowners, elected officials against elected officials and states against localities (some Upstate New York localities have enacted moratoria on drilling, something the natural-gas industry claims they don't actually have the authority to do). Although the fracas over Marcellus Shale is regional, it serves as a cautionary tale for any place that encounters an unexpected energy boom.

Blowout in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania ->(

The leak happened at a Marcellus drilling operation on McGeorge Road in Moshannon State Forest. A one-mile radius of the forest was evacuated Friday morning after the well ruptured near the Punxsutawney Hunting Club....Spadoni said unexpectedly high gas pressure in the new well prevented crews from initially containing the leak.

Hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is the process of blasting millions of gallons of water deep underground to break up the shale and release the gas. Most of the frack water stays underground, but what comes up must be treated or disposed of in approved facilities.

Another onshore blow-out; one million gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluid spewed into the air (by Amy Mall 6-4-2010)

Recently I blogged about onshore oil and gas wells that were improperly constructed and caused drinking water contamination and air pollution. I mentioned an article that said that "many of today's wells are at risk."

Today a natural gas well blew out in a Pennsylvania state forest during a hydraulic fracturing operation. . Officials have estimated that one million gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluid, including chemical additives, plus an undetermined amount of wet natural gas, has blown out of the well. Wet natural gas can contain highly flammable hydrocarbons, like propane and butane, and hazardous substances, such as hydrogen sulfide. These are separated out before natural gas makes its way to your stove or furnace.

Campers and others in the forest were evacuated. While no one wants this kind of toxic explosion in a state forest, imagine if it were near a school or hospital? In this case, the Federal Aviation Administration even had to issue flight restrictions. These hazardous substances will be carried by the air and will settle on land and vegetation. It will be very important to know what chemicals were being used in this hydraulic fracturing operation. Will the company doing the hydraulic fracturing disclose this information to the public?

Investigation of PA Fracking Accident Cites Untrained Personnel
The EOG well was one of four located on the same drilling pad at a hunting club in Lawrence Township, near Moshannon State Forest. No one was injured in the Pennsylvania blowout, but 35,000 gallons of drilling fluids were released before it was contained the following afternoon.

EOG and its contractor, C.C. Forbes LLC, were banned from conducting well completion for 40 days after the accident. They have since been fined a total of $400,000.

EOG and C.C. Forbes are now permitted to resume well completion. EOG Resources has been ordered to take nine corrective actions; C.C. Forbes ordered to take six corrective actions.

In light of the investigation’s findings, Hanger said his agency has written each company drilling into the Marcellus Shale to ensure they understand proper well construction and emergency notification procedures.

There are about 1,500 Marcellus Shale gas wells in Pennsylvania currently and industry officials predict an additional 35,000 to 50,000 by 2030. The Marcellus Shale region is a formation rich in natural gas that lies beneath parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Maryland.

BP Gulf Oil Well Finally Capped

It took 3 months - but BP finally managed to get a megaton cap on the leak (app. 100-200 million gallons of oil "spilled")

BP says it plans to keep gulf oil well cap closed

In a press conference Sunday morning, a BP executive said that a mechanical "cap" used to shut off the geyser still seems to be holding. As a result, he said, the company now plans to keep it closed permanently -- or at least for a few more weeks, until a "relief well" can plug the leak near its underground source.

"We're not seeing any problems, at this point, any issues with the shut-in," said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, referring to the closure of the well. Because of that, Suttles said, "we'll continue to leave the well shut in."

Suttles' announcement seemed to alter the strategy that Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen (ret.), the federal government's point man in the disaster, had described on Saturday. Allen had extended a two-day "integrity test" on the well until Sunday. But, Allen said, when the test was eventually done, it would likely be re-opened and connected to pipes that would siphon the leak up toward ships on the surface.

But on Sunday, Suttles said that the process of fitting the well with those pipes would have allowed oil to flow into the gulf for perhaps three days. In effect, he said, the "test" of the closed cap would continue indefinitely.

"No one wants to see oil flowing back into the sea, and to initiate containment would require that to occur," he said. "Unfortunately, we would first have to open the flow back up into the Gulf of Mexico."

