Friday, April 30, 2010

'Deepwater Deep Throat': Secret 'Gusher' Memo Alleged

"A leaked memorandum obtained by the Press-Register on the unfolding spill disaster in the Gulf makes clear the Coast Guard now fears the Deepwater Horizon well site could be on the verge of becoming an unchecked gusher shooting millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf."
Is there a 'Deepwater Deep Throat?' Ben Raines, Mobile (Ala.) Register, reports this late news, although without providing a copy of the memorandum he describes:
A confidential government report on the unfolding spill disaster in the Gulf makes clear the Coast Guard now fears the well could become an unchecked gusher shooting millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf.

"The following is not public," reads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Emergency Response document dated April 28. "Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought."
* * *
Kinks in the piping created as the rig sank to the seafloor may be all that is preventing the Deepwater Horizon well from releasing its maximum flow. BP is now drilling a relief well as the ultimate fix. The company said Thursday that process would take up to 3 months.
* * *
"The pipe could disintegrate. You've got sand getting into the pipe, it's eroding the pipe all the time, like a sandblaster," said Ron Gouget, a former oil spill response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
More here....

'Worst Case' Oil Spill Scenario

UPDATED BELOW
Ben Raines in today's Mobile Register:
The worst-case scenario for the broken and leaking well gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico would be the loss of the wellhead currently restricting the flow to 5,000 barrels -- or 210,000 gallons per day.

If the wellhead is lost, oil could leave the well at a much greater rate, perhaps up to 150,000 barrels -- or more than 6 million gallons per day -- based on government data showing daily production at another deepwater Gulf well.

By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spill was 11 million gallons total. The Gulf spill could end up dumping the equivalent of 4 Exxon Valdez spills per week. [emphasis added]
That is a prospect so utterly appalling it leaves one stunned. To say nothing of this:
Thursday, federal officials said they were preparing for the worst-case scenario but didn't elaborate.
What kind of "preparation" could anyone make against the prospect of 6 million gallons of petroleum pollution a day bearing down on the Gulf Coast each and every day for two or three months until a new hole is drilled and the black crude river shut off? Abandon the coast?

A beach friend we were talking to today says this entire BP mess reminds her of nothing so much as 9-11. Because, she says, "It changes everything."

UPDATE
4-30 pm

National Public Radio is carrying the "worst case scenario" story, too. It is so painfully obvious the feds aren't "elaborating" on their plans because they don't have any.

We're not being critical, mind you. No one has a clue what to do right now with the consequences of "drill, baby, drill." Much less does anyone know what to do if 6 million gallons of crude a day begin gushing into the Gulf.

Meanwhile, Bryan at Why Now? reports newly "Independent" governor Charlie Crist has officially declared an "emergency" for the Florida Panhandle. North Escambia.com tells us what little that means.

UPDATE 2
4-30 PM

CBS has the BP oil leak, by the numbers.

Beach Perspectives on the Oil Spill Catastrophe

So far as we can see today, the only oil leak booms on Pensacola Beach are floating near the southwestern shoreline of Little Sabine Bay (click here or on the above photo). We can't be sure whether they were put in place anticipating the massive BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill reaching here, or are serving another purpose.

A New Orleans reporter, by the suitably sonorous name of Cain Burdeau, early this morning filed a report about the 'river of oil' bearing down on Louisiana today. ["Some Oil Begins to Ooze Ashore"]. Along the way, he mentions the marine weather forecast and how it impacts the delta:
The National Weather Service predicted winds, high tides and waves through Sunday that could push oil deep into the inlets, ponds and lakes that line the boot of southeast Louisiana. Seas of 6 to 7 feet were pushing tides several feet above normal toward the coast, compounded by thunderstorms expected in the area Friday.
* * *
Crews are unable to skim oil from the surface or burn it off for the next couple of days because of the weathe
r, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Waves may also wash over booms strung out just off shorelines to stop the oil, said Tom McKenzie, a spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is hoping booms will keep oil off the Chandeleur Islands, part of a national wildlife refuge.

That same wind, for now at least, also is pushing the oil somewhat away from Pensacola Beach. Click here or on the photo to the left and you can see the familiar flag at Fort Pickens. At mid-day, a moderately strong southeast breeze was whipping it generally northwestward.

A number of beach residents we spoke with this morning are surprisingly sanguine about the oil spill. "I don't think it will reach us," one friend told us. "The winds are keeping it away," another said, "but I really feel for Louisiana."

Out at the westernmost point of Santa Rosa Island, beyond the point where Union-held Fort Pickens stares sternly northward toward the Confederate mainland, a handful of vacationers and locals are enjoying a cloudy but mild day at the beach, sheltered from the southeast breeze by the fort's old seawall (see below right).

Not everyone with a connection to the beach is as confident as the residents we spoke with. Last evening, we found ourselves in Gulf Breeze at a well known recreation center. In a corner near the entrance, a television reporter was announcing the latest alarming oil-leak news. A trim tennis player who looked to be in his in early 40's shook his head disgustedly and turned away muttering, "Looks like I'll never sell another house on Pensacola Beach."

The truth is, although Louisiana is not quite two hundred miles west of Pensacola Beach, we will be deeply affected -- and for a very long time -- by the BP oil spill, whether the tar balls reach us soon or never. So, indeed, will be the rest of the nation.

Louisiana's delta is the spawning ground for shore birds, sea life creatures of every description -- and countless plant and insect species upon which they depend. Millions of Americans depend upon all of that for their livelihood. Their misfortune can only worsen the national jobless recession.

Moreover, the entire nation depends upon the unique Louisiana wetlands to put food on the family table. Losing half the world's blue fin tuna, and a very high percentage of other sea-life dependent food sources, will be a severe blow to the overall economy.

As the Pensacola Journal perceptively editorializes today, "risk is not just the calculated numerical possibility of such an accident happening." Nor, we might add, is it measured, like hurricanes so often are, by whether it happens to hit us right here.

It is the calculated possibility of such an event happening — multiplied by the extent of the damage that could result if the event did occur. That's the risk we should focus on.

And when the potential extent of the damage is unacceptable? It should be clear that the risk is unacceptable.
What makes the BP oil spill so much more catastrophic than almost any other disaster you can conceive is the "potential extent of the damage." That "extent" reaches well beyond Louisiana -- and Pensacola Beach, for that matter. It will have a severe impact on the entire nation.

As McClatchy News reports --
Oil from a ruptured drilling rig could harm all kinds of marine life in the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic tarpon and bluefin tuna that have key spawning areas nearby to endangered sea turtles, commercial fisheries, migrating song birds and marine mammals.
Bluefin tuna, tarpon, red snapper, dolphins, sea turtles, shrimp, oysters, shore birds -- merely to glance at the top of a long list of wildlife life about to be extinguished -- do not respect state boundaries. They occupy and depend upon a healthy ecology that does not stop at the water's edge of the Chandeleur Islands, or Santa Rosa Island for that matter. Nor more so than the shrimp you buy in the grocery store or the shore birds that are nesting this year on Pensacola Beach.

All Americans will be deeply and directly affected by the BP oil spill, however far the oil itself may or may not reach, and whatever state's shorelines it may or may not pollute.
minor edit 4-30 pm

Friday Morning Gulf Oil Spill Update

"I am frightened. This is a very, very big thing."

