With gasoline prices rising in the U.S. and political unrest sweeping the Middle East, President Obama will set new goals today for America to slash its reliance on foreign oil. In a speech at Georgetown University, the president plans to outline how the country can cut back its oil imports by one-third over the next decade — a substantial target that won't be easy to reach. No country uses as much oil as the U.S., and a parade of past presidents have tried to cut back with little success. Usually, oil imports continued rising despite their efforts.

Still, Obama hopes to convince the public — and hostile members of Congress — that this time will be different. "The speech will mark a transition in our public communications, and kick off a concerted effort around energy security," a senior U.S. official tells the AFP. Obama will focus on four main areas where he believes the U.S. needs to make progress: domestic oil production, natural gas development, biofuels and energy efficiency. His pro-nuclear policy won't change, AFP reports, although the crisis in Japan has made it a tricky time to publicly promote the industry, so he probably won't dwell on it. Instead, he'll promote things like city buses that run on liquefied natural gas, fuel-efficient heavy trucks and advanced biofuel refineries. He'll pitch homegrown energy as a source of "green jobs," and will try to deflect criticism about delayed offshore drilling permits by countering that oil companies aren't fully exploiting the leases they already have.

Today's speech will launch a series of events designed to refocus the nation's attention on energy issues, something Obama hopes will be well-received at a time when overseas turmoil coincides with gas-price spikes at home. But as he admitted in a recent news conference, Americans will grow weary if they feel old arguments and aspirations are just being rehashed. "We've been having this conversation for nearly four decades now," Obama said on March 11. "Every few years, gas prices go up; politicians pull out the same old political playbook, and then nothing changes. And when prices go back down, we slip back into a trance. And then when prices go up, suddenly we're shocked. I think the American people are tired of that."

(Sources: Washington Post, New York Times, Agence France-Presse)


The Gulf oil spill may have killed up to 50 times more whales and dolphins than previously reported, according to a new study published in the journal Conservation Letters. The U.S. government compiled data on injured and dead wildlife during the three-month disaster, based on reports from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and other sources, and concluded that roughly 115 whales and dolphins were killed. But as Rob Williams of the Marine Mammal Research Unit points out, only about 2 percent of all whales and dolphins that perish in the Gulf are ever recovered by people.

"We used the default values for survivorship and natural mortality that are used in standard U.S. stock-assessment reports for marine mammals," Williams says. "Our calculations are rough, but they are a good starting point, and far better than assuming ... that the bodies on the beach represent the sum total of the damage." Ongoing reports of dead dolphins washing ashore seem to bolster Williams' argument, suggesting that some after-effects from the spill may still be harming marine mammals that survived the initial contamination. But that's not the focus of Williams' research — he's saying the spill may have immediately killed more whales and dolphins than anyone realized, potentially making their populations even more vulnerable now to follow-up stress. As New England Aquarium whale expert Scott Kraus explains, simply keeping track of washed-up carcasses isn't a reliable way to tally the impact of oil spills. "Our detection rate for mortality is very poor," he says, "and generally, surveys are not an effective way to pick up dead animals unless you have extremely high coverage." 

In other Gulf oil spill news, officials who've been responding to increased dolphin deaths along the Gulf Coast are also facing another challenge: a sudden spike in sea turtle deaths. "In the past couple of weeks, we've seen an increase" in turtle deaths in the northern Gulf, NOAA spokeswoman Connie Barcla tells MSNBC, noting that 46 deaths have been confirmed in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama since March 15. "The spring time is the typical time when turtle strandings in this region begin to increase," she adds, "but the sharp increases in recent days are of concern." About 400 sea turtle deaths were reported in the five months following the spill, but the death rate slowed down in October, MSNBC reports. All seven species of sea turtles are listed on the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

(Sources: Nature, e! Science News, MSNBC)


All six reactors at Japan's snakebit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant may have to be scrapped, top government spokesman Yukio Edano tells Kyodo News, as officials admit they are no closer to resolving the long-running crisis. Meanwhile, new readings show levels of radioactive iodine-131 have grown to 3,355 times the legal limit in nearby seawater, just 300 yards south of the Daiichi plant. Officials say they don't yet know how the contamination occurred, but even higher levels of radiation have also been detected elsewhere in water-filled turbine buildings and trenches outside the reactors. "We will find out how it happened and do our utmost to prevent it from rising," says a spokesman for NISA, the country's nuclear and industrial safety agency.