Hooking the well up to those pipes would have provided a key statistic: since all the well's oil would have been gathered, there would finally be a concrete measurement of how much oil was leaking.

This "flow rate," which has only been guessed at so far, will be a key figure in determining BP's liability for the spill.

Suttles' announcement came on the fourth day after remote-controlled submarines closed the last valves on a "three-ram capping stack" that had been fitted atop the well's leaking pipe.

Since then, company officials and the U.S. government had been on alert for leaks, taking seismic readings from the under-sea rock, and using scanning the sea-floor for bubbling gas or oil. They had also been studying readings of the massive pressures inside the pipe itself: if they rose, it would mean the reservoir had been successfully bottled up...

Officially, Suttles said the company will now continue the "integrity test" it has been performing since Thursday. But, if no problems appear, he said that this "testing" could last until the first "relief well" breaks through the runaway well's pipe, and plugs it up permanently with cement...

He said the closest relief well was now more than 17,000 feet below the sea floor: just 100 feet vertically, and only four feet laterally, from the point it needs to reach. But the next phase is slow, Suttles said, since engineers need to be certain their drill is on course toward its tiny target. They are aiming at a steel casing slightly less than 10 inches wide, with a seven-inch pipe inside.

That relief well could hit its target by the end of this month, Suttles said, though the process of "killing" the well might last until mid-August.

Some have trouble believing BP stopped oil leak

[AP] Many Gulf Coast residents don't believe it. Some accuse BP of making it up. And even those convinced that the oil leak has finally been stopped are tempered in their relief, aware that their environmental nightmare is far from over.

"It's a beautiful thing that it's shut off," trumpeter Shamarr Allen said as he stood on the sidewalk in the Musicians' Village in New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward. "But there's still a lot of years of cleaning. There's going to be a lot of no fishing still. It's only the beginning of a long road that we have to travel. It's only the first step."

Reaction to the news that BP PLC had cut off the flow from the blown well nearly three months after an oil-rig explosion was marked with deep distrust of the oil giant. Gulf Coast residents have suffered from months of false starts and dashed hopes, failed "top kills" and abortive "junk shots," containment domes and "top hats," as they watched the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history foul their shores and eat into their livelihoods.

"It's a (expletive) lie," shouted Stephon LaFrance, one of several oil-stained oystermen standing around Delta Marina in marshy Plaquemines Parish. "I don't believe they stopped that leak. BP's trying to make their self look good."

Sitting on a boat, his cousin, Louie Randy Barthelemy, looked up and said: "BP's trying to manipulate the media."

"It doesn't mean anything," Craig St. Amant said as he tried to sell tours to passers-by on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. "They tell you what they want you to hear. I don't think they're being truthful in saying what they're saying."

Even those who believed what they were seeing on the live video feeds from the school of submersibles surrounding the damaged well head were having a hard time getting excited about this milestone.

At a dock in Hopedale, La., Roy Campo's crew was unloading and boxing blue crabs — their first in about a week because of closures. When they heard the news, the most the men could muster was a nod.

"The oil's still out there, so it'll be a while," said Campo, 50, of St. Bernard.

"Let's wait to see what an outside source has to say about the leak," a man named Rick Cortez posted on the Facebook page called "The 1,000,000 people who wonder why BP's still in charge of the oil spill." "BP (equals) ZERO credibility!!"

Some of the doubts that the leak has really been stopped appear to have sprung from glitches in the live feed from the Gulf floor. Some people complained that the video went out just as the oil stopped flowing, but an Associated Press reporter in Houston was able to view live footage of the shutoff the moment it happened Thursday — 2:25 p.m. CT.

For several days surrounding the cap operation, the 15 undersea camera feeds available through a link on BP's website have worked intermittently, at best. Sometimes, the feeds were hazy or hard to see. Other times, they were blank altogether.

Buras bartender Amy Hooks stopped watching the feeds a long time ago.

"I used to watch it every day, all day," the 32-year-old said. "I'm tired of getting my hopes shot down. It really hurts. It hurts to see all the local people not being able to do what they love to do."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

In Russia, Worst Drought In 130 Years

(Reuters) - Soaring temperatures across large swathes of Russia have destroyed nearly 10 million hectares of crops and prompted a state of emergency to be declared in 17 regions.

