Concerns Mount Over Growing Gulf Oil Spill

GULF OF MEXICO, April 27 – An oil rig that exploded and sank off of the coast of Louisiana last Thursday has reportedly been leaking 42,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico since the explosion.  Original reports concluded that the oil was not leaking despite the sinking of the rig, but two leaks were discovered approximately 5,000 feet below the water’s surface on Saturday. 

Fireboats battle the Deepwater Horizon fire on April 21, 2010  Photo: uscgd8

A robotic vehicle unit has been dispatched to attempt to seal the leaks by manually instituting a blowout preventer that failed to prevent the oil from escaping broken pipes.  National Ocean Service Acting Assistant administrator David Kennedy, who was science coordinator during the 11-million-gallon 1989 Exxon Valdez cleanup, stated that the leaks were difficult to discover because they are so far below the surface and because the primary concern of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)  and the Coast Guard had been search and rescue operations for any survivors of the initial explosion.  The initial explosion occurred on the rig on April 20, sending 126 workers into lifeboats.   Eleven workers from the rig are still missing and are presumed dead.

Oil rigs are common in the Gulf of Mexico  Photo: NOAA

The oil spill is currently 600 miles wide and subject to wind direction.  As of Monday evening, the winds had changed direction away from land, pushing the oil back towards the former location of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which was about 53 miles south of Venice, Louisiana.  Oil was not expected to directly impact the coast for at least three days.  As the oil interacts with the coastal environment, impacts on the ecosystem can affect fish, turtles, sea mammals and birds and coral reefs.  Commercial impacts may affect the shrimp, crab, mussel and oyster populations.  If the oil leak remains unsecured, the impacts will increase in range.  In addition, ships are attempting to skim oil from the surface when weather conditions allow.  Aircraft are applying oil dispersant and provided aerial assessment.  NOAA will continue to monitor weather and tidal activity to anticipate the oil trajectory and impact.  Several sperm whales were spotted in the area but were unaffected by the spill.  Similar oil leaks can persist for months if uncontrolled, as the oil is emptying out of a large known reservoir.  A recent similar spill in Australia leaked for ten weeks before being controlled.

Coast Guard deploying oil boom  Photo: EPA

BP Global, the company leasing the rig, has revealed plans to drill wells to relieve the oil pressure if the flow can’t be plugged.  The company is also investigating a dome to contain oil directly from the well.  These solutions could take up to two months to implement.  Over 1,000 BP employees are working towards containment of the spill.  The coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida are readying thousands of feet of boom, a floating tube designed to absorb the oil, to protect fragile and economically important coastlines.  Efforts by underwater vehicles have been hampered by the difficulty of performing maneuvers such as turning valves at a depth of 5,000 feet, a repair which has never been attempting at such depth. 

Oil spills have lasting ecological effects  Photo: marinephotobank

The oil emergency has caused growing political attention.  President Obama has recently introduced federal plans to increased oil exploration off of the American coast.  The dangers of deeper drilling are being debated against the dangers of closer proximity to shore.  In the case of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the distance is giving the coast time to prepare but the depth has hampered repair efforts.  Lawmakers are also questioning the safety regulation on Gulf rigs.  Senators from New Jersey and Florida wrote to the heads of the Energy and Commerce committees calling for a separate agency to oversee rig safety, which is now the responsibility of the Mineral Management Service (MMS).  MMS also runs rig lease sales.

The oil spill could affect the surrounding marine community for years or potentially even decades into the future.  The area contains four endangered turtle species.  The Gulf is also one of two hatchery sites for endangered bluefin tuna.

International Coal Debate Centers on South Africa


Future Site of Medupi Power Station

A coalition of over 70 South African activist groups is asking for U.S. support to help stop the construction of what would be the world’s fourth largest coal plant in the world. In response, U.S. organizations including the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth have launched an international campaign to prevent the World Bank from financing this massive project lead by African energy giant Eskom. The debate over South Africa’s mega-coal plant is likely to come to a head this Thursday, April 8th, when World Bank representatives are expected to vote on whether or not to finance its construction. U.S. environmentalists have joined in the fight by calling on Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to vote against the World Bank loan.

