UPDATE: U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has denied news reports that his department is engaged in ongoing negotiations with BP over deepwater drilling in the Gulf. Calling that description a "misconception," Salazar tells Reuters that BP will have to go through the same review process as any other oil company.
Just in time for the one-year anniversary of its 2010 Gulf oil spill later this month, BP is reportedly seeking permission to resume deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The British oil giant has been in talks with the U.S. Interior Department, the Washington Post reports, and says it hopes to restart several projects sometime this summer. As the New York Times explains, this creates a "delicate situation" for President Obama, who is trying to boost domestic oil production without ignoring lessons from last summer's disaster.
It was inevitable that BP would start drilling in the Gulf again at some point, the Post points out, given how heavily it has invested in the region. Its eight deepwater projects make it the largest oil producer in the Gulf, pumping out 400,000 barrels daily, and it's also the region's No. 1 deepwater lease holder, with more than 650 lease blocks in waters deeper than 1,250 feet. As the Post reports, BP had been planning a major expansion in the Gulf before last year's spill, and with many of its platforms still needing further "development" drilling before they can reach their full capacities, the company is itching to dive back in. Before the spill, "BP was the Gulf of Mexico," says one oil analyst, who adds the company might have an easier time rebuilding than some expect, thanks to the need for more jobs and more oil production. "Many people said BP would be put in the penalty box. I'm not so sure."
BP has reportedly agreed to follow even stricter rules than those set after last year's spill, such as providing more detailed plans to the government, allowing regulators 24-hour access to any of its deepwater wells, and abstaining from exploratory drilling for now. In exchange, the company will restart drilling operations at 10 deepwater wells in the Gulf, MSNBC reports. That's welcome news to many in the offshore drilling industry, but it has irked countless BP critics along the Gulf Coast. "We don't think that BP has shown it's changed its corporate culture to earn the right to return to the Gulf of Mexico," says the Sierra Club's Athan Manuel. "It's still too soon for them to go back and operate in that area."
The planet's mountain glaciers are melting into the sea more quickly than they have at any point in the past 350 years, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience. The researchers mapped changes in 270 of the largest glaciers between Chile and Argentina since the "Little Ice Age," discovering that they have, on average, lost volume "10 to 100 times faster" in the past 30 years.
And that's not just bad news for people who rely on those glaciers for drinking water: The researchers also linked this rapid melting to an increasing rise of sea levels. "The work is significant because it is the first time anyone has made a direct estimate of the sea-level contribution from glaciers since the peak of the industrial revolution," study co-author Stephen Harrison tells the BBC. A key to their study is the length of time involved, adds lead author Neil Glasser of Aberystwyth University in Wales. "Previous estimates of sea-level contribution from mountain glaciers are based on very short timescales," he says. "They cover only the last 30 years or so when satellite images can be used to calculate rates of glacier volume change. We took a different approach by using a new method that allows us to look at longer timescales." And not only did they find that a 1 million-acre ice field in South America is melting quickly, but that it's melting faster than it has in centuries — thus raising its contribution to sea-level rise.
The researchers also received an echo over the weekend from the other side of the world, as the Dalai Lama warned an audience in India about the consequences of Tibet's melting glaciers. Speaking at centenary celebrations for former Indian President R. Venkataraman, the Tibetan spiritual leader explained that losing the glaciers isn't just a problem for people in Tibet, since millions of Indians also rely on their meltwater. "The Tibetan glaciers are retreating faster than anywhere else in the world," the Dalai Lama said. "Millions of Indians use water coming from the Himalayan glacier, so you have a certain right to show your concern about the ecology of that plateau."
Tokyo Electric Power Co. has begun dumping low-radioactive water from its crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, Kyodo News reports, part of a desperate attempt to make room for more highly contaminated water in onshore storage. TEPCO announced Monday that it's dumping out 10,000 tons of the radiation-tinged water, which is expected to dissipate quickly and should pose "no major health risk," according to the Japanese government.
TEPCO plans to release about 4,800 tons of the water per day for two days, according to top government spokesman Yukio Edano. In addition, radioactive water from reactors No. 5 and No. 6 will also be dumped into the sea, totaling 300 tons per day for five days. "Unfortunately, the water contains a certain amount of radiation," Edano said. "This is an unavoidable measure to prevent even higher amounts of radiation from reaching the sea." Despite government reassurances, however, not everyone agrees about the strategy's safety. The water contains roughly 100 times the legal limit of radiation, and marine biologists tell the New York Times that oceanic radiation levels have been spiking in recent days and will likely continue for months. "We're seeing the levels of radioactive materials in the water increase, which means this problem is going to continue to get worse and worse," says Kenya Mizuguchi, professor emeritus at Tokyo University of Maritime Science and Technology. Longer-lived radioactive elements like cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, accumulate in predatory fish as they eat smaller fish, meaning the problem could grow over time. Japanese officials have said it could take months to finally stop the release of radiation from Fukushima Daiichi, which was overwhelmed by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11.
Workers scrambling to corral the plant's overheating fuel rods also resorted to other desperate measures over the weekend, using concrete, sawdust, shredded newspaper and absorbent powder to plug a direct leak of radioactive water from a pit near the reactor. An estimated seven tons per hour was leaking from the pit, and the Times reports today that attempts to plug it appear to be failing. TEPCO is also rushing emergency storage tanks to the plant to hold more contaminated water, and plans to build a giant artificial island off the coast to help shoulder the storage burden.
A study that aimed to challenge the scientific consensus on global warming has instead ended up supporting that consensus, the Los Angeles Times reports, dealing a blow to some of the study's high-profile backers. Led by longtime climate skeptic Richard Muller (pictured) — who doesn't doubt climate change is happening, but says it has been "exaggerated" — the researchers surprised U.S. lawmakers at a hearing last week by saying the prevailing climate science they reviewed was "excellent."
Muller, a physics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, was speaking at a hearing called by Republican leaders of the House Science and Technology committee, who have also expressed skepticism about climate science. The study's biggest donor was the Charles K. Koch Charitable Foundation, which contributed $150,000; oil billionaires Charles and David Koch are two of the country's most prominent funders of various efforts to block regulation of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Yet despite all that context — and his own history of skepticism — Muller impressed many scientists by willingly admitting he was surprised by what he found. "We see a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups," he told lawmakers.
Some of Muller's fellow skeptics seemed to dismiss his analysis as unfinished, with former TV weatherman and skeptic blogger Anthony Watts writing that the results are not "fully working and debugged yet ... But, post normal science political theater is like that." Meanwhile, some of Muller's fellow scientists were more definitive in their assessment, praising Muller for putting science above his personal views. Atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, for one, tells the Times that Muller's testimony to Congress was "honorable" for recognizing that "previous temperature reconstructions basically got it right. ... Willingness to revise views in the face of empirical data is the hallmark of the good scientific process."
American Smelting and Refining Company is founded, earthquake kills 20,000 in India, and more
Photo (Deepwaer Horizon fire on April 20, 2010): ZUMA Press
Photo (melting glacier in Alaska): Getty Images
Photo (Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant): ZUMA Press
Photo (Richard Muller): Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory