BP & The Trial of the Century
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The most complicated environmental trial in history is about to get underway to determine who’s at fault in the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Martin Davies, maritime law professor and director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University, about the trials and tribulations of the BP lawsuit. (7:10)
U.S. Becomes Net Energy Exporter
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Harry Truman was president the last time we exported more energy than we imported. Now complete energy independence may be within reach as President Obama plans to tap all domestic sources to achieve that goal. Host Bruce Gellerman asks John Podesta, chair of the progressive think tank the Center for American Progress, about kicking our foreign oil habit. (5:15)
Dolphin Strandings/ Mary Bates
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Since January 12, more than one hundred dolphins have beached themselves in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The reason for these strandings is unclear, as Living on Earth’s Mary Bates reports. But that doesn’t mean scientists are without theories about the dolphin strandings. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to C. T. Harry, assistant stranding coordinator for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Harry’s research suggests that fluctuations in climate patterns may play a role in marine mammal strandings in New England. (7:30)
Trying to Silence Navy Sonar
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A coalition of conservation organizations and indigenous groups are suing the U.S. Navy. The group alleges the Navy and federal regulators have failed to protect marine mammals in a huge warfare training area off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Zak Smith, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. (2:50)
Wave Glider/ Ashley Ahearn
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What’s self-propelled, floats, and is designed to collect ocean intelligence? Ashley Ahearn of EarthFix reports on a new technology that could help scientists learn more about the mysteries of the water world. (4:50)
BirdNote® Mating for Life/ Michael Stein
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Birds like to be in pairs, at least for the mating season. Michael Stein reports on why many feathered couples don’t stick around much longer than that. (2:05)
Keeping Emissions Down in California
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The California Air Resources Board has mandated that by 2025, 15 percent of new cars sold in the state must have zero or near-zero emissions. Daniel Sperling, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis, tells host Bruce Gellerman how the state is going to achieve this goal. (7:45)
FREEZE! The Great Ice Heist/ Ike Sriskandarajah
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A Chilean man was arrested for stealing 11,000 pounds of glacier. The intercepted ice was destined for cocktail glasses in Santiago. Black market ice is a new problem in Chile but using the glaciers to chill things is an old practice that has built a town in Alaska and a nearly forgotten industry. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah brings the cold, hard truth. (7:15)
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Inuit throat singers Karen Panigonia and Maria Illungiayok face off as they sing “The Love Song.” (1:10)
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Martin Davies, John Podesta, C. T. Harry, Zak Smith, Daniel Sperling
REPORTERS: Mary Bates, Ashley Ahearn, Michael Stein, Ike Sriskandarajah
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The environmental trial of the century begins soon, BP Oil versus just about everyone else.
DAVIES: There'll be moments of high drama, but a lot of it, a LOT of it, will be rather tedious, going through millions of documents.
GELLERMAN: Coming up: what to expect when BP has its year in court. Also - volunteers struggle to save beached dolphins during an unprecedented series of strandings.
[SOUND OF WAVES]
MAN: Alright, on the count of three we'll lift and we want to walk in together, okay? Ready? One, two, three.
[SOUND OF WAVES]
GELLERMAN: And surf's up for new sea drones designed to ride the waves while collecting oceans of data:
MEINIG: So, if you look at it it’s a very elegant device. And we can move, we can’t move very fast but, nonetheless, we can go one to two knots on this, which is fantastic for a lot of ocean research.
GELLERMAN: WaveGliders and a lot more this week, on Living on Earth. Hang with us!
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, MA, it’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. The most complex and quite possibly most costly environmental trial in history is set to start later this month, in a federal court in New Orleans, when the BP Deepwater Horizon case goes before Judge Carl Barbier.
It's been almost two years since 11 workers died in the oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly five million barrels of crude gushed into the sea before the well was capped three months later. BP set up a 20 billion dollar fund for damages; so far it's paid out nearly eight billion, almost exactly what the company declared in profits just last quarter.
The upcoming trial combines hundreds of individual lawsuits, along with federal, state and local government cases, a lot of companies, and 72 million pages of documents.
Professor Martin Davies is director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. He says Judge Barbier has his work cut out for him.
DAVIES: He has a lot of people working for him. A lot of the court's documents, not just in this case but in all federal cases now, are highly automated - there’s a lot of electronic filing. I must say, though, that Judge Barbier has done a remarkable job getting this case on to trial as quickly as he has.
GELLERMAN: Well, it may never get off the ground, there’s speculation by some analysts that BP is going to settle before it ever gets to court.
DAVIES: Yes, I’ve heard that. I’m a little skeptical about that. There are an awful lot of people that they’re going to have to settle with, and if any of them are left standing, the case will go ahead. There may be individual settlements, there have been settlements all along, but a global settlement that sends the whole thing away? I would be surprised, but it’s not impossible.
GELLERMAN: So, in this case, if it does go forward, do they determine who’s at fault and who’s to blame or is it all BP’s fault at this point?
DAVIES: No, in fact, the principal purpose of this trial is to work out who’s to blame. The responsibility of Cameron, and Halliburton and Transocean….
