This summer's sequel to the 2010 Gulf oil spill may not be as big and drawn-out as that disaster, but the 2011 Yellowstone oil spill could have an even bigger political impact, Greenwire reports. While BP's Gulf spill led to a temporary ban on deepwater oil drilling, it didn't inspire the broad safety reforms many environmentalists wanted. Exxon Mobil's Yellowstone spill, however, occurred just as U.S. officials are mulling whether to approve the giant Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, and as Congress is contemplating a bill to improve pipeline safety in general.
"It's really important that the governor and legislators from Montana take a hard look at how similar the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is to this Exxon Mobil pipeline," says the Natural Resources Defense Council's Susan Casey-Lefkowitz. "You can't separate a discussion about the Keystone XL pipeline from the pipeline safety discussion. They have to happen together." Keystone XL would also cross the Yellowstone River on its way from Canada to the Gulf Coast, although officials at TransCanada — the company behind the proposed pipeline — say it would be safely buried much deeper than Exxon Mobil's ruptured Silvertip line. The recent spill is "an unfortunate incident," a TransCanada spokesman tells Greenwire, but shouldn't reflect poorly on Keystone XL. "[W]e recognize that it does have an impact on public perception," he says, but "it is important to recognize here that the safest way to transport crude oil is through pipelines." Critics point out, however, that TransCanada's existing Keystone pipeline has already suffered 10 spills during its first year of operation.
Meanwhile, the swollen Yellowstone River continues to hinder cleanup efforts in Montana, MSNBC reports, preventing workers from finding the ruptured pipe. Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing has also dealt another blow to the embattled company, admitting it took nearly twice as long to stop the leak as he first said. "Shutting down this line is not like shutting off your water faucet at home," Pruessing explains, adding that "I know we mentioned earlier it took us 30 minutes to close those isolation valves. The absolute number is 49 minutes." Yet he stands by the company's estimate that only 42,000 gallons were spilled — a dubious assurance, writes TIME's Tara Thean. "Pruessing is no doubt right that shutting off a valve is hard. But looking at your timeline before you talk to the press is exceedingly easy," Thean writes. "When you lowball your time estimates and admit the truth only when you're caught, why in the world should anyone believe you when you next promise that your barrels-spilled number is take-it-to-the-bank reliable."
The Exxon Mobil oil spill isn't the only disaster to unfold around Yellowstone this week: A grizzly bear fatally attacked a hiker in Yellowstone National Park on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reports, the first such killing in 25 years. The victim and his wife were hiking the popular Wapiti Trail when they came across a group of grizzly cubs and their mother, who apparently saw the couple as a threat. Park officials are waiting to release the man's identity and hometown until Thursday, after his family has been notified, the Times reports.
Park rangers have closed all trails and backcountry campsites in the area around where the attack occurred, and have walked through to clear out any remaining campers or hikers. There had been no reports of grizzly encounters in the park so far this year, Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash tells the Times, adding that "this is the first bear-caused human fatality in Yellowstone since 1986." Bear attacks are extremely rare, but two fatal grizzly attacks did occur last year near Yellowstone: one outside the park's east gate in June, and another in July at a campground near Cooke City, Mont., north of the park.
While Wednesday's attack appears to be a case of a mother bear defending her cubs, experts have been warning that several factors are converging that could increase the rate of human-grizzly conflicts in Yellowstone and elsewhere. Both grizzly and human populations are rising in the region, and climate change has also been blamed for reducing some of grizzlies' favorite natural food sources, including whitebark pine nuts, miller moths and cutthroat trout. This is expected to force the bears to seek out more alternative food sources, potentially putting them at odds with humans more often.
The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to push off from the planet at 11:26 Friday morning, thundering up to the International Space Station for its final flight, and the last-ever shuttle launch for NASA. It's sure to be a dramatic, emotional milestone in the history of U.S. space travel, but according to NASA, there's only a 30 percent chance it will take place Friday as planned. Stormy weather is haunting Florida's Space Coast, potentially pushing back Atlantis' swan song until Sunday or later.
Still, "there are no problems yet," pointed out launch integration manager Michael Moses at a news conference Wednesday. "There are just weather forecasts." About 1 million spectators are expected to crowd Cape Canaveral and nearby cities to watch the launch, and for now, NASA is preparing as if Friday's liftoff is still a go. The crew arrived at Kennedy Space Center earlier this week, albeit noticeably smaller than the typical six- or seven-person crew involved in most shuttle flights. NASA's 135th and final shuttle launch features just four astronauts, the New York Times reports, because NASA wants to cover its bases in case something goes wrong and Atlantis can't land. With no extra shuttles left in its fleet to rescue astronauts stranded in space, NASA would have to seek help from Russia — and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft can only hold three astronauts, meaning multiple launches would be required for any rescue mission. So, even though that's a "very low-likelihood case," as Atlantis commander Capt. Chris Ferguson says, NASA is playing it safe and sending up just four astronauts.
The small crew doesn't mean Atlantis won't have a big grand finale, though. As Space.com reports, the four-person crew is bringing some secret souvenirs onto the shuttle, part of a planned tribute the astronauts will dedicate to the conclusion of NASA's 30-year shuttle program. "Our commander wants to keep a lot of that a surprise for the day that we do those things," Atlantis pilot Doug Hurley tells Space.com. "Obviously, there may be some mementos involved before we leave the space station for the last time. But just trust us. Watch the mission and you'll see some neat stuff."
Just days after the Bahamas made international news outlawing all shark fishing in its territorial waters, two more nations are now moving toward similar shark-saving measures, the Underwater Times reports. Proposals in Chile and Fiji follow recent laws passed by Honduras, the Maldives, Palau and the Bahamas to protect declining shark populations, leading one shark advocate to dub 2011 "the year of the shark." All this, and Shark Week is still weeks away.
In Chile, the National Congress passed a bill Wednesday that completely bans shark finning, requiring all sharks caught off the Chilean coast to be brought ashore with their fins intact. The country's president is expected to sign the bill into law within 30 days, dealing a major blow to any fishermen seeking to profit from China's insatiable demand for shark fin soup. "With the passage of this law, Chile becomes a leader in the protection of these animals that are so important to marine ecosystems," says Alex Muñoz of the conservation group Oceana, which promoted the law. "We knew that large quantities of shark fins were being exported from our country. This practice meant the deaths of thousands of sharks each year. With this new law we will have a critical tool to protect and recover these most exploited species."
In Fiji, meanwhile, the Department of Fisheries and Forests is drafting a revised fisheries law that would include a ban on the trade of all shark fins and other products, permanent secretary Commander Viliame Naupoto tells the Underwater Times. "We want to ban all trade of shark products in Fiji, in order to conserve this species," Naupoto says. "We are reviewing the fisheries management law and in it we want to incorporate the ban of all shark meat and products in Fiji, especially the trade of shark fins."
A 19th-century physicist warns of river pollution, the Exxon Valdez changes its name, and more.
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Photo (Trans-Alaska oil pipeline): Steve Allen/Jupiter Images
Photo (grizzly bear in Rocky Mountains): ZUMA Press
Photo (Atlantis on launch pad in Florida): ZUMA Press
Photo (whitetip reef shark in Costa Rica): ZUMA Press