NOAA update: Yesterday, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was declared a "spill of national significance." You knew that already, but what you may not know is the official federal definition:
"[A] spill that, due to its severity, size, location, actual or potential impact on the public health and welfare or the environment, or the necessary response effort, is so complex that it requires extraordinary coordination of federal, state, local, and responsible party resources to contain and clean up the discharge."
BBC News: The Louisiana coast, where oil began washing ashore last night, is the most directly threatened.

McClatchy News: The dire effects of the spill, however, reach well beyond Louisiana, and likely will adversely impact fish, fowl, shellfish, mammals, and the food chain throughout the United States. "Louisiana, after Alaska, is the second largest seafood producing state" in the nation, McClatchy quotes Ralph Portier as saying. Portier is a microbiology professor at Louisiana State University "who has worked around the world cleaning up oil spills."
"Every crevice, creek, bayou, bay, where water flows in and out of coastal grasses — that's the habitat for all these coastal nurseries. If we lose it or it's impacted, we have a real long-term effect," Portier said.
Timing of the oil spill "couldn't be worse for a number of fish," said Jerald Ault, a professor of marine biology at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
Atlantic tarpon, an important sport fish in Florida, spawn from now to mid May in the Gulf and they'll be "right in the highway where this stuff is going to come through." The young are especially vulnerable to toxics from the oil spill, and the fishery already is in a precarious state, Ault said.

The overfished Atlantic bluefin tuna return from vast distances to spawn in an area very close to the spill, where the water is warm and full of nutrients flowing from the Mississippi River. The same area also supports the shrimp industry and many other fish.

McClatchy News also reports "Florida is almost certain to see effects from the spill... ." While there is a "good chance" the west coast of the Florida peninsula will be spared, Manatee County's natural resources director Charlie Hunsicker predicts, "Unfortunately, the Florida Panhandle and Keys, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean, are very much in danger."

The Florida Keys! It's over 700 miles from Pensacola to Key West!

The Pensacola News Journal reports this morning that "Coastlines and waterways near Pensacola were being hardened against an oily attack Thursday as contract crews strung and anchored floating oil barriers." However, "Buck Lee, Santa Rosa Island Authority director, said crews have not yet brought any protective equipment to the Pensacola Beach."

"Hopefully, within the next seven days, they'll get it up this way," he said.

The Journal seemingly missed it, but a thin, orange plastic boom line already has been strung across the "Project Greenshores" estuary at the north end of Three-Mile Bridge. (Click on photo at left and then squint.)

Dept. of Proper Names
04-30 am
Bob Marshall of the Times-Picayune writes that everyone should stop using the word "spill" to describe this oily catastrophe. Instead, he proposes "river":
It's a river of oil flowing from the bottom of the Gulf at the rate of 210,000 gallons a day that officials say could be running for two months or more. If that prediction holds, much of the state's southeastern coast will become a world-watched environmental battleground that hasn't been seen in the United States since the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska 21 years ago.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Earth: 'Where We Make Our Stand'

For some reason, this seems timely:

Setting Fire to the Gulf Oil Spill

The limited usefulness of the "oil burn-off" tried late yesterday is underscored by this short film, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. To be frank, it looks not much bigger than one of our own backyard barbecues. We wear an apron that says, "Dinner will be ready when the smoke alarm goes off."

Mr. Oil Spill

You couldn't tell it from the on-line version, but the dead tree Pensacola News Journal this morning trumpets the front page news that Jeff Miller, the incumbent Republican congressman from Northwest Florida, is doubling down in favor of Gulf oil drilling. Click the article image to read his latest, post-Deepwater statement.

Reality... inconvenient facts .... tens of thousands of his constituents who depend upon tourism.... the millions of Americans who enjoy our sugar-white beaches... the fish and fauna throughout the central and eastern Gulf of Mexico... All can be damned as far as "Oil Spill" Miller is concerned. He'll continue working, as he has promised so often he would, to make sure the unique sandy beaches of Northwest Florida eventually are befouled by a massive oil spill.

The pathetic man we have sent to Congress these past eight years has been publicly sucking up to the oil industry for so long, now, he can no longer help himself. It's become more than a habit with Miller. It's his raison d'être for being in Congress.

Even the ongoing BP Deepwater disaster, which now threatens to rival the scandalous Exxon Valdez oil spill, can't shake Miller's allegiance to Big Oil. Our local congressman continues to 'work hard' to bring oil drilling platforms as close as possible to Pensacola Beach.

"Drill, baby, drill" was his mantra before anyone in the lower 48 ever heard of Sarah Palin. He can't very well change now, he must be thinking; his record is too deeply engraved in the public consciousness. Jeff Miller has, you might say, oil all over his hands.

Miller went so far four years ago as to try to introduce oil drilling platforms directly off-shore of Destin, Fort Walton Beach, and Pensacola Beach. This would have put oil company platforms directly in the path of jets and trainers from Naval Air Station, Eglin AFB, and Hurlburt.

The Defense Department quietly took Miller to the woodshed. After that, Miller changed his tune ever so slightly to add, 'drill everywhere' except where it would "impact the military mission."

You need to know that background to fully appreciate the editorial in today's PNJ ["All In on Risk"]. It is a doleful warning to all the "drill, baby, drill" politicians in Florida who, like Miller, routinely promote drilling with the single exception of the "military mission":
For centuries, the white sandy beaches of what we call home have been a wonder of Mother Nature. Now, that white sand, unparalleled in all the world, is in jeopardy.

About 100 miles due south of Pensacola is a massive oil slick, the result of an oil rig explosion off the Louisiana coast two weeks ago. The blast killed 11 and has sent hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into Gulf of Mexico waters.
* * *
The April 20 explosion on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig mocks the promise of safe drilling. It mocks the promise of clean drilling. It mocks any who have tried to portray drilling for oil in the Gulf to be as easy as pumping gas into the family car.
* * *
Oil truly is, we are finding out, dirty money.

And we hope it convinces our state legislative delegation, which has opposed drilling almost apologetically, mumbling about the perils of interfering with the military’s mission instead of standing up for the Panhandle’s already battered environment.
Then, in a pointed message to the Republican-dominated Florida legislature as well as Mr. Miller, the editorial adds:
Gentlemen, it’s also about the environment and tourism. Not just the military. What the explosion and the expanding oil slick have done is reveal that to hide behind “drill baby drill” is folly and that Florida will have to make a choice: intolerable risk to our beaches and environment, or oil money.

It can’t have both. Oil spills don’t leave us a Plan B. So make no mistake: If the Florida Legislature allows drilling in our coastal waters, then all of us are, in the language of the gambler, "all in" for the risk.

All of us.

The commercial fisherman. The hotel owner. The parents of the family who love beach
cookouts. The divers. The natives. The tourists. The people who love Pensacola for its beauty.

All of us. All in. [italics added]
Miller and his drill-happy cohorts can gamble all they want with their own lives property in landlocked Washington D.C. and Tallahassee. But to continue tossing the "drill, baby, drill" dice means endangering the lives and livelihood of all the rest of us who live along coastal Florida or want to visit our beaches. If the Deepwater oil spill disaster proves nothing else, it is that these politicians -- no more than dissembling oil corporations like BP, trapped in their own lies -- have no moral, ethical, or economic right to put our lives and property at risk.

Miller quite obviously doesn't get it. So we should be sure to send him another message at the polls this year.

Thursday Gulf Oil Leak Update

Mobile Register

"A massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is even worse than officials believed and the federal government is offering to help industry giant BP contain the slick that is threatening parts of the U.S. shoreline, the Coast Guard said.

