Oceanographers testify in Deepwater Horizon civil suit

by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer This fall has seen the endgame of the US Justice Department’s civil case against British Petroleum and eight partners in the matter of the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout, likely to be settled soon, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Justice Department is suing under the Clean Water Act for damages from the 2010 accident, which killed eleven men and spilled a net 4.2 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, endangering the people, wildlife, and ecosystems of the gulf. The case was scheduled to go to trial in January 2013. In an August memorandum, the JD accused BP of gross negligence. BP could be liable for between $5.4 billion and $21 billion in this case [update to clarify: $21 billion under the Clean Water Act alone; as John Kostyak points out in the comments, the defendants may face further liability under the Oil Pollution Act, among others. Settlement negotiations involve tradeoffs in penalties (it isn’t clear that the OPA fines won’t be levied instead of, rather than in addition to, CWA fines), and as OPA fines count as a tax write-off, and CWA monies mostly go to the States, with less stringent requirements that they be applied to environmental remediation, the political pressures are complex. Dare I say, Byzantine? Louisiana is now asking for a separate trial. The WSJ reported that the government is negotiating a combined settlement for criminal penalties. I urge interested readers to click through to the story for details], and also faces a class action suit on behalf of coastal businesses. Its liability under the CWA is dependent on the volume of oil spilled (and findings of negligence) – a number which is, naturally, under dispute. Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have found themselves uncomfortably caught up in the legal proceedings after volunteering expert assistance during the emergency. Called upon to help in assessing the failure of the blowout preventer and measuring the rate of oil flow from the broken well, first by BP and later by the US Coast Guard, the scientists have been pushed into taking a side in the case when their findings were seen as unfavorable to the defendants. BP is, in any case, treating them as hostile witnesses. Last Spring, defense council subpoenaed more than 3000 emails that passed between oceanographers Christopher Reddy, Richard Camilli, and their colleagues during the exploration and data analysis, and in communication with editors and peer reviewers during publication negotiations. The team had already supplied BP with 52,000 pages of data and other materials used to reach their conclusions. “When BP sent its...

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ESA Policy News: April 20

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: CJS BILLS SUPPORT SCIENCE, SENATE TRANSFERS SATELLITES TO NASA The week of April 16, both the House and Senate Commerce Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittees approved their respective funding bills for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. In total, the House CJS appropriations bill would provide $51.1 billion to all agencies under its jurisdiction, a reduction of $1.6 billion below FY 2012 and $731 below the president’s request. The Senate bill would fund all agencies under its jurisdiction at $51.862 billion, a $1 billion reduction from FY 2012.  While the House bill’s funding levels are overall less than the Senate, both chambers supported increases in key science agencies in comparison to the current fiscal year. The Senate CJS bill would also move funding for weather satellite procurement from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There has been bipartisan, bicameral criticism directed at NOAA’s costly satellites. According to Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the move would save $117 million in FY 2013 and reduce duplicative federal activities. Enclosed are funding levels for key science bureaus outlined within the House and Senate bills: The National Science Foundation House: $7.333 billion, an increase of $299 over FY 2012. Senate: $7.273 billion, an increase of $240 million over FY 2012. NASA House: $17.6 billion, $226 million below FY 2012 Senate: $19.4 billion, an increase of $1.6 billion over FY 2012. (*The increase is due to the bill’s provision transferring weather satellite procurement from NOAA to NASA. Absent these funds, the bill would mean a $41.5 million cut for NASA. NOAA House: $5 billion, $68 million above FY 2012 Senate: $3.4 billion, $1.47 billion below FY 2012 For additional information on the Senate CJS bill, click here. For additional information on the House CJS bill, click here.  APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE RELEASES FY 2013 ENERGY AND WATER BILL On April 17, the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee released its funding bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. The bill, which funds federal programs for the Department of Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water programs within the Department of Interior, would be funded at $32.1 billion, $965 million less than the president’s request, yet a slight increase from FY 2012. Department of Energy (DOE) – DOE would receive $26.3 billion, $365 million less than FY 2012. DOE environmental management activities would be funded at $5.5 billion, $166 million below FY 2012. The bill increases funding for nuclear security by $300 million from FY 2012 and would direct funding...

