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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

June 25, 2010

Air Date: June 25, 2010



Does the White House Approach go Far Enough?

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The Obama administration is taking a three-pronged approach to deal with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: reforming the Minerals Management Service; creating a commission to investigate the spill; and installing a moratorium on deep water drilling in Gulf until risks are better understood. Bruce Babbitt, the former Interior Secretary during the Clinton administration, tells host Jeff Young what he thinks of the president’s plan. (06:20)

Judging the Judge / Mitra Taj

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New Orleans Judge Martin Feldman’s ruling to block the Obama administration’s six month moratorium on new deep water oil drilling has not only angered the president and many environmental groups, but also has raised some eyebrows for another reason. That’s because Judge Feldman has owned stock in offshore energy companies. As Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports, many are asking why he didn’t recuse himself from the case. (05:00)

The Nose Knows / Phoebe Judge

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NOAA and the International Food Protection Training Institute are helping Gulf state food safety workers develop their sense of smell. The organizations are offering two-day seafood sensory workshops to train professionals to detect seafood that may be contaminated by oil. Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s Phoebe Judge has our story. (05:00)

Methane in the Gulf

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It’s not only oil that’s gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. . . scientists report huge amounts of methane gas are flowing into the ocean as a result of the BP drilling accident. Texas A&M Oceanography Professor John Kessler explains to host Jeff Young how methane affects ocean chemistry and water oxygen levels. (05:50)

The Altered Ocean

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Spills aren’t the only way oil damages our oceans. Host Jeff Young speaks with University of North Carolina marine ecologist John Bruno about how the burning of fossil fuels is fundamentally altering ocean ecosystems. (05:50)

Note on Emerging Science/Solar Storage / Emily Guerin

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Renewable energy technologies have long been plagued by a lack of storage. But scientists have developed a new technology that promises to store the sun’s energy all day and night. Emily Guerin reports. (01:50)

Up On the Roof / Stephanie Hughes

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It took a crane, a million pounds of soil, and lots of people power, but a group of young farmers called the Brooklyn Grange have opened a commercial farm on top of an office building in Queens, New York. Their goal is to provide local, healthy food to city residents and restaurants and to prove that urban farming is a viable enterprise. Stephanie Hughes reports. (04:30)

Shell Games

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Hitmen, smugglers, and clams? In his book "Shell Games", Craig Welch tells the story of environmental detectives who are trying to track down smugglers of the geoduck (GOO-EE duck) clam. Host Jeff Young talks with Welch about how the global black market for wildlife has increased the demand for species close to home. (08:40)

Earth Ear

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A chuckle with the White-Tailed Prairie Dog. ()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Jeff Young
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Phoebe Judge, Stephanie Hughes
GUESTS: Bruce Babbitt, Catherine Wannamaker, Patrick Parenteau, Charles Geyh, Sheldon Whitehouse, Julie Anderson, Jerry Wojtala, Lisa Defosse, Jon Bell, John Kessler, Robert Weisberg, John Bruno, Ben Flanner, Giuseppe Falco, Anastasia Cole, Kathy Kocian, Craig Welch
SCIENCE NOTE: Emily Guerin


YOUNG: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. The government’s changing the way the Interior Department regulates offshore drilling. But a former Interior Secretary says it’s not enough, and a different agency should enforce environmental rules.

BABBITT: It would be appropriate for Congress to legislate a larger role for the Environmental Protection Agency and say the EPA must have a strong role in environmental regulation early on in the permitting process.

YOUNG: Bruce Babbitt on the spill response and restoring the delta. Also, as the oil shuts down fishing in a third of the Gulf, officials hope to sniff out any contaminated catch--literally.

ANDERSON: Breathe in take some bunny sniffs, short quick breaths to see if we can detect any sort of oily petro smell.

YOUNG: What the nose knows about safe seafood. Those stories and more on Living on Earth- stick around!


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Does the White House Approach go Far Enough?

(U.S. Coast Guard)

YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville MA, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. The Obama Administration is changing the way the government deals with offshore drilling. The president’s oil spill commission gained clout when the House of Representatives voted to give it power to subpoena witnesses and records for its investigation of what went wrong in the Gulf. And the Interior Department is overhauling the troubled agency that regulated drilling.

The notorious Minerals Management Service has reemerged as the Bureau of Ocean Energy, with a tough new director. But a former Interior Secretary says more needs to be done. Bruce Babbitt led the Interior Department for 8 years under President Clinton. Mr. Babbitt says the core of the problem is that the same department still collects royalty revenues from drilling and enforces environmental rules, even after the administration’s changes to the system.

BABBITT: I don't think that goes far enough, I really think these are conflicting functions. One is promoting the industry the other is environmental regulation. My feeling is there should be more separation and that it would be appropriate for Congress to legislate a larger role for the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, must have a strong role in environmental regulation early on in the permitting process.

YOUNG: This seems to me a fairly remarkable statement coming from a past secretary of the Interior Department. You’re essentially saying, that shop that I used to run, they shouldn’t be doing this.

BABBITT: Yes but let me make clear that’s not a criticism of Ken Salazar or the interior department. I just think that as our perception has quickened by of this event, it’s time to step out of the narrower role.

YOUNG: And you think giving this duty to EPA will make things better? Why, exactly?

BABBITT: Because EPA does not have conflicting responsibilities. They do not have responsibility to set up the process of permitting, to collect the revenues to, in effect, be advocating for the industry. EPA’s job is pure environmental regulation. And, look, the stakes are really high here, and the regulation has lagged behind the risks and the pushing of this technology into deep waters. So I think we need to take a fresh look.

YOUNG: Now, the president has appointed a commission to look into what happened with the BP spill. You served on a commission that looked into what happened with 3 Mile Island and the near meltdown of the nuclear facility there in Pennsylvania. Given your experience on these commissions, what do you think this commission can achieve?