Five hundred civil cases, 72 million pages of documents and multiple players on both sides, the Deepwater Horizon trial at New Orleans Federal District Court could span longer than a year. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, s_falkow)
GELLERMAN: So, Transocean, they own the rig. Halliburton, they did the actual drilling. Cameron, what did they do?
DAVIES: Cameron made the blow-out preventer. Um…
GELLERMAN: And that’s the one that failed?
DAVIES: Yes, that didn’t prevent the blow-out. So all of these cases - he’s hearing all of these cases together to allocate responsibility between the defendants, so that it can be determined which of the other defendants, other than BP, has to pay what.
GELLERMAN: So, you had 4.95 million barrels of oil, a huge amount of oil, I guess that’s 20 times more oil than the Exxon Valdez spill.
DAVIES: Yes. An awful lot, it lasted for a long time.
GELLERMAN: But, I understand that one of the goals of this trial is actually to determine exactly how much, because if you can figure out how much oil was spilled then you can determine if there’s any penalties, how much BP has got to pay.
DAVIES: Correct. That will be the second phase of the trial. Judge Barbier has issued a pre-trial order describing the order in which he’s going to hear all of these things. The second is what he’s called the source control phase, which is where he’s going to try and work out exactly how much oil was released into the Gulf of Mexico. What he’s not going to do in this trial is work out any of the damages, what people are entitled to recover, he’s just doing responsibility.
GELLERMAN: Who does the penalty and who does the damages? I guess the penalties under the Clean Water Act could be from 11 hundred dollars to 43 hundred dollars a barrel!
DAVIES: Right. He’s not going to get on to any of that until he’s worked out who’s responsible and how much oil. So, that’s just not being done in any part of this probably yearlong trial, he’ll get to that later.
GELLERMAN: Is a trial like this high drama, or is it a little bit like watching a glacier melt?
DAVIES: (Laughs.) It will be a little bit of both. There will be moments of high drama. But, a lot of it, a LOT of it, will be rather tedious, going through millions of documents, establishing what happened in fairly minute detail, it will be pretty slow going for much of the time.
GELLERMAN: You know, it’s interesting: BP paid out, so far, about 7.8 billion dollars in claims; they had set up a fund of 20 billion dollars. How does that settlement, or that amount of money affect the claims in this lawsuit?
DAVIES: Well, it doesn't really affect them at all other than that it reduces the amount in the fund that’s available to the plaintiffs remaining in this lawsuit. That 20 billion dollars was put in trust to secure all of the claims against BP.
GELLERMAN: So at the end of the day, the end of the trial, the end of the settlement, what ultimately could BP’s cost of this disaster be?
DAVIES: Oh. That’s very hard to estimate, very hard to estimate. In fact, so hard to estimate, I wouldn’t like to try. It will be billions more, though.
GELLERMAN: Now, BP has gone back to drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. They’ve sued, you know, their partners Halliburton, Transocean and Cameron, but they’ve got to work together in the future, right?
DAVIES: Correct, yes. There isn’t always bad blood in litigation. There’s a lot of statements made by the attorneys about the responsibilities of the other parties, but that’s for, well, not just for effect, it’s just sort of positioning you to make a legal argument. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t work together in the future.
GELLERMAN: So, I want to ask you: if you were defending BP, you were their lead attorney, would you tell them to settle or would you tell them to go to court and take their chances?
DAVIES: Um, I think any attorney, on any side, is always looking to try and find a settlement. Most people prefer settlement because they are risk-adverse. You find a number that you are happy with living with, in order to make the thing go away. So I would be looking for settlement. Over 90 percent of civil suits brought settle. The difficulty in this case would be, as I said before, settling with everybody.
I have no doubt that BP will survive and thrive. BP has enormous amount of money and will be able to survive this quite comfortably. In some ways, it’s fortunate that it’s a company like BP who will be able to compensate all the claimants, and has from the very beginning, declared that it will do so to the extent of its liability. They had at least, in theory, the right to limit their liability under the Oil Pollution Act to 75 million dollars. And never for a moment did they suggest that they would try to invoke their right to limit. Now they are, understandably, they are trying to point the finger at other people, such as Halliburton and Cameron, but they will pay.
GELLERMAN: Martin Davies is professor of Maritime Law, and director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University. Professor Davies, thanks so much!
DAVIES: My pleasure!
[MUSIC: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey “Trampoline Phoenix” from Stay Gold (Royal Potato Family 2010).]
GELLERMAN: President Obama says the United States should have an “all of the above” energy independence policy and go full throttle exploiting the nation’s natural gas, coal, oil and renewable energy resources. But it should be noted that last year, for the first time in over 60 years, the U.S. exported more energy than the country imported.
In fact, just a decade ago, energy wasn’t even among our top 25 exports, today - measured in dollars - it’s number one. For John Podesta those facts are fuel for an opinion piece he recently penned in the Wall Street Journal. Podesta was President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, now he’s chair of the progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress. The headline for his Op-Ed - “We Don’t Need More Foreign Oil and Gas.”
PODESTA: Well, you know, we're now selling a lot of coal, a lot of natural gas but I think in the near future we're going to be able to become a major, a major, export powerhouse.
GELLERMAN: We’re always told energy security equals national security, so I guess this bodes well in terms of America’s geopolitics.