On Friday the state-run Moscow region weather bureau said it expected the heatwave, which has gripped the country since late June and is estimated to have already cost the agricultural sector about $1 billion, to continue into next week.

Saturday could see temperatures in Moscow hit 37 Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit), which would break the previous record of 36.6C. set in 1936.

"It looks like tomorrow could just break the record," the weather bureau's Moscow head Yelena Timakina said.

The high temperatures and tinder dry land have exacerbated the problem of forest fires. Billowing smoke and orange flames encircle Moscow as peat and forest fires resist attempts to extinguish them.

A state of emergency due to what the grain lobby says is the country's worst drought in 130 years, has now been imposed in 17 Russian regions, up from 16 earlier this week.

The area affected sprawls from the southern Urals and central European Russia to the Volga, the Agriculture Ministry said in a statement on Friday. A state of emergency might be declared in a further two regions.

As of Thursday crops on a combined area of 9.6 million hectares have been destroyed. This comprises some 12 percent of all lands sown to crops in Russia, or a territory roughly the size of Hungary.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"It's All About the Wages -- Our Economy Would Be Fine If Everyone Made Their Fair Share"

By Robert Reich @AlterNet

Missing from almost all discussion of America's dizzying rate of unemployment is the brute fact that hourly wages of people with jobs have been dropping, adjusted for inflation. Average weekly earnings rose a bit this spring only because the typical worker put in more hours, but June's decline in average hours pushed weekly paychecks down at an annualized rate of 4.5 percent.

In other words, Americans are keeping their jobs or finding new ones only by accepting lower wages.

Meanwhile, a much smaller group of Americans' earnings are back in the stratosphere: Wall Street traders and executives, hedge-fund and private-equity fund managers, and top corporate executives. As hiring has picked up on the Street, fat salaries are reappearing. Richard Stein, president of Global Sage, an executive search firm, tells the New York Times corporate clients have offered compensation packages of more than $1 million annually to a dozen candidates in just the last few weeks.

We're back to the same ominous trend as before the Great Recession: a larger and larger share of total income going to the very top while the vast middle class continues to lose ground. And as long as this trend continues, we can't get out of the shadow of the Great Recession. When most of the gains from economic growth go to a small sliver of Americans at the top, the rest don't have enough purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing.

America's median wage, adjusted for inflation, has barely budged for decades. Between 2000 and 2007 it actually dropped. Under these circumstances the only way the middle class could boost its purchasing power was to borrow, as it did with gusto. As housing prices rose, Americans turned their homes into ATMs. But such borrowing has its limits. When the debt bubble finally burst, vast numbers of people couldn't pay their bills, and banks couldn't collect.

Each of America's two biggest economic downturns over the last century has followed the same pattern. Consider: in 1928 the richest 1 percent of Americans received 23.9 percent of the nation's total income. After that, the share going to the richest 1 percent steadily declined. New Deal reforms, followed by World War II, the GI Bill and the Great Society expanded the circle of prosperity. By the late 1970s the top 1 percent raked in only 8 to 9 percent of America's total annual income. But after that, inequality began to widen again, and income reconcentrated at the top. By 2007 the richest 1 percent were back to where they were in 1928 -- with 23.5 percent of the total.

We all know what happened in the years immediately following these twin peaks -- in 1929 and 2008.

Yes, China, Germany and Japan have contributed to America's demand-side problem by failing to buy as much from us as we buy from them. But to believe that our continuing economic crisis stems mainly from the trade imbalance -- we buy too much and save too little, while they do the reverse -- is to miss the biggest imbalance of all. The problem isn't that typical Americans have spent beyond their means. It's that their means haven't kept up with what the growing economy could and should have been able to provide them.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Who Really Owns the Gulf of Mexico?"

By Michael Mechanic in Mother Jones:
— Offshore magazine poster detail

Who owns the Gulf of Mexico? That's a question you have to ask while perusing Offshore magazine's 2010 poster of the Gulf—downloadable here as a large PDF, but well worth checking out. Where most people look at the Gulf, they see a vast marine ecosystem, wetlands, and, until recently, gorgeous beaches.

