The U.S. and its allies will release 60 million barrels of oil from emergency reserves over the next month, officials said Thursday, part of a rare multilateral effort to reduce global prices. Half of that amount will be sweet, light crude from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve — kept in Louisiana and Texas salt caverns — while 30 percent will come from Europe and 20 percent from Asia. Oil prices fell to a four-month low after the news, and some analysts say U.S. gas prices may fall by 50 cents a gallon. Still, the move has been widely panned, with critics calling it hasty and short-sighted.

The release is meant to avert an oil crisis amid the war in Libya, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement: "We are taking this action in response to the ongoing loss of crude oil due to supply disruptions in Libya and other countries and their impact on the global economic recovery." But 60 million barrels isn't much, the New York Times points out: The U.S. uses that much oil in about three days, and global consumers burn through it in just 17 hours. The White House admits the release won't reduce oil prices for long, portraying it more as a stimulus to stabilize prices for summer. Officials also emphasize the SPR is at historically high levels with 727 million barrels, and that this release is just 5 percent of what's available. Still, the SPR has been tapped only twice before — during the Gulf War in 1991, and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — and this is the largest release yet. Plus, as an investment banker tells CNNMoney, it may be too soon. "We don't have a shortage of crude, just a fear of a shortage," he says. "So where would you put the oil you release from the SPR?"

Some critics in Congress are going a step further, accusing President Obama of playing politics. "By tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the president is using a national security instrument to address his domestic political problems," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, tells the AP. On the other end of the spectrum, Grist's Christopher Mims argues it's "a short-sighted Band-Aid on a wound that requires a tourniquet," distracting from the broader issue of unsustainble oil demand. But advocates like Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., say it's a useful tool for chaotic times. "With our economy teetering on the brink of a double-dip recession, and American families still struggling during peak driving season, this is the one tool America has at her disposal to immediately help drive down prices at the pump," Markey says.

(Sources: Associated Press, New York TimesTIME, CNNMoney, Grist)


The swollen Souris River is flooding to record levels in North Dakota, CNN reports, likely peaking days before the National Weather Service originally expected. The river bisects downtown Minot, N.D., the state's fourth-largest city, and has already forced a third of its population to evacuate. It's now forecast to break its current flood record, set in 1881, by more than 6 feet when it crests sometime late Saturday or early Sunday.

Roughly 12,000 people have fled Minot due to the record flooding, and many are having trouble finding a hotel room due to the area's ongoing oil boom, since oil workers are occupying a swath of hotels as a kind of long-term temporary housing. The Red Cross is sheltering about 300 people, the Bismarck Tribune reports, and many of the rest are scattered around other emergency shelters, ranging from the Minot State University Dome to the Minot Air Force Base. "The most heartbreaking thing to me was taking my dog to the shelter," Minot resident Jody Wright tells the Tribune. "I'm half-tempted to find a tent and live in it with my dog."

Floodwaters are surging into Minot faster than expected, Mayor Curt Zimbelman tells CNN, forcing emergency workers to hurriedly build temporary levees to support the city's main levee system, which isn't expected to hold. Workers from the state's transportation department are also moving 100,000 sandbags from Bismarck into Minot, CNN reports, and about 500 National Guard troops are on site. The Souris River, which forms a U-shaped dip into North Dakota from Canada, stood at 1,556 feet above sea level Friday morning, and is expected to crest at 1,564.5 feet over the weekend.

(Sources: CNN, Bismarck Tribune, New York Times)


One of the planet's most bizarre-looking and beloved animals faces an existential threat from global warming, according to a new study by Australian researchers. The duck-billed platypus, an egg-laying mammal known as a "monotreme," will likely lose about a third of its habitat as hotter, drier temperatures sweep across Australia, the researchers report, making the species much more vulnerable to humans as well as natural predators. 

The problem is that the platypus's thick, watertight fur — which has historically helped it survive in the chilly depths of rivers and waterholes — isn't exactly ideal attire for global warming. Using 100 years' worth of weather and habitat data, the researchers developed a map showing localized declines in platypus populations linked to past droughts and heat events, the AFP reports. They then applied those findings to a variety of different climate change scenarios provided by the Australian government's science agency, revealing how warming might affect current platypus numbers. "Our worst-case scenario at the moment suggested a one-third reduction in their suitable habitat," researcher Jenny Davis tells the AFP, explaining that warming will likely exacerbate ongoing threats like land clearing and hydroelectric dams. "Under a drying climate we'll be taking more water away from the environment because of our human needs, and predators are going to become more of an issue for [the] platypus."

The study's most dismal forecasts suggest the platypus could disappear completely from Australia's mainland, persisting only on Tasmania and the King and Kangaroo islands. Its fur is both finer and denser than that of river otters or polar bears, the researchers point out, and consists of two different layers. Its average body temperature is also 89 degrees Fahrenheit, and it easily overheats in warm conditions out of the water. Some populations have already begun declining in response to rising temperatures, according to Davis. "Compared with 50 years ago some places have become too warm for them," she says. "Their habitat is shrinking."

(Sources: Agence France-Presse, Scientific American)


The brilliant colors of bird feathers have delighted humans for millennia, but according to a new study from Yale and Cambridge universities, we're only getting a taste of their true beauty. That's because birds can see a much wider range of colors than we can, thanks to extra color cones in their retinas that are sensitive to ultraviolet light. Scientists have long wondered how birds got their vivid decorations, but this is the first study to investigate what bird feathers actually look like to birds themselves, ScienceDaily reports.

Published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, the study shows that millions of years of evolution gradually intensified plumage colors as birds evolved the ability to make newer pigments and structural hues only they could see. "Our clothes were pretty drab before the invention of aniline dyes, but then color became cheap and there was an explosion in the colorful clothes we wear today," says co-author Richard Prum of Yale. "The same type of thing seemed to have happened with birds." Birds use several different kinds of pigments in their plumage, but the researchers remain baffled why they don't produce even more colors than they do. For all their diversity, they don't grow ultraviolet yellow or red feathers, for example. "We don't know why plumage colors are confined to this subset," says co-author Mary Caswell Stoddard of Cambridge. "The out-of-gamut colors may be impossible to make with available mechanisms or they may be disadvantageous."

Still, "that doesn't mean that birds' color palette might not eventually evolve to expand into new colors," Prum adds. "Birds can make only about 26 to 30 percent of the colors they are capable of seeing, but they have been working hard over millions of years to overcome these limitations. The startling thing to realize is that although the colors of birds look so incredibly diverse and beautiful to us, we are colorblind compared to birds."

(Source: ScienceDaily)


The first environmental organization in the Middle East is created, the northern spotted owl is threatened, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Strategic Petroleum Reserve): Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Photo (flooded pet kennel in Minot, N.D., on June 22): ZUMA Press

Photo (duck-billed platypus): U.S. National Science Foundation

Photo (lorikeet at Ohio's Franklin Park Conservatory): Tina Lawson/Flickr

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

Weekend Briefing 6/24/2011
Oil release draws fire, record floods hit North Dakota, platypus in peril, and more.