BABBITT: Well I think it’s an important opportunity to focus on the major structural changes and legislation, to set these issues straight. And my advice to the commission as it begins is, don’t get lost in the weeds. There are a lot of technical details, there will be investigations on investigations, which will ultimately illuminate much of that. Focus on the 3 or 4 major changes going forward in the structure of the regulatory system, in how the Gulf ought to be restored, and in forcing a safety culture on the industry itself.

YOUNG: The president has also talked about the need to address the longer-term damage to the Gulf ecosystems, a lot of it from oil and gas drilling. What do you think of that? I mean, we’ve been hearing about wetlands loss in Louisiana for a long time now and no one seems to have really come up with a way to address that on the scale required. Do you think now is the time that we might actually do something about that?

Bruce Babbitt, President’s Clinton’s Secretary of the Interior. (Wikipedia)

BABBITT: You know, in the sweep of history across the Delta, the damage caused by BP, as ugly as it is, is only a modest part of a larger trajectory of damage that has been out there for decades through the dredging of the wetlands, all of the various spills, the use of toxic chemicals. There are 30,000 miles of pipelines in and around the Delta and a lot of them have not been well constructed, and it’s time to hold the participants accountable, in my judgment, for funding a long-term restoration program. It shouldn’t be paid for by the taxpayers of the United States, it should be paid for, by, I think, most appropriately, by putting a small surcharge on all the oil and gas production that’s coming out of the Gulf. It seems to me, perfectly fair to me to say, ‘Now that this opportunity is at hand, it’s time for the people who caused it to pay to fix it up’.

YOUNG: Do you think the president erred, by embracing an expansion of offshore drilling, before he had really addressed the changes that needed to be made, within the Department of the Interior regarding offshore drilling?

BABBITT: No, I can’t say that. Look, you know it’s awfully easy to look back and, you know, say what might have been done differently. The fact is, for all I know, this accident could have happened on my tenure. The administration is on top of this issue now, in my judgment. Important decision are going to have to be made going forward and now is the opportunity to say, ‘Let’s urgently get on with making all these changes,’ many of which will be opposed by the oil and gas industry, many of which will require congressional action, right now, not waiting for a commission report, but right now.

YOUNG: There is so much focus right now on the Gulf, I’m kind of amazed at the level of public interest and public anger and public sadness about what’s happening in the Gulf. It seems like a classic teachable moment, but I’m wondering, will we really learn lessons here? What do you think?

BABBITT: It is a teachable moment and it is a really important opportunity to make major changes, to get a congress involved in legislating changes in the regulatory structure, in portioning responsibility for the long-term damage to the Gulf and financing the clean up, and moving quickly on the energy legislation that’s in the congress including, importantly, pricing carbon to sort of jump start the movement away from dependence on fossil fuels, improving our national security, getting a handle on global warming, and using this moment to get started.

YOUNG: Former Arizona Governor and former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Thank you very much.

BABBITT: Thank you, my pleasure.

YOUNG: There’s more of our interview with Secretary Babbitt at our website LOE.org.

Related links:
- The White House on the BP Oil Spill
- Click here to listen to an extended interview with Secretary Babbitt.
- The Department of the Interior on Restructuring Offshore Oil Regulation

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Judging the Judge

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig was owned by Transocean; Judge Martin Feldman owned Transocean stock. (U.S. Coast Guard)

YOUNG: Well, another of the administration’s responses to the Gulf disaster suffered a major setback when a federal judge in New Orleans ruled against the president’s 6-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling.

Judge Martin Feldman called that moratorium capricious and said it ignored the importance of energy jobs to the Gulf Coast economy. The administration is revising its moratorium. But the court ruling brought attention for another reason: Judge Feldman owned stock in offshore energy companies. That’s raised questions about the influence of oil money in the judicial branch. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports.

TAJ: This is what’s known publicly about Judge Martin Feldman’s offshore investments: Between 2003 and 2008 he owned stock in more than a dozen companies that help drill or finance deepwater energy projects. In 2008, he owned up to $15,000 in Transocean, the company that operated BP’s doomed oilrig. What’s not known is this: does Judge Feldman still own stock in offshore oil and gas companies? Catherine Wannamaker is the lead attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of the green groups that intervened legally to keep the 6-month moratorium in place.

Oiled Brown Pelicans in Grand Isle, Louisiana wait to be cleaned. As the oil continues to gush in the Gulf, lawsuits are being filed against BP and Halliburton. (IBRRC)

WANNAMAKER: We certainly would want to know what stock he owns. You know, if he does own stock in companies that are affected by the moratorium, that’s certainly something we would want to look at.

TAJ: Knowing could change everything. Depending on the amount and type of stock, it could add up to a violation of the code of conduct for U.S. judges. But Judge Feldman’s public financial disclosure forms only cover up to 2008.

He’s declined to comment on his current investments, and turned down requests to share his financial filings from last year. But in an unrelated case, Feldman disclosed owning shares of Ocean Energy Inc. In 2008, his stock in the offshore engineering company was worth between 15 and 50 thousand dollars. This admission came just a month ago, leading some to wonder whether he has financial stake in a company affected by his new ruling. Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau says, even if Feldman no longer holds stock in offshore oil companies, the past is still relevant.

PARENTEAU: That certainly is grounds for recusal. The way that this works is that judges are supposed to disclose that kind of financial interest, even one that they formerly had but no longer have, because he could have of course have benefited from it, even though no longer owns stock from it.

TAJ: A recent Associated Press investigation suggests that judges like Feldman could be the rule, and not the exception, in the Gulf region. Thirty-seven out of 64 judges were found to have ties to the oil and gas industry. Some have asked the courts not to assign them cases related to the oil spill… others, like District Judge Carl Barbier, decided to dump stock so he could preside over Deepwater Horizon cases.