What energy executives see is a massive grid, tangled with scores of oil and gas pipelines and rival fields with macho names that sound like heavy metal bands, black-diamond ski runs, and weapons systems. (See "Quiz: What Do BP and Kurt Cobain Have in Common?") Here's a small detail, slightly blurry, but you get the point. (Red lines are gas pipelines and pink are gas fields, green lines are oil pipelines and green blurbs are oil fields.)

Next, here's another map detail from farther offshore. {I} circled the site of the ongoing BP Deepwater Horizon spill in yellow.

What these maps really show is the degree to which the Gulf has played host to a feeding frenzy by big energy interests that snap up drilling leases on the cheap. Each of these numbered squares represents a lease site. As you can see from this Offshore magazine chart, the highest bid for a lease this year was about $53 million. Which, when you consider the value of the oil coming out of the Gulf, is chicken feed.

You'll also note that bids are way down from their peak in 2007-2008, but making a strong comeback. As Offshore notes here (scroll down), 77 companies put in 642 bids on 468 tracts totalling more than 2.4 million acres. But the next lease sale, slated for August 18, is unlikely to go so swimmingly.

"Amazon Storm Killed Half a Billion Trees"

on yahoo

A violent storm ripped through the Amazon forest in 2005 and single-handedly killed half a billion trees, a new study reveals.
The study is the first to produce an actual tree body count after an Amazon storm.

An estimated 441 million to 663 million trees were destroyed across the whole Amazon basin during the 2005 storm, a much greater number than previously suspected.

In some areas of the forest, up to 80 percent of the trees were killed by the storm. A severe drought was previously blamed for the region's tree loss in 2005.

"We can't attribute [the increased] mortality to just drought in certain parts of the basin - we have solid evidence that there was a strong storm that killed a lot of trees over a large part of the Amazon," said forest ecologist and study researcher Jeffrey Chambers of Tulane University in New Orleans, La.

From Jan. 16 to Jan. 18, 2005, a squall line - a long line of severe thunderstorms - 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) long and 124 miles (200 km) wide crossed the whole Amazon basin. The storm's strong winds, with speeds of up to 90 mph (145 kph), uprooted or snapped trees in half.

When trees die, they release their stored carbon into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. In a vicious cycle, these storms could become more frequent in the future due to climate change.

To calculate the number of trees killed by the storm, the researchers used satellite images, field studies and computer models. They looked for patches of wind-toppled trees, which allowed them to distinguish from trees killed by the drought...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Plastic on the Beach

From The Japan Times:

Umbrella handles. Pens. Popsicle sticks. Lots and lots of toothbrushes. These are just a few of the items that make up the approximately 13 million sq. km Eastern Garbage Patch, an immense plastic soup in the Pacific Ocean that starts about 800 km off the coast of California and extends westward. Sucked from the coasts of Asia and America by ocean currents, or discarded at sea, plastic debris accumulates there in an ever-growing mass that does not biodegrade and is said to be already larger than the United States.

Scientists have long known that plastic in the garbage patch and elsewhere is stuffing the stomachs of seabirds and causing them to starve, suffocating fish and choking marine turtles.

But what is now becoming clear is that when pieces of plastic meet other pollutants in the ocean, the results can be even more toxic. That's because, as a growing number of studies are showing, the plastic debris absorbs harmful chemicals from the seawater it floats in, acting like a "pollution sponge" that concentrates those chemicals and poses a different, more insidious threat to marine and other life.

Evidence of the problem can be found as close to home as Tokyo Bay. That's where Hideshige Takada, a professor of organic geochemistry at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology — and one of the world's leading researchers on the interaction between plastic garbage and chemicals in the ocean — headed one windy morning this February to collect samples for his studies.

Looking like a grown-up version of the children collecting seashells nearby, Takada, 49, knelt with his nose centimeters from the sand, a pair of tweezers in one hand and a foil bag in the other. The object of his search was not shells, however, but plastic resin pellets — a form of marine plastic pollution he's been studying since 1998.