"A new leak discovered in a blown-out well a mile underwater means five times as much oil is spewing into the water — an estimate BP disputes. The time may have come for the defense department and other public agencies to offer up 'technologies that may surpass abilities of the private sector' to get the mess under control, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said at a news conference late Wednesday."-- AP, via Atlanta Constitution, Apr. 29l

* * * * *
"A third leak had also been discovered at the site, Adm Landry said. * * * One fire-fighting expert told the BBC the disaster might become the "biggest oil spill in the world."

If US Coast Guard estimates are correct, the slick could match the 11m gallons spilt from the Exxon Valdez within less than two months." -- BBC News, Apr. 29

* * * * *
"The oil well spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico didn't have a remote-control shut-off switch used in two other major oil-producing nations as last-resort protection against underwater spills.
* * *
"The U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness, according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The agency, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, says it decided the remote device wasn't needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well.
* * *
"Industry critics cite the lack of the remote control as a sign U.S. drilling policy has been too lax. 'What we see, going back two decades, is an oil industry that has had way too much sway with federal regulations,' said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. 'We are seeing our worst nightmare coming true.'

"U.S. regulators have considered mandating the use of remote-control acoustic switches or other back-up equipment at least since 2000. After a drilling ship accidentally released oil, the Minerals Management Service issued a safety notice that said a back-up system is 'an essential component of a deepwater drilling system.'" --Wall Street Journal, Apr. 29

* * * * *

"Emergency workers in the United States have set fire to a small portion of an oil spill that has been leaking crude into the Gulf of Mexico since Friday. Crews are struggling to contain the spill before it reaches coastline as early as Friday.

"Boat crews used the burn technique on a small patch of oil in the center of the slick, which officials say is continuing to grow and encroach on U.S. coastline. An airplane survey conducted late Wednesday showed the western edge of the slick is now some 25 kilometers from the Louisiana coastline." -- Voice of America News, Apr. 29

* * * * *
"As a massive oil slick approached the fragile Louisiana coast, officials prepared Thursday for an environmental disaster which threatens a slow and painful death for waterfowl, wildlife and their wetland habitat.
* * *
Any oil spill is devastating. But experts say the US Gulf Coast -- which houses 40 percent of the nation's wetlands and a multi-billion-dollar fishing industry -- is particularly vulnerable. And the concern is multiplied by the fact nobody knows when oil will stop spewing from an offshore well destroyed last week following an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

"'It's not like a bunch of volunteers can go (drive) down and mop up the beach,'" said LuAnn White, director of Tulane University's Center for Applied Environmental Public Health. 'There are just miles and miles of coastal wetlands there that can only be reached by boat. And they're very delicate.'" -- AFP International News, Apr. 29

* * * * *
"Escambia County commissioners held a special session Wednesday afternoon to discuss local preparations. * * * They were told that local emergency crews should await further instruction from the federal agencies, which have jurisdiction over offshore areas.

"'Basically, we're in a monitoring stage right now,' said John Dosh, head of the Escambia County Emergency Operations Center.

"Commissioners Gene Valentino and Grover Robinson IV, whose districts include Perdido Key and Pensacola Beach, expressed frustration that local officials are forced to take the back seat to federal response crews."-- Pensacola News Journal, Apr. 29

* * * * *
"In the northern Gulf... wind tends to drive the currents. This time of year, prevailing winds in the Gulf tend to be from the east, which would keep the slick away from Florida.

"But it's not unusual to get southwest winds; if we get several days of these winds, the slick could come here. The winds have been from the north recently, keeping the slick out to sea.

"The major worry right now is for the marshes, reefs and other habitats in Louisiana. But if the slick heads to Florida, it likely would hit Northwest Florida beaches first." -- Pensacola News Journal, Apr. 29

New, Much Larger Oil Leak

In yet another parallel to the Montara deep well oil spill in Australia last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced overnight that BP's Deepwater Horizon well is leaking five times as much oil as the oil corporation previously admitted.

From today's New Orleans Times-Picayune:
As a sheen of oil moved closer to the Louisiana coast Wednesday, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revised their estimates of the amount of oil that has been leaking from the oil well from 1,000 barrels a day to up to 5,000 barrels a day, or about 210,000 gallons.

BP officials also discovered a new leak in the twisted pipelines that were severed when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sank into the Gulf of Mexico last week. But Doug Suttles, chief operating officer with BP Exploration and Production, said this does not change the overall amount of oil believed to be coming from the well.
* * *
As winds shifted to the southeast Wednesday, forecasts showed for the first time that the outer bands of the oil slick spilling from a deep well in the Gulf of Mexico will reach the southern fringes of the Louisiana coast by late Friday.

Forecasts called for continued winds from the southeast through the weekend and also unusually high tides, meaning oil could continue to move into the fragile Mississippi River delta region for days.

According to New York Times reporters Campbell Robertson and Leslie Kaufman, when Suttles insists that BP considers there is no discrepancy in the volume of leaking oil, it's because, "The new, far larger estimate of the leakage rate... was within a range of estimates given the inexact science of determining the rate of a leak so far below the ocean’s surface."

In other words, to BP oil officials 5,000 barrels of leaking crude per day is the same as 1,000 barrels a day. Newer New Math? Or, the usual corporate dissembling? Confusion -- and quite probably misinformation-- rages among the various news reports coming out of the Gulf of Mexico.

As happened in Australia, as well, separating fact from corporate fiction is a tough task for journalists when the site of the disaster remains at sea. As has happened before, however, the true magnitude of the leak will only begin to become apparent when the oil leak begins to come ashore.

WWL-TV explains with visuals:



edited and updated 4-29 am

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pensacola First Response To Oily Armaggedon

"Most people around here have no idea what is about to happen. It will be a major, major disaster."
-- U.S. Park Service Ranger, Ft. Pickens, Santa Rosa Island
(Apr. 28, 2010)

As of this writing, it has not yet been reported that the U.S. Coast Guard has managed to set alight any of the pools of oil floating offshore in Louisiana near the site of the Deepwater disastrous oil spill. The effort can do little to stem the tide of oil heading shoreward, anyway.

At most, only "a few thousand gallons" can be set on fire at any one time. After the fires die away, toxic residue will remain in the water for months or even years, and eventually wash ashore or sink to smother sea life.

Prevailing winds are expected to shift as soon as late this afternoon. That may make corralling small clumps of floating oil and setting them afire even more difficult, if not impossible. As a midday report on the Pensacola News Journal web site reports, "Shifting winds this afternoon are expected to push a massive sheen of oil closer to the Florida coast in coming days."

Locally, the U.S. Park Service has gone to "Cat 2" status. The alert status is equivalent to a strong hurricane endangering mariners that falls just below "major" hurricane status. Booms are being unloaded and placed along particularly sensitive shorelines near Ft. Pickens and Perdido Key.

Park employees tell us, however, that the booms are largely a mere palliative. "They really can't do much if anything to protect the sea life or the Gulf environment," one ranger who asked for anonymity told us today. "It's for public relations as much as anything."

Chasidy Fisher Hobbs of the respected, very mainstream "Emerald Coastkeepers, Inc.," sent out an email this afternoon that's gone as viral as any email can. Here it is, more or less formatted as received:
THERE IS SOMETHING VERY WRONG WITH AN INDUSTRY WHOSE ONLY ALTERNATIVE TO CLEANING UP A MESS IS TO BURN IT!!

Here are a few things I have learned this morning: We can only hope that this terrible tragedy moves our country closer to energy independence with alternative energy sources.