Like Judge Feldman, Judge Barbier works at the U.S. Court of the Eastern District of Louisiana, and was recently assigned more than 30 lawsuits filed against BP and Transocean. Charles Geyh, a law professor at Indiana University, says Judge Feldman’s holdings merit a closer look.

Judge Feldman, a Reagan appointee, wrote that one accident doesn't mean the entire deepwater drilling industry should be put on hold. (U.S. Coast Guard)

GEYH: There mere fact that you own stock in a bunch of companies within an industry doesn’t disqualify you from hearing matters affecting other companies within the industry. But I would want to know how much stock, you know, I’d want to hear more about the relationship is what the likely relationship is between the judges financial interest in the stock he holds and the outcome of his decision, because that would inform whether this is something not to be worried about or whether it’s something where you would logically say hold on a second— this isn’t right.

TAJ: Geyh says part of the problem is that judges determine their own impartiality. If lawyers point out conflicts of interest, they risk having the judge dismiss their concern, and they could make an enemy in the process.

GEYH: I mean, the idea of having the judge grade his own paper in that way, strikes me as a fundamentally bad idea. Particularly in a politically and incendiary environment like this one.

WHITEHOUSE: I think the reach of the industry is profound.

TAJ: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democrat from Rhode Island, and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says he wants clarity on Judge Feldman’s holdings, and is striving to limit the influence of Oil and Gas.

WHITEHOUSE: At this point the balance is very kiltered against ordinary Americans. And they do it through lobbying pressure, they do it through threats of litigation, they do it through the revolving door. And you stack all that together and where does the public stand a chance?

TAJ: The pressing question now for those demanding oil spill justice is: which judge will hear some 200 lawsuits filed against BP and Transocean? BP is pushing for U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes of Houston, who owns stock in oil companies and has taken travel money from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. A federal panel will pick the courtroom for the lawsuits July 29th. In the meantime, Professor Gehy says the courts should remember, they’re in the spotlight.

GEHY: This really is the case of the century, for the oil industry. For the judiciary, this is their moment, where they can really step up and really convey the impression that impartial justice is what they’re all about, and I think it’s very important that they’re mindful of that as they carry on with this incredibly difficult series of cases.

TAJ: For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.

Related links:
- Judge Martin Feldman's financial disclosure forms can be accessed on JudicialWatch.org.
- Judge Martin Feldman's disclosure of owning stock in Ocean Energy Inc last month.
- Click here to read Canons 2 and 3 on impartiality and impropriety in the U.S. Courts Code of Ethics.
- Read the AP investigative story on oil and federal judges.
- Click here to read Judge Martin Feldman's decision to overturn the six-month moratorium on offshore oil drilling.

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[MUSIC] Taj: Ultimate Spinach “(Ballad Of) the Hip Death Goddess” from Ultimate Spinach (Iris Music Group 2006 Reissue).

YOUNG: Just ahead, it’s not just oil that’s erupting into the Gulf – how massive amounts of methane might affect the ocean. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC] Carla Bley: The Lone Arranger” from I Hate To Sing (ECM/WATTworks 1984).

The Nose Knows

Julie Anderson takes a whiff of Louisiana crude. (Photo: Phoebe Judge)

YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young. NOAA - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - has closed about a third of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico to commercial and recreational fishing. One of the major concerns over the Gulf spill is how to detect contaminated seafood. Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s Phoebe Judge reports on the effort to beef up seafood inspection.


JUDGE: Julie Anderson stands over a piece of red snapper at NOAA’s Mississippi Laboratories in Pascagoula. She takes a deep breath and leans down to have a smell.

ANDERSON: Breathe in, take some bunny sniffs, just short quick breathes to see if we can detect any sort of oily petro smell. Like snapper has a very briny smell to it. You can kind of smell the salt coming off.

Julie Anderson takes a whiff of Louisiana crude. (Photo: Phoebe Judge)

JUDGE: Anderson is an employee of the Louisiana Sea Grant Consortium in Baton Rouge, and she is one of 60 individuals who have come to take part in a two-day seafood sensory training course to detect seafood that may be contaminated by oil. Jerry Wojtala, is director of the International Food Protection Training Institute, the group running the session.

WOJTALA: This is a time tested, and it is quite a scientific and statistically valid method, of using human senses and in this case, noses, to detect problems with the seafood.

JUDGE: Wojtala says immediately after the oil spill began, his organization started getting phone calls from Gulf Coast states interested in receiving the seafood training. But with many of those states facing major budget shortfalls, there wasn’t any money to send officials to travel to the institute’s headquarters in Michigan-- so they brought the training directly to the Gulf.

WOJTALA: So we have fisheries people from states that are out evaluating the state waters. We have people that are with health departments or agriculture departments, who are looking at wholesalers or processors, and we have people with local health departments who are at the restaurants.

JUDGE: The goal is to place trained screeners in as many points in the system as possible to try and catch any oil-tainted seafood. But it’s the goal of NOAA to make sure there isn’t much of that oil-tainted seafood that ever makes it onshore. Since just after the oil spill began on April 22nd NOAA has collected 65-75,000 fish and invertebrate species samples from Gulf waters. Usually they do annual surveys on species, now they are sampling daily, targeting 41 commercially important species. Lisa DeFosse is director of the Mississippi Laboratories in Pascagoula.

Participants at the NOAA/International Food Protection Training Institute sensory training session learn how to detect oil taint by smelling the seafood. (Photo: Phoebe Judge)

DEFOSSE: We are basically blanketing the entire Gulf of Mexico. We started in the areas where the oil initially was: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. Now we are moving into Florida and Texas and also into the deeper waters. If there is even an indication of an oil taint then those areas would not be open for fishing, and then we would follow up with more intensive chemical testing.

JUDGE: And Jerry Wojtala says with the amount of samples now being taken of seafood in the Gulf as a result of the spill it’s even more important to have as many trained screeners as possible.