Interestingly, this is hardly a case of Western environmentalists attempting to tell a developing country how to provide cheap energy to its citizens. Indeed, it’s grassroots opposition inside of South Africa itself that has grown and spread to the international community.

Three weeks ago, South African activists Makoma Lekalakala and Caroline Ntaopane traveled to the United States to drum up opposition to the proposal to build the 4,800 megawatt coal plant in their country. In response, U.S. environmental groups, including the Sierra Club,  agreed to help convince U.S. policy-makers to use their influence at the World Bank to ensure the plant does not receive funding. To finance the project, Eskom is counting on a $3.75 billion loan from the World Bank, without which the coal plant may prove too expensive to build. In order to pay back the loan, the utility plans to triple electricity rates in many South African communities – accounting for at least part of the widespread opposition to the plant in South Africa.

“The World Bank’s mission is to alleviate poverty,” wrote Bruce Nilles and Mark Kresowik of the Sierra Club after meeting with Lekalakala and Ntaopane last month, and “Eskom officials claim the coal plant is going to help the poor get access to electricity. But hearing Makoma and Caroline describe how their community’s electricity rates are tripling over the next five years….we know that this loan will do anything but help the poor.”

Activists in the U.S. have kicked into action, calling on the United States to vote against the loan to Eskom. The Obama administration has so far indicated it would abstain from voting on the proposal – effectively neither supporting nor condemning the coal plant. Yet without clear U.S. opposition, the World Bank loan is likely to go forward, and groups like Friends of the Earth are calling on the administration to affirmatively register a “no” vote. “The [South African coal plant] loan would be a disaster for the poor in South Africa,” reports Friends of the Earth, “and would lock their country into decades of dirty energy when clean, renewable alternatives exist.”

Though Eskom’s proposed coal plant is notable for its enormous size, the fight over funding for the plant is just one of the most recent manifestations of growing international concern over the World Bank’s role in financing coal plants and other fossil fuel projects which contribute to climate change. Currently, the World Bank is already supporting the construction of a major coal plant in India. In October of 2009, the bank approved a loan to another large plant in South Africa’s neighbor, Botswana. World Bank executives have defended the institution by pointing out that they are scaling up investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects as well. But environmental groups charge that as long as the World Bank continues to support massive coal plants like Eskom’s, the resulting increase in greenhouse gas emissions will eclipse the bank’s greener investments. South Africa has already become the most coal-dependent of all African nations, with 6% of the continent’s population accounting for over 40% of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Should the World Bank decide against funding the Eskom coal plant, it would send a clear signal that the bank is shifting away from support for fossil fuel projects. Eskom’s proposal is just the sort of project which only a few years ago would probably have received World Bank approval without a hitch – and the mere fact that this coal plant has been met with widespread opposition represents a change for the bank. However, in the end it may be the U.S. which determines whether the fourth largest coal plant on the planet will move forward or not.

Environmental Group Blasts Nestlé Over Palm Oil

The world’s largest food and beverage company has run into difficult times, as environmentalists charge it with destroying rare wildlife habitat and rainforests that serve as carbon sinks.  Following publication of a report linking Nestlé’s use of the food ingredient palm oil to destruction of rainforests in Indonesia, more than 100,000 supporters of environmental group Greenpeace have emailed the company asking Nestlé to sever ties with palm oil suppliers that destroy rainforests.  Many of the same activists have also flooded Nestlé’s Facebook page with comments criticizing the use of palm oil.


The damning report, titled “Caught Red-Handed: How Nestlé’s Use of Palm Oil is Having a Devastating Impact on Rainforests, the Climate, and Orangutans,” was published by Greenpeace International on March 17th, 2010.  The report focuses on Nestlé’s sourcing of palm oil from Sinar Mas, the largest palm oil-producing company in Indonesia.  According to Greenpeace, Sinar Mas engages in agricultural practices that include clearing vast areas of rainforest, encroaching into orangutan habitat, and breaking Indonesian forestry law.  “Despite Sinar Mas’ track record and increasingly dirty reputation,” wrote Greenpeace in the report, “Nestlé has no policies in place to avoid dealings with the group and continues to buy palm oil from Sinar Mas.”