It's easy to overlook plastic resin pellets. Ranging in diameter from 1 mm to 5 mm, and in color from clear to dingy brown, they look a lot like overgrown sand. And, like sand, they're now found on beaches all around the world.

According to Charles Moore — a U.S. sea captain-turned-researcher who discovered the Eastern Garbage Patch in 1997 while crossing the Doldrums, a windless part of the ocean that mariners usually avoid — resin pellets account for around 8 percent of annual oil production and are the raw material for the 260 million tons of plastic the world uses each year (they're also used in smaller quantities for purposes such as cleaning pachinko balls and stuffing teddy bears). Lightweight, small, and seemingly harmless, they escape in untold volumes during transport and manufacture and eventually wash into the ocean. Once there, as a 2001 paper by Takada, colleague Yukie Mato and four other Japanese researchers first showed, they suck up a range of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Specifically, the 2001 paper focused on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a highly toxic group of industrial chemicals, and DDE, a degraded form of the pesticide DDT. Though PCBs are now banned, and in most countries DDT use is restricted, neither breaks down readily and both are still present in seawater. Additionally, these toxins have been found to accumulate on the seabed, where storms frequently stir them back into the water, rendering them again liable to be gobbled up by floating plastic debris.

Both PCBs and DDE have been proven to disrupt the endocrine system, the extremely sensitive set of glands and hormones that regulate functions such as insulin production, metabolism and sexual development. And now, they're showing up in plastic garbage that acts as a magnet to leach them out of the marine soup.

"Chemicals like PCBs and DDE are very hydrophobic," explains Takada. "That means they have a very high affinity for oily materials. Basically, plastics are solid oil. Therefore, plastic pellets accumulate hydrophobic pollutants with a concentration factor that's almost 1 million times (compared to the overall concentration of the chemicals in seawater)."

Takada uses pellets in his research because they are a uniform size and shape and therefore easy to study and compare. But he says that other types of plastic debris — which comprise a greater proportion of the plastic in the ocean and include everything from discarded fishing gear to stray shopping bags and fast-food cartons — display the same tendency as the pellets to absorb toxins....

What happens next to this poison-laden debris is less certain. Some pieces certainly sink to the deep ocean floor or are washed up on beaches. Others, however, have been found in the stomachs of sea creatures, including fish, birds, marine mammals and reptiles. Scientists believe some animals may actively select the pellets because they resemble fish eggs.

Whether the chemicals contained in them are then desorbed to digestive fluids and transferred to tissues in quantities significant enough to harm the animals that have eaten them is the subject of intense, but as yet incomplete, research.

That, though, doesn't stop some scientists from worrying.

"We should be very concerned," says Theo Colborn, founder of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), a U.S.- based organization that focuses on the health effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Though these health effects are still the topic of much debate, she says a host of scientific studies have shown that even low-level exposure to endocrine disrupters may be linked to attention- deficit disorder, diabetes, falling fertility rates and more.

Hence Colborn is concerned that if fish eat toxic plastic, those same toxins may be absorbed into the bodies of people who eat the fish. "Endocrine-disrupting chemicals could also interfere with the ability of fish to reproduce," she adds.

Meanwhile, at the same time as plastic garbage is acting like a sponge for environmental pollution, research also shows it is releasing another set of chemicals into seawater — and possibly into the bodies of the creatures that eat it.

Chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA), nonylphenol and octylphenol are added to plastic for purposes such as fireproofing and stabilizing. But many of these additives are proven endocrine disrupters or carcinogens, and studies have shown beyond doubt that over time they can leach into seawater (just as they leach into drinking water kept in plastic containers).

It may be tempting to think of all these pollutants as literally drops in the ocean. Not so says sea captain Charles Moore, who has been studying the Eastern Garbage Patch since 1997 through the California-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization he founded.

"Subtropical gyres (areas of circular motion) make up 40 percent of the ocean. That's 25 percent of the globe. All of them are accumulators of debris," he says.

