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Philip Bump's Posts


BP thinks people are still kind of overreacting to the Gulf oil spill

Not that big a deal, really.
Not that big a deal, really.
There is an attorney who works for BP (and almost certainly makes good money doing so) who is charged with making the following argument: You're blowing the deadly Deepwater Horizon thing way out of proportion.

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

With the start of the civil trial against global oil giant BP only a week away, the company's senior trial lawyer said Monday that he doesn't expect his client to be declared grossly negligent for the 2010 Gulf oil spill, a finding that would result in a four-fold increase in the fines BP would have to pay.

Rupert Bondy, BP's general counsel, also said he's confident the company will pay much less than the maximum $5 billion to $22 billion in Clean Water Act fines often cited by the media.

Why not? In part because Halliburton and Transocean fucked up, too.


How one fracking company bullies residents and elected officials alike


When the EPA last year dropped its inquiry into methane seepage from wells fracked by Range Resources, it seemed like an unusual move. Texan Steve Lipsky's water supply was bubbling over with the explosive gas, after all, which seemed like the sort of thing an agency built around protecting the environment should look into. But Range Resources threatened to pull out of a key fracking study, and the EPA backed off.

Because, according to a report from Bloomberg, that's the game the frackers at Range Resources play: bullying, threatening, intimidating.

Critics say the Fort Worth-based company, which pioneered the use of hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale, has taken a hard line with residents, local officials and activists. In one case it threatened a former EPA official with legal action; in another it stopped participating in town hearings to review its own applications to drill, because local officials were asking too many questions and taking too long.

“Range Resources is different from its peers in that it chooses to severely punish its critics,” said Calvin Tillman, the former mayor of Dish, Texas, and an activist who has been subpoenaed and issued legal warnings by Range. “Most companies avoid the perception of the big-bad-bully oil company, while Range Resources embraces it.”

The Bloomberg article outlines some of that bullying. A lawmaker who criticized Range had emails leaked to the local paper. And Steve Lipsky, he with the methane water, was sued.


American energy infrastructure at risk from hackers in China and elsewhere

The Shanghai office building from which the hackers apparently operate.
The Shanghai office building from which the hackers apparently operate.

The New York Times' front-page scoop this morning outlines an understood-but-not-well-articulated threat: hackers supported by the Chinese military, targeting American companies and infrastructure. The article provides a good overview of how a security firm, Mandiant, uncovered the hacking system -- down to the building from which it likely operates -- but the report from Mandiant itself [PDF] provides much more detail.

What jumped out at us were the targets. While Madiant doesn't identify specific companies (many are the firm's clients), it does provide a matrix of targeted industries by year. One of the first compromised, in 2006, was transportation. Energy companies have been accessed multiple times between 2009 and 2012. As the hackers grow more sophisticated, the focus on infrastructure has increased. From the Times:

While [a unit of hackers] has drained terabytes of data from companies like Coca-Cola, increasingly its focus is on companies involved in the critical infrastructure of the United States -- its electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks. According to the security researchers, one target was a company with remote access to more than 60 percent of oil and gas pipelines in North America.

The Financial Times reported on an attempt to hack natural gas pipelines last May.

A sophisticated cyberattack intended to gain access to US natural gas pipelines has been under way for several months, the Department of Homeland Security has warned, raising fresh concerns about the possibility that vital infrastructure could be vulnerable to computer hackers. …

There was no information about the source or motive for the attack, but industry experts suggested two possibilities: an attempt to gain control of gas pipelines in order to disrupt supplies or an attempt to access information about flows to use in commodities trading.

The original tip-off came from companies that had noticed fake emails sent to staff. The attack uses what is known in computer security jargon as “spear-phishing”: using Facebook or other sources to gather information about a company’s employees, then attempting to trick them into revealing information or clicking on infected links by sending convincing emails purportedly from colleagues.

This is precisely the technique outlined by Madiant in its report.


