Monthly Archives: January 2013

Arctic Oil Spills are Not Preventable

Alaska oil drilling. Image from wikipedia

The Arctic Council Oil Spill Task Force, jointly led by the US, Norway and Russia, has finalized its work with drafting an agreement on oil pollution incidents in Arctic waters.  The agreement is to be presented and signed during the upcoming Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in May. The agreement comes as a result of a decision made by ministers of the 8 Arctic Countries at their previous meeting, i.e., in May 2011 in Nuuk, Greenland, to develop an international instrument on Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response.

The agreement will cover Arctic marine areas of the 8 Arctic Countries and apply to all kind of possible pollution sources, oilrigs and ships, except ships operated by a state such as naval vessels. The oil spill agreement will stipulate that each Arctic country must have a system in place that takes into account activities or places that are particularly likely to give rise to or suffer from incidents as well as areas of special ecological significance. Among other things, the agreement will contain rules for notifying about, monitoring, and assisting in responses to oil pollution incidents. It also will have stipulations regarding information exchange, the carrying out of joint exercises and training, and meetings of the parties to the agreement.

While advocating a moratorium on Arctic marine oil and gas extraction, environmentalist groups that have been following the preparation of the agreement text are welcoming it as a step forward in fighting oil spills. According to environmentalists, given that resource exploration and extraction in Arctic waters is increasing, oil spill incidents will inevitably happen. These groups also praises the fact that the agreement will recognize the role of indigenous peoples and other Arctic residents in supporting oil spill preparedness and response. Yet, at the same time, they criticize the agreement for not facilitating the use of privately owned – i.e., by oil companies – response equipment. NGOs furthermore point out that while the agreement goes a good long way to maintain and harmonize national procedures, it fails to commit its parties to actually raise their preparedness and response standards.

From the website of Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat

The Golden Age of Coal

Yangzhou industrial area, China

Coal-fired power stations provide two-fifths of the world’s electricity, and there are ever more of them. In the doubling of the world’s electricity production over the past decade, two-thirds of the increase came from coal. At these rates, coal will vie with oil as the world’s largest source of primary energy within five years. As recently as 2001, it was not much more than half as important as oil

The main factor has been the unslakable thirst for energy in China, which in 2011 overtook America as the world’s biggest electricity producer. In 2001, according to the International Energy Agency, a club of rich nations, Chinese coal demand was about 600m tonnes of oil equivalent (25 exajoules). By 2011 China’s coal demand had tripled—a rise from two-thirds of the energy America gets from oil to twice that amount. China’s domestic coal industry produces more primary energy than Middle Eastern oil does.

Other developing economies are just as keen on coal, if not yet on such a grand scale. In India, producing 650 terawatt hours of electricity in 2010 took 311m tonnes of oil equivalent, and the power sector’s coal demand is growing at around 6% a year. The IEA reckons India could surpass America as the world’s second-largest coal consumer by 2017.

Meanwhile in Europe, which likes to see itself as a world leader on climate, they are using more and more of the stuff.

America’s coal business, like the rest of the country’s energy industry, has been upended by the advent of shale gas, now available in unforeseen quantities at unforeseen prices. In April 2012 the price fell below $2 per million British thermal units, or Btus ($7 per megawatt hour). This has made gas increasingly attractive to power companies, which have been switching away from coal in increasing numbers.

The decline of coal.. will be protracted. Coal-fired power stations are built to last—the oldest plant currently operating was built in the 1930s—so unless new rules force them to close, they will be retired gradually. By 2017 or so, reckons Brattle Group, a consultancy, coal use will stabilise again, as gas demand finally makes gas prices dearer than coal. Coal may be down in America. But it is not yet out

Coal in the rich world: The mixed fortunes of a fuel, Economist, Jan. 5, 2013, at 54

What is an Entrenched War—Iraq

Car bomb Iraq

On the last day of 2012, a year after the last American troops left Iraq, ending nearly nine years of military occupation, at least 36 Iraqis perished in a wave of bombings and shootings across the country that targeted policemen, government officials and ordinary people of varied sects. According to Iraq Body Count (IBC), a meticulous mainly American and British monitoring group, the overall toll in deaths of civilians due to political violence last year was 4,471, slightly more than the year before. On average, there were 18 bombings and 53 violent deaths a week. Iraq is hardly a country at peace.Yet the monthly toll in 2012 fell steadily and markedly after June. ..

Yet few Iraqis are celebrating. That extra money has yet to improve public services or to raise family incomes appreciably. The underlying violence still amounts to what the IBC terms “an entrenched conflict”. Worse, the factors that feed the strife are still at play. In particular, Nuri al-Maliki, the tough Shia Muslim who has been prime minister since 2006, shows increasingly authoritarian, sectarian and democracy-sapping tendencies, ruthlessly ousting or outmanoeuvring rivals, and using underhand methods to impose his will…Sunni grievances go deep. Long dominant until Saddam Hussein’s fall (he was executed in 2006) and having suffered the brunt of violence during America’s occupation, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs reckon they are now deliberately marginalised. Addressing a crowd in the town of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, Mr Issawi complained that Sunnis were being “ghettoised”. Districts where they still predominate in Baghdad had, he said, been turned into “giant prisons ringed by concrete blocks.”

