Thursday, July 22, 2010

Booms Away Thursday: July 22 BP Oil Spill Update

1. Oilcast.

No real change from yesterday's oilcast. As NOAA continues to forecast, prevailing winds for the next three days will be "ENE/NE at 10-15 kts" and the "leading edge" of the oil lake poisoning the Gulf of Mexico will continue "to move north towards the Chandeleur Islands and northwestward towards the Mississippi Delta."

Louisiana State University's Coastal Studies Institute graphically depicts this over the next five days (click above), showing relatively low surf and light winds over Pensacola coastal waters.

2. Tropical Depression.

Yesterday morning, as we wrote, NHC ranked the stormy disturbance in the Caribbean known as "97L" as having a 70 percent chance of becoming a tropical storm or hurricane. Throughout the ensuing daylight hours, however, they lowered the chances to 60 and then 50 percent.

This morning, we were back to 70 percent. (Click left.) The center of the disturbance was about a thousand miles southeast of Pensacola this morning.

Just before noon, the storm officially became a "tropical depression." It has--
developed a surface circulation and enough organized convection to be classified as a tropical depression. The depression is sheared at this time and its center is located on the southwest side of a cyclonically curved convective band. The shear appears to be relaxing a little...however...as indicated by the motion of the high clouds on high resolution images. The cyclone is still interacting with a strong westward-moving upper low to the west. This pattern would only allow the depression to strengthen a little as indicated in the official forecast...but this forecast is uncertain. In fact... none of the models show significant intensification.
A hurricane hunter was scheduled to take a closer look at it this afternoon, which NHC expects will help determine whether the depression has become Tropical Storm Bonnie.

3. Booms Away.

Yesterday at mid-day worries over the storm caused Florida officials to order the removal of "Tier 3" booms previously installed by local governments. Later the same day, the Unified Command ordered the dismantling of federally-authorized Tier 1 and Tier 2 booms as well.

Jamie Page reports on all this for the Pensacola News Journal ["Oil Booms Removed for Storm"]:
About 47,000 feet of boom already has been removed from Escambia and Santa Rosa County waters since Tuesday, said Brooke Thorington, spokeswoman for the Joint Information Center in Mobile.
* * **
Not all boom is being removed; only boom in navigable waterways, environmentally sensitive areas, and safe harbor areas where boats in distress may need to go during a storm, [Brooke] Thorington said. Any additional boom to be removed will depend on the forecast.* * *

The boom that is removed, and any associated equipment, will be temporarily stored in a secure location to protect it from weather-related damage and to protect fragile coastline from impacts caused by dislodged boom.
If you're interested in the numbers, Page has them. "BP deployed about 481,000 feet of Tier 1 and 2 boom along the most sensitive areas of Florida's coast" and "316,261 feet of Tier 3 boom" which was added and now will be removed by local governments "from Escambia all the way to Franklin County."

The boom is being removed by, among others, fishermen and "boaters with the Vessels of Opportunity program" as photo journalist Gary McCracken documents today. According to a state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, "After the tropical activity passes, should further oil spill impacts be projected, officials will redeploy the boom."

4. Oil Pollution as a Growth Industry.

Consider this: all the millions upon tens of millions of dollars BP and local governments are expending to lay out new boom, take it up again, re-deploy it later, skim the oil, reimburse local businesses for tourism losses, etc. etc. etc. -- all of it eventually will make its way into calculations of the Gross National Product.

Yes, it will help to show economic growth in these "unusually uncertain times." But is it really "economic growth" when we commit vast sums of money to polluting the Earth and then spend more vast sums trying to clean up the mess we've made?

Some Louisiana residents seem to think so. Yesterday in Lafayette, Louisiana -- the heart of the Gulf Coast oil drilling industry -- "thousands" rallied to demand more deepwater drilling in the Gulf. Can you believe it? They want to risk repeating this catastrophe!

The gathering was political, of course. "The rally... featured speeches from elected leaders, along with representatives from the oil, restaurant and seafood industries."
Lt. Gov. Scott Angelle served as master of ceremonies and fired up an already lively crowd, proclaiming that “It is time to quit punishing innocent American workers to achieve some unrealistic political agenda.”
As if Angelle, himself, doesn't have an even more "unrealistic political agenda."

