Year 2, Month 5, Day 23: Dark As A Dungeon

Hillary Clinton and Ken Salazar are going to the meeting of the Arctic Council, and are expected to contribute toward an agreement on the mitigation of “black carbon,” which is contributing significantly to Arctic ice melt, reports the Washington Post.

Much of the policy debate over global warming has focused on the role of carbon dioxide emissions, which are caused by fossil-fuel burning and remain trapped in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. But, with its initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions stalled in Congress, the Obama administration has been compelled to explore alternative ways to slow Arctic warming that do not require United Nations-brokered treaties or complex cap-and-trade scenarios.

At this week’s meetings in Greenland, attended by diplomats of the Arctic Council, Clinton will be joined by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Aides said they plan to highlight the role played by “black carbon” — essentially soot from inefficient combustion, such as natural gas flaring, wood stoves and the controlled burning of agricultural waste.

Such pollutants play an outsize role in Arctic warming, scientists say, essentially causing ice to melt faster than can be explained by rising temperatures alone. But instead of an international treaty, Arctic Council nations will be encouraged to adopt measures unilaterally to control emissions of soot as well other “short-term drivers” of Arctic warming, administration officials said.

Sent May 12:

The rapid losses of Arctic ice provide a sobering confirmation of the reality of global climate change, and reinforce the crucial fact that the time for meaningful human intervention is rapidly dwindling. The presence of Secretaries Clinton and Salazar at the Arctic Council meeting is a positive sign of engagement from our government; while “black carbon” is only one piece of the puzzle, it’s something that doesn’t require the acquiescence of the Republican-run House of Representatives. The GOP’s decades of anti-science advocacy, coupled with the profound innumeracy and scientific ignorance of many media figures, has created a political culture in which acknowledging reality is fatal to Republicans’ electoral opportunities. Eventually, of course, the greenhouse effect and the laws of physics will win; they always do. We are fortunate that at least a few members of our government recognize the danger and are prepared to act before it’s too late.

Warren Senders

Month 12, Day 2: Get Me Two Packs of Marlboros. With Cheese.

Looks like we’re not going to keep drilling, baby, drilling after all, as the Times reports.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced on Wednesday that it had rescinded its decision to expand offshore oil exploration into the eastern Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast because of weaknesses in federal regulation revealed by the BP oil spill.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that a moratorium on drilling would be in force in those areas for at least seven years, until stronger safety and environmental standards were in place. The move puts off limits millions of acres of the Outer Continental Shelf that hold potentially billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

Well, that’s excellent, and worthy of praise. But I’m just a grouch, I guess.

While it’s certainly good news that the Obama administration has abandoned its plans for further exploratory oil drilling on the East coast of the U.S., it is also a demonstration of just how far we have to go in our long national struggle for an energy economy free from the environmental and fiscal impacts of fossil fuels. Like those of Big Tobacco, the extractive industries’ P.R. aims to persuade us that fossil fuels are clean, safe, cheap and desirable — and all the past century’s collapsed mines, moonscaped mountaintops, sunken drilling platforms, ruptured pipelines, exploded refineries and drunken tanker captains have failed to change our minds. In the light of American intransigence regarding any possibility of a meaningful greenhouse emissions agreement at the Cancun Conference, Secretary Salazar’s announcement reminds one of a morbidly obese person topping off a Supersized order of junk food — with a diet soft drink.

Warren Senders

Month 10, Day 13: Grrrrrrr.


Dear Secretary Salazar — The Department of the Interior may have set some higher safety and environmental impact standards for offshore drilling, but will this translate into increased enforcement of these standards? If the moratorium on drilling is lifted, we need to significantly increase the budget for inspectors and regulators who will be a powerful presence on each and every drilling rig.

During the previous administration regulations were first gutted, then flouted, then ignored, leading inexorably to the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon disaster. It won’t make a bit of difference if the regulations are toughened unless the enforcement environment is made much, much, much more stringent.

The plain fact is that these big oil companies have been getting away with environmental crimes for decades — oil and coal extraction has severely damaged ecosystems around the world, many of them irrevocably. With our planetary system already in a state of shock from increased greenhouse gas emissions, there can no longer be any excuse for allowing fossil fuel industries free rein in their misuse of extractive technologies.

Any adjustment to safety and environmental regulations that assumes responsible behavior on the part of these organizations is hopelessly naive. I confess to grave disappointment; I had hopes that the present administration was prepared to recognize the grave environmental consequences of unbridled corporate sociopathy. I hope that I am proven wrong, but I am afraid that the Department of the Interior has just gotten played. Again.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders

Month 6, Day 13: I’m Told That Fish Rot From The Head.