PODESTA: Well, I certainly believe it does, I think there are several dimensions to that. First of all, the stranglehold that we have from our oil suppliers will be reduced or eliminated, as we become energy sufficient. And secondly, the fact that most people don't realize, I think, is that half of our trade deficit comes from importing oil. So that money could be kept home, used home, invested at home, creating American jobs, rather than sending it overseas. You know, sometimes these statistics are confusing 'cause oil is imported, refined, and then exported, but for the first time in 20 years we’ve, overall, our production is about 50 percent of our consumption.
GELLERMAN: The President in his State of the Union address talk about needing the whole mix: natural gas, renewables, wind. Did you find it curious that he did not specifically mention nuclear power?
PODESTA: I wasn’t really surprised, I think that the President has been a supporter of nuclear power, he has talked about it in the past. They’ve put a significant amount of money into loan guarantees for new nuclear plants, but I think Fukushima really changed the dynamic on this - not so much in terms of the need to insure the security of nuclear power plants, but fundamentally it changed the economics of nuclear power. The only countries that, where they are still pretty much full speed ahead, are China and India.
GELLERMAN: What about coal? We get about almost half of all electricity from coal, that’s not very clean.
PODESTA: It is not very clean. It has a profound health effect. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot, and maybe no more, new coal-fired power plants built, and you’ll see a fair amount of the very oldest plants, that have been operating for decades and decades, be retired in the near future and that capacity switched to lower polluting, safer and cleaner natural gas and renewables. That will have a profound health effect on our public and reduce exposure to those toxic chemicals. So you have a very big upside for the economy in that regard as well.
GELLERMAN: So, Mr. Podesta, you were Chief of Staff for President Clinton, if you had the President’s ear now, you were his Chief of Staff, what would you tell him that he doesn’t already know in terms of clean energy?
PODESTA: I would tell him to even be more ambitious than he was in the State of the Union. You know, I thought it was great, he spent a lot of time on clean energy; we at the Center for American Progress, we’ve urged the administration to do that. I think he had some new ideas in that regard.
But as I said, I’d try to even be more ambitious, to set a goal for this country to be an exporter again, in a very substantial way, of clean energy, and clean technology. And to do it in a way that makes the U.S. the number one powerhouse in this sector within a decade.
GELLERMAN: Do you think that the clean energy path we’re on is going to happen no matter who is President?
PODESTA: Well, I think that the direction we’re going to go in is not really dependent on who is President - I think that we’re going to head in this direction - but the speed at which we get there is certainly dependent on the programs and policies of an administration, and I think it’s fair to judge what happened in the previous administration and compare it to what has happened in this administration.
There’s just much more investment to clean energy than there was in the Bush Administration, and as a result, we’ve seen technologies like batteries used in the transportation sector for electric vehicles, etc., which were invented in the United States, which almost disappeared in terms of manufacturing, will be back to about 30 percent of the market within a couple of years.
GELLERMAN: Boy, Mr. Podesta, have you always been such an optimist when it comes to clean energy and a clean energy future?
PODESTA: I’m just an optimist in general. (Laughs.)
PODESTA: But I believe, you know, I’m a lawyer, and mostly I’ve been involved in politics and public policy, but I’ve also been a science geek since I was a kid. And I really believe that the application of innovation and science can, you know, help solve and resolve the problems going forward. And this is, I think, an exciting sector to be involved with because, you know, there is a tremendous opportunity to invent, to innovate, to create wealth, and create a stronger and better economy.
GELLERMAN: John Podesta is former Chief of Staff for President Clinton, and chair of the Center for American Progress.
[MUSIC: Bob Marley “Concrete Jungle” from Songs Of Freedom (Island Records 1992).]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead – a mass stranding of dolphins on the east coast, and a lawsuit to prevent harm to marine mammals on the west coast. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Monty Alexander: “Crisis” from Stir It Up: The Music Of Bob Marley (Telarc Records 2006). Happy Birthday Robert Nesta Marley 2/6/45 – 5/11/81).]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. For the past month, dolphins have been beaching themselves along the southern shore of Massachusetts at an unprecedented pace. Scientists are calling it the largest stranding of a single species in the region’s history. Living on Earth’s Mary Bates has our story.
[SOUND OF WAVES]
BATES: This stretch of beach along the bay side of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is the scene of a sad, scientific mystery. Dolphins are dying en masse and researchers don’t know why. Since mid-January, more than a hundred and forty common dolphins have been stranded on the shores here.
[SOUND OF WAVES]
BATES: Cape Cod is one of three global hotspots known for mass strandings of marine mammals. It’s not a new phenomenon; Aristotle wrote about dolphins stranding 2300 years ago. And they happen on Cape Cod every year, particularly between January and April. But this year, volunteer rescuers are overwhelmed.
[SOUND OF DOLPHIN GASPING]
BATES: They’ve never seen so many strandings in so short a time.
[SOUND OF DOLPHIN GASPING]
BATES: The beached dolphins gasp for air, like someone with asthma. Time is critical.
[SOUND OF VOLUNTEERS HOISTING DOLPHINS ON STRETCHER… READY 1,2,3]
BATES: Volunteers and staff members from the International Fund for Animal Welfare carry the dolphins to a special marine mammal ambulance. Some of the animals are as long as eight feet and weigh 500 pounds.
