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Five Years after the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster, Oil Spills Are on the Rise

Offshore and onshore, oil and gas operations and transportation appear no safer than before

Five years after the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico sparked national outrage, oil spills remain a routine occurrence across the United States. Yet many receive little — if any — national attention. The enormity and unprecedented scale of the BP disaster demanded a federal emergency response and captured daily headlines for months. But oil spills and pipeline ruptures occur daily – as they have nearly every day since the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, 2010. While many are relatively small in comparison, they still pose threats to public safety, health, and the environment.  

Deepwater HorizonPhoto by Ideum - ideas + media, on Flickr The Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform on fire following the explosion of the Macondo oil well. The federal government estimates that 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was capped.

The images and details of the BP Deepwater Horizon episode are unforgettable. On the evening of April 20, 2010, the Macondo offshore oil well located almost a mile under the sea surface and about 50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana exploded, killing 11 of the 126 workers on board the drilling platform and critically injuring three. The cataclysmic explosion unleashed what’s considered to be the largest accidental release of oil in US history. By the time the well was capped and the underwater flow of oil stopped on July 15, at least 3 million and perhaps nearly 5 million barrels of oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, affecting more than 350 miles of coastline form Louisiana to Florida. (The estimates vary depending on source but the federal government estimate is 4.9 million barrels, or almost 206 million gallons.) Five years later, the impacts of the oil and the measures deployed to contain and remove it — on fragile wetlands and barrier islands, beaches, marine wildlife and on coastal communities and those involved in the oil spill cleanup — are still being felt and tallied.

One might think that such a catastrophic event would have put a damper on US oil and gas production and forestalled additional spills and other unintentional fuel releases. Neither has happened despite political leaders’ pledges to prevent future accidents and rethink US reliance on fossil fuels.

On June 15, 2010, speaking from the Oval Office in …more

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In Review: Antarctic Edge: 70° South

A beautifully filmed journey to the bottom of the globe reveals new risks to the planet

There’s an old saying: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Well, here’s a film about a few people who are doing something about extreme weather. Every spring (in the Southern Hemisphere) oceanographers and ecologists of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project make the arduous journey to Palmer Station in the West Antarctic Peninsula. The area has been described as “the fastest winter-warming place on Earth,” and because of that unfortunate distinction it is among the best places on the planet to study the impacts of global climate change.

photo of a tiny boat zipping toward an ice sheetFirst Run Features photoA scene from Antarctic Edge: 70° South, a film by Dena Seidel

For the first time since LTER was established at the remote Palmer outpost by the United States National Science Foundation in 1990, a crew of filmmakers were allowed to accompany LTER team members to Antarctica. The resulting documentary film – Antarctic Edge: 70° South – is impressive. Director Dena Seidel and her crew have made one of the most informative films shot on location in the polar regions since Robert Flaherty’s groundbreaking Eskimo epic Nanook of the North was made at the Canadian Arctic in 1922. But instead of focusing on human inhabitants, Antarctic Edge: 70° is primarily concerned with the West Antarctic Peninsula’s penguins, whales, elephant seals, and seabirds as they confront global warming.

With a “you-are-there” vibe Seidel’s digital cameras transport viewers to the world’s final (if no longer fully frozen) frontier, one that’s sometimes literally off the charts. Various peninsula sites are still designated on maps as “PA” and “PD”: Position Approximate or Position Doubtful. The documentary, funded in part by National Science Foundation, opens with this worrisome caption, “May 2014: Scientists declared West Antarctic ice sheet melt unstoppable.” Throughout the film members of the interdisciplinary team of scientists explain the implications of that fact, which usually come across as dire pronouncements.

Biological oceanographer Oscar Schofield, who made his first Antarctic excursion in 1987, described the continent then as being “the land of the gods… like no other place on Earth.” But now the place is changing. The season for growing winter sea ice at the West Antarctic Peninsula is now, astonishingly, three months shorter per year. Antarctic Edge points out this reduction in ice has the potential to not …more

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From California to São Paulo, Challenging Agribusiness’s Water Monopoly

As Brazil's São Paulo taps out its water reserves, questions linger about how much the state's water utility distributes to sugarcane for ethanol production

By now, most are aware of California's unprecedented mandatory water restrictions, which Governor Brown ordered earlier this month. Many also know that these limits apply exclusively to urban water agencies, even though cities use only about 20 percent of California's total surface water reservoirs. California farms, on the other hand, use 80 percent of the state's surface water. While Governor Jerry Brown has defended this allocation for economic reasons, critics note that agriculture only accounts for 2 percent of the state's GDP. Regardless, the power of the agriculture lobby may ensure that pressures to cut back on water use will be shouldered by ordinary citizens living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other growing cities across the state.

photo of a dry lakePhoto by ClairexA dry branch of the Atibainha reservoir, which is part of São Paulo’s Cantareira system of reservoirs. Last year, the Cantareira reservoir was hit especially hard by drought, compounding management problems.

