Posts Tagged ‘oil’


Very little chance to post this week, as my home computer is in the shop.  In the mean time, enjoy the Greenwash Brigade’s 2008 Greenwashes of the Year.

The Greenwash Brigade is a group of environmental professionals, each part of the Public Insight Network, on the hunt for “greenwash” as they examine eco-friendly claims by companies, governments and other groups.

In the 2008 list, they picked two stories related to foods,  two related to fossil fuels, and three related to the auto industry, plus one related to politics.  And when you look closer, all eight stories are even more closely related — it’s all about fossil fuels and petrochemicals in the end.


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offshore drilling platformI talked last week about last-ditch efforts of the current federal administration to open U.S. coastal waters to oil and natural gas drilling. In Wednesday’s Times-Standard, John Driscoll’s article “Thompson floats no-drill bill” discusses Rep. Mike Thompson’s attempt to protect the California North Coast from this threat.

The most immediate threat generally perceived about offshore drilling is that of oil spills.  The T-S article makes a reference to the fuel spills from the vessels Kure (a freighter) and Stuyvesant (a dredge) in 1997 and 1999 which killed thousands of birds in the Humboldt Bay area.  I worked on the Kure spill response at the HSU Marine Wildlife Care Center; my husband worked on response to both spills.  The scope of these spills is a minuscule fraction of what the spills from an offshore drilling operation look like, and the response time much faster.

Congressman Thompson is trying to protect the waters outside the jurisdiction of the state (i.e., outside the 3-mile limit) off the coast of Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties from drilling.

Despite this and other efforts, the threat is looming. The Charlottesville, VA, C-Ville recently mentioned that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine asked Minerals Management Service (MMS), the office of the U.S. Department of the Interior in charge of mineral exploration and exploitation, to postpone any plans for drilling until President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in and give a two-month extension to the comment period. The governor was turned down; on Wednesday the Richmond Times-Dispatch announced that the comment period would be extended by a mere 15 days to make up for the holidays.

However, the business community expects the Obama team to restore the moratorium on offshore drilling and even strengthen the ban. But hey, investing in the offshore drilling business is apparently considered a great investment nonetheless.

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Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Department of the Interior, headed by industryfriendly, environmentallychallenged Dirk Kempthorne, is moving to open some or all of the U.S. coastal waters outside state control to offshore oil exploration starting in 2010.

Planned assault

The Bush administration has been gunning for this for a long time. Back in July, an 18-year-old presidential moratorium on oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf was lifted. It is perhaps ironic that the moratorium had first been by the first President George Bush.

Congress followed suit in September by passing one of its typical unholy combo acts, funding government operations through March 2009, including disaster relief, and bundling this with a lift of the legislative ban on offshore oil and gas leasing.

This is all, off course, floated by the soaring oil prices we saw earlier this year — which were of course accompanied by record profits for the oil industry. These profits from the exploration and production sectors did not trickle down to refining and distribution operations.

Since then, of course, prices have fallen and the economics of big oil projects look different. It’s not clear whether that makes offshore drilling in U.S. waters more or less attractive compared to other projects right now. However, California reserves are located in much shallower areas than the zones in the Gulf of Mexico where drilling is already open to drilling, making them potentially cheaper for oil companies to explore — and making the environmental costs that much higher as they lie in areas of rich biodiversity and complex, interconnected ecosystems.

How useful?

Off the coast of California, according to the current estimates of offshore oil reserves, lie approximately 10.1 billion barrels of crude. This compares to a U.S. consumption 7.59 billion barrels of oil per year. Between exploration and implementation, any oil from drilling in new areas would arrive several years later in a different economic landscape — though the environmental effects would be felt far sooner.

According to Scientific American, the Minerals Management Service (MMS, the part of the U.S. Department of the Interior responsible for leasing tracts to oil and gas companies and collecting the royalties on them) has estimated that there are around 18 billion barrels in the underwater areas that were until now off-limits to drilling nationwide.

“That’s significantly less than in oil fields open for business in the Gulf of Mexico, coastal Alaska and off the coast of southern California, where there are 10.1 billion barrels of known oil reserves as well as an estimated 85.9 billion more.”

The Scientific American article, which I really recommend reading, goes on to show that there is no chance that drilling in offshore areas would provide the U.S. with energy self-sufficiency. We’re talking bandage on a wooden leg.


Opening the fragile continental shelf areas to oil and gas exploration and drilling invites several environmental impacts. Some of the best known include:

  • spills like the one that hit Santa Barbara in 1969 and led Californians to say no to more offshore drilling, and the Exxon Valdez‘ spill in 1989;
  • drilling platform wastewater and metal cuttings, which contain drilling fluids and heavy metals including mercury;
  • contaminant bioaccumulation in the food web affecting the marine and coastal ecosystems;
  • the direct destruction of habitat, such as kelp beds and reefs;
  • air pollution with emissions that are reportedly equivalent to 7,000 cars driving 50 miles a day per platform;
  • disturbance of marine wildlife such as whales;
  • and of course the contribution to oil addiction and greenhouse gas emissions.

I pray that the new administration will close that door, but although some of the Obama nominations gave me hope, that of Ken Salazar for new Secretary of the Interior does not thrill me. In the past he has voted against increasing fuel-efficiency standards (CAFE) for cars and trucks, to end protections that limit off-shore drilling in Florida’s Gulf Coast, and against a bill that would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider global warming when planning water projects.