[SOUND OF DOLPHIN GASPING]
BATES: Rescuers quickly draw blood, look for injuries, wipe the blowholes clean.
[SOUND OF TAGGING GUN]
BATES: And tag some dorsal fins with GPS devices, so staff can track the dolphins when they’re released into the ocean.
MAN: The people that are in dry suits, we’ll have one on either side up front, and everyone in the back needs to pull out the back - don’t raise up, pull it out underneath… Alright, on the count of three we’ll lift and we want to walk in together, okay? One, two, three, up!
Common dolphins, marked by rescuers, await transport into deeper waters for release. (Photo: IFAW/ M. Booth)
BATES: So far, rescuers have been able to return almost 40 stranded dolphins back to the sea, but nearly a hundred have died on Cape Cod shores so far this year.
BATES: Scientists think bacterial or viral infections, toxins, or loud noises that interfere with the dolphin’s sonar could play a role in strandings. But the fact is there are no clear answers. And now all rescuers can do is wait, watch the ocean, and try to save as many dolphins as they can. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Bates.
GELLERMAN: The Common Dolphins that have been stranding on the shores of Cape Cod are highly social animals; like other cetaceans, whales and porpoises, they live and swim in tight-knit pods. And scientists believe that strong social structure could be one reason these marine mammals sometimes beach themselves en masse. Or it could be the complex shoreline of Cape Cod – it’s shaped like a hook and like the other mass stranding hotspots in Australia and New Zealand, the topography could be confusing the dolphins and trapping them on shore.
Now, oceanographer C. T. Harry has another idea. He believes a climate phenomenon may be a factor. C.T. Harry is assistant stranding coordinator for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
HARRY: Basically my theory, or what the research has suggested, is that marine mammal strandings have some correlation to fluctuations of the North Atlantic oscillation. If you can imagine the atmospheric system almost as like a sea-saw going back and forth oscillating between like a high and low pressure system. Those fluctuations or oscillations does a number of things to alter the atmosphere and then from that can change various types of oceanographic parameters.
GELLERMAN: So, this climate sea-saw, this oscillation, that can change things like the temperature of the water or circulation patterns, that kind of thing?
HARRY: Absolutely. Yeah, so, it alters atmospheric forcing - wind is a great correlate to that, and then from that, obviously, the ocean responds to wind intensity. And then it can then alter current patterns, circulation and then just basic physical properties of the water, so temperature, salinity as well. And then, that can then alter various types of biological responses like phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, all the way up to, potentially, cetaceans.
GELLERMAN: So, let me understand this - you think there’s a correlation between the North Atlantic oscillation, this climate driver, that affects the ocean, and that’s having an effect upon the environment and that’s having an effect upon the dolphins, and therefore they’re stranding themselves. But that doesn’t explain why they’d be stranding themselves, does it? I mean is it they’re looking for food? The food that they’re looking for is being affected by the oscillation?
HARRY: It’s a correlation analysis, I can’t prove causation, but I do think that there are some basic kind of intuitive principles in the sense that anything that alters the ocean, specifically on a more regional scale, can then potentially alter what lives in it. And one of the things that it could be doing is that it could alter where the prey species are.
GELLERMAN: So, there’ve been more than 100 dolphins stranding themselves on the shores of Cape Cod recently, how does your theory fit those facts?
HARRY: The animals that we’re responding to are offshore dolphin species. They’re not used to any type of tidal fluctuation or really kind of a unique confusing coastline like Cape Cod, I mean, it’s basically a natural hook. Cape Cod is filled with those little nooks and crannies. And so, if there’s fluctuations of the North Atlantic oscillation that might create conditions to where the animals are closer to shore, that then can put them in an area that would make them more likely to strand.
GELLERMAN: You know, you don’t see crabs or fish kind of stranding themselves. These are marine mammals, these are porpoises, dolphins and whales, and they’re social animals. Do you think it has something to do with them being part of a community, a pod?
HARRY: Absolutely. These animals, their social structure is extremely tight knit. They kind of have that safety in numbers mentality. And these, the type of animals that strand, out in the wild are seen in groups of a hundred even, sometimes, up to a thousand. And so, there can be situations where if one animal is sick or injured or ill in some aspect then completely healthy animals will maybe follow or stay close to that animal and basically all the healthy animals will be kind of in the wrong place at the wrong time.
GELLERMAN: You’ve been very busy this year.
HARRY: Yeah, it definitely takes its toll. You’re a marine mammal EMT sometimes and these animals basically are experiencing car wrecks. You’re trying to reduce the amount of stress that these animals are already under. Their bodies aren’t used to having any type of kind of intense internal pressure on their organs.
And so, these animals have been out of the water on mudflats or sand flats for hours. They’re in literally life and death situations. If you can get to them quick enough, and have the proper equipment and also a dedicated group of volunteers, you can provide immediate rescue and response to these animals. But, you know, animals die. Some obviously are stronger than others - and so it is a process that wears on you but you kind of have to move through it in order to keep on going.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Harry, thank you very much.
HARRY: I really appreciate the time - thank you!