In other words, although the Eastern Garbage Patch has been studied the most so far, it isn't the only oceanic rubbish dump out there. A Western Garbage Patch also exists several hundred kilometers off the coast of Japan, connected to the Eastern Garbage Patch by a "superhighway" of garbage, says Moore. In addition, he points to four more vortex-like gyres scattered around the globe.

"Giant jelly fish seen in the Adriatic"

MLJET ISALND, Croatia - It may be pretty to look at, but you might be a little intimidated if you came face to face with it.

This giant jelly fish, all 11 and half feet of it, was found in the southern part of the Adriatic Sea.

It's a type of jellyfish rarely seen in the Adriatic and it was videotaped at a depth of more than 90-feet.

It's a carnivorous jellyfish that eats other sea creatures and other jellyfish too.

Some call it a compass jellyfish because the markings on its body radiate from the center like a compass.

"Solar power for the poor: facts and figures"

From SciDevNet:

Increasing access to energy is critical to ensuring socioeconomic development in the world's poorest countries.

An estimated 1.5 billion people in developing countries have no access to electricity, with more than 80 per cent of these living in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.

The problem is most acute in remote areas: 89 per cent of people in rural sub-Saharan Africa live without electricity, which is more than twice the proportion (46 per cent) in urban areas.

For these people, even access to a small amount of electricity could lead to life-saving improvements in agricultural productivity, health, education, communications and access to clean water.

Options for expanding access to electricity in developing countries tend to focus on increasing centralised energy from fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, by expanding grid electricity. But this approach has little benefit for the rural poor. Grid extension in these areas is either impractical or too expensive.

Neither does this strategy help tackle climate change. Power already accounts for 26 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and while most of this comes from the developed world, by 2030 developing countries are predicted to use 70 per cent more total annual energy than developed nations.

There is therefore a clear need for pro-poor, low-carbon ways to improve access to electricity in the developing world — solar power could be one such solution.

Place in the sun

The Earth receives more solar energy in one hour than the world population consumes in an entire year.

Almost all developing countries have enormous solar power potential — most of Africa, for example, has around 325 days of strong sunlight a year, delivering, on average, more than 6 kWh energy per square metre a day (see Figure 1).

The Desertec Foundation, a joint German and Jordanian company, estimates that covering just one per cent of global deserts in solar panels could power the whole world.

And yet the countries that receive the most solar energy are often also the ones least able to benefit from it, due to a lack of knowledge and capacity to harness solar power and convert it into electricity.

There are two ways of using power from the sun: collecting its heat (solar-thermal) or converting its light into electricity (photovoltaics).

Solar-thermal devices use 'collectors' — ranging from flat plates put on roofs to parabolic dishes, power towers or solar pyramids used in solar power plants — to absorb sunlight and produce heat.

Solar-thermal devices can be most simply used for heating or cooling but are also suitable for drying crops, pasteurising water or cooking (see Table 1).

Through concentrating solar power (CSP) systems, that use a combination of lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam, they can also be used to provide electricity. The concentrated sunlight heats water to produce steam to drive a turbine, connected to a generator.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems use solar cells, linked together in 'modules' (solar panels), to convert light into electricity. They range from a few small cells that can run a calculator to huge solar power stations with thousands of solar panels....

"Integrating modern and traditional medicine"

From the Science and Development Network:

Traditional medicine (TM) is due a revival. For millennia, people around the world have healed the sick with herbal or animal-derived remedies, handed down through generations.

In Africa and Asia, 80 per cent of the population still uses traditional remedies rather than modern medicine for primary healthcare.

And in developed nations, TM is rapidly gaining appeal. Estimates suggest up to 80 per cent of the population has tried a therapy such as acupuncture or homeopathy. And a survey conducted earlier this year found that 74 per cent of US medical students believe that Western medicine would benefit by integrating traditional or alternative therapies and practices. [1]

The industry is worth big money. In 2005, traditional medicines worth US$14 billion were sold in China. And in 2007, Brazil saw revenues of US$160 million from traditional therapies — part of a global market of more than US$60 billion. [2, 3]

The truth is that modern medicine is desperately short of new treatments. It takes years for a new drug to get through the research and development pipeline to manufacture and the cost is enormous.