WOJTALA: There’s no way to be able to test every load of fish that is harvested, it would be exponentially expensive to do that. It’s a way to screen samples, and get the things that the human nose can detect out of the system and worry about the things we can’t detect.


JUDGE: Back in the sensory training lab Julie Anderson has moved to a reference table where she is smelling test samples of different types of petroleum, like Louisiana and Alaskan crude.

ANDERSON: The Louisiana crude has a much lighter smell to it, it is not as heavy, it’s not quite the same burning smell that you get from the Alaskan crude for example. And then we have a yeast sample, a rice, ammonia, and vinegar, which are all smells that can come off of seafood naturally.

JUDGE: Another student, Jon Bell, is a professor of food science from New Orleans and he is working on a new shrimp quality certification program for Louisiana. He says he’s amazed at how well the nose can detect the oil even at low levels.

BELL: But I get it as more of a dirty motor oil or tarry substance, but it is also a feeling, it’s a nasal tinge in your sinuses. I find that I can feel it, as well as smell it, very easily.

JUDGE: With a large portion of state and federal waters now closed to fishing, Jerry Wojtala says a lot of the hard decisions are yet come.

WOJTALA: When do you open a waterway? How do you know it is safe? Sampling has to take place. How do you if know if fishermen have caught some harvested in a certain area that is safe. All that has to be evaluated. We want to increase the capacity of the trained noses, if you will, that are out there so that we can do a lot of this hard work ahead.

JUDGE: Wojtala says they plan on training as many state and local officials as necessary to help shore up what he says is the first line of defense in ensuring the nations seafood safety. For Living on Earth, I’m Phoebe Judge in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Related links:
- International Food Protection Training Institute (IFPTI)
- Food Safety News article on IFPTI/NOAA Seafood Training

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[MUSIC] David Byrne/Brian Eno “Strange Overtones” from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todomundo records 2009).

Methane in the Gulf

Natural occurrence of pure methane bubbling to the surface. (Texas A&M)

YOUNG: BP says its containment system has been capturing about 20,000 barrels of oil a day from its ruptured well – and they expect to collect about 53,000 a day by the end of June. Latest figures suggest as many as 60,000 barrels a day are shooting out. It’s not just oil that’s escaping – huge amounts of the gas methane are mixed in. And big questions are bubbling up about methane’s effects on the ocean. John Kessler is a chemical oceanographer at Texas A & M University. Professor Kessler’s just back from a research trip that took him into the shadow of the giant equipment at the site of the spill.

KESSLER: It’s just massive; it’s like they’re orchestrating some ballet dance of sky
scrapers out there. The Enterprise containment ship was, really, the main vessel that was siphoning up the oil and natural gas, separating off the oil from the gas component, flaring off the gas, containing the oil, and that’s kind of a standard practice, but just the shear magnitude of the gas flare…it sounded like there was a jet engine roaring over top of us the entire time in this really almost war zone-like atmosphere.

YOUNG: So they’re burning off a lot of gas, and that’s your main interest, is the gas, the methane, right?

KESSLER: That’s correct. Some of the reports that BP is putting out right now, where they sample the material that’s coming right out the riser pipe, is that it’s about 40% by weight of natural gas, the remaining component being oil.

YOUNG: When you measure the methane in the water, how much are you finding?

KESSLER: It depends on where we look. The most variable component for the methane concentration is depth. As our depth increases, and we get closer to the sea floor, so does the methane concentration increase. It’s not till we get about 1000 m below the surface of the ocean where the methane concentration really, really rises, and rises quite rapidly. It’s on average about 100,000 times greater than background. And we even saw a few locations that were starting to push the limits of a million times above background. And it seems to be that way from about 1000 m below the surface all the way down to the seabed.

YOUNG: What does that do to the water column if you have that much more methane in it?

KESSLER: Methane itself, especially when it dissolves in the water, can actually be a food source for various microorganisms. When these organisms consume methane, they also consume oxygen from the water. So if we’re populating, now, the bottom waters, with 100,000 times more methane than we normally would have, what’s that going to do to the amount of dissolved oxygen? Is there going to be a feeding frenzy? And be a severe drawdown in this dissolved oxygen content, and then potentially have harmful effects on the marine ecosystem?

YOUNG: How long do you think the methane will stay in the water? Is there the potential here that it hangs around and we could be looking at potential long-term impacts?

KESSLER: Methane is a relatively soluble gas. Just like dissolving sugar in a cup of hot tea, you’re going to dissolve this methane down there as well. Which is really I think the explanation for why we’re seeing so much in the deep waters and relatively minor amounts in the surface waters- it’s just dissolving so quickly.

John Kessler is a professor of chemical oceanography at Texas A&M University. (Texas A&M)

But as it stays down there in this natural dissolved state, it has the potential for being there for decades, and that’s where I think we really start coming into a problem with oxygen utilization and oxygen drawdowns. Even if we’re seeing relatively minimal ones presently, how is this going to change now in the coming years and so forth and so on.

YOUNG: So how concerned are you that the effect of all this methane in the water might be that we would end up with large areas of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico?

KESSLER: I’m actually very concerned about that. The levels of methane in the deep waters that we’re seeing are unbelievably high. I’ve never seen levels like this in the ocean before. We’re starting already to see some drawdowns in oxygen, and we’re trying to see if we can fingerprint if that methane—that drawdown- is related to these large methane inputs. But certainly, the consumption of all this methane, by the microbial life in the water column, has the potential to lead to significant drawdowns.

And so what this really requires is a dedicated effort to go out there, to measure methane consumption rates, and see how those are changing with time, not only in the coming days, in the coming weeks, but certainly on the much longer time scales, a half a year, year and even say 2, 3, 4, 5 years down the road.