GELLERMAN: C. T. Harry is assistant stranding coordinator for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
GELLERMAN: Well, marine mammal, including dolphins, on the west coast are also in trouble. While they’re protected under federal law, the U.S. Navy is permitted to kill, injure and harass tens of thousands of the animals a year at its vast anti-submarine warfare site off the Pacific northwest coast. Now a coalition of environmental organizations and indigenous groups is suing the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
They charge the Navy’s use of sonar harms the marine mammals and violates federal law. Attorney Zak Smith is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He works on its Marine Mammal Protection Project in Santa Monica, California.
SMITH: The Navy's range is the size of the state of California. And currently, NMFS, the National Marine Fisheries Service, doesn’t set aside one square inch where that activity shouldn't take place, and that’s simply what we’re seeking, is that NMFS set aside biologically rich areas, like the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, where sonar won’t be allowed to be conducted.
GELLERMAN: So what affect can sonar have on marine mammals?
SMITH: Sonar can have a wide-ranging affect on marine mammals. It can be anything from a significant behavioral disturbance on one side of the range, which is a disruption of normal behaviors such as feeding or migrating or mating, to the other end of the spectrum which would be temporary or permanent hearing loss, which for marine mammals is the equivalent of to us going blind. And also of course, just death, can result.
GELLERMAN: Does the Navy contest or acknowledge these effects?
SMITH: The Navy acknowledges these effects, absolutely. They recognize that these impacts occur and that’s why the National Marine Fisheries Service has said that the Navy is allowed to have these harmful impacts on over 120,000 times per year in that training area.
GELLERMAN: Now these marine mammals include whales, dolphins, porpoises…
SMITH: Absolutely. You have the seven resident killer whales, which are a very endangered species that lives in the Puget Sound area, but also goes out into the open ocean, they’re a very big concern for us. There’s migratory species of grey whales and others that pass through the area. And then there are those species like harbor porpoises that live there year round.
GELLERMAN: The Navy says: ‘Hey look, we’re just going to do this for a few hours a year, in a very small area with one single ship-board sonar system - what’s the big deal?'
SMITH: Well, there’s actually more activities going on than what the Navy would say. That might be true with respect to shipboard, but there are also, they do what is called dipping with sonar from helicopters and there’s other sources, so it’s not just ship activities.
With respect to those minimal amounts of activity - even if they are minimal - that just begs the question of well if you have an area the size of the state of California and you’re only going to be training for a minimal amount of time, you should be able to find within that very, very large area a place to train that will lessen the impacts on marine mammals. The agency has failed to do that here, we think that’s against the law. And we’re going to force them to do it.
GELELRMAN: Zak Smith is with the NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, which is suing the U.S. Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service. We contacted the agency for a response. A spokesperson couldn’t comment due to the lawsuit.
[MUSIC: John Zorn “The Sicilian Clan” from Naked City (Nonesuch Records 1990).]
GELLERMAN: Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth, yet scientists have barely scratched the surface in terms of plumbing the wealth of information beneath the waves. That’s where new, surf-riding robots come in. Producer Ashley Ahearn of the public media collaborative Earth Fix has our report on data collecting, sea-going drones.
AHERN: At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s lab in Seattle, two scientists are standing over what looks like a chubby neon-yellow surfboard.
MEINIG: So, if you look at it’s a very elegant device. And we can move, we can’t move very fast but, nonetheless, we can go one to two knots on this, which is fantastic for a lot of ocean research.
AHERN: Chris Meinig is an engineer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environment Lab. He’s looking at one of NOAA’s newest research toys: a Wave Glider.
MEINING: So what we have here is a robotic vehicle that consists of two parts. The bottom is the tractor that looks like a sideways set of Venetian blinds and it gains forward propulsion based on heave.
AHERN: This tricked out surfboard is powered by the rise and fall of the waves and the solar panels strapped on top. It can be remotely directed on long missions out into the open ocean. And while spending months at sea, Wave Gliders can collect loads of scientific information that gets sent back to land via satellite. Chris Sabine also works at NOAA and helped design the sensors strapped on top of their Wave Gliders.
SABINE: These data sets are so rich that - you know, my focus is on understanding ocean acidification and CO2, but there were very interesting features that we saw in currents, that another researcher may be interested in using that information to better understand what they’re studying.
AHERN: The sensors also collect data on water temperatures, pH, salinity and oxygen levels. Sabine says Wave Gliders will help scientists get important information directly to the people that need it.
Take the issue of ocean acidification. Every year winds and currents cause acidic water from deep below the ocean’s surface to upwell in coastal waters. This is a natural occurrence that’s been made worse by our contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere.
And it’s bad news if you’re a shellfish farmer. Larval shellfish can’t form their shells in more acidic water and in recent years farmers have lost thousands of dollars when whole batches of baby shellfish die during acidic upwellings. Sabine says Wave Gliders could lend some predictability to the problem, by helping farmers plan when to spawn their shellfish to avoid acidic waters.
SABINE: We can say, ‘hey in two days you’re going to have this event coming into the estuary - watch out for it,’ and they’ll know ahead of time rather than seeing something happening and going ‘ooh quick shut it all down.’