1. BP contractors are not accepting help from any volunteers and do not expect to;

2. Apparently BP contractors at Pensacola NAS have a plan to keep the oil just offshore and then collect it in a terminal containment boom for removal;

3. It has been deemed impossible to block the pass due to fluctuating currents;

4. Trained personnel have been brought in to our area and have begun booming off sensitive areas around the pass;

5. A central operations unit is being set up in Mobile to coordinate efforts in this area should the burning of the oil prove folly.

We may not be able to help remove oil today, but we can all help to keep rigs out of Florida waters. Thanks to one your Directors, Derek Cosson (ProgressivePensacola.com) you can help with a few simple clicks.

There is now a form letter on our website so you can send a message to Florida legislators letting them know that we do not want rigs in State waters. Please take 1 minute to send a message: http://www.emeraldcoastkeeper.org/2010/04/27/327/>

Then, pass the link on and get as many folks to send the message as you can.

Oil Leak Precedent 'Down Under'

As the Pensacola News Journal was editorially wringing its hands the other day over the Deepwater Horizon oil platform disaster, it perspicaciously looked to recent precedent Down Under:
[L]ate last year, one of the most modern drilling rigs in the world blew out in the Timor Sea near Australia. Over the more than two months it took to plug the gushing leak, millions of gallons of oil had spread over thousands of miles of ocean.Well, proponents said, the rules they have to follow over there aren't as tight as the rules drillers have to follow here.

Better oversight makes for safer drilling, they said. A serious accident on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico is unlikely, and the potential for a big spill is small.Then, despite the better, safer rules and tougher oversight, another modern rig blew up last week just 52 miles off the coast of Louisiana. A spokesman for the company that owns the rig called it "one of the more advanced rigs out there."
Just a couple of months ago, another Florida newspaper was looking into the same oil spill precedent. "Could Oil Spill Disaster Happen in Fla?" the Orlando Sentinel wondered. "Aussie rig debacle offers lessons."

Both newspapers were referring to the Montara Oil Spill disaster which began last August and which wasn't contained until early November. The heavy leakage went on for almost three months!

The parallels are striking. As with the Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil leak in the Timor Sea was initially reported by the petroleum corporation in charge as just a 'minor' spill.

A brief Reuters news report quoted company officials at the time as saying --
About 40 barrels of crude oil were leaked, along with an unspecified amount of condensate and natural gas from Montara, one of three oil and gas fields that the company is involved with in the southern Timor Sea, it said in a statement.

Chief Executive Anon Sirisaengtaksin told Reuters it would take time for the company to assess the situation and decide whether it would start commercial operations in November 2009 as planned.

"There is no environmental impact. We have measures to prevent that, and we will take specialists to look after it," he added.

Reality (you should not be surprised to learn) turned out quite otherwise from what the corporation's CEO claimed. Truth discourages profits, apparently. Such is the corporate culture today.

In reality, the Timor Sea well was leaking four to five thousand barrels a day. There, as satellite photos showed, the Montara oil leak soon grew to encompass an area equivalent to a whole province or state. Just as the ongoing Deepwater Horizon leak now is said to be as large as the island of Jamaica.

The Montara oil spill now "is considered one of Australia's worst oil disasters." There are differences between the two disasters, no doubt. But there also appear to be a great many similarities, from the apparent cause of an opening fire to the oil corporation's false assurances they were using all the latest in safety technology.

While it is too early to measure the long-term damage done by the Deepwater Horizon oil leak, it seems almost certain that the environmental consequences will be almost as devastating as in Australia.

The Australian government has yet to complete its investigative report, once promised for this month. But news reports suggest a deeply troubling, chronic opposition to safety by the oil company and inattention by Australia's regulatory oversight agency.

That echoes habitual complaints heard along the Gulf Coast for well over a decade that oil company opposition to safety rules, and less than rigorous MMS enforcement, has been endangering the public as well as drilling platform workers -- just as the Associated Press reported a week ago and the New York Times reiterated yesterday.

Yesterday, the Pubic Radio International news program "The World," heard on many educational radio stations, aired an enlightening discussion about the Montara situation with an Australian reporter who's been covering the story Down Under. You can hear the podcast by clicking here.

Wednesday Gulf Oil Leak Update

UPDATED BELOW
"A joint government and industry task force has been unable to stop crude oil from streaming out of a broken pipe attached to a well 5,000 feet below sea level."
-- New York Times, Apr. 28, 2010

"As efforts failed Tuesday to contain the flow of tens of thousands of gallons of oil leaking from an exploded well deep in the Gulf of Mexico, emergency response teams are considering a controlled burn-off of the oil on the water's surface as early as today."

-- New Orleans Times Picayune, Apr. 28, 2010

"Efforts to close a well spewing oil in the Gulf of Mexico are failing so the Coast Guard is considering lighting the mess on fire."
-- Associated Press, Apr. 28, 2010

"A US Coast Guard official says if leaks from an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico are not stemmed soon, they could cause one of the worst spills in US history."
-- BBC News, Apr. 28, 2010

"Construction has begun on a collection dome that will be deployed to the sea floor to collect and funnel oil as it escapes from the well, a method that has never been tried this deep before. The first rig to be used for drilling a relief or cut-off well arrived last night, several more are planned – a relief well would take several months to complete."

"'A lot of it is in God's hands at this time, depending on weather patterns,' Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday afternoon after getting a firsthand view of the sheet of oil from a Coast Guard airplane."
-- Pensacola News Journal, Apr. 28, 2010

"The Escambia County Commission has scheduled a special emergency meeting [in Pensacola] for 3:00 this afternoon to discuss any Escambia County response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico."

"The stretch of northern Gulf coastline likely to be affected -- beginning in Alabama and stretching toward Louisiana -- is called 'the fertile crescent' by federal researchers. It is considered the most productive section of the Gulf, fringed by marshes, seagrass beds and oyster reefs. It produces the lion's share of the Gulf's seafood and is the nursing ground for most of its fish, shrimp and crabs, according to federal research."
--Mobile Register, Apr. 27, 2010

"Had the rig, Deepwater Horizon, been drilling in Florida's state waters, the results would probably have been more dire, oceanographers say. * * * 'If the rig had been as close as 3 miles away — the limit proposed by state legislative leaders this year — 'the most likely scenario would be for the sea breezes to bring all the problems to the coast... .'"

"The oil rig fire and spill spurred Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to ask the Department of Interior to look into the explosion and investigate worker safety, inspections, technology and industry practices used in offshore drilling and gas production during the last 10 years."
-- Panama City Herald, Apr. 28, 2010

Dept. of Video Amplification
Updated 4-28 pm
A reader writes in to recommend this summary of the latest oil spill clean-up effort, from Newsy.com:

Words of One Syllable Dept.

"The same Republican led House that last year voted to open Florida waters to offshore drilling on Tuesday continued killing Democratic attempts to expand a popular solar energy rebate program."
-- Pensacola News Journal, Apr. 27, 2010

Oil Spill Forecast

"I continue to support drilling in the Gulf and will work for you to make this happen."
-- Cong. Jeff Miller (R-Chumukla), Aug. 3, 2008

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Deepwater Disaster Headed for Pensacola Beach

"Drill, drill, drill"
-- Sarah Palin, 2008 Vice-presidential debate

The explosion and collapse last week of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform off the coast of Louisiana is a major environmental disaster for the entire central Gulf Coast. Oil continues to leak into Gulf waters from a broken drill pipe at a rate of about 42,000 gallons, or one th0usand barrels of oil, daily.