YOUNG: Now, long before this spill, the methane that’s down at the sea floor was already something of interest to you and other scientists because of the potential for that methane to be released into the atmosphere, where it would become a greenhouse gas and contribute to global warming. Does what’s happening now in the Gulf give you some sort of opportunity to address those other questions about deep-sea methane?

Natural occurrence of pure methane bubbling to the surface. (Texas A&M)

KESSLER: Very much so. This is a rather unique, rather exciting environment for us. The ocean floor is just an absolutely enormous reservoir of methane. And there are implications that this reservoir has erupted its methane in the past, contributed this methane to the atmosphere in certain abrupt climate change events. This anthropogenic event that we are currently in the midst of, actually simulates one of those previous eruptions on how it is emitting its methane to the water so rapidly. And it enables us to look at it as an analog in a natural laboratory to gain some insight into what happened in the past and then also to enhance our predictability on what might occur in the future.

YOUNG: Chemical oceanographer John Kessler talking to us about methane in the ocean waters around the Deepwater Horizon spill. Thanks very much.

KESSLER: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

Related link:
Click here for LOE's story Getting to the Bottom of Methane

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The Altered Ocean

University of North Carolina marine ecologist John Bruno (photo: John Bruno)

YOUNG: BP has pledged $500 million dollars over ten years to support science in the Gulf of Mexico to better understand the effects of the spill. Scientists say that’s badly needed. The spill presents major new challenges for research already hampered by years of chronic underfunding. Even getting basic data about how Gulf currents will carry the oil, is tough. University of South Florida oceanographer Robert Weisberg once had 14 buoys in the Gulf measuring currents and temperature, but that was before years of government budget cuts.

WEISBERG: Right now, I'm down to 4 buoys that report in real time. Unfortunately, with the reduction in resources, we don't have spares, we don't have enough ship time to go out there. And, so, when things break, they break. And so, not all of the information is even reporting in real time. If this oil spill demonstrates one thing, it's the need to have those measurements in place.

YOUNG: So far BP has delivered $25 million dollars for research at five Gulf Coast universities.

YOUNG: Spills aren’t the only way oil damages our oceans. A special section in the journal Science focuses on the effects of burning oil and other fossil fuels. University of North Carolina marine ecologist John Bruno co-authored a paper that warns “Climate change is clearly and fundamentally altering ocean ecosystems.” Professor Bruno joins us now on the phone from Brisbane Australia where he’s doing research. Hello, Professor!

BRUNO: Hello Jeff!

YOUNG: Now that statement jumped out at me. “Climate change is clearly and fundamentally altering ocean ecosystems.” Is. That’s present tense. You’re talking about things that are already happening.

BRUNO: Yeah absolutely. And it’s funny, I didn’t expect to be studying climate change in my scientific lifetime. I thought I would be warning people about it, and, you know, doing some work on its implications, and it’s just remarkable, to all of us in the field, how quickly things are progressing.

YOUNG: So give me some examples. What are you able to observe and see, right now, in the oceans that’s due to climate change?

BRUNO: So a really big one is changes in species distributions. There’s a whole new suite of species in the northern Gulf of Mexico that weren’t around a couple of decades ago, so there’s snapper, and grouper, and parrot fish, things that you commonly see on coral reefs that you commonly see to the south, down on the Yucatan Peninsula and into Belize. We’re seeing shifts in productivity, and that mostly has to do with changes in wind patterns which influence the mixing of the oceans.

So when the ocean is really well mixed, you get very cool, very nutrient rich water being moved up from the deep into shallow waters and that’s critically important in fueling primary production, so that is the growth of phytoplankton, these very small single-celled plants that fuel the whole ocean food web. And that’s a big concern for fisheries managers because they’re seeing fisheries productivity drop, we think, in part, due to that problem.

University of North Carolina marine ecologist John Bruno (photo: John Bruno)

YOUNG: You have a few statements in here that, although they’re carefully phrased, they really jump off the page as red flags. “Recent evidence suggests that there is now a growing risk that several thresholds will soon be exceeded.” What are we talking about there?

BRUNO: Well here’s a simple example of a literal threshold. So we all know that the Arctic sea ice is melting at a really high rate. North American, European shipping companies are planning on using it as a regular shipping route over the next couple decades, so by 2030, 2040, you’re going to be able to take cargo ships right across the northern passage.

That’s going to allow species from the northern Pacific to move into the North Atlantic and we’re talking literally thousands, probably tens of thousands of species, will migrate from one ocean to another, and these biogeographic provinces have been isolated for over a million years. So that’s literally a tipping point; once that channel’s open, it can never be closed and there’s just going to be profound consequences for ecosystems in the north Atlantic.

YOUNG: Do we have a way to predict how ocean ecosystems are going to be changing as these trends accelerate?

BRUNO: We really don’t. So we’re talking a lot now in the field about something called “no analog communities,” and it’s kind of a sciency jargon word, but what it means is we’re expecting situations that really have no precedence in geological records, so we’ve never had that given combination of environmental conditions and species mixing together. So we really don’t have any way of knowing how ecosystems will interact a couple centuries out.

YOUNG: Now, a lot of scientists, I think, would have pointed out these things that are happening and have left it at that. However, you make recommendations here about what should be done. And one of your recommendations says, “Aiming to reduce atmospheric concentrations below 350 parts per million of CO2 must be an international imperative.” Now why 350 parts per million?

BRUNO: The best science we have so far suggests that that’s really the safety zone. So going beyond 450, and that’s the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, particularly going beyond 500, 550, we’re really getting into high-risk areas. And, you know, we can’t say for sure that catastrophic things are going to happen, but they become very likely.

There is a lot of concern that going beyond 450 parts per million will acidify the oceans to a degree that calcification will become very difficult for things like corals, that create reefs, but a whole range of animals make calcium carbonate skeletons, and are really profoundly affected by ocean pH, so things like oysters, and mussels, you know things we eat, blue crabs that we catch in the Chesapeake Bay.