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ESA Policy News: April 9

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. HOUSE: GOP BUDGET SETS FURTHER DISCRETIONARY SPENDING CAPS On March 29, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposed budget resolution for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. The bill passed by a vote of 228-191 with 10 Republicans joining all Democrats in voting against the bill. The non-binding resolution sets discretionary spending at $1.028 trillion, $19 billion below the $1.047 trillion agreed upon during the compromise enacted under the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25). The budget resolution typically serves as a maximum funding ceiling for congressional appropriators to work from as House and Senate appropriation bills are drafted and marked-up in the spring and summer. Under the House-passed resolution, H. Con. Res. 112, environmental spending, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies, would take a $4.1 billion hit, sinking to budget authority levels not seen since 2001. The funding cut is nearly double the $2.3 billion reduction proposed by President Obama’s FY 2013 budget request. At the same time, the House budget bill would seek to increase revenue by expanding oil and gas drilling. The 10 Republicans voting against the budget were Reps. Justin Amash (MI), Joe Barton (TX), John Duncan (TN), Chris Gibson (NY), Tim Huelskamp (KS), Walter Jones (NC), David McKinley (WV), Todd Platts (PA), Denny Rehberg (MT) and Ed Whitfield (KY). The rationale for the opposition varied. Some members supported a more far-reaching resolution offered by the far-right conservative Republican Study Committee that claims it would balance the budget in five years through more severe cuts. Other Republicans objected to the proposed changes to Medicare. For additional information on Chairman Ryan’s budget, see the March 23 edition of ESA Policy News. HOUSE: SCIENCE COMMITTEE REVIEWS NOAA WEATHER FORECASTING SYSTEMS On March 28, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment convened to examine the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) weather forecasting methods. The hearing focused on the broad range of technologies available to gather weather and climate data and whether those technologies could improve weather forecasting methods. In addition to representation from NOAA, the committee heard from several witnesses from the private sector who discussed how they could provide the same weather collection data for less money. Committee Republicans were critical of NOAA for allocating 40 percent of its proposed $5.1 billion Fiscal Year 2013 budget towards its two satellite programs, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R), at the expense of...

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Briefing highlights importance of ecosystem services in Gulf of Mexico

On November 16, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership joined with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS) and the National Research Council of the National Academies to sponsor House and Senate briefings on restoring the ecosystem services that support economic vitality in the Gulf of Mexico. The briefing highlighted findings from a recent National Academies report that examined changes to ecosystem services in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The report intends to provide guidance on methods to identify and assess important ecosystem services in the Gulf region in the wake of the oil spill. Reps. Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Kathy Castor (D-FL) made appearances at the briefing, expressing their support for legislation that would foster economic and environmental recovery in the region.  Scalise and Castor co-chair  the House Gulf Coast Caucus. Rep. Scalise is a sponsor of H.R. 3096, Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act of 2011. The RESTORE Act would dedicate at least 80 percent of penalties paid by the responsible parties under the Clean Water Act (CWA) to Gulf Coast states to invest in the long-term health of the coastal ecosystem and bring about environmental and economic recovery in the region. Companion legislation (S. 1400) has been introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). The Greater Houston Partnership, Chamber Southwest Louisiana, and Greater New Orleans Inc., joined with several other commerce organizations in writing to House and Senate leaders in support of the bill. “The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the five states of the Gulf Coast region was almost $2.4 trillion in 2009, representing 30 percent of the nation’s GDP,” the letter states. “We believe that enacting the RESTORE Act is vital to the environmental and economic recovery of a region still dealing with the devastating impact of the disaster.” According to one of her congressional aides, Rep. Castor has not cosponsored the RESTORE Act because she is working with Rep. Scalise on improvements to the bill, but she has voiced her support for getting 80 percent of the CWA fines for the Gulf region. Rep. Castor has sponsored H.R. 480, the Gulf of Mexico Economic and Environmental Restoration Act of 2011, a similar bill that would also direct 80 percent of BP’s fines towards Gulf Coast restoration. The briefing’s speakers included David Yoskwitz of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies; Nancy Rabalais, Executive Director and Professor at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium; Heather Allis, Lead Scientist at the Natural Capital Project; Robin Barnes, Executive Vice President of Greater New Orleans Inc. and Timothy Reilly, Managing Partner at CatVest Petroleum Services,...