Masataka Shimizu, CEO of plant owner Tokyo Electric Power, already told a recent press conference that the four most troublesome reactors would likely need to be decommissioned, saying "We have no choice but to scrap reactors 1 to 4 if we look at their conditions objectively." But at another conference on Wednesday, Edano was asked if all six reactors might be doomed. "I believe it is very clear from the viewpoint of society," he answered. "That is my perception." Reactors 5 and 6 are already in a state of cold shutdown, presenting little of the danger posed by reactors 1, 2, 3 and 4, but the suggestion of a complete decommissioning from such high-ranking officials may signal how desperate the overall situation has become. In fact, the Guardian reports that Shimizu was taken to the hospital Tuesday night, suffering from exhaustion. Earlier in the day, an American engineer who helped install reactors at the plant said unit 2's radioactive core may have already melted through its containment vessel and onto a concrete floor below.

Radiation in the ocean has raised a new set of alarms in Japan, where many fisheries were already obliterated by the tsunami three weeks ago. Earlier seawater samples had shown iodine levels at 1,850 times the legal limit, and Wednesday's near-doubling of that figure spooked many Japanese. But as medical researcher Robert Peter Gale tells the Guardian, it's better to have loose radiation at sea than in the air or soil. "To some extent that's why some nuclear power plants are built along the coast, to be in an area where the wind is blowing out to sea, and because the safest way to deposit radiation is in the ocean," he says. "The dilutional factor could not be better." Yet with the crisis still open-ended, it remains unclear just how much radiation will be released, or for how long. As Edano acknowledged Wednesday, there's no end in sight. "We are not yet in a situation were we can say we will have this under control by a certain period," he told reporters.

(Sources: Kyodo News, BBC News, Guardian)


California may have a lot of problems at the moment — a $26.5 billion budget deficit, high unemployment, a stagnant housing market and even radiation drifting across the ocean from Japan — but at least one thing seems to be going its way: water. Following a persistent drought that decimated the state's gigantic agriculture industry for years on end, a wild winter upstream has deposited more than 50 feet of snow in parts of the Sierra Nevada, creating a rare aquatic surplus that's poised to finally end California's miserable dry spell.

To mark the occasion, Gov. Jerry Brown will announce today that he's lifting a 2009 emergency drought declaration, which had been issued by his predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. By doing so, Brown will bring a symbolic close to the state's worst long-term drought in decades. The move will come just a few days after California water regulators reported that upstream snowpack levels were about 159 percent higher than normal, and at their highest since 1995. That's a welcome relief from the dismal spring of 2007, when snowpack was about 39 percent of its average amount. The ensuing water restrictions hit Central Valley farmers hard, worsening an already high unemployment rate in the agriculture-centric region.

Yet unlike with some past droughts there and in other states, it appears California — or at least its governor — has learned a valuable lesson from its long-running drought. One snowy winter won't solve all the state's problems, and in a statement released by the governor's office, Brown hinted that he won't allow California to slip back into its wasteful ways. "While this season's surplus of rain and strong snowpack has clearly ended the dry spell for now," Brown said, "it is critical that Californians continue to conserve water."

(Sources: New York Times, Desert Sun, Contra Costa Times)


Three Mile Island nuclear crisis spurs evacuations, California outlaws a polluting gas additive, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Obama at clean-energy event on March 5): Charles Dharapak/AP

Photo (dolphin off the Louisiana coast in June 2010): Derick E. Hingle/AP

Photo (ocean surface): National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Photo (snowpack in Sequoia National Park): National Park Service

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.