So all these organisms are being affected by these, what seem like to be relatively subtle changes in ocean chemistry to us, but you know it’s a really big deal if you’re making your living and defending yourself with this calcium carbonate that you extract from sea water and create your defenses with.

YOUNG: We are so focused right now on the oil spill in the Gulf. Does this seem to you a moment where a message like this might be able to get through, when in the past it might not have?

BRUNO: You know, possibly- I’m actually worried that the opposite is happening. That the oil spill is really obscuring the thing we ought to be focusing on. There’s pictures every day of oiled pelicans, and believe me it’s heartbreaking, but it’s frankly trivial compared to the effects of the burning of the fossil fuels on ocean ecosystems. So the oil spill is obviously a tragedy both for people and the environment there, but the Gulf is going to heal. And in 100 years there probably won’t be any trace of that oil spill, nobody will remember what BP is, but the effects of all the fossil fuels that we’re burning today will still be with us.

YOUNG: Professor John Bruno at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, thank you very much.

BRUNO: You’re very welcome Jeff, my pleasure.

Related links:
- John Bruno's home page

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[MUSIC] Oceans: jan Hammer “Oceans and Continents” from The First Seven Days (Sony Music 1975).

YOUNG: Coming up: poached clams—no, not a recipe, but a multi-million dollar trade in smuggled shellfish. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC] “Remembrance XI” from Remembrance (ECM Records 2010).

Note on Emerging Science/Solar Storage

The new sunlight storage process (MIT)

YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young. Just ahead – New York locavores go to new heights on a Queens rooftop – but first this note on emerging science from Emily Guerin.


GUERIN: Installing a wind turbine at home: $30,000. Switching to geothermal heat: $20,000. Powering your home with the sun and a bucket of water? Priceless. Well, not quite priceless. But MIT researchers have discovered an inexpensive way to harness and store the sun’s energy. The new technology only needs 5 liters of water, 4 hours of sun and a 16 x 20 foot array of solar panels to produce 30 kilowatt hours of electricity. That’s enough to power a four-person household all day—and night.

When the sun is shining, solar panels power household appliances. Any excess electricity is run through a container of water containing two catalysts and an electrode, splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The two elements are stored separately during the day and recombined in a fuel cell to power the house at night. There’s even enough energy left over to charge an electric car. And there may be global applications for the technology.

The new sunlight storage process (MIT)

It can run off untreated water, saving clean water for drinking. The scientists are testing it with water from Boston’s Charles River. The new technology is a lot cheaper now since researchers started using inexpensive metals like nickel as their catalysts. But it still requires a hefty investment in solar panels. But what it promises—that our homes will become our power plants—is pretty attractive, even to a penny-pincher. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Emily Guerin.

Related link:
MIT article on Solar Storage

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Up On the Roof

Tomato plants sprouting in the Grange rooftop farm in Queens. (Photo: Stephanie Hughes)

YOUNG: Sure it’s called the Big Apple, but you don’t think about agriculture when you think of New York City. Yet as recently as the 1880s, Brooklyn and Queens were full of green acres that provided much of the city’s produce. And now, a group called Brooklyn Grange is trying to recapture the city’s agricultural past – by colonizing its rooftops. From New York, Stephanie Hughes has the story.


HUGHES: On a noisy street in Queens, industrial buildings stand next to car dealerships. The elevated subway train rumbles nearby. With all this concrete, there’s not much room for plant life. To find that, you have to go 7 stories up.


FLANNER: See how wilty some of these look? Fresh transplants need a lot of water in this hot heat.


HUGHES: Ben Flanner is tending to some sweet pepper seedlings. They’re among the tens of thousands of plants on his new rooftop farm.

FLANNER: We planted a whole lot of tomatoes. We’ve planted Swiss chard, kale, eggplants. We just started putting in cucumbers. There’s a lot of radishes in, there’s sugar snap peas. There is lettuce.

Farmer Ben Flanner (right) speaks with volunteer Keiko Tamura amid the soil beds on the farm. (Photo: Stephanie Hughes)

HUGHES: The rooftop is 40,000 square feet—that’s close to an acre. It needs to be big in order to work as a for-profit enterprise, and Flanner is relying on the surrounding community to make the business work. He’s going to sell vegetables to people who work in the building, and will set up a farm stand close by. He’ll also sell to local restaurants. Giuseppe Falco owns the nearby Italian restaurant Vesta, and has made several special requests.

FALCO: My favorite thing, which is going to be amazing—I hope that he gets a great harvest out of it—is something called a cucuzza, which is a Sicilian squash of sorts, and, it basically looks like a zucchini. And they tend to be about 4 feet long sometimes.


HUGHES: Those cucuzzas will sprout out of a lightweight soil mixture. A million pounds of it was lifted on top of the building with a crane. Underneath that soil, the roof is lined with a series of membranes.

The farmers used a crane to lift bags of lightweight soil mixture to the roof.
(Photo: Stephanie Hughes)

COLE: The first layer here is root stop membrane. So, this keeps the roots of the plants from penetrating the surface of the roof.

HUGHES: Anastasia Cole is another farmer working on the project.

COLE: We've got drainage mats here, and we put this thin layer of felt on top of the drainage mat to prevent them from filling up with dirt. And, that way, if it rains a lot, and the plants don’t want all the water that they’re getting at the moment, it sits in the drainage mats, and the soil keeps it cool enough that it doesn't absorb. You can see some of the moisture down there from whenever it last rained.

HUGHES: The roof will hold not just vegetables, but also beehives, which will yield honey. At some point, Ben Flanner also hopes to have livestock, including chickens.

FLANNER: They require a fair amount of space, and it could be great to have an allocated chicken area and collect their eggs every day. And then also there’s a great circular system, with the droppings from the chickens—you can use that as natural fertilizers and manures.