AHERN: Scientists and shellfish farmers aren’t the only ones putting Wave Gliders to work. Bill Vass is the CEO of LiquidRobotics, the company that invented the Wave Glider.
Roger Hine, CEO of Liquid Robotics, talks with BP’s Mike Utsler about the Wave Glider, which was used to track oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. (Photo: BP America)
VASS: Our biggest customers are oil and gas and defense but we’ll be branching out into fisheries, narrowing in on some wind farming opportunities and communication and security opportunities.
AHERN: Vass says inventing the Wave Glider was essentially like inventing and patenting the wheel of the ocean. The potential applications are endless. Oil and gas companies use them to monitor their wells and for exploration. Wave Gliders were used to assess the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf.
They can be used for fisheries management to count tagged fish. They can be sent out to collect data on potential sites for offshore wind or wave power development. And they can also be rigged up with acoustic monitoring devices, which has made them an easy sell to the Navy and intelligence agencies.
VASS: We can’t really talk a lot about what the intelligence agencies use Wave Gliders for.
AHERN: Aw c’mon!
VASS: I’m not really allowed to talk about that. But you can use your imagination.
AHERN: And the price tag? A bottom-of-the-line model will run you about 200,000 dollars.
VASS: You could drop 500 grand for a really tricked out one.
AHERN: Can I request a color?
VASS: Yeah yeah. They come in blue, gray, white and, as scuba divers refer to it, bite-me yellow, that bright high visibility yellow they paint scuba tanks with.
AHERN: And yes, they have had one shark attack.
VASS: It was towing a 30 meter acoustic array, that was doing a marine mammal study, and the acoustic array was wrapped around its fins which was making it swim much slower than normal. So we picked it up and it had big shark bites in its fins so the shark had obviously grabbed it and shook it and then got the array tangled around the fins.
AHERN: The company has raised 40 million dollars in investment money and sells close to 200 gliders a year. There are other companies designing sea-going robots, but they are mainly used for underwater work and lack the ability to network with other gliders to exchange information. I’m Ashley Ahearn in Seattle.
GELELRMAN: Our story on Wave Gliders comes to us by way of the public media collaborative: EarthFix.
A pair of house sparrows. (Photo: Sid Mosdell)
[CROAKING OF THE COMMON RAVEN]
STEIN: Mating for life may be the human ideal, but most bird species in North America mate for a single breeding season. Some may team up with the same mate the following year just because both stay in, or return to, the same territory. But such togetherness is relatively rare.
Because most birds of the north-temperate zone migrate, remaining in touch with a mate throughout the autumn and winter is difficult. For instance, fewer than one-fifth of song sparrow pairs are reunited.
[SONG SPARROW SONG]
STEIN: For long-term fidelity, look among the larger birds: large resident birds such as hawks, eagles, and ravens -
[COMMON RAVEN CROAKING]
STEIN: have wide territories, meaning few contacts with the opposite sex. Maintaining a relationship through the winter may assure breeding in the next season. You'll often see such birds in pairs throughout the year.
[CLUCKING OF RAVENS]
STEIN: Most seabirds meet and breed in colonies. But marbled murrelets, little relatives of puffins, breed inland in old-growth forests. They have no chance to meet each other in a colony. So when a male and a female get together, they stay together.
[MARBLED MURRELET CALLS]
STEIN: In the animal realm, birds still provide the best examples of seasonal mate fidelity. Most birds form devoted pairs for at least each breeding season, not something that can be said for most mammals. For BirdNote®, I’m Michael Stein.
GELLERMAN: To see some photos of loving birds make a bee line to our website - LOE dot ORG.
- BirdNote® Mating for Life was written by Dennis Paulson
- Calls of the birds provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Common Raven recorded by R.S. Little, Song Sparrow by G.A.Keller, Marbled Murrelet by K.S. Nelson and ambient created from R.S. Little.
[MUSIC: John Scofield “Simply Put” from A Moment’s Peace (Sco Biz Music 2011).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up – California's new clean car rules, they're a gas, and a lot more. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world's most pressing environmental problems, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Donald Harrison: “Bob Marley” from Nouveau Swing (GRP Records 1997).]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. California has been crazy about cars for a long time. Now some are saying the state’s new auto emission and fuel standards take crazy to a whole new level. Professor Daniel Sperling is one of nine members on the California Air Resources Board. Last December the board unanimously approved strict standards limiting the amount of carbon in vehicle fuels:
The Nissan Leaf. (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons, Tennen-Gas)
SPERLING: So it really is a big change. What it does is requires the oil companies to reduce the carbon in their fuel that they sell by ten percent by 2020. And that, perhaps, doesn’t sound like a big number, but to get that ten percent it means probably about a third of their fuel has to be shifted away from petroleum.
And, I have to say, myself as an academic, myself as a regulator, I don’t know how this is going to play out exactly. And that’s why these policies we’re talking about are performance-based and market based. We’re leaving it to the market and consumers and industry to figure it out. A lot of that will be biofuel, some of it will be electricity, some of it will be natural gas. We’re talking about a transformation, a revolution here. And it’s really remarkable.
GELLEMAN: Well, not content with just that revolution, California's Air Resources Board is putting the pedal to the metal and requiring that, by 2025, 15 percent of new car sales in the state be either zero, or near-zero emission vehicles. Here again is Professor Dan Sperling.