As of yesterday, it appears the leading eastern edge of the oil slick is just 89 miles from Pensacola Beach. (Click on map, above.) The Deepwater Horizon rig is new and outfitted with the latest in oil industry safety devices, including a "blowout preventer, a 450-ton device... that is intended to prevent spills of this kind."

It doesn't work. The "improved technology" solution oil industry lobbyists have been touting as added reason to drill in the Gulf simply failed. No surprise there. Shades of the levy-builders at the Corps of Engineers.

Submersible submarines now are being deployed to see if they can repair or shut off the leak manually. The best-case scenario is that it will take two to four weeks to cap the deep water well. The worst case scenario is that the oil well blows a bigger leak and it takes "several months" to stem all the spillage. ABC News reports that if the well itself opens, "100 times more crude could spew into the water."

Either way, it will take decades to repair the damage to nearby ecosystems and beaches. And for many life forms that depend upon them -- from bivalves to beach business owners -- the damage may be permanent. Let there be no mistake about it: this disaster is man-made.

To be sure, there have been a few far-sighted, dedicated, and brave souls like Carolyn Esther McCormick and Enid Siskin. For many years, they have been warning us that the Gulf of Mexico was already "stressed" and "bringing rigs up to a line or an arbitrary distance on a map won’t stop damage that will be caused by drilling to Florida’s coastal communities."

Rather than listen, learn, and act on the irrefutable proof they offered, too many among us even right here in Northwest Florida applauded -- and voted for -- political pollyannas like Sarah Palin and Northwest Florida Congressman Jeff Miller when they urged "drill, baby, drill." Even President Obama recently caved under the public pressure.

Either Obama doesn't have the courage of his own convictions or he was cursed by spectacularly poor timing in making one of his infamous "compromise" proposals to achieve a chimerical "bipartisan" solution. Either way, he was wrong and he ought to admit it.

But he won't. No more than Palin or Miller will own up to their misjudgments. As happens too frequently in American politics, politicians who are proven by subsequent events to have been flat wrong rarely suffer the consequences.

Palin will continue to rake in her millions as a red-meat speaker for the right wing. Miller likely will win reelection -- aided, no doubt, by many of the same business-men and -women who are about to be ruined by the very policies he promotes. Obama already has vowed to expand oil and gas drilling in the Gulf, despite the ongoing disastrous results.

Short of a new law requiring that every proponent of expanded oil drilling off the shore of Pensacola Beach eat the tarballs that will soon be washing ashore thanks to the policies they advocated, they will all escape the consequences.

If we raised children like we coddle wrong-headed politicians, we would have a society full of sociopaths..... Oh, wait. Maybe we already do.

Naming Names: A Baker's Dozen of Financial Rogues

Late last week, in the penultimate edition of Bill Moyer's Journal (which ends forever this week) the best journalist in television interviewed Prof. William K. Black. Refreshingly, Prof. Black names names while discussing who should bear responsibility for bringing the world to the edge of financial collapse during the waning days of the Bush Administration.

It's a crowded, bi-partisan recitation of rogues, sociopaths, and bureaucratic nitwits. The list includes --
  1. Federal regulators who did everything they could to subvert prudential financial regulations;
  2. Alan Greenspan and other directors of the Federal Reserve;
  3. Mortgage loan brokers who deliberately wrote and then palmed off on others "liar's loans;"
  4. Corporate banking executives who fired whistle-blowers and promoted cheats and con-men;
  5. Accountants who deliberately failed to call out liar's loans for fear of losing customers;
  6. "Pathogenic" employee pay policies that rewarded fraud while punishing honesty;
  7. Timothy Geithner, former head of the influential New York FED during the Bush Administration and now Obama's U.S. Treasury Secretary;
  8. Bush appointees (former) SEC chairman Cris Cox and FED chairman Ben Bernanke;
  9. The giant blood-sucking "vampire squid" known as Goldman Sachs;
  10. "Top" Goldman Sachs executives from CEO Lloyd Blankfein on down the corporate chain of command;
  11. The entire "Bush wrecking crew" of anti-regulation regulators who remain to this day embedded in the federal bureaucracy;
  12. Goldman Sachs alum Robert Rubin's many "protégés" whom President Obama has named to virtually every choke-point in the financial regulatory system; and
  13. As a bonus, the extremist ideologues in Academia and on the bench who teach and write that Wall Street doesn't need and shouldn't enforce anti-fraud laws because the system is "self-cleansing." Really. They teach that to young business students.
Undoubtedly, this is only a partial list. Prof. Black didn't even mention former Texas senator Phil (Mr. Enron") Gramm, or Wall Street's bond-rating agencies, or all of the Senators and Congressmen who voted to abolish Glass-Steagall. These self-dealing gamblers all played a major part in bringing about the near-collapse of the American economy, too.

The televised interview can be seen here. A written transcript is here.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wall Street's View of America

Some years ago, New Yorker Magazine cartoonist Saul Steinberg made history with his cover illustration that became known as 'A New Yorker's View of America' (click on the image to the left).

For its May issue, according to Drawn and Quarterly, Fortune Magazine narrowly missed making history just as big when it rejected cartoonist Chris Ware's contemporary homage to Steinberg. The potential cover illustration offers 'Wall Street's View of America' (below).

Be sure to CLICK ON THE PICTURE to enlarge it and see the hilarious details, including "Your Home" along the Gulf of Mexico, the "401k Cemetery," and "The Oracle Buffet."


Friday, April 23, 2010

Taking the Cure

"Governments... deemed it unwise to be sane at a time when sanity exposed one to ridicule, condemnation for spoiling the game, or the threat of severe political retribution."
-- John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash of 1929
President Obama's speech on Financial Reform at Cooper Union yesterday had the look of going through the motions. As a speech we thought it was uninspired, superficial, and largely toneless. His audience wasn't any better. The bankers and brokers applauded mechanically, grinned stiffly, and kept their justifiably cynical thoughts to themselves.

For Obama's part, "the president ... struck a note of conciliation with an industry that has contributed generously to his party, beseeching bankers to work with him to forge a new regulatory structure." Steve Benen says it was like a lawyer addressing a "skeptical jury."

We thought it more resembled what could pass these days for a TV reality Church Show: synthetic, choreographed piety from a Puritan pastor received by a congregation of sinning bankers with imperfect contrition and phony remorse. You could almost see the tycoons squirming impatiently in the pews and licking their chops in their eagerness to throw a few bucks in the collection plate and hurry back to their desks to resume their wicked ways.

Paul Krugman has it right: The financial reforms pending in the Senate, which come up for debate on Monday -- assuming near unanimous Republican opposition can be overcome -- are a necessary "first step." They would make investment financing "safer." But they won't shrink any of the investment firms who are "too big to fail."

Robert Reich agrees. He -- and most other economists, left and right -- have been making a strong case that much remains to be done after the current bill is passed. "The Dodd bill now being considered in the Senate is a step in the right direction," he says. But three more steps are need to achieve truly effective Wall Street reform -- steps the President largely ignored in yesterday's address.

In Reich's words, Congress needs to pass additional laws that --
1. Require that trading of all derivatives be done on open exchanges where parties have to disclose what they’re buying and selling and have enough capital to pay up if their bets go wrong. The exception in the current bill for so-called “unique” derivatives opens up a loophole big enough for bankers to drive their Ferrari’s through.

2. Resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act in its entirety so commercial banks are separated from investment banks. The current bill doesn’t go nearly far enough. Commercial banks should take deposits and lend money. Investment banks should be limited to the casino we call the stock market, helping companies issue new issues and making bets. Nothing good comes of mixing the two. We learned this after the Great Crash of 1929, and then forgot it in 1999 when Congress allowed financial supermarkets to do both.

3. Cap the size
of big banks at $100 billion in assets
. The current bill doesn’t limit the size of banks at all. It creates a process for winding down the operations of any bank that gets into trouble. But if several big banks are threatened, as they were when the housing bubble burst, their failure would pose a risk to the whole financial system, and Congress and the Fed would surely have to bail them out. The only way to ensure no bank is too big to fail is to make sure no bank is too big, period. Nobody has been able to show any scale efficiencies over $100 billion in assets, so that should be the limit.
If the past four years have taught us anything, it is that a Wall Street banker's greed is like an alcoholic's thirst: it is never slaked. The bankers and brokers almost drove the American economy off a cliff again, just as they did in 1929. Assuredly, they will do it again. Indeed, there are ample signs they've already resumed their sinful ways.

Every effective measure to stop them needs to be taken by Congress. Pious sermonizing and appeals to civic virtue just won't work with Wall Street, no more than they do with chronic drunks. The nation needs all of Wall Street to take the cure -- and, as always, cures can hurt.

As Krugman writes today, "[R]eform actually should hurt the bankers. A growing body of analysis suggests that an oversized financial industry is hurting the broader economy. Shrinking that oversized industry won’t make Wall Street happy, but what’s bad for Wall Street would be good for America."
minor edit 4-23 am

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Memo to Gene Valentino

Memo to Gene Valentino: When a grand jury indicts you, it's not called "character assassination." It's called an indictment.

Earth Day Oil Pollution

MSNBC, April 22, 2010:
"The oil rig that exploded, caught fire and then sank 36 hours later could lead to a major oil spill, officials said Thursday... ."
That should kill all proposals to drill for oil and gas off Pensacola Beach. Unless, of course, the oil spill washes up on our beach, anyway.

Or, given that Dave Murzin and Greg Evers still 'represent' this area, probably not.

Plague Infects Florida Republicans

ROMEO: Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.

MERCUTIO: [Dying] No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough,'twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o' both your houses! 'Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death! A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic! Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.

-- Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Sc. 1
The internecine war within the Florida Republican Party keeps spreading its ruin like the plague. A political plague. As Chris Weigant wrote yesterday, it looks very much as if a "fratricidal battle" has begun.

The House of Marco Rubio two months ago accused the House of Crist of being source for leaks about Rubio's lavish charge-card spending. Now, the investigation into the accounts of Rubio and other top Florida Republicans looks as if it is infecting those who live in the House of Charlie Crist, as well.

We're with Mercutio: a plague on all their houses.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

American Express: 'Don't Leave for Prison Without It'

"Political parties... are only allowed to spend money on political activities, such as fundraising, running campaigns and registering voters."
-- Miami Herald, April 21, 2010
The big news in Florida today is that the IRS, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the North District of Florida in Tallahassee, and the FBI are investigating top officials of the Florida Republican Party, including the leading Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Marco Rubio, "to determine whether they misused their party credit cards for personal expenses." The Miami Herald reports that the probe could lead to criminal charges of tax evasion and making false statements under oath.

The report of an investigation should come as no surprise. The scandalous misuse of Republican Party credit cards has been in the state's headlines for months. According to the St. Petersburg Times, at least $1.8 million was rung up in American Express charges to party credit cards "in 2008 alone."

Rubio himself spent more than $100,000 in the two-year period from November, 2006 to November 2008. Among other items he billed as G.O.P. "political" expenses were:

• $765 at Apple's online store for "computer supplies."
• $25.76 from Everglades Lumber for "supplies."
• $53.49 at Winn-Dixie in Miami for "food."
• $68.33 at Happy Wine in Miami for "beverages'' and "meal."
• $78.10 for two purchases at Farm Stores groceries in suburban Miami.
• $412 at All Fusion Electronics, a music equipment store in Miami, for "supplies."

The Miami Herald adds today:
The charges included repairs to the family minivan, grocery bills, plane tickets for his wife, and purchases from retailers ranging from a wine store near his home to Apple's on-line store. Rubio also charged the party for dozens of meals during the annual lawmaking session in Tallahassee, even though he received taxpayer subsidies for his meals.
* * *
Rubio acknowledged in February that he double-billed state taxpayers and the party for several plane flights from South Florida to Tallahassee. He said he would pay the party back about for eight flights totaling about $3,000, but the party said Tuesday it had not received a check.
Other news reports have described how top Republicans in Florida paid with Other People's Plastic hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of claimed "political" expenses such as jewelry and sporting goods. Among others, the FBI is investigating disgraced former Speaker of the State House of Representatives Ray Sansom, whose family traveled to England on the G.O.P.'s AmEx ticket, racking up "nearly $40,000 at a London hotel, and more than $3,600 in sightseeing expenses."

"Political activities" all, we are sure.

In addition to Rubio and Sansom, the St. Pete Times reports "ex-state party chairman Jim Greer and ex-party executive director Delmar Johnson" are being investigated "to determine whether they misused their party credit cards for personal expenses... ."

All of which will make absolutely no difference in the upcoming Florida primary or general election. As John Cole puts it:
There is simply no greater achievement in the modern conservative movement than becoming a martyr. Accused by the 'Obama IRS' and the “lamestream media” of wrongdoing? They’ll rally around [Rubio] even if it turns out he was using the card to pay for gay sex with aborted fetuses in a bondage-themed club. He doesn’t have to explain anything - all he has to do is deny it and play the victim, and let the “principled conservatives” in the wingnut wurlitzer and the blogosphere do the rest.

In a Family Way

Ladies Professional Golf Association champion Lorena Ochoa -- one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in 2008 and a multi-million dollar winner on the tour -- is retiring from professional golf.

She is twenty-eight years old. The guessing is she wants to start a family.

Why is it we never see male professional golfers retire when they want to start a family? Biology? Of course, but standing alone that's not a satisfactory answer; not entirely.

Quite some years ago, when we were young and frisky, we met a fellow who comes as close as we have ever seen to making the same sacrifice as Ochoa. He wasn't a professional golfer. Just your ordinary, moderately well-to-do, middle class kind of guy.

We were standing with a good friend on the first tee of a beautiful 18-hole public course in Portland, Oregon, about to start an 18-hole round. Most such golf rounds take four hours or so. We were so bad at the game, though, that it took us at least an hour longer and sometimes more. Mostly, this was because we spent a lot of time looking for our golf balls in the weeds and trying to fish them out of the ponds.

A man we didn't know -- whose name we have long since forgotten -- walked up to the first tee with an old leather golf bag slung over his shoulder. He asked if he could join us.

"Sure," we said enthusiastically. We were just beginners, our friend explained, and we'd be happy to have any golf tips he cared to pass along.

"I doubt I can help you there," the man said. "I haven't played golf in eighteen years."

We were incredulous. "Eighteen years!" In the callow days of our youth, that seemed like an eternity.

Naturally, we asked him why he hadn't played in so long. We were hoping the answer had nothing to do with prison time or some fearsome tropical illness.

"Eighteen years ago yesterday," the stranger said, "my daughter was born. That same day I put my clubs away. Never touched 'em after that. This morning, I put my daughter on a plane for college. Then, I got my clubs down from the attic -- and here I am."