The civil war next door in Syria, with its increasingly bitter sectarian flavour, has not helped. While Iraqi Sunni groups, including some tied to al-Qaeda, lend arms and fighters to Syria’s rebels, Mr Maliki’s government quietly aids Bashar Assad’s embattled regime. Sunni Iraqi insurgents who once attacked Americans are targeting Iraqi Shias and people connected to Mr Maliki’s government. The recent Sunni protests have also gained sympathy from Muqtada al-Sadr, a fiery Shia cleric whose powerful popular movement has grown increasingly critical of Mr Maliki.

Iraq is still a violent mess. Its democracy, imposed by the Americans, looks fragile. And the prospect of real harmony between the three main ethnic and sectarian components—Arab Shias, Arab Sunnis and Kurds—looks as distant as ever.

Iraq: Still bloody, Economist Jan. 5, 2013. at 35

Kurdistan Independence

 

The Evaporation of Andes Glaciers: a study

Glacier Chile, Image from wikipedia

The glacier retreat in the tropical Andes over the last three decades is unprecedented since the maximum extension of the Little Ice Age (LIA, mid-17th–early 18th century). In terms of changes in mass balance, although there have been some sporadic gains on several glaciers, we show that the trend has been quite negative over the past 50 yr, with a mean mass balance deficit for glaciers in the tropical Andes that is slightly more negative than the one computed on a global scale. A break point in the trend appeared in the late 1970s with mean annual mass balance per year decreasing from −0.2 m w.e. in the period 1964–1975 to −0.76 m w.e. in the period 1976–2010.

In addition, even if glaciers are currently retreating everywhere in the tropical Andes, it should be noted that this is much more pronounced on small glaciers at low altitudes that do not have a permanent accumulation zone, and which could disappear in the coming years/decades. Monthly mass balance measurements performed in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia show that variability of the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean is the main factor governing variability of the mass balance at the decadal timescale. Precipitation did not display a significant trend in the tropical Andes in the 20th century, and consequently cannot explain the glacier recession. On the other hand, temperature increased at a significant rate of 0.10 °C decade−1 in the last 70 yr. The higher frequency of El Niño events and changes in its spatial and temporal occurrence since the late 1970s together with a warming troposphere over the tropical Andes may thus explain much of the recent dramatic shrinkage of glaciers in this part of the world.

A. Rabatel, et al.,Current state of glaciers in the tropical Andes: a multi-century perspective on glacier evolution and climate change. The Cryosphere: An Interactive Open Access Journal of the European Geosciences Union

Just Hit Seeme; the new military satellites of DARPA

Seeme Program Image from DARPA website

The Seeme Program from DARPA website:

DARPA’s SeeMe (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements) program aims to give mobile individual US warfighters access to on-demand, space-based tactical information in remote and beyond- line-of-sight conditions. If successful, SeeMe will provide small squads and individual teams the ability to receive timely imagery of their specific overseas location directly from a small satellite with the press of a button — something that’s currently not possible from military or commercial satellites.

The program seeks to develop a constellation of small “disposable” satellites, at a fraction of the cost of airborne systems, enabling deployed warfighters overseas to hit ‘see me’ on existing handheld devices to receive a satellite image of their precise location within 90 minutes. DARPA plans SeeMe to be an adjunct to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, which provides local and regional very-high resolution coverage but cannot cover extended areas without frequent refueling. SeeMe aims to support warfighters in multiple deployed overseas locations simultaneously with no logistics or maintenance costs beyond the warfighters’ handheld devices.

The SeeMe constellation may consist of some two-dozen satellites, each lasting 60-90 days in a very low-earth orbit before de-orbiting and completely burning up, leaving no space debris and causing no re-entry hazard. The program may leverage DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which is developing an aircraft-based satellite launch platform for payloads on the order of 100 lbs. ALASA seeks to provide low-cost, rapid launch of small satellites into any required orbit, a capability not possible today from fixed ground launch sites.

From the DARPA Website

Raytheon Company was awarded a $1.5 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract for phase one of the agency’s Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program. During the next nine months, the company will complete the design for small satellites to enhance warfighter situational awareness in the battlespace.  Raython News Release, Dec. 13, 2012

Illegal Toxic Waste Exports: Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea

The Bureau of Customs (Philippines) is looking into the alleged shipment in May 2012 of 14 containers of toxic waste from the Manila International Container Port (MICP) to Pusan, South Korea, via the southern Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung. The case is also being investigated by the International Police, according to Philippine Daily Inquirer sources at the BOC and National Bureau of Investigation.

Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon last month told this paper he had instructed MICP Collector Ricardo Belmonte to “give me a report” on the issue. Last week, Biazon disclosed “the feedback of Collector Belmonte is that there’s no such toxic waste shipment” from the MICP….

When contacted, Intelligence group staff said they were “still tracing the source” of the alleged hazardous waste, declared as stainless steel by its Metro Manila-based exporter.  The same sources added they were also “trying to determine if the Philippines was the shipment’s actual point of origin or just a transshipment point.”….

INQUIRER sources identified the shipper, the shipment’s consignee bank and contact party in Incheon, South Korea, but asked not to publish their names.  According to the shipment’s bill of lading, the 14 containers were loaded on the MV YM Immense, a container ship belonging to the Yang Ming Marine Transport, a shipping firm based in Keelung City, Taiwan.The Monrovia-registered vessel,[flag state Liberia] built in 2006, is 173 meters long and has a gross weight of 16,848 tons. Meanwhile, the BOC will closely scrutinize this year the business records of bureau-accredited exporters and importers and unmask not only smugglers but also fly-by-night and fictitious traders.  Biazon said “it’s true smuggling is still one of the biggest problems facing the bureau.” However, he emphasized “it’s not true that we are not addressing the problem.”

At the same time, he warned BOC officials and employees who have been making fortunes by conniving with smugglers, saying “the days of erring bureau personnel are definitely numbered.” “Those who continue to engage in illegal activities in connivance with smugglers will be targeted and will face the full force of the law,” according to Biazon.

Excerpt, Jerry E. Esplanada, BOC to pursue probe of alleged toxic waste shipment from Manila to South Korea, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Jan. 21, 2013

See also Overcoming National Barriers to International Waste Trade (pdf)

Where it is Cheap to Pollute: the West Atlas Oil Spill

West Atlas Oil Spill. image from wikipedia

An environmental group said that it would file a report to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) [Indonesia] over alleged gratuities given by Thailand-based oil and gas producer PTTEP Australasia to a number of parties in Indonesia.  PTTEP Australiasia is responsible for the Montara oil spill in the Timor Sea, off the northern coast of Western Australia.The environmental group in question, Ocean Watch Indonesia (OWI), alleged that the oil and gas company had paid gratuities to certain individuals to prevent them from speaking about the magnitude of the damage from the spill.  “The case has been going on for four years, but we haven’t seen any efforts by the company, the Indonesian government or the Australian government to settle the problem. We suspect that there is a conspiracy resulting from the gratuities given,” executive director of OWI Herman Jaya said as quoted by Antara news agency.

Herman said that the KPK should launch an investigation into a possible case of graft that resulted in no progress in the oil spill investigation.  The group said that the company’s account of the disaster, published on a PTTEP AA Fact Sheet, could be used as a starting point for the KPK to begin investigations.  The report said there was no scientific evidence to verify that the oil spill had brought environmental degradation to Indonesian waters, Herman said.  The OWI alleged that one of the country’s top universities was responsible for authoring the report and was willing to do so only after payment from the company.

Earlier, fishermen who earned a living from catching fish or farming seaweed in the south of East Nusa Tenggara, had filed a lawsuit at the Australian Federal Court against PTTEP Australasia, after the company stated that it would not pay compensation to victims who had suffered from the impact of the oil spill since Aug. 21, 2009.  The lawsuit also demanded that PTTEP Australasia hire an independent team comprising of scientists from Indonesia, Australia, Timor Leste and the US to conduct scientific research to determine the impacts of the pollution in a scientific, transparent and accountable manner.

On Aug. 31, 2012, PTTEP Australasia accepted fines totalling A$510,000 (US$536,010) handed down by the Darwin Magistrates’ Court for its responsibility in the 2009 Montara incident.  In Dec. 2010, then transportation minister Freddy Numberi said that PTTEP Australasia had acknowledged responsibility for the oil spill.  Freddy said that the government had demanded Rp 23 trillion ($2.56 billion) in compensation from the company to repair the damage.  PTTEP Australasia’s oil platform in the Montara field, off Australia’s northern coast, exploded and spilled more than 500,000 liters of crude oil per day into the Timor Sea in August 2009.  Oil and gas leaks continued for 74 days until Nov. 3, 2009, and a permanent cap was installed a month later.  The oil rig, called the West Atlas, is owned by Seadrill, a Norwegian-Bermudan offshore drilling company, and operated by PTTEP Australasia, a subsidiary of the Thai-owned oil and gas company PTT.  Thirty eight percent of Indonesia’s marine territory in the Timor Sea was reportedly affected by the spill.

Environmental group to report Timor Sea oil spill to KPK, The Jakarta Post, , January 21, 2013