HUGHES: He believes farming could become a regular part of urban living. Anastasia Cole says city dwellers to see where their food is coming from.

Tomato plants sprouting in the Grange rooftop farm in Queens.
(Photo: Stephanie Hughes)

COLE: This building is a great example of something that really could turn into an ecosystem, I mean, people bringing produce home so, you know, it's not being shipped in on trucks. When we start our compost program up here, if people want to bring their scraps in, it’s less trash. We’re helping cool the building in the summer and keep it warm in the winter.

HUGHES: The farmers are also encouraging people who work in the building to come look at the plants. Kathy Kocian is the co-owner of a printing company called Xweet.

KOCIAN: You know, we’re all about fresh vegetables and this is just a great thing to do, to utilize the roof of a building like this. Yeah, so we'll be coming up here and purchasing all types of stuff to cook up. [LAUGHS]

HUGHES: And for those customers who aren’t nearby, the farmers will make deliveries – by bicycle, subway, and occasionally, with a car that runs on vegetable oil.

FLANNER: The car’s a 1979 Mercedes, and it’s converted diesel. So, theoretically, if we make a delivery in Manhattan, we can pick up some grease as well.

A farm with a view. (Photo: Stephanie Hughes)

HUGHES: The Brooklyn Grange farmers hope to expand, and have farms not just in Queens, but throughout the entire city—and to create a model that could be used by people in other towns. For Living on Earth, I’m Stephanie Hughes in New York.

Related link:
Brooklyn Grange Farm in Queens, New York

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[MUSIC] Brooklyn Funk Essentials “Brooklyn Recycles” from Cool & Steady & Easy (Dorado Records 1994).

Shell Games

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“Shell Games” provides a look at the growth of wildlife smuggling through the plight of the geoduck clam (Photo: Tom Reese).

YOUNG: In the muck at the bottom of Washington’s Puget Sound there is money to be made. Big, ugly clams called Geoducks are bought and sold on an international, and sometimes illegal, market that fetches millions.

Reporter Craig Welch dove into the Geoduck fishery and found a window into the world of wildlife smugglers and the dedicated detectives trying to track them down. The result was his book, “Shell Games, Rogues, Smugglers and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty.” The tale of poached clams and hard-boiled detectives reads like a mix of Sam Spade and “Wild Kingdom.” Craig Welch, welcome to the Living on Earth.

The geoduck clam is indigenous to the waters of the Pacific Northwest, but becoming an increasingly popular seafood delicacy in Asia (Photo: Natalie Fobes).

WELCH: Thank you for having me.

YOUNG: Let’s start with the Geoduck. Tell me about this odd animal.

WELCH: The Geoduck is a fist-sized clam that’s found in great numbers only in Puget Sound and just off the coast of Vancouver. And this clam looks like something, that, uh—well if you’ve seen it once you’ll never forget it.

YOUNG: they’re, they’re, I’ll just come right out and say it, they’re a bit phallic.

WELCH: They’re quite a bit phallic. They have a siphon that can stretch about the length of a man’s arm. And yes, it looks like things you’re not supposed to talk about on the radio.

YOUNG: [laughs] But they’re fascinating things, they spend almost their whole lives down in the muck at the bottom of the sound.

WELCH: They essentially cocoon themselves in the muck below the water. And, they will stay there for their entire lives, which could be as long as 150 years. And, divers actually go, dig these creatures out, and they will pack them in mesh bags, and haul them up to a boat, and then immediately ship them overseas so they are sold live to China, Hong Kong and Japan where they are served as a seafood delicacy.

YOUNG: And, enough people wanted to get these things that there’s an illegal fishery as well. Going after this in all kinds of crazy and creative ways.

Puget Sound, off the coast of Washington State, is primary geoduck habitat, and a hotbed of criminal activity (Photo: Whitney Stensrud).

WELCH: Absolutely. I mean the bottom line is this clams are only found here, and they’re really popular in a part of the world where both wealth and population are growing. So there’s a lot of money to be made, and the rules governing harvest are very conservative. Therefore, the supply is not as big as the demand. There’s a great demand for folks who want to go out of their way to take them.

YOUNG: Well the way you write about the poachers trying to get the clams, and the good guys trying to get the poachers, it read to me like a true crime novel or a hardboiled detective story. Something out of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett… can you read us a little bit?

WELCH: Uh huh. “Thieves traded clams for Vicadin, and swapped them for un-taxed cigarettes. Dozens of poachers were on the water every week, some smuggling tens of thousands of clams. The cops suspected the value of the theft probably surpassed several hundred thousands of dollars a year. Later they would realize that wasn’t even close.”

YOUNG: The main characters here are people who are on both sides of the fence. You have the detectives, and also the informants, the people who are in this world of the illegal trade.

WELCH: Yeah, the story sort of started in the mid-90s with a really sort of larger-than-life fisherman who started noticing that there was crime going on all around him and that he was feeling cheated. He decided that it was in his best interest to go and talk to the police, and suddenly you have this relationship that would last for many, many years between this gregarious informant and these wildlife cops.

YOUNG: And, I guess as things will, in the waters of the Puget Sound, things get pretty murky with that relationship.

WELCH: Yes, they start sharing information with federal agents for the National Marine Fisheries Service who police both the international and intra-state trade in wildlife. And so they spend a year gathering information, and they’re all set to start taking cases to federal prosecutors when the informant calls one day and says, “there is a gentleman who has called me today, who said that he would like to blow up one of his rivals in his truck.” And suddenly this has just become something much more serious than they ever anticipated.

YOUNG: It’s amazing. This is all about these big ugly clams and this guy is willing to blow up his competition, but then he decides he’s just gonna, he’s gonna work him over, right?