Dept. of Amplification
4-23 pm

Lorena Ochoa makes it official: she's leaving to spend more time with her family -- and, as she told someone recently, to have children.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cynical Liars

Steven Benen today posted a short article about the pending Financial Reform Bill that deserves to be read. It's all about liars who lie even when one of their own people admits they are lying:
Got that? Republicans will shamelessly lie about a provision in an important bill. Confronted with reality, they'll still lie. And even if the provision disappears, they'll still tell the same lie.

What's the point of even having a public discourse when the leadership of a political party treats the truth like a punch-line?

And where are the journalists with the professional stuffing to report the truth? A candid news report would read something like, "Republican congressional leaders continued to prevaricate and misconstrue the financial reform legislation today while Democratic leaders stood by, apparently helpless and confused about how to reply to the chronic lying."

Bill McCollum Wins Endorsement

As long as we're visiting the psych ward known as the Florida Republican Party, we may as well record the report of journalist Joy Reid who today says that G.O.P. gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum has won the endorsement of "Stormfront... the white supremacist crowd." Stormfront.org is headed by the former Grand Dragon of the KKK, Don Black of West Palm Beach. We didn't bother to follow Reid's link. According to her, however, Black and his fellow mental cases applaud "McCollum’s opposition to the MLK holiday."

Channeling Charlie Crist

Howard Troxler of the St. Pete Times is channeling Charlie Crist. But he forgets the line that so many moderate Republicans, like that relative of ours who was a lifelong Republican, are using: "I haven't left the Republican Party. It has left me."

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Mysterious Orient

A few years ago we visited a popular Buddhist monastery in Guangzhou, China. In the center of a beautiful interior courtyard there is a large incense burner. Nearby is this enigmatic sign:

What is one to do? If you ignore the burner and don't light a joss stick is that a sign of disrespect? But if you're seen burning joss sticks, does that mark you as an irreverent Buddhist?

Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Charlie Crist's Deadline

'The absence of party affiliation is no guarantee of the absence of ugly politicking. If anything, the reverse is true.'
The Pensacola News Journal on Sunday editorially urged Florida governor Charlie Crist to run for Florida's vacant U.S. Senate seat as an independent. Noting that he faces an April 30 deadline to withdraw from the G.O.P. primary the newspaper argues "for the good of the state, shouldn't Crist and [Marco] Rubio have a chance to face off in November — the state's political Super Bowl date — instead of in preseason?"
In Florida's closed-primary system, registered Democrats and independent voters do not have the chance to vote for or against Crist. Yet Crist and Rubio are the political heavyweights, and they should meet in the finals.
Once again, weak sports metaphors are invoked to distort political reality by making it resemble a horse race (or a football game, or a boxing match) without regard to the long-term policy consequences. The PNJ's proposal is tantamount to advocating the defeat of Democratic senatorial candidate Kendrick Meek even before he's had a chance to introduce himself to the voters.

As the News Journal must know, recent polls suggest Crist has a realistic chance of winning the general election only if he draws a boatload of votes from the Democratic candidate. This is because it looks like he'll get almost none from Republicans:
Even in a three-way match-up with Crist running as an independent, Meek comes in second with 25% of the vote. Rubio leads with 45% support, while Crist earns 22%.
To be sure, other journalists also are applauding the idea. Take Broward County's Sun Sentinel columnist Michael Mayo, for example. He hauls the PNJ's "it-would-be- good- for- Florida-voters" theme one step farther by imagining a Crist win in November:
If he wins as an independent, Crist could find himself the most powerful senator in the country.

Democrats now have a 57-41 edge over Republicans in the Senate, and there are two independents who align with the Democrats, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

With 36 Senate seats up for grabs in November, Democrats and Republicans could end up virtually deadlocked for the majority.

Could you imagine if there was a 49-48 split and Crist were one of three independents?

Anything Florida wanted, Florida would get.
Almost immediately, however, Mayo ruins his own fantasy by impliedly having 'independent' U.S. Senator Crist sell off the sand on Pensacola Beach to the oil corporations:
How about this idea: Our junior senator could broker a deal where all Florida homeowners get affordable windstorm coverage through national catastrophe insurance. In exchange, we allow expanded oil drilling off Florida's shores.
Mayo's wet dream offers an unintentional caution about the naive fantasy of an "independent" politician. The absence of party affiliation is no guarantee of the absence of ugly politicking. If anything, the reverse is true. A senator without affiliation with one of the two major parties is like Edward Everett Hale's "Man Without a Country." Joe Lieberman's deceitful run as an "Independent" is a useful template. It has made him, to be charitable, "a little crazy."

The reality is that every "independent" in the U.S. Senate is impelled by the circumstance of Senate rules and traditions to caucus with one or the other of the two major parties. Even if Crist were to win the senate race as an Independent, he'd have to huddle either with the Republican or the Democratic Party. As with Lieberman, that means either being completely marginalized (much as has happened to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a more reliable Democratic vote than most other Democratic senators) or forever living on the edge of betraying one party by flirting with the other.

That might be entertaining. It might sell more newspapers. But if Crist takes advice from the likes of Michael Mayo and the Pensacola News Journal, it would be terrible for the nation as well as Pensacola Beach.

Democratic senate candidate Kendrick Meek is a fine legislator and a courageous man. However, as Stuart Rothenberg says, he was "handed the Democratic nomination without a fight largely because Crist looked invincible when the race was taking shape."

He's been doing better than expected in the fund raising derby. He even polls fairly well, only 6 points behind, in a 2-man race against Rubio -- and most Floridians hardly know him yet. Even in today's over-heated partisan atmosphere he has a legitimate chance to win.

A Crist independent candidacy, however, would doom Meek's chances. Meek and Crist would split the sane vote while Rubio cleans up among the chronically angry old farts, demented paranoids, racists, and those who want to protect Wall Street bankers so they can continue schtupping main street America with toxic investments and paying themselves outrageous bonuses.

In the loopy political atmosphere we see all around us today, the only honest thing for Charlie Crist to do is to think inside the box -- one or the other box. Either run as the moderate Republican he's always been -- or switch parties and run for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.
minor edit 4-19 am

Dept. of Further Amplification
4-19 pm

Marcos Moulitsas, writing as Kos, has his "fingers crossed," hoping for Crist to make "an independent bid." Presumably, for different reasons than those expressed by the News Journal.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tracking Tourists

Carleton Proctor of the Pensacola News Journal steps ahead of the business section today to report the front-page news that "there's a good chance" Springtime visitors to the Pensacola Beach area come from "Indiana, Arkansas or Alabama." So, should we be looking for more Hoosier T-shirts in all the gift shops?

The real news here, as it seems to us, are the sources the Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau draws upon as it tries to figure out who comes here. Among them:
  • A survey of "900 visitors to Pensacola Beach, Perdido Key and downtown Pensacola over the past couple of months;"
  • Unspecified "data from last summer show that other top points of origin were Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi and Illinois;"
  • More data -- including zip codes -- compiled by the "Haas Center for Business Research and Development at the University of West Florida" from "a study of some 130,000 people and groups outside the Pensacola area who contacted the Visitor Information Center, or its website, to request tourist guides;" and
  • Most intriguing of all, "an American Express cardholder report detailed the spending and point of origin for 565,356 customers who used their credit cards in the Pensacola area in 2007."
How many AmEx card holders know their every purchase is being schlepped around to let the whole world know what they're buying? And, what do you suppose are the chances Visa and Mastercard do the same?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pensacola Fun House

"Well now I feel like an asshole for speaking for the cop. It was my understanding that these were not policy of the PPD, and I apologize for my previous comments on this blog... ."
-- Comment from a reader of Progressive Pensacola blog
When it comes to some of the more arcane areas of law governing police misconduct and local government immunities for wrong-doing, the public generally is clueless. The complexities of the law always have posed serious questions for our democracy. One of the chief ones is this: How can citizens cast intelligent votes for elected officials who will have law enforcement responsibilities -- like a state's attorney, for example, or city officials ultimately responsible for the police department -- when what citizens think they see happening is mostly a legal smoke-screen?