SPERLING: California is once again, for better or for worse, you know, plunging forward ahead of everyone else and we’re not telling companies exactly what technologies to use, but we’re expecting that of those vehicles, probably about a third to a half would be hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, a third to a half would be battery electric vehicles, and the rest would be plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
GELLERMAN: But, of course, there are very few hydrogen gas stations now.
SPERLING: That’s right. There are probably about ten or so in California right now. And battery electric vehicles are a very important part of it. But there’s some real issues with battery electric vehicles, whether they really will be fully accepted: there’s the range issue, the cost of batteries, so there’s a lot of people that believe that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will ultimately be at least, if not more, important and dominant than battery electric vehicles.
GELLERMAN: Now, back in the 1990s, California did mandate that car makers produce a certain amount of zero emissions fuel vehicles, and, well let's be generous - that didn't work the way you had hoped.
SPERLING: That is being generous.
SPERLING: But this is the same policy, the same rule. And it did start in 1990. It turned out that the technology didn’t advance as fast as we thought, that batteries were more expensive than we anticipated they would be, the improvements were slower than we anticipated, and so, frankly, it did become a problem. The good news is that now, thanks in part to, you know - one of the benefits, one of the impacts of that zero emission vehicle program over the years is - it did motivate the car companies to really focus on electric vehicle technologies.
And even though it wasn’t successful in getting a lot of vehicles out there - they did invest a lot in developing the technology. And it is what spurred Toyota to start with the Prius and the hybrid vehicles. And so, it’s all part of the same path and now with Nissan and General Motors making major commitments to electric vehicles, and with all the other car companies all ready to launch electric vehicles - we’re on that path now.
GELLERMAN: Could one of the reasons that these car makers are behind this is because the average cost of a car is going to go up almost $2,000 and that they’re going to come out, well, flush?
SPERLING: There certainly has been a dramatic turn-around in the attitude of the automobile industry in the last few years. They see that this is inevitable, that there is a problem with oil, and even more important, there is a problem with climate change. You know, I’m on leave now in Washington DC, and I’m hanging out here - and I see how the politics have been poisoned here about climate change, you can't even talk about climate change, but that doesn’t reflect reality in industry or in a lot of other places.
The car industry, across the board, is fully acknowledging and accepting that climate change is real and something has to be done about it - that they can make the vehicles much more efficient, and that we’re moving toward electric drive technology with batteries and fuel cells. So I think there’s now a full acknowledgement that this is necessary, this is going to happen. And instead of fighting it, they have a lot more to gain by being part of the solution than part of the problem.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, we should say, though, that if you have an electric car, and you’re generating that electric energy by burning coal, that’s not a zero emissions car, it’s just not coming out of the tailpipe, it’s coming out of the smokestack.
SPERLING: Absolutely. And so, part of this pathway toward electric drive vehicles is making sure that the electricity grid is cleaned up as well. And in the United States on average, about half of the electricity is coming from coal but that percentage is coming down. And there are almost probably, I think, three quarters of the states in the U.S. already have programs to introduce more renewable energy. In California the requirement is that 33 percent of the electricity must be renewable electricity by 2020 and most of the rest is nuclear and natural gas. So the emissions are very low in California, and they’re coming down everywhere.
GELLERMAN: As I understand the California decision - if I am in Massachusetts and I buy one of these vehicles, it counts towards California’s goal.
SPERLING: That’s a very good point. So that when we say the California program, it’s really California and ten other states - ten other states have agreed to adopt whatever California adopts. And so what we are launching here is a revolution, and ideally, hopefully, the federal government will gradually come to embrace these same requirements, but even if they don’t we’re going to see all of the car companies introducing this technology, not just in those ten states, but across the country.
Professor Daniel Sperling. (Photo: Daniel Sperling)
GELLERMAN: What about me? How am I going to fare in terms of my pocket book in these rules and standards?
SPERLING: Well, in the end, consumers should come out ahead. In fact, in some of these rules, they come out ahead immediately. With the vehicle rules, the cost analyses that we’ve done suggest that by 2025, the average vehicle will cost about $2,000 more than today but they will be so much efficient that over that time, they will save $6,000 in reduced fuel costs from here to there. And so the result of that is that the average consumer comes out ahead. And because the average consumer also takes out a loan on their car, for instance a five-year loan, from day one, you will be saving money on your car because the increase in your car payment will be less than the amount of fuel savings that you get.
GELLERMAN: Daniel Sperling is director of Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis and a member of the California Air Resources Board. Professor Sperling, thank you so very much!
SPERLING: It's a pleasure.
[Jake Shimabukuro “Going To California” from My Life (EP) (Hitchhike Records 2007).]
GELLERMAN: NASA scientists have discovered a giant crack in Antarctica’s fastest melting glacier. When it calves, it's expected to create a 350 square mile iceberg - that’s larger than the five boroughs of New York City combined. And that’s just a small chunk of the glacier ice lost to the sea. A new study finds the world’s glaciers are shedding 150 billion tons of ice annually; melted, that’s enough freshwater to fill Lake Erie eight times over. Climate change is responsible for most of the loss but as Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports - some of that glacial ice can be found in fancy cocktails.