Climate change means more blizzards but less snow, which confuses people apparently

Watching the news last night, Diane Sawyer leaned into the camera with a what'll-they-think-of-next expression on her face to introduce a story straight out of Ripley's: Climate change may mean less snowfall but more blizzards. [record scratch sound effect] Say whaaaaat? ran the story with the headline, "Less snow, more blizzards makes sense to scientists." Outlets that ran the Associated Press' story used, "Climate contradiction: Less snow, more blizzards." Now I'm not the smartest person in the world, I'll grant you that, but I find it hard to believe that adult human beings who understand English and have experienced weather are having trouble with this concept.

A blizzard in Manhattan, if that makes sense
A blizzard in Manhattan, if that makes sense.

The AP explains the idea:

A warmer atmosphere can hold, and dump, more moisture, snow experts say. And two soon-to-be-published studies demonstrate how there can be more giant blizzards yet less snow overall each year. Projections are that that's likely to continue with manmade global warming. …

Ten climate scientists say the idea of less snow and more blizzards makes sense: A warmer world is likely to decrease the overall amount of snow falling each year and shrink the snow season. But when it is cold enough for a snowstorm to hit, the slightly warmer air is often carrying more moisture, producing potentially historic blizzards.

"Strong snowstorms thrive on the ragged edge of temperature -- warm enough for the air to hold lots of moisture, meaning lots of precipitation, but just cold enough for it to fall as snow," said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. "Increasingly, it seems that we're on that ragged edge."


Anti-climate House Science committee now worried about the critical threat of asteroids

At some point, as has happened in the past, a huge asteroid will be headed for Earth, threatening the planet with indescribable damage. That point could come within days or it could take centuries. And Hollywood theorizing aside, it's not clear what we might do about it.

Rep. Smith owns at this game
Rep. Smith owns at this game.

Last week's meteor over Russia and the larger asteroid later that day spurred the normally laconic House Science committee to action. Newly elected committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) suggested that the event was "a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science." From a committee statement:

[Smith said:] "Developing technology and research that enable us to track objects like Asteroid 2012 DA14 is critical to our future. We should continue to invest in systems that identify threatening asteroids and develop contingencies, if needed, to change the course of an asteroid headed toward Earth." …

The Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing in the coming weeks to examine ways to better identify and address asteroids that pose a potential threat to Earth.

It probably goes without saying that this is the same "science" committee that has excelled at downplaying and ignoring the science of another, less science-fictiony threat: climate change.


The GOP’s three-step plan for being loved

Congressional Republicans, like middle-school English teachers, are mad that people don't think they're cool. In quiet moments in institutional restrooms, they look into mirrors for a bit longer than normal, hands under the faucet, leaning in. "What is it?" they wonder, eyes scanning their faces. That's when someone else walks in. "Hey." "Oh, hey," the Republicans reply, eyes dropping, hands washing each other vigorously.

Like many of those unsteady educators, the GOP has decided to do something about its popularity problem. Middle-school teachers buy sports cars and new jeans. Republicans try to develop new messaging. Politico outlines the GOP's three new rules. Let us assess them.

Rule one: Stop talking like the world is going to end. Budgetary politics is important to the GOP, but voters are going to stop voting for a party that talks about gloom and doom around the clock.

“I think that we need to make being fiscally conservative cool,” said Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chairwoman of the Administration Committee and a close ally of Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Yes. Stop talking like the world is going to end! You know how the Republicans are always like, "Oh, man, this climate change thing could really be apocalyptic and we're not doing anything about it," etc., etc. Stop doing that, Republicans!

And Rep. Miller has a great idea. A great idea. Make fiscal conservatism cool! Why didn't you guys think of that before? I mean, I know that in 2005, someone presented Cheney with "Operation: Shades" which would have put that plan into motion and he didn't jump on it, but why didn't you do it once he and the other guy got out of office? Honestly, if you started now, you could have fiscal conservatism lookin' cool by April. It's like Hawaiian shirt day at Initech. Mix it up, and you'll get the kids' respect.