The water pains in the world's seventh largest economy are also being felt within the eighth: Brazil. The nation's most populous city, São Paulo, officially tapped out its supply of water on March 15, leaving millions with water access at only irregular hours, and millions of favela dwellers with even less access to water. The Guardian reported of neighbors fighting over measly remaining water reserves, and of armed groups looting emergency water trucks; NPR says people are drilling guerrilla wells across the city, potentially contaminating underground aquifers.

Last year, two of the main reserve systems that supply the city with water, the Cantareira and the Alto Tietê, were hit especially hard by drought, which the governor of São Paulo state has blamed for current water shortages. However, a UN report shows that reserve volume had already been declining for the past five years, meaning that the drought simply compounded management problems. The report cites mismanagement and poor preparation by the state government and its semi-public water utility, SabeSP, which distributes and purifies water in the region.

This has raised questions over how SabeSP distributes water between urban areas like São Paulo city and surrounding agricultural land. Like California, much of the available surface water in São Paulo state is directed toward agriculture (45 percent) or industry (14 percent). A further 36 percent is completely lost to …more

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Farming with Robots

Can more mechanization reduce the use of chemical herbicides?

Weeds, farmers’ biggest headache since time immemorial, just won’t stop popping up.

Modern agricultural technology thought it had weeds beaten with its synthetic pesticides and gene manipulation. But nature has come roaring back with evolved weeds robust enough to resist the chemicals farmers typically throw at them. And so they throw more. But herbicide overuse threatens the health of insect and animal life, and maybe ours, too. Last month an agency of the World Health Organization declared glyphosate – the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup – a possible human carcinogen.

But technology may yet come to the rescue. Teams of engineers around the world are hard at work inventing cutting-edge, weed-busting robots to step in and take over from broadcast herbicides. These robots just might make good on biotechnology’s broken promise: reducing the amount of chemicals used to grow our food.

photo of a solar panel-covered device on wheels in a farm fieldphoto courtesy the Australian Centre for Field RoboticsThe Ladybird, an autonomous weed-killer.

Technology has made it possible for just 2 percent of the US population to feed the rest of the nation. Biotechnology’s herbicide-tolerant crops made weed suppression easier with blanket spraying. Today, the vast majority of soybean, corn and cotton fields are planted with glyphosate-tolerant varieties.

According to a study by Charles Benbrook, total herbicide use in the United States increased by 527 million pounds between 1996 and 2011. That opened the door to glyphosate-resistant weeds, which now infest more than 62 million acres of US cropland, threatening farmers’ yields. The farm chemical industry’s solution? They’re promoting new seeds, this time tolerant of the additional and more toxic herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba. The chemical treadmill just keeps going.

Now, it’s a long way from “The Jetsons” to today’s farm robots. Most weeding bots still can’t navigate themselves around a farm field. They depend on a human driver, who brings a common sense approach, something engineers can’t yet program into computers.

But what robots do bring is enough accuracy and precision to potentially reverse escalating herbicide use trends (though they would not necessarily eliminate the use of herbicides). Using sophisticated computer vision technology, robots can distinguish weeds and either uproot or shoot them with tiny spot sprays of a deadly liquid. Even if that liquid is a conventional herbicide, …more

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In Tomorrow’s Vote, Pacific Fishery Management Council Must Act to Close Sardine Fishery

Failure to intervene will have lasting impact on marine ecosystem and coastal economy

Pacific sardines are in the midst of a crash, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the 1950s. When asked where the sardines had gone in the years following World War II, scientist Ed Ricketts famously answered, "They're in cans.” As a result, the once bustling canneries of Monterey were abandoned. Today, the Pacific sardine is once again imperiled, and fishery managers must act swiftly to stop current overfishing of this species.

sardinesPhoto by Adam Fagen The Pacific Fishery Management Council will vote tomorrow on whether to close the current sardine fishery early.

The collapse of Monterey's sardine fishery in the 1950s was due to the natural boom and bust cycle of this forage fish, exacerbated by a largely unregulated fishery removing sardines at an unsustainable rate during a natural bust. While the sardines eventually came back, they never rebounded to their historic highs. Scientists estimate the sardine population was over 3.5 million tons in the 1930s. Now the population is hovering at less than 3 percent of that historic peak and little of the catch is actually feeding people. Instead, most of the sardine catch is used as fishmeal and shipped abroad to feed larger farmed fish, like penned bluefin tuna. The next generation is now watching as history repeats itself, the ocean again being emptied of this critically important small fish. 

Three years ago, federal fishery managers failed to heed the warning signs of a second sardine fishery collapse. In 2012, top sardine scientists clearly cautioned of a severe collapse unless precautionary measures were taken to avoid it. While the Pacific Fishery Management Council did reduce the catch levels of sardine as the stock declined, they did not act fast enough.