Following the release of the report, thousands of Greenpeace supporters logged onto Nestlé’s Facebook page to register their discontent.  Many web activists focused on the impact of palm oil plantations on the highly endangered orangutan, which has become the poster child for the disappearing rainforests of Southeast Asia.  “We all want your KitKats,” one activist wrote to Nestlé via Facebook, “but not how they’re served now.”


Palm Oil Plantation

In response to what has become a major public relations disaster for Nestlé, the company has announced it is cancelling its direct purchases from Sinar Mas, and that all its palm oil purchases will come from sustainable sources by 2015.  Yet Greenpeace maintains the 2015 date is not soon enough, and that Nestlé still buys from Sinar Mas indirectly through other companies like Cargill.  Meanwhile the Indonesian Palm Oil Growers Association is threatening a boycott of its own if Nestlé complies with the demands of Greenpeace. 

The Greenpeace-led campaign against Nestlé is in many ways just the latest manifestation of a growing concern among environmentalists that Indonesia’s rainforests are disappearing at breakneck speed – threatening to take hundreds of endangered species like the orangutan with them.  Large-scale deforestation in Indonesia largely began in the 1960s under the dictator Suharto.  Though Suharto resigned in 1998, the systematic corruption which characterized his 30-year regime continues to plague Indonesian government today and makes major reform difficult.  In recent years, the massive expansion of the palm oil industry in Indonesia has increased the rate of deforestation even more and inspired a wave of criticism from groups like Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. 

A week after release of the report which triggered the online protests, the flood of messages on Nestlé’s Facebook page shows little sign of abating.  “A KitKat lasts seconds,” read one comment from Wednesday night.  “Extinction is forever.”  It’s not clear yet how Nestlé will respond to Greenpeace’s request that it cut ties with customers of Sinar Mas like Cargill.  But the next few weeks should continue to be very interesting for the iconic producer of the KitKat.

Photo Credit: Palm Oil Plantation

Illinois Lawmakers Add ‘Tire Incineration’ to Green Energy Bill

[img_assist|nid=141598|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=199|height=274]In a move that would shock even the most cynical government observer, the Illinois legislature is poised to add the “burning of tires” to a list of renewable energy programs eligible for clean energy credits. This special treatment for tire incineration is the result of measures put forth by Rep. David Miller (D), who just happens to represent the district where the state’s sole tire incinerator is located. That incinerator, Geneva Energy, is located in Ford Heights, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, where more than 95 percent of the population is black and half live in poverty.

The measure, if passed, will allow Geneva Energy to earn valuable green energy credits in return for their burning of tires, a process which releases deadly pollutants, such as benzene, butadiene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Of course, the intent of the original legislation was to reward and encourage the production of renewable energy, such as wind and solar. In Illinois, energy companies must get at least 10 percent of their electricity from green sources by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025.

While millions of old tires must be disposed of each year, better alternatives to incineration include shredding them for reuse in asphalt, playground cushioning, and athletic tracks, among other things.

Rep. Miller, who is currently running for state comptroller, has recently removed his name from the bill after a lobbying effort by the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) focused attention on this legislated loop-hole. “This is the sort of cynical legislative maneuvering that makes people question the credibility of our elected officials,” ELPC head Howard Learner stated. “Burning tires is not clean, renewable energy by any credible definition.”

Dolphins Win Big At Oscars

Los Angeles, California (March 10) – Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony was not just a big night for fashion and entertainment. It also helped to bring light to an environmental topic from the dark ocean depths. The Cove received an Oscar for Best Feature Documentary, an honor which will help bring awareness to the controversial issue of dolphin capture and slaughter.

