A tide of information on politics, environment, and ocean issues

News and information from Washington, DC

Archive for May 2010

On Memorial Day we look forward to a day when a memorial to military divers will join the other monuments in Washington, DC

leave a comment »

Today is Memorial Day, May 31st, 2010. We look forward to a day when a memorial to military divers will join the other monuments in Washington, DC, that honor the contributions of those who have served our nation.

View the new the new video on YouTube that shows the preliminary design for the Man in the Sea Memorial Monument.

Written by Will Nuckols

May 31, 2010 at 10:00 pm

At this morning’s House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the oil spill, ethics where a major theme

leave a comment »

House Resources Committee Hearing 26 May 2010

The House Resources Committee Hearing was well attended by members, the press and the public

At this morning’s hearing at the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, following opening remarks from Chairman Rahall and Ranking Member Hastings, Secretary Salazar called for a changes to be supported by the House Resources to support two of Secretary Salazar’s main themes:

1. Reform is essential and

2. We need to move to a new energy frontier.

While little of the remarks provided details about new energy, as that topic has been the subject of several prior hearings, there was much discussion by Secretary Salazar and in questions from Chairman Rahall and Ranking Member Hastings about the topic of reform and ethics.

Salazar stated that reform efforts are not new, and that a reform agenda has been on his agenda since he started the job as Secretary of the Interior. In addition to the internal ethics committee investigations and training at DOI/MMS, Sec. Salazar emphasized that congressional action was also needed for reform to be effective. Salazar called for Congress to provide an “organic act” for the Minerals Management Service, and argued the importance of organic authorization for an agency that (a) collects $13 billion a year in funds from oil and gas development and (b) develops the offshore oil and gas resources in the U.S.

Nick Rahall House Resources Chairman 26 May 2010 Hearing

Congressman Nick Rahall is the Chair of the House Resources Committee

Chairman Rahall asked Secretary Salazar if splitting MMS into three parts address the ethics problems that have been highlighted in the Inspector General reports and have the ethics reform package that the Secretary sited really taken hold yet?

Salazar stated that we do think that organizational change is necessary. The reorganization will be moving to remove the revenue collectors and separate them from the leasing and inspection functions of MMS.

Ranking Member Hastings asked if there are people in MMS identified as doing the wrong things, have they been removed from the government payroll?  Salazar responded that if they have done something wrong that requires termination they have been terminated. And some have even been prosecuted and have gone to jail.

But Hastings responded that it is his understanding that some of these people are still on the job. The distinction between removed and still on the job may be because employees named by the IG have been placed on Administrative leave pending further examination of the issues.

While the back and forth about ethics concerns continued, what did not emerge in a concise form was a depiction of what reforms would be possible only through the passage of organic authorization language for MMS compared to what can be changed today based on the authority of the Secretary.

Labels of blame can be suspect in the world of politics, and as such perhaps an accurate analysis will only come in fits and spurts through the Congressional hearing processes. While quite valuable, this will not be our only avenue to determining the cause of the gulf oil spill and also providing recommendations for changes that should occur as we continue to produce oil and gas offshore in the U.S. Last Friday President Obama named a bipartisan commission, chaired by Bob Graham, former Senator and Governor from Florida, and Bill Reilly, the EPA Administrator under President Bush’s Administration. These two chairs, and the five additional Commission members yet to be named, may be our best chance for a balanced and independent review of offshore oil and gas production.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.

Transocean moves $1 billion to stockholders. Senate Committee questions liability provisions in the law.

leave a comment »

Thomas Perrelli, DOJ, at the May 25, 2010 Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing

Mr. Thomas Perrelli, Esq. - Associate Attorney General, testifies at the May 25, 2010 Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on a number of issues, including what can be done about Transocean’s moves which seem to be aimed at ensuring that their liability is at a maximum $26 million.

Today at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, responding to questions from Senator Widen, DOJ representatives, Mr. Thomas Perrelli, Esq., Associate Attorney General, said “We will be saying in the strongest way that what Transocean is trying to do [in Admiralty court to limit its liability to some 26 million under provisions of an admiralty court] is improper.” This references an early move in court in Texas, which has now been followed up by a move at a closed door meeting in Switzerland in which Transocean leadership decided to move $1 billion in Transocean corporate assets to their shareholders. How much of this was to stop a drop in stock price, and how much was to limit Transocean’s appeal as a target for lawsuits is unclear.

It was noted a few times at the beginning of the hearing that while there may be federal limits on liability that can be assessed to companies responsible to the spill, there are possibly no limits on claims based on lawsuits brought through state courts. Perhaps the threat to corporate profits from non-federal lawsuits are real. But then again maybe when Senator Murkowski (R-AK) suggested that state laws would be able to pick up any shortfalls in a federal legal system she was off base, for lawsuits, whether likely to be ultimately legitimate and successful in courts or not, at times follow a route to those entities with cash on hand. Transocean’s recent moves might not be supporting Murkowski’s statement, even though on the surface it does seem that they fear claims coming from some source. Is Transocean reducing its cash holdings to make them less appealing to legitimate, or only to spurious lawsuits?

While there is no clear smoking gun, no corporate strategy memo that has been uncovered that explains their motivation, one would not need to be a conspiracy theorist to reasonably assume that Transocean has a tangible fear that they are likely to be found to be at fault in at least some portion of the Deepwater Horizon spill. If legislation passes that retroactively alters or eliminates the $75 million liability cap, and that law is upheld in the courts as DOJ believes it would be, Transocean’s recent moves may prove to be prudent by a company who is clearly working to avoid liability or at least to avoid paying claims. Whether prudent moves are also ethical corporate behavior remains to be determined.