The Council’s own scientists reported last week that, while there has been a natural decline of the sardine population in recent years likely due to ocean conditions, today’s sardine population would have been four times higher than current levels in the absence of fishing. It is clear that fishing pressure has a direct impact on abundance of this forage fish. Without precautionary measures to account for natural variability in this inherently boom and bust stock, disaster is inevitable.

With the sardine population in collapse, fishing vessels are turning to anchovy to fill the void.   But Northern anchovies, another critical …more

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SeaWorld Faces Third Lawsuit in as Many Weeks Over Orca Captivity

Lawsuit says the marine entertainment company misleads the public about the health and wellbeing of captive orcas

SeaWorld has been treading water for the past few years as it faces ongoing criticism about its captive orca program. The marine entertainment behemoth may soon find itself sinking: Today, a new lawsuit was filed against SeaWorld claiming that the company makes false and misleading statements about the health and welfare of its captive whales.

SeaWorldPhoto by SeeBeeW, on Flickr An orca performs in SeaWorld’s Shamu “Believe” show. The latest lawsuit says SeaWorld misleads the public about the many negative impacts of captivity on orcas.

The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court on behalf of two plaintiffs, includes a long list of allegations regarding how SeaWorld represents captive orcas in its advertising. Many of the claims concern the physical heath of captive whales. Take orca lifespan, for example: SeaWorld claims that captive orcas live just as long as orcas in the wild. Plaintiffs counter that SeaWorld orcas die at an early age, years earlier than their wild counterparts. Similarly, SeaWorld has said that all male orcas experience dorsal fin collapse. Plaintiffs say that isn’t true, that dorsal fins collapse results from unhealthy captivity in small tanks, and only occurs in a very small percentage of wild orcas.

The false claims alleged in the lawsuit also extend to psychological health. SeaWorld depicts captive orcas as happy in its advertising materials. According to plaintiffs, this is far from the truth, and captive SeaWorld whales are often treated for stress-related ulcers and depression. Also, captive orcas frequently chew on the metal bars separating their pools, an indication of boredom. This chewing can cause broken teeth, leading to cavities and infection. According to plaintiffs, the conditions of captivity — including small tanks and the practice of placing orcas from different pods together — also cause increased aggression and bullying between whales. 

Another allegation is that SeaWorld lies about keeping marine families together. According to the plaintiffs, SeaWorld, although it states otherwise,  separates young orcas from their mothers; in the wild, calves typically stay with their mothers for most of their lives.

Plaintiffs say they would not have purchased tickets to SeaWorld San Diego if they had known that captivity was so detrimental to orcas, and argue that SeaWorld’s statements violate consumer protection laws.

“SeaWorld is luring people to buy tickets based on a pack of false and misleading statements, …more

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Maybe Monsanto Is Not All Bad

Biotech firm's acquisition of Climate Corporation will help farmers plan for severe weather

By Marc Gunther

David Friedberg, CEO of The Climate Corporation, expected pushback when he decided to sell his San Francisco-based big data company to Monsanto. He was surprised, though, when some of the loudest criticism came from his own father.

 fertilizerPhoto by Bill Meier, on Flickr A farmer applies fertilizer to a field in Illinois. Climate Corporation claims its analyses help farmers make more efficient decisions about seed, water use and fertilizer.

Lionel Friedberg – a Los Angeles filmmaker whose 1989 documentary, Crisis in the Atmosphere, was one of the first films to highlight the problem of global warming – reacted to the news by berating his son. “Monsanto? The most evil company in the world?” Friedberg recalled his father saying. “I thought you were trying to make the world a better place!”

As Friedberg the younger wrote in an email to Climate Corp employees after the 2013 sale, being chastised by his own dad “was really hard”. But he’s nothing if not a believer in facts, and so he marshaled enough evidence to persuade his father that the $930m sale to Monsanto was not just good for his business, but good for the planet. His email is worth reading, particularly if, like Friedberg’s dad, you’re a critic of Monsanto.

Now Friedberg and his colleagues need to persuade the world’s farmers that Climate Corp will help them save money, improve yields, adapt to climate change and improve the environment. And if the company manages to turn around a few more Monsanto critics, that would be a bonus.

Sustainability through precision

Founded in 2006, Climate Corp is a leading player in the fast-growing business of precision agriculture. Using a data-driven approach, it seeks the most efficient use of fertilizer, seed, pesticides, land and water. It’s the next big idea in farming, Friedberg claimed when we met at his office in San Francisco. He compared the approach to the industrialization of agriculture, the green revolution and modern plant breeding.

“We have these quantum leaps,” Friedberg said. “This one is going to be driven by the digitization of agriculture. We’re able to more accurately monitor, through digital technology, what’s going on in the field. Then we’re able to accurately execute and optimize decisions, applications and investments.”

“Technology is how we solve all the great problems that we have to tackle, …more

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