And growing drug resistance, in part caused by the misuse of medications, has rendered several antibiotics and other life-saving drugs useless.

Both these trends mean that scientists and pharmaceutical companies are urgently looking for new drug sources and are increasingly turning their eyes to traditional medicine.

A few major triumphs have stoked interest in traditional medicine as a source for highly successful and lucrative drugs. The best known of these is artemisinin used to treat malaria.

Across the globe, researchers, policymakers, pharmaceutical companies and traditional healers are joining forces to bring TM into the 21st century.

In some ways, it is already here. Nearly a quarter of all modern medicines are derived from natural products, many of which were first used in traditional remedies.

Table 1: Selected modern drugs that come from traditional medicine_________________

What it is for

Derived from

Originally used in



Produced by the Chinese herb Qinghao or sweet wormwood

Traditional Chinese medicine for chills and fevers


Asthma prophylaxis

Synthetic compound based on khellin, active ingredient of the khella plant

Traditional Middle Eastern remedies for asthma. Khellin has also traditionally been used in Egypt to treat kidney stones



Synthesized from podophyllotoxin, produced by the mandrake plant

Various remedies in Chinese, Japanese and Eastern folk medicine



Salivary glands in leeches, now produced by genetic engineering

Traditional remedies across the globe, from Shui Zhi medicine in China to 18th and 19th century medicine in Europe


To lower cholesterol

Foods such as oyster mushrooms and red yeast rice.

Used to synthesize other compounds such as mevastatin and pravastatin

Mushrooms are used to treat a wide range of illnesses in traditional medicine in China, Japan, Eastern Europe and Russia



Unripe poppy seeds

Traditional Arab, Chinese, European, Indian and North African medicines as pain relief and to treat range of illnesses including diarrhoea, coughs and asthma



Bark of the cinchona tree

Traditional remedies to treat fevers and shivers in South America

Vinca alkaloids

(vincristine, vinblastine)


Rosy periwinkle

Various folk remedies across the world, including use as an anti-diabetic in Jamaica, to treat wasp stings in Indian traditional medicine, as eyewash in Cuba, as love potion in medieval Europe

"Rising CO2 levels could reduce protein in crops"

From the Science and Development Network:

Increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere could reduce crops' protein content by 20 per cent, according to scientists, who say that new fertilisers may be needed to counteract the effects.

Researchers found that plants lose the ability to take up so much nitrate — the most common form of nitrogen in agricultural soils — and convert it into organic compounds, such as proteins, when growing in CO2-enriched environments.

The problem is that "most crop plants ... use nitrate as their main form of nitrogen," said Arnold Bloom, lead author of the study — published in Science last week (14 May) — and a researcher at the US-based University of California, Davis. Increasing the levels of CO2 leads to "nitrogen starved" crops that contain less protein for human consumption, he said.

Bloom estimated that the increased CO2 levels predicted for the next 20–50 years could reduce the amount of protein in crops by up to a fifth because of this phenomenon.

"Wheat grain that has been exposed to the conditions that we expect in the next few decades declines about 20 per cent," he said.

Bloom's team tested the two major forms of soil nitrogen available to plants (nitrate and ammonium) and how they affect two major groups of plants — monocotyledons and dicotyledons living in a high-CO2 atmosphere. Results revealed that those plants exposed to nitrate have difficulty in producing nitrogen-containing compounds, such as proteins, while those exposed to ammonium do not.

....Gerald Nelson, an agricultural economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute, United States told SciDev.Net that the new study "reinforces the point that we cannot count on CO2 fertilisation to offset the negative productivity effects of climate change on agriculture".

Friday, July 09, 2010

"Hundreds Drown During Russian Heatwave"


As temperatures soared to record-breaking highs, hitting 37C in central regions, sweltering Russians have been throwing themselves into rivers and lakes to cope with the heat.

But many have ignored warning signs about hidden dangers at certain spots or drank alcohol before swimming, putting themselves in danger.

Russia's emergency ministry confirmed that almost 300 people have drowned during the heatwave, with at least 63 people dying in one day alone.