In The Cove, director Louie Psihoyos takes the viewer to the Japanese coastal village of Taiji and follows as a team of freedivers, activist and filmmakers covertly reveal a cultural practice of rounding up dolphins into a cove, whether to provide dangerously mercury-laden meat or to bring in commercial entertainment dollars as performers. The film also features dolphin activist Ric O’Barry, who trained the dolphins used on the television show Flipper before redirecting his efforts during the last thirty-eight years to freeing dolphins from captivity.

The annual dolphin hunt involves rounding up and harpooning about 2,000 dolphins annually, where each animal can be sold for $500. Japan has defended the practice as a food tradition being conducted in a legal and appropriate manner and questions the scientific determinations reported in the film, particularly concerning the mercury content of dolphin meat and it’s consumption by Japanese children. The village of Taiji has a population of 3,800 and claims to be the birthplace of the Japanese commercial whaling industry.

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Though haunting in its imagery, the film is a well-told story with a purpose to inspire the audience into activism and protection of all graceful and intelligent marine life. The Cove has been recognized for its powerful style and message throughout the year, receiving awards for best documentary of 2009 from Environmental Media Award and National Board of Review as well as a Critics Choice Award and three Cinema Eye Awards in New York. Producers Fisher Stevens and Paula DuPres Presman were also acknowledged by the Producers Guild of America. Furniture maker IKEA even created a special edition ‘Klippan’ sofa cover using The Cove as inspiration after awarding the film the IKEA Green Prize at the Rome International Film Festival.

The documentary’s focus is particularly impactful considering the recent tragic death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau by captive killer whale Tillikum. The filmmakers continued their quest to free the dolphins even during the acceptance speech for their Oscar by holding up a banner that read ‘Text Dolphin to 44144’ as a means for the audience to learn about and take part in their cause of discontinuing the annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. The New York Times reports that Japan has reacted to the film’s success by threatening legal action. The film only recently gained permission to be shown in Japan in April, where the director hopes that the Japanese people will decide to stop supporting this cultural practice.

Cable channel Animal Planet plans to screen the feature later this year. Plans for a television series version of The Cove are also under production for the network by Mr. O’Barry and his son. The film’s creators continue their activism in the wake of their win, as a March 8, 2010 New York Times article reported the group’s exposure a California restaurant’s illegal practice of serving whale meat. Santa Monica sushi restaurant The Hump could face $200,000 in fines and a prison time if those involved are convicted of possession or sale of marine mammals in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Congratulations to The Cove creators for their success in both filmmaking and raising environmental awareness. Dolphins everywhere can swim a little easier tonight.

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All Southern Antarctic Ice Shelves Melting

RESTON, Va., Feb. 24 (UPI) — The U.S. Geological Survey says every ice shelf in the southern section of the Antarctic Peninsula is retreating because of climate change.

The USGS says its report is the first to document that every ice front in that area has been retreating overall from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990.

The retreat, scientists said, could result in sea-level rise if warming continues, threatening coastal communities and low-lying islands worldwide.

The USGS previously documented the majority of ice fronts on the entire peninsula have also retreated during the late 20th century and into the early 21st century.

Officials said the ice shelves are attached to the continent, holding in place the Antarctic ice sheet that covers about 98 percent of the Antarctic continent. As the ice shelves break off, it becomes easier for outlet glaciers and ice streams from the ice sheet to flow into the sea. That transition of ice from land to the ocean is what raises the sea level.

“This research is part of a larger ongoing USGS project that is for the first time studying the entire Antarctic coastline in detail, and this is important because the Antarctic ice sheet contains 91 percent of Earth’s glacier ice,” USGS scientist Jane Ferrigno said.

“The loss of ice shelves is evidence of the effects of global warming,” she added. “We need to be alert and continually understand and observe how our climate system is changing.”

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Madeira Storms Subside, at Least 40 Dead

FUNCHAL, Portugal, Feb. 21 (UPI) — Search-and-rescue teams fanned out across the Portuguese island of Madeira Sunday where floods and mudslides claimed at least 40 lives, officials said.

A spokesman for the civil protection agency told CNN at least 120 people were injured and an undetermined number of people were missing on the tourist island.

Spokesman Pedro Barbosa told CNN the casualty totals could rise as the day goes on.