Just yesterday, we were speaking with an academic expert on the Gulf of Mexico who lives in Louisiana. He is beside himself with fury over the response of Governor Bobby Jindal, Angelle, and other politicians to the ongoing devastation of the state's coastal habitat.

"We’re in the middle of a war to defend our way of life,” Jindal speechified yesterday.

And that's the problem, our friend says. Instead of leading the way to develop industries founded on clean solar energy, which he says could create as many or more jobs in the state, Louisiana's present political leadership is trying to hang on to the old way that "is destroying the globe." Our friend explained:
Jindal is making a big deal out of building up barrier islands. Unfortunately, the media buys it. What he's really doing is dredging up polluted sediments from past mistakes by the industry and the Corps of Engineers and spreading them all over the coast. In one instance I've seen, Jindal created a mile and a half of nothing but polluted rubble. It's insane.
If the BP oil spill demonstrates anything, it is that we can no longer allow a single state, nation, or industry to preserve "a way of life" that is killing the planet. When that way of life risks poisoning the Gulf of Mexico and destroying the chain of life in our oceans, we need to find new political and business leaders who have the foresight and fortitude to set us on the path to a newer, more sustainable way of life.

5. Academic Free-for-All.

Academics like our friend may not be popular with the pols, but they're in high demand by oil industry corporations -- and by victims who are hoping to get proper compensation for the losses BP has caused them.

We've previously made light about the rush to monopolize expert witnesses. But, really, it's no laughing matter.

Ben Raines of the Mobile Register is the lead reporter in the nation on this subject for the moment. [See "BP Buys Up Gulf Scientists for Legal Defense, Roiling Academic Community," July 16.] Travis Griggs is out in front on the Florida university angle.

Last week, Raines reported:
For the last few weeks, BP has been offering signing bonuses and lucrative pay to prominent scientists from public universities around the Gulf Coast to aid its defense against spill litigation.

BP PLC attempted to hire the entire marine sciences department at one Alabama university, according to scientists involved in discussions with the company's lawyers.
* * *
More than one scientist interviewed by the Press-Register described being offered $250 an hour through BP lawyers. At eight hours a week, that amounts to $104,000 a year.

Scientists from Louisiana State University, University of Southern Mississippi and Texas A&M have reportedly accepted, according to academic officials. Scientists who study marine invertebrates, plankton, marsh environments, oceanography, sharks and other topics have been solicited.
A hundred G's annually is a bonus worthy of a Wall Street banker, never mind some poorly paid, obscure faculty member wearing a corduroy jacket with leather patches on the elbows. The catch is, BP's "research" contracts require the academics to remain mum about the data they collect and the results they obtain for at least three years.

Yesterday, Griggs reported that something close to the opposite is happening to Florida academics:
Researchers at Florida universities say BP has not offered them the lucrative research contracts it reportedly has offered to other universities in exchange for scientists' cooperation with its legal defense.
One well might consider that high acclaim, indeed, for Florida's universities. As Dick Snyder of the University of West Florida told Griggs, "I think we're looking at [BP] trying to control information about an environmental catastrophe." To resist the enormous pressure BP can bring to bear on the university system is admirable.
Nondisclosure agreements are common when universities partner with private industries for research and development or product testing, "but in this case, I think we're looking at something different than that," Snyder said.

"If you're working on some new chemical product they come up with, then yeah, we'll sign a (nondisclosure agreement) and help them with their research and development. ... But (this) is really pushing the edge of it. It's not a product the company is working on. What's the basis for the nondisclosure?"
W. Ross Ellington, head of the Oil Spill Academic Task Force at Florida State University, told Griggs:
"The only time we would withhold research data is if we want to publish before our competitors publish. But in this case, because it's so important, the free dissemination is going to be very important."
Our own coastal scientist friend says that in Louisiana and Mississippi it's become an "academic free-for-all" as faculty, staff, and independent researchers try to climb aboard the BP money wagon without getting polluted by the money.