The new-look GOP
The new-look GOP.


With pipelines at a premium, fossil-fuel companies get creative


This is interesting: Pipeline company Enbridge wants to turn a natural-gas pipeline in the Midwest into a crude-oil pipeline. From The Globe and Mail:

The latest proposal would redeploy a variety of existing pipelines, including part of Energy Transfer’s Trunkline natural gas system, as well as Enbridge’s new Southern Access Extension, which is under development. …

The proposal is one of several initiatives being considered to move more crude from the U.S. Midwest and Canadian Prairies to refineries along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Canadian crude is currently being sold at a bigger discount than usual because of a lack of pipeline capacity and growing supplies from North Dakota and other states that are expanding output using advanced drilling methods.

That "lack of pipeline capacity" from the north will also be discussed this Sunday in Washington.


Meet Bob Perciasepe, acting EPA administrator

I'm sorry, who? I mean, nice to meet you, Bob! Welcome aboard, I guess.

As fans of the "United States Government" may know, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson recently resigned her position. The president has not yet identified a pick to succeed her -- though there is some speculation that he might select Gina McCarthy, the agency's assistant administrator for air. And even once selected, that pick would have to be confirmed by the Senate. And so: Bob Perciasepe. (His last name is pronounced per-spih-CAY-shus, probably.)

EPA headquarters, which Bob now runs for a while. (There are no pictures of him online.)
EPA headquarters, which Bob now runs for a while. (There are no pictures of Bob online.)

Because I am a journalist, I Googled Mr. P. He has a Wikipedia page! He grew up in Westchester County, near New York City, went to school at Syracuse and Cornell, and served as Baltimore's city planner. Eventually, he became deputy secretary of Maryland's Department of the Environment, and then the state's secretary of the environment. In 1993, Bill Clinton appointed him to the EPA's office dealing with water. In 2009, Obama made him deputy administrator of the EPA.


Another sign of the apocalypse: Coal is making a comeback in the U.S.

If there were a war on coal -- which, sadly, there isn't -- it appears that the tide of battle has turned. Coal is making a comeback.

In an extensive article entitled "Coal Claws Back," the Rhodium Group, a think tank that assesses global trends, outlined the fuel's resurgence in the U.S. In short:

While the decline in coal-fired power generation, driven in large part by cheap natural gas, has helped reduce emissions to levels most policymakers and climate diplomats thought impossible absent economy-wide legislation, it looks as though it has just about run its course. Natural gas prices bottomed out in April of last year at $1.82 per MMBTU at Henry Hub, and have since climbed to above $3. While still low relative to the high gas prices that had become the norm before the shale boom took hold, this rebound has been enough to stop the bleeding for coal-fired power. Coal’s share of electricity generation increased from 33% in April to 42% in November, the most recent month for which public data is available, and industry consultancy GenScape estimates that coal’s share stabilized at these levels through January.

The picture is more clear in graph form.


Obama confirms: No big moves on climate in the works

President Barack Obama
The White House

Based on conversations with senior White House officials this week, we reported that the president's State of the Union threat to act unilaterally on climate change didn't appear to have any force behind it. The largest weapon Obama has to that effect is the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants -- something that officials suggested isn't in the works.

Yesterday, Politico asked the president directly what he's planning to do about climate change:

Obama said in his State of the Union address that he is prepared to take action if Congress doesn't act, but he didn't detail what that action might look like. He hinted during the chat Thursday that it could resemble what his administration did to require higher fuel efficiency standards in automobiles.

"The same steps that we took with respect to energy efficiency on cars, we can take on buildings, we can take on appliances, we can make sure that new power plants that are being built are more efficient than the old ones, and we can continue to put research and our support behind clean energy that is going to continue to help us transition away from dirtier fuels," he said.

As we noted on Wednesday, the administration's action to increase fuel-efficiency standards for cars was a good one that will have a significant effect on greenhouse-gas and particulate pollution. But it is also a very different political fight than the one over emissions from existing power plants, and far less important.