Nick Lavars covers ice crime among other beats for the Santiago Times. (Courtesy Nick Lavars)
The illegally obtained glacial ice was destined for drinks at an unnamed Santiago nightclub. (Flickr Creative Commons, Rodrigo Álvarez / Rupert)
Chile’s Jorge Montt Glacier in the northern part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field is 4 hours by boat from the nearest town. (From Flickr/CC by Pics of Pancho)
SRISKANDARAJAH: Cools more, melts less, and water frozen 1000 years before the industrial revolution is really clean. You could see why the cocktail crowd would seek it out. Especially considering this ice puts on a show.
TRAUTMAN: Because of the way it forms not only does it have a nice blue tint to it, but it is also really clear. As it melts, every once in a while you’ll see a little bubble escaping, and so it almost looks like it's effervescent.
SRISKANDARAJAH: But there’s a reason why beautiful blue cubes aren’t effervescing in every tumbler. The business of glacial ice has been tried before. It was a fad that crested a quarter century ago. Those who rode the last wave will tell you even where it’s legal, glacial ice is a cold, hard, business.
WILSON: It’s essentially floating rocks, slippery floating rocks.
Car-sized icebergs calve off the LeConte Glacier near Petersburg, AK. (Photo: Ike Sriskandarajah 2007)
SRISKANDARAJAH: Mark Wilson was the president of Alaska Mountaintop Spirits, a small bottle water company from Anchorage. The New York Times called marketing glacier ice, “a Hot New Industry,” in 1988. It crowned Wilson the creator of the trade.
WILSON: We couldn’t have been more surprised, but I’m sure there was more than one day where we were scratching our heads, wondering how this all started.
SRISKANDARAJAH: It started as a small publicity stunt. To promote their bottled water, Wilson brought a cooler of the special ice with him on a business trip to Japan. He gave out bottles of his water with a little piece of real, glacier ice. The water was well-received, but the ice gave one Japanese customer the chills.
WILSON: I remember being in a department store and watching a gentleman that was in his 70s or 80s put a small amount of glacier ice into a glass and when you do that the ice starts to crack and fizzle and he put the glass of water up to his ear listening to it and he looked at me and said, in Japanese, ‘that’s the whisper of the ages.’ And from that moment on I realized we had a product we could sell.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Through the late 80’s Wilson’s company hauled tons and tons of icebergs into boats, breaking them into four pound units where he says they’d fetch $7.50 a bag in high-end Tokyo night clubs. But the bubble soon burst. Japan’s economy dipped and too many Alaskan glacial ice startups made the price of ice sink.
WILSON: Then all of a sudden out of the blue the Exxon Valdez more or less decided for us that we were out of that business.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The tanker crashed in the Prince William Sound, not far from where Wilson’s company harvested their ice. It’s been 25 years since he sold his last very old ice cube. But he has some advice if this fad ever crystallizes.
WILSON: I think whoever is going to be in that business will have to understand what that ice really means and make sure that whatever product they produce it’ll have to be sold as a product that has value, value beyond just cooling something down.
Snow compacted over millennia colors glacial ice iridescent blue. A closeup of an iceberg near the LeConte iceberg. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, Galileo55)
SRISKANDARAJAH: They’ll have to sell an ice experience that is actually moving.
For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.
- Nick Lavars wrote “Chile investigates theft of 5 tons of Patagonian ice” for the Santiago Times
- Victor Trautman teaches the LeConte’ Glacier Survey at Petersburg High School
- In 1988 the New York Times called marketing glacier ice as “A Hot New Industry”
[MUSIC: Esquivel “Snowfall” from More Of Other Worlds, Other Sounds (Warner Bros 1962).]
GELLEMAN: On the next Living on Earth – scientists finally figure out what's causing a mass die-off of thousand year old trees in the Alaska wilderness.
HENNON: We've actually entered these forests with really intensive tree death and reconstructed the patterns, the timing of tree death through the 1900s.
GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman - the irony of global warming causing ancient trees to freeze - next time on Living on Earth.
GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with an unusual love song.
Laughter at the end of the contest. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender ©)
GELLERMAN: Inuit throat singing is primarily a woman’s art form. This tune: “The Love Song” is actually a competition. She who laughs first, loses.
[SINGING: Karen Panigoniak and Maria Illungiayok recorded by Mark Seth Lender in Arviat, Hudson Bay Canada.]
GELLERMAN: Karen Panigoniak and Maria Illungiayok sing “The Love Song.” Mark Seth Lender recorded the competitors in Arviat, on the northwest corner of Hudson Bay, Canada. And for the record, Maria laughed first.
- Karen Panigoniak and Maria Illungiayok’s website
- Hear more Inuit throatsinging by Karen Panigoniak and Maria Illungiayok on this episode of the RPM – Indigenous Music Culture – podcast.
- Mark Seth Lender recorded the Inuit throat singing. Here’s his website.
[MUSIC: Vitamin String Quartet “Alejandro” from VSQ Performs Lady Gaga (Vitamin Music 2010).]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, and Helen Palmer, with help from Sarah Calkins, Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Mary Bates and Sophie Golden. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And you can follow us on Twitter - @livingonearth, that's just one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
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