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Out of the ashes: The Gulf, one year later

Last year the world’s eyes turned to the Gulf of Mexico when British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling unit exploded, causing what became the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.  Eleven people lost their lives in the explosion that resulted in 205.8 million gallons of crude oil leaking into the Gulf, 17 were injured, and countless more had to rebuild their livelihoods. This time last year Deepwater Horizon was still spewing about 53,000 barrels per day into the Gulf, in a community still recovering from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.  This year, Gulf residents are bracing themselves for another assault—one that arrives every summer. That is, the Mississippi River deposits nutrients into the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The influx of nutrients sets off a chain reaction that transforms a large area of the Gulf into a massive “dead zone” where virtually no aquatic organism can survive. This area,  off the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas is the largest hypoxic zone  currently impacting the United States, and it is second worldwide only to the Baltic Sea. Moreover, this year’s is predicted to be the biggest ever due to excessive flooding (see the above image showing sediment from the Mississippi River). The Gulf just can’t seem to get a break. So where does the problem start? When it rains, it pours. Rain that falls almost anywhere between the Rocky Mountains in the West and the Appalachian Mountains in the East (about 40% of the land area of the lower 48 states), with some exceptions, drains into the Mississippi. The majority of the land in this area is farmland, and the majority of farms in the Midwest are dependent on chemical fertilizers. “As agricultural commodity prices have plummeted and farm communities continue to decline,” according to a factsheet published by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, “many farmers feel they have no choice but to intensively fertilize and maximize production of a few low-value commodities.” This winter and spring brought record snowfall and record amounts of precipitation to the central US, causing the  Mississippi River floods of this spring. And big floods carry large amounts of fertilizer. Mississippi’s 1.2 million square mile watershed essentially funnels agricultural fertilizer straight into the Gulf. If you’ve ever wondered why nutrients could be so bad for marine ecosystems, hypoxia, which means oxygen depletion, is your answer. Nutrients from chemical fertilizers feed giant algae blooms, which in turn feed a population boom in algae-eating zooplankton. Dead algae and zooplankton fecal pellets sink down to the sea floor and are feasted on by bacteria, a process that consumes oxygen. In...

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Buffo the truffle-hunting dog, night-blooming balsa trees and fire-ant-made rafts

Truffle shuffle: According to a letter published in the April issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Buffo the truffle-hunting dog made an unusual find: a one-pound Burgundy truffle in the forests of southern Germany in November. As lead author Ulf Büntgen said in a recent Wired Science article, “This wasn’t a small find, but a big and expensive truffle with lots of smaller ones around. It was strange to find it in an area where, so far, this truffle’s existence has never been reported…The season, early November, was also unusual. This led us to ask, ‘what is driving truffle growth here? Is it connected to climate?’” Read more at “Truffle-Hunting Dog Finds Jackpot in Unexpected Place.” Blooming balsa: Large, blooming balsa trees attract wildlife in the night with their nectar-laden blossoms. Natalie Angier elaborated in a National Geographic article: “When [the capuchin monkeys] look up again, their muzzles are speckled with pollen, which from the [balsa] tree’s perspective is the whole point of its flowers: to capture the attention of a pollinator long enough that the animal can’t help but be brushed with the plant’s equivalent of semen, which, if all goes well, the inadvertent matchmaker will eventually deliver to the female parts of another balsa tree’s flowers. The exchange is simple: You get drinks on the house, my gametes get a ride on your face.” Read more at “Panama’s Ochroma Trees.” Deepwater update: One year after the Deepwater Horizon explosion sent oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists are still researching the longterm ecological impact of an incident that is unique in many ways. That is, “[t]he field of coral was just 11 kilometres from the Deepwater Horizon well head, which earlier in the year had spewed out more than 4 million barrels of oil and a similar amount of methane—the largest ever accidental release in the ocean,” wrote Mark Schrope in a Nature article. “The spill was unique in other ways, too. Located beyond the continental shelf and some 1,400 metres below the surface, it happened in deeper water than any other major spill in history.” Read more at “Oil spill: Deep wounds.” Peacock spots: Mate selection in peacocks may be more complex than previously thought. That is, the number of eyespots on a male peacock’s feathers is likely not the only factor responsible for female’s mate selection.“The threshold idea certainly makes sense at first glance, says Adeline Loyau, a peacock researcher at the CNRS research station in Moulis, France,” in a Science News article by Susan Milius. “The struggle to understand the long-familiar peacock, adds [Loyau], ‘suggests that we are still far from...

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Rest stops for fall migration

Many animals migrate in the fall to exotic locales and warmer, more abundant southern climates. Among the more famous migrating winged species are monarch butterflies, but there are several species of birds that also migrate during the fall. Some of these birds, such as hawks, rest and “refuel” in the Gulf region of the United States as they traverse southward.

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Gulf seafood safety and the government’s response

Since oil began leaking from a rig in the Gulf of Mexico last April, concerns regarding the safety of the region’s seafood abounded. Now, more than two months after the leak was sealed, public officials, federal scientists and even President Obama have all been saying that seafood from the Gulf region is safe to eat. So why aren’t consumers digging in? Several local leaders from the region impacted by the oil spill addressed this topic last week during the most recent hearing of the National Commission on the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling in Washington, D.C.

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