A ministry spokesman said: "Last week, 285 people died in Russia's waterways. The main reason for people drowning is swimming in places that are not equipped and the use of alcohol."

Russian weather forecasters said the country had not experienced such a prolonged heatwave since 1981.

Moscow's City Hall had to send out trucks to water the streets after reports that in some areas people's shoes were getting stuck in melting tarmac.

Drowning is a major problem in Russia, with more than 3,000 people dying while swimming last year alone.

From On Scene-> "Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning"

The new captain jumped from the cockpit, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the owners who were swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach....”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not ten feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”

...Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew knows what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” she hadn’t made a sound.

In ten percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening (source: CDC). Drowning does not look like drowning – Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene Magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:

1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.

2.Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.

3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.

4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"Tar balls reach Lake Pontchartrain" (and Galvaston)

By David Hammer at The Times-Picayune

Showing just how unpredictable and all-consuming the massive Gulf oil spill can be, tar balls and small sheens of oil have entered Lake Pontchartrain and are hitting Texas shores for the first time.

John Lopez, director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation's coastal stainability program, spotted the first tar balls in the Rigolets Pass on Sunday. By Monday, the blobs of oil had washed ashore as far west as Treasure Isle in Slidell.

Cleanup crews used nets to scoop up the tar balls throughout the day, collecting more than 1,000 pounds of oil and waste. BP also deployed 19 manual skimming vessels and four decontamination vessels to the area, and placed 600-feet of hard and soft boom at a choke point in the Rigolets to prevent more oil from entering the lake. Cleanup efforts are expected to resume today.

Lopez said oil made its way into the lake because of winds from the far edges of Hurricane Alex last week as well as sustained east and southeast winds during the weekend. The winds from Alex pushed a large amount of oil into the Mississippi Sound for the first time, and the east winds during the past few days pushed oil into Lake Borgne, the Rigolets and eventually the eastern stretches of Lake Pontchartrain.

Wind patterns ultimately will decide the trajectory of oil, but Lopez said the general pattern of circulation in Lake Pontchartrain is counterclockwise, meaning if more oil came in the lake, it generally would travel along the north shore and then possibly loop back around to the south.

Although he expects the impacts from oil in the lake to be "pretty modest," Lopez acknowledged that there is a symbolism for the New Orleans area now that oil has reached the lake.

"It's kind of like it's coming to home now."

Citing the new reports of oil, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries on Monday issued precautionary fishing closures in parts of Lake Pontchartrain and in Lake Borgne, Lake St. Catherine, the passes and surrounding areas. The state's Department of Health and Hospitals also closed all oyster harvesting areas east of the Mississippi River, which includes Lake Borgne....

Also on Monday, The Associated Press reported that Texas crews were removing tar balls from the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island.

The Texas landfall and the encroachment into Lake Pontchartrain weren't unexpected, but they were staggering nonetheless, as the previously spared gateways to the highly populated areas saw the first physical evidence that they would not be immune.
A lot of the spill's drastic movement during the weekend was caused by the peripheral effects of Alex, which also stymied BP's cleanup and containment efforts temporarily. Cleanup was suspended for three days, BP said.

The company has reported spending more than $3.1 billion on the whole spill response so far, even as it pushed for its ownership partners in the blown-out well to pick up a share of the bill. Anadarko Petroleum Corp., another big Gulf of Mexico oil producer, paid for 25 percent of the Macondo oil field lease, while Japan's Mitsui had a 10 percent stake.

But Anadarko has insisted for weeks that it played no role in the drilling operations and wouldn't be responsible for BP's "reckless decisions and actions" in handling the well that blew out of control April 20, killing 11 rig workers and setting in motion a series of events that have damaged the Gulf....

BP's payments to spill victims -- those injured physically or economically by the oil -- have not kept pace with what it has spent on containment, according to newly released data. The British oil giant agreed recently to release spreadsheets detailing its claims process and payments, which total about $147 million for more than 47,000 claims across the entire Gulf Coast -- or about 5 percent of what BP has spent overall.

BP says it's averaging five days to pay a claim, but about half of the 95,000 claims filed haven't been paid yet...