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I’m crossing my fingers on appointments for the new Obama administration. While there are a number of appointments that would not be my first choices, I understand that a lot of compromises are needed in politics. A few choices make me look up and hope for, you know, change:

John P. Holdren has apparently been tapped to become the President’s science adviser. Director and faculty chair of the Science, Technology and Public Policy program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Holdren has written many articles on global environmental change, sustainable development, energy technology and policy, nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, and science and technology policy.

Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Chu, head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of Physics and Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley, has been nominated to head the Department of Energy. Chu has been an advocate of developing renewable energy sources to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

Carol Browner, a former head of the U.S. EPA under the Clinton administration, has been selected to be Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, the so-called “Climate Czar”. Her original background was in law and politics, but she has served extensively in various positions related to environmental protection and did a pretty decent job at EPA (from my perspective as a consultant who had to work closely with EPA during that period and since).

Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist from Oregon State University where she is Valley Professor of Marine Biology and Distinguished Professor of Zoology, has been picked as administrator for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She founded the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program and is known for long-time dedication to improving public understanding of science. She too has done considerable work on global climate change issues.

President-elect Obama also named the chairs of the Presidential Council of Advisers on Science and Technology on Saturday: Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, and MIT genome biologist Eric Lander, who was one of the driving forces on the Human Genome Project.

I’m very hopeful that these people will bring powerful understanding of science and dedication to rationality to positions that are two often prizes for partisan politics.

Links of interest:

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In the California environmental consulting business, there’s been a bit of dismay for the past month over a letter sent by the State Water Resources Control Board to various participants in the Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund.

The Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund Program was created in 1989 to help owners and operators of petroleum underground storage tanks (USTs) meet federal and state financial responsibility requirements. As some friends of mine sometimes remember, the changes in regulations regarding the pollution created by USTs, especially at fuelling stations, often became a difficult burden for small owners. They suddenly had to meet environmental standards they were not ready for; excavating old tanks and the contaminated soil around them was expensive.

The program was created to help the owners and operators of leaky USTs clean up their sites. Claims are prioritized in four categories:

  • The highest priority, Class A, is reserved for residential tank owners
  • Class B is reserved for small California businesses, nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies with gross receipts below a specified maximum
  • Class C is for certain California businesses, nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies not meeting the criteria for Class B
  • Class D is for all other eligible claimants

Here’s the kerfluffle: a few weeks ago, the Board notified participants that it was short on cash and payments would be delayed several months. The primary reason cited was poor revenue; you see, the Fund is financed by a per-gallon fee paid by the UST owners who are required to have a permit — but not as a percentage: as a flat amount per gallon sold. With the record highs on gasoline prices this summer, people drove less and the revenue, ahem, tanked.

So first, payments for already authorized and completed work are on hold for who knows how long. Then the Board announces that Class C agreements are suspended altogether. (Class D is not even on the horizon right now.) But to top it off, the Board tells Class B and C claimants:

“Have your consultant prepare a line item budget covering planned corrective action activities for your site for the 18-month period January 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010.”

Notice a problem with this? (1) “We’re holding your payments and we’ll pay out by priority.” (2) “Ask your consultant, which you now can’t pay, to do more work!”

But wait, there’s more! The budgets have to be submitted no later than February 1, 2009. And with the Holidays in the middle, you can bet all consultants are delighted to create a bunch of unscheduled budgets from whole cloth, for which they will have a hard time getting paid by their clients left hanging in the breeze.

On the one hand, the Board does need those budgets in order to plan and prioritize. On the other, the suddenness of the changes is really hitting a lot of clients hard, and the getting-paid-for-work issue is non-negligible. Fun times!

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According to last Wednesday’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SkyHook and Boeing are teaming up to create a skycrane that is a cross between a dirigible and a helicopter.

I don’t know enough about the economics of construction and operation of such craft to know the answer to my own question, but I wondered how the fuel, material, and labour requirements compare to that of building roads in remote areas; according to SkyHook President Peter Jess, they might be favourable.

Regardless of the answer, the primary clients for such a craft are oil and mineral extraction operations in remote areas. It’s a measure of just how expensive such commodities have become, thanks largely to war in the Middle East. We hear a lot about the price of oil, but the price of metals has climbed dramatically, making operations that were prohibitively expensive just a few years ago suddenly seem attractive. And therefore, expensive technologies to reach them also seem economically feasible.

That said, I’d love a ride in the new JHL-40.

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Interesting article in today’s Seattle Times: “Will Gas prices drive homebuyers away from suburbs?” Seattle, like the rest of the major West Coast cities, has a relatively high cost of living and high housing and fuel costs. Although the situation is not as acute as in San Francisco or L.A., this sort of question is probably representative of what other cities will experience. In fact, California cities, with their more lengthier commutes, will probably present sharper dilemmas.

On the other hand, the SF Bay Area has a good public transportation network, while Seattle’s is rather lackluster. In Seattle, the system works pretty well if you’re working downtown and taking a single bus line; but as soon as you need to transfer between buses or head anywhere but downtown, it becomes very inconvenient. We still don’t have a good rapid transit (subway, metro, skytrain, or monorail) system; the regional light rail lines are being expanded, but are only useful to a fraction of commuters.

The City of Seattle changed its planning a few years ago to adopt a policy of growth by infill and densification. The mockups of this sort of development always show low-impact, green, family-friendly theoretical projects, but what gets built is most often condominium blocks, with perhaps mixed-use/commercial on the ground floor. I have trouble believing that so many people in Seattle are both willing and able to buy condos; they’re OK for young couples and singles, but not so great for families. I expect a condo glut on the local market within five years, and I expect many of those will be bought cheaply by management companies that will rent them out to people who can’t afford to buy.

So the question of home prices versus gas prices will probably be important to a lot of people for a long while.

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