Crooks and Liars had a very depressing piece about our Interior Secretary and his continued enabling of a Bush-style culture of corruption. Grrrrrr.

Their piece links to Rolling Stone magazine, which is the original source. I haven’t read the full RS piece yet, because I’ve been dealing with the benefit concert (which went fabulously, by the way).

Anyway, this goes off to the President tomorrow.

Dear President Obama,

When you announced a “moratorium” on offshore drilling, I was delighted. But as the details emerged, it began to look less and less like a really robust piece of environmental policy. What we need is a way to prevent future disasters; what we get is a halt of exploratory drilling at thirty-three deepwater rigs. Total number of deepwater rigs in the Gulf of Mexico? Five hundred and ninety-one. Total offshore drilling rigs? Over fifty-one hundred. Thirty-three is a very small number — less than one percent. It should be the job of the Interior Secretary to regulate and control the oil industry, but Secretary Salazar is on record that the moratorium won’t affect production.

The culture of corruption at the Minerals Management Service has continued; Secretary Salazar has long been an advocate of offshore drilling (going back to his time as a senator), and he is abusing his position in multiple ways. The BP Atlantis rig is located in waters 2,000 feet deeper than the Deepwater Horizon, only 150 miles from the Louisiana coastline. Congressional documents reveal that the Atlantis lacks required engineering certification for almost every one of its underwater components; British Petroleum’s own internal documents suggest that this failure of certification could lead to “catastrophic” errors. Why has the Atlantis not been shut down? Why has the MMS failed to address the safety risks of this platform since the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe?

According to the executive director of PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility), workers in many agencies inside the Department of the Interior (not just the Minerals Management Service) describe the culture as the “third Bush term.” The same managers are implementing the same policies. Is that the environmental legacy we need from the Obama Administration?

I recognize that much of this is not, strictly speaking, your fault. President Bush and his cronies have planted many of their ideological allies in key bureaucratic positions throughout the government, and it is difficult to root these people out and to transform the bureaucratic culture appropriately. But it is increasingly clear that Ken Salazar isn’t interested in effecting this transformation at all.

At a time when we urgently need a genuine climate and energy policy that builds the infrastructure of the future, the last thing we need is a relentless advocate of big oil, a proponent of offshore drilling, an ethically challenged enabler of corruption. Ken Salazar needs to go, and the Minerals Management Service needs to be dissolved.

This is no time or place for compromise.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders

Month 3, Day 29: Who Cares About Some Hapless Toad?

I read an article at the GOS which noted a new piece in Scientific American outlining a whole mess of different problems we’ll be facing in years to come if we want to keep the planet habitable for humans and other life. The whole list is pretty depressing (what a surprise!). I selected one area on which to base a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Dear Secretary Salazar,

In a newly published article in Scientific American, environmental scientist Jonathan Foley describes nine separate thresholds below which different environmental systems must remain if we are to maintain the health of our planet. Among these is the crucial area of biodiversity loss.

The scientific community notes that the current rate at which we are depleting the diversity of the Earth’s flora and fauna is at least 100 times the historic average, and easily ten times what could be considered a safe measure.

Biodiversity is critical for the planet’s long-term survivability, because it is through a wide spectrum of life-forms that ecological resilience is maintained. Monocultures are more prone to disease, predation and the devastating effects of ecological shifts. If a population depends primarily on a single food source, a crop failure can devastate an entire population inside a season — the lesson of the Irish potato famine.

It is crucial that the Department of the Interior make efforts to educate Americans about the importance of biodiversity in maintaining our country’s natural resources for future generations. It is increasingly apparent that the rich web of life upon which we all depend is far more fragile than has been assumed. Our collective behavior needs to change if we are to survive as a culture and as a species.

It’s equally important that the DOI be more proactive with regulatory initiatives to protect threatened species and habitats. There is no room left for giveaways to corporate special interest groups. While so-called “charismatic megafauna” may have their own constituencies, many of the life-forms facing extinction are obscure and seemingly insignificant. But ecological science has demonstrated time and time again how even the smallest creatures have crucial roles in the functioning of our environment.

Humanity’s rapid expansion and exploitation of the Earth’s resources has turned out to be a mixed blessing, providing luxurious lifestyles for some while triggering potentially catastrophic effects on our climate and biosphere. I urge the Department of the Interior to be even more proactive in educating Americans about the dangers we face — and to act vigorously to protect “the least among us.”

Thank you,

Warren Senders