6. McUniversity.

The problem is hardly new to academia or industry. Books have been written on what has come to be known as the rise of "Academic Capitalism," sometimes less charitably known as "McUniversity," after George Ritzer's famous neologism.

The reasons are not complicated, either. As one student of the sociology of science put it a few years ago, citing two other pioneers who saw the same conundrum:
On the one hand, in order to remain competitive in global markets, companies increasingly seek for new knowledge and science-based products and processes from universities. On the other hand universities need new sources of income, as state funding for higher education has been diminishing. Thus "the corporate quest for new products converged with faculty and institutional searches for increased funding."

Oli-Henlenya Ylijoki, "Entangled in Academic Capitalism?
A Case-study on Changing Ideals and Practices of
University Research,"
45 Higher Education 307 (2003)
In other words, we've brought this on ourselves. For industry it's money, money, money. Nothing new about that. But for academics, the need is driven by the "diminishing" financial support by our political organs for public colleges and universities.

Our coastal science friend says all corporate research grants are "dirty money." But he sees nothing unethical in a scientist contracting to work as an expert witness so long as he or she has the integrity to observe traditional academic values, does all the research necessary (rather than merely that which would support a preconceived viewpoint), and presents conclusions objectively and without favor.

Ah, but there's the rub. What litigant wants an expert witness who will be fair and impartial? In Florida, our own attorney general was merely following the industry standard when he hired a self-loathing crackpot at twice the normal fee to testify against his own gay proclivities. Watch what he says, not what he does.

Oil company litigants want an expert who shares their view of the case and who has the scientific fire-power to win it for them. None of them are in the business of paying "a fair and impartial" researcher for his time and expense in offering research results to a court or the public at large.

The whole mess is something important that remains unresolved. That's why our coastal scientist friend also says, "If the money isn't from the National Science Foundation, it's dirty."

7. Rapid Response System.

One way to alleviate, though perhaps not completely solve the problem, is suggested by yesterday's news that "four of the world’s biggest oil companies" have committed "$1 billion to create a rapid-response system to deal with deepwater oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico... ."

Of course these mega-corporations aren't ponying up a quarter of a billion dollars, each, out of eleemosynary motives. They want to burnish their public image and "restore public confidence in the industry after the BP disaster painfully exposed how unprepared the industry was for a major accident."

The plan is to jointly create "a new nonprofit entity, called the Marine Well Containment Company" which would "be in charge of operating and maintaining" an emergency capability of responding to broken well or other oil spill emergencies.
The entity, modeled in part after the Marine Spill Response Corporation, which was set up after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, will also finance research to look into new ways of tackling an underwater spill.
* * *
"Companies have used their technology to get into the deep water but they didn’t have an adequate plan to intervene at these depths or to contain a large-scale spill,” [an energy expert says].
This joint "nonprofit" project obviously will be dominated and run by Big Oil. But something along similar lines-- a research grant foundation funded by oil companies but run by, say, institutional representatives from Gulf Coast universities and the National Science Foundation -- just might work as a joint funding source and distribution agent for academic oil pollution research grants supporting coastal studies, sea life damage, and coastal restoration research.

While it wouldn't entirely eliminate the ethical challenge facing academics working for industry, it has the potential to relieve a large part of the problem, if done right. One might even dare hope that it could eventually lead to eliminating the threat oil leaks -- or even our own petroleum dependency -- pose for the planet.

8. (Oil) Men at Work.

More than seventy percent of all Floridians want to see a drilling ban constitutional amendment on the ballot. That makes no difference to state representatives Greg Evers Dave Murzin (a candidate for Santa Rosa Escambia county commissioner) or Clay Ford. They're hard at work making sure that the people have no voice in this democracy.

It's "political theater as farce," the Pensacola News Journal editorializes today:
[B]oth representatives voted last year for a bill that would have ended the legislative ban on drilling in Florida waters — an effort that died in the Senate when the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico.
The paper rightly points out that "House Republicans weren't serious" from the get-go about letting voters have a voice in the matter. In coming up with such transparent, outright lies to justify their own actions in denying a meaningful voice to the people of Florida, Murzin and Ford have disgraced their public office and betrayed the voters who sent them to Tallahassee.

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