“We have some parts where we can’t go because the bridges are down,” he said.

Barbosa said hundreds of people were evacuated to shelters as the torrential rain washed away roads and damaged homes in the capital of Funchal and in Riberia Brava.

Portugal has asked the European Union for disaster financial aid, Radio France Internationale reported Sunday.

Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates was on the island to assess the damage, while President Anibal Cavaco Silva pledged support for the victims of the storm.

The worst damage was on the southern portion of the island, located about 600 miles southwest of Portugal.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

Winter Overcomes 1,200-year-old Oak

[img_assist|nid=127126|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=347|height=214]CHIRK, Wales, Feb. 10 (UPI) — A Welsh oak tree, already more than 300 years old when King Henry II spared it in 1165, couldn’t withstand the unusually cold winter of 2010, locals say.

Mark Williams, a historian of the Wrexham area in North Wales, told the BBC he and Deryn Poppit visited the tree Tuesday and found its trunk had been split. He said ice apparently formed around the base of the tree, which had a circumference of 34 feet.

“The tree is on marshy ground in a basin with a stream running down nearby,” he said. “With the stream overflowing because of melting snow, the water must have settled around the trunk and it looks as if this has caused it to split.”

The Great Oak at the Gates of the Dead near Chirk was 1,200 years old, dating from the 9th century. According to legend, in 1165, King Henry II of England, preparing to meet Owain Gwynedd in the Battle of Crogen, commanded his men to clear Ceiriog Woods but ordered the Great Oak to be spared.

“Although some parts of the tree were rotten, some of it was still as strong as an oak,” Williams said.

Mike McKenna, owner of Kronospan, a wood-panel producer in Chirk, has retained a firm of tree surgeons to determine if anything can be done to keep the Great Oak going.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI).

Canadian Zoo Sued over Solitary Elephant


EDMONTON, Alberta, Feb. 2 (UPI) — A Canadian zoo in Edmonton, Alberta, is being sued by two animal rights groups over its treatment of an aging and ailing female elephant.

The suit was filed against the Valley Zoo by Zoocheck Canada and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, alleging the 34-year-old elephant named Lucy isn’t being cared for properly and should be moved, the Edmonton Journal reported Tuesday.

The suit is backed by an affidavit by retired San Diego Zoo veterinarian Dr. Philip Ensley who said the solitary Asian elephant should have company and claims the harsh winter conditions are contributing to a decline in her health.

“It is my opinion that the conditions and standard of care at the Valley Zoo are causing Lucy unnecessary distress and that these conditions are not in conformity with (zoo association) standards,” Ensley’s filing said.

He said his research suggests Lucy is overweight and has respiratory problems and arthritis, the report said.

Television personalities Bob Barker and William Shatner began making public appeals last year to move the elephant to a sanctuary in California where she could be with other elephants in a more temperate climate.

City lawyer Steve Phipps told the Journal he was confident the city could prove its care conformed with zoo association standards.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Bald Eagles Nesting in Central New Jersey

Bald Eagle

OLD BRIDGE, N.J., Jan. 27 (UPI) — A pair of bald eagles have set up housekeeping in central New Jersey, a signal the environment is improving.

Environmentalists and state officials do not want the exact location of the nest reported for fear a rush of sightseers might scare the big raptors away, The Star-Ledger of Newark reported. The nest is in Old Bridge, Middlesex County, an area better known for sprawling suburbs and industry than wildlife.

“You could, through good intentions, destroy what you’re trying to protect,” said Rick Lear, a naturalist in Middlesex County.

Bald eagles came close to extinction from the use of the pesticide DDT, which thins the shells of their eggs. In New Jersey, they were reintroduced in marshes along Delaware Bay and have gradually been moving north along the Delaware River, the state’s western border.

The species is still classified as endangered in New Jersey, although it was removed from the federal list in 2007.

Lear, who discovered the Middlesex County nest, situated in the branches of a tall pine tree, said the birds of prey have been there for about a year. The closest known nest is in an office park on Route 1 on the border between Plainsboro and Princeton.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.