Once a police misconduct case enters the legal system, for the average person who takes an interest it's like stepping into a Fun House. The "case" becomes a hall of mirrors filled with distorted images where nothing is as it seems. At one turn, little things look big and big things look diminished. At the next turn, those big things strangely shrink and the small things loom large. At yet another twist or turn, the public's attention is misdirected altogether by weird, unexpected noises that send a thrill up the spine but amount to nothing like they seem. And, all the while what's really going on is hidden from public view behind the scenery.

So it has been in the aftermath of the violent death of 17 year old Victor Steen, who was crushed by a Pensacola Police patrol car at the end of a late night chase down city streets, across sidewalks, and through darkened parking lots. He was being pursued by Police Officer Jerald Ard for no better reason, apparently, than the officer (who was white) thought Steen (who was black) looked suspicious.

So far as the public has been told, there was not even probable cause to suppose a crime had been committed. Yet, officer Ard was so intent on making a "citizen contact" that he tried to temporarily paralyze the teen-ager with a taser-gun fired through the open window of his squad car. No crime had been reported. No criminal behavior had been witnessed. The boy was riding a bicycle without a light and it was late at night. Ard ordered him to stop. He didn't. For that, the boy was cut down dead.

Yet, police officer Ard managed to escape even the possibility of being tried in a court of law to determine if he was criminally negligent when State's Attorney Bill Eddins invoked the rare procedure of an "inquest", which has roots in the 12th century before grand juries had even been conceived. When a county judge who normally sits on small claims and traffic cases concluded as the "inquest" officer that the facts presented by Eddins' side, only, showed that Steen did not die by reason of criminal negligence, the police officer was off the hook. He did not even bother to attend the inquest.

Early this week, the Pensacola Police Department publicly announced it was disciplining that same police officer. Jerald Ard was suspended from work for 'violating department policy' by shooting at the Steen boy with a taser gun from the moving patrol car and chasing him so closely that he was "unable to avoid running over" the boy with the squad car.

Ard's suspension is for two weeks. Two weeks?? you say. Yes, he'll be back on the streets almost before you finish reading this.

This tragic affair seems only to get worse. Though not literally true, it must be hard for the Steen family to escape the thought that the Pensacola Police Department values young Victor Steen's life as worth no more than a two-week suspension for the cop who killed him.

The suspension wasn't announced until well after the inquest was over. Think that's a mere happenstance? Think again.

Progressive Pensacola has obtained a copy of an internal investigation report. It, too, was conveniently released only after the inquest. The report, bearing an April 1 date, concludes that officer Ard violated policies of the Pensacola police department. Writes the author of the report (with who-knows-how-much help from undisclosed lawyers):
It is the policy of the Pensacola Police Department to engage in pursuit driving techniques only when the apprehension of a suspect in another vehicle is authorized by the law and when the employment of pursuit driving techniques does not impose an unreasonable or unnecessary risk to public safety or property.
Even as it is described in the report, the purported departmental policy is manifestly tautological. It also suffers from such extreme generality as to be equivalent to saying, 'When in pursuit of anything or anyone you feel like chasing, drive as safely as the law allows and you think you should.'

What's really going on here? Our opinion is that it's nothing more than an elaborate charade by local officials to fluff-up the city's potential defense to a federal civil rights claim which could be brought along with a state tort claim for negligence. The Florida legislature long ago placed a tight cap on the amount for which a citizen can sue under state law when injured or killed by a local government agency's employee. If a cop snuffs out your life, like that of Steen's, the maximum damages allowed are only $100,000 under state law. These days, you could put that sum on a credit card; there's hardly a hurricane claim for property damage that low.

With federal law civil rights claims, however, damage totals can be potentially much higher. But certain legal doctrine have grown up in recent times under the influence of the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court to limit the federal law's application. No need to get too deep into the weeds here. We'll try to make it as simple as possible. You can follow along by using the same time-chart the city's lawyers probably have in mind: (1) First, protect the officer; (2) second, protect the city police department from a large verdict.

1. The Officer.

One important civil rights doctrine essentially says that public employees, like a cop, are personally immune from being sued for wrong-doing unless it appears there's a case to be made that they acted in "bad faith." Accordingly, the first item on the agenda is to find a way to excuse the cop's behavior as completely innocent of any improper motives. This is known in the trade as "good faith immunity."

Getting a county judge to 'recommend' no prosecution for manslaughter was an important step for the city in the future defense of a wrongful death suit. Because the judge had to rely exclusively on evidence cherry-picked by the State's Attorney, it may not entirely close the door to suing officer Ard personally, but it certainly helps.

2. Agency liability.

The second task is to build a defense for the police department policy-makers. That's a bit trickier. Civil rights law essentially requires that public agencies can be held at fault only if higher-ups were responsible, or if they had promulgated inadequate policies governing lower-level employees, or if they failed to enforce departmental policies, or if they inadequately trained lower-level employees to understand and abide by department policy. Together, these doctrine can be thought of as "official" or "policy and training" immunity.

Most members of the public knew nothing of this. What the April 1 "disciplinary report" tries to accomplish -- now that officer Ard has been more or less 'acquitted' of wrongful motives and reckless negligence by a county judge -- is to deflect blame from the department and cast it back onto Ard. 'You see?' police department officials are saying, 'We have a really, really good policy and we wrap knuckles whenever a cop violates it.'

That, too, may not wash when all of the details of PPD's actual policies and past training are revealed. The hope, downtown, is that it will help.

Quite a few citizen commentators on various local newspaper web sites and blogs initially leaped to the defense of officer Ard when news of Steen's death first became public. The county judge's inquest finding only strengthened them in that premature view. Now, many of them are chagrined to discover that, as it seems, Ard was at fault after all.

As we read it, however, the April 1 police department "disciplinary report" is evidence of nothing more than this: lawyers are working closely with PPD administrators to bolster the city's defense against a multi-million dollar wrongful death lawsuit soon to be filed against the city.

For all we know, this has been explained to Ard, himself, and he is down with it. In which case, one might say that each of the relevant actors, in turn, has more or less given his "official" seal of approval for the killing of Victor Steen to the other.

It remains to be seen if the local courts will be as forgiving. The law will work its wondrous ways quite apart from public sentiment. That's a good thing. But citizens are getting a distorted perspective about what's really going on. And that's a bad thing, especially when as voters the public periodically must cast votes on which politicians should be placed in charge of our law enforcement agencies.

The solution to this dilemma of democracy is not to remove control over the police from the hands of the voters. It is for citizens to become better informed about the realities of our legal system. They should summon the patience to wait until all the facts are known before reaching conclusions about who is responsible for the death of young Victor Steen and what price we should pay for a young life ended so tragically.

It also would serve the interests of citizen democracy if the state's attorney adopted the same approach as state's attorney Willie Meggs did in Tallahassee: abandon the antiquated "inquest" system used mainly to excuse deaths-by-cop, and let the more usual wheels of justice grind equally for all.