WELCH: Yeah and here’s where it really gets strange. So there’s this series of phone calls between the informant and this broker and he says he’s going to hire a 300-pound hit man from LA, a guy he claims was a retired sheriff who had helped train Robert Deniro in the movies. And, the federal agents finally decide that their safest bet is to find a way to get the informant to ask the broker to hire him instead. And from there it works almost according to plan. The federal agents eventually connect with the 300 pound hit man from LA, and they’re going to have him testify before a grand jury that he was approached by this guy, and they get him to come up to Seattle and he gets off the plane and he is carrying a stuffed teddy bear, because it turns out he is actually afraid of flying.

“Shell Games” provides a look at the growth of wildlife smuggling through the plight of the geoduck clam (Photo: Tom Reese).

YOUNG: [laughs]

WELCH: And at this point, the federal agents aren’t sure what to make of this.

YOUNG: The would-be hit man has his own teddy bear.

WELCH: Has his own teddy bear.

YOUNG: What do you think the wildlife officers make of their work? In some ways they seem like they’re very proud, in fact one of them passed up an opportunity to work in the FBI, he thought this was more important, more elite.

WELCH: And I think that’s true of a lot of them. I think the gentleman who had a chance to work at the FBI, his basic argument was, the FBI has 12, 13,000 federal agents and his agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, had about 200. I don’t think they feel they get the respect they deserve because people think, “oh you’re just chasing people who are stealing clams. How tough can it be?” Their counter-argument is, if you’re a federal agent and you’re trying to stop a drug dealer, every time you see heroin, somebody is committing a crime. Heroin is illegal. Well Geoducks are only illegal if they’re taken from the wrong place at the wrong time by the wrong people, out of season. In some ways their job is a little bit more difficult because each of those rules varies from species to species.

YOUNG: And this trade for wildlife, not just the Geoduck of course, but wildlife smuggling, it’s one of the big ones right behind drugs and human trafficking.

“Shell Games” author Craig Welch has been the environmental reporter for The Seattle Times since 2000 (Photo: Meryl Schencker)

WELCH: Exactly, exactly. Drugs, human trafficking, and guns, then 3 or 4 you have wildlife trafficking. And I think most people have always thought of wildlife trafficking as stuff from Africa and Indonesia going into the West, into Europe and the US. But people all over the world can find an interesting product from nature just about anywhere, and that means that you have rattlesnakes from New York put into the panels of cars and driven across the border to Canada and then shipped around the world, you have sturgeon eggs from the Sacramento River shipped over to Eastern Europe. There is pretty much something in every state that is now taken illegally from the US and shipped abroad.

YOUNG: It is so hard to police this. Did you come away with the impression that this is kind of a hopeless cause? My guess is they’re barely making a dent in the smuggling.

WELCH: Well, and that’s their guess too. Most of the officers I talked to said that they suspect that they are aware of maybe 10% of the wildlife crime. I cover in this book everything from black bear gallbladders to abalone poaching to butterfly thieves. In some cases it’s a really strange world, but it’s not particularly ecologically sensitive. In other cases, abalone for example, or moss in national forests, it’s entirely possible for people to actually take all, or close to all, of a particularly rare species and sell it abroad. So, you know, sort of the variety and scope of the trade is unnerving enough, I think it’s very difficult to imagine them really putting a dent in things.

YOUNG: You know, some might look at the situation with the clam, the Geoduck, and say, ‘well, it’s not endangered or threatened, why are we limiting the trade in the first place?’

WELCH: I think that’s a fair question and I think the answer makes sense, too, which is: that’s how we prevent such a thing from becoming rare and endangered. You know, here in the Pacific Northwest we’ve had our experiences with over-fishing. We now have several species of salmon that are endangered in Puget Sound because we did not actually do a good enough job early on trying to control fishing. We have the same issue with Geoducks. So if we actually, sort of, set harvest rules, early on, we can make sure that we’re going to take care of these creatures safely over the long term. That, in a sense, helps to create demand for the illegal market, but what’s the alternative?

YOUNG: The book is called “Shell Games.” Craig Welch, thank you very much.

WELCH: Thank you.

Related links:

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[MUSIC] DZhian & Kamen “Gutenmorganuft” from Gran Reserva (Couch Records 2002).

Earth Ear

White-Tailed Prairie Dog. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

YOUNG: We leave you this week with a chuckle.


YOUNG: These white-tailed prairie dogs might have been laughing at producer Jeff Rice as he recorded their calls with a large parabolic microphone in Deseret Ranch in northern Utah. But the well being of this species is no laughing matter. Their populations – and habitat - are in decline due to disease and development, yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just declared the white-tailed prairie dog does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act. Jeff Rice recorded them for the University of Utah Marriott Library, westernsoundscape.org.

White-Tailed Prairie Dog. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Related links:
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Information on the White-Tailed Prairie Dog
- Western Soundscape Archive
- The Institute of Museum and Library Services funds the Western Soundscape Archive

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YOUNG: On the next Living on Earth - June 1775. The British turn tail at the first naval battle of the American Revolution off the coast of Machias, Maine. Could this be why?

Dowling: The real reason the British lost the battle even though they had better equipment, better weapons, was that they made the mistake of attacking in black fly season.

YOUNG: The patriotic black fly’s role in US history - next time on Living on Earth. You can hear our program anytime on our website, or get a download for your MP3 player. The address is LOE dot org. That's LOE dot O-R-G. There you’ll also find pictures and more information about our stories. And, we’d like to hear from you: you can reach us at comments @ l-o-e dot org. Once again, comments @ l-o-e dot O-R-G.
Our postal address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02144. And you can call our listener line, at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88.

YOUNG: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Emily Guerin, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, and Mitra Taj, with help from Sarah Calkins, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Amanda Martinez, Meghan Miner and Ami Ninh. We had engineering help this week from Dana Chisholm. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and check out our Facebook page – PRI’s Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. Thanks for listening.

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