Some days doing what you can to save the planet is easy – even fun

leave a comment »

Today is May 21st, and here in DC it’s Bike to Work Day. View the below short video for a piece on this morning’s commute – for many, it was by bike.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.

Written by Will Nuckols

May 21, 2010 at 9:27 am

“Policies are no good unless there is an implementation strategy to carry them out,” ADM Watkins

leave a comment »

Admiral James Watkins at the podium at the Marine Technology Society

At the May 15, 2010 Marine Technology Society meeting, when discussing the vast work that has occured over the years on ocean policy, ADM James Watkins stated “Policies are no good unless there is an implementation strategy to carry them out.”


On Saturday May 15, 2010 at the Navy Heritage Center in Washington, D.C., a newly reinvigorated Marine Technology Society (MTS) held a meeting to kickoff the first “Admiral James D. Watkins Honorary Lecture,” so named in honor of ADM Watkins, former Chief of Naval Operations, Secretary of Energy and Chair of the HIV/AIDS commission. The lecture series is likely tied not to those impressive accomplishments but more for his role as the Chair of the Bush Administration’s Commission on Ocean Policy and later, merging with Leon Panetta’s work at The Pew Trusts, as the co-chair of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative (JOCI). 

 Before Dr. Rick Spinrad, who recently retired from NOAA to take a position at Oregon State University, made his remarks as the first lecturer in the newly named Admiral James D. Watkins Honorary Lecture series, ADM Watkins made a few remarks himself. In addition to a call for the MTS to increase its input and vocal participation in policy matters in our nation’s capital, ADM Watkins stated “Policies are no good unless there is an implementation strategy to carry them out.” 

 It is the implementation of policy that is the most difficult and critical phase of effective ocean governance. With the subsidence of catastrophic ocean accidents we will soon be on the verge of this Administration’s rollout of its policies for our oceans and coasts. Is the ocean community ready to move forward? 

When seeking input from the public during the public meetings when the Obama Administration Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force was drafting their interim report, a clear call for recommendations on an implementation strategy was sought, but little, boarding on none, was received from the community of ocean experts. That opportunity missed, we need to now sharpen our pencils and draw up plans that we think would move policies forward. For instance, calls for a policy that includes better regulation of offshore drilling or a policy that calls for a more robust spill response capability are the easy part. Of course we want to protect our oceans through responsible oversight and also be ready to respond if our best engineering plans fail and another spill occurs. The hard part, and the phase that will only be optimized if the top people in multiple disciplines pull together, will be the implementation. What specifically should the steps be, and what are the funding streams that would support these efforts? And while we conduct this mental exercise, don’t forget the tight economic constraints we operate under nationally, so developing cost-efficient implementation steps are a must-do

 Just as there is a call for bright people to help stop the ongoing oil leak at the Deepwater Horizon drilling site, a call that has mobilized many experts, we need to also put our collective strengths together and be ready to contribute a host of implementation strategies that will move forward a range of ocean and coastal issues. Start a personal list of good ideas now – the White House ocean policy announcement will be here sooner than later – and we shouldn’t wait to think about an optimized implementation plans. As a professional community of policy, budget, engineering, science and management experts we need to be ready to roll. 

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.

Senator Murkowski’s rationale for blocking the Senate bill to raise oil spill liability to $10 billion is severely flawed

with 2 comments

On May 4, 2010 Senator Menendez (D-NJ), backed by 14 cosponsors, introduced Senate bill S.3305, the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Liability Act of 2010 – an incredibly streamlined bill that has one significant line of policy:    

“Section 1004(a)(3) of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (33 U.S.C. 2704(a)(3)) is amended by striking `$75,000,000′ and inserting `$10,000,000,000′ ”    

Senator Murkowski's opening remarks at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ranking Member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, clearly stated in her own remarks in a Senate hearing that “production of energy will never be without risk or environmental consequence"


 By stopping a voice vote on the floor yesterday, Senator Murkowski (R-AK) blocked the quick passage of the short bill. As rationale for the procedural move, Senator Murkowski said raising the liability limit for oil producers from 75 would unfairly advantage large oil companies by pricing the small companies out of the market. But the goal of keeping in the small companies who cannot withstand the cost burden of oil spills means that the taxpayer will end up footing the bill of a large cleanup.    

In some sense we are lucky that the accident in the Gulf of Mexico happened to one of the oil majors and not a small producer. BP has the financial ability to step up and make the promises that have been made publically – to pay all legitimate claims for damages resulting from the spill. BP is self-insured and will take a hit in terms of the global company’s profits, but they can withstand the losses. If this happened to a small company with significantly less assets, would they volunteer to pay beyond the current $75 million cap allowed in current legislation? It is quite likely that they would not. And who picks up that bill? Obviously the public does.    

So given that on May 11, 2010 Senator Lisa Murkowski, ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, clearly stated in her own remarks in a Senate hearing that “production of energy will never be without risk or environmental consequence,” one can only conclude that another spill will occur one day.    

The question at hand then is who will pay to clean up the spill and address its environmental damages. If small producers are unable to guarantee that they will fix and harm they cause at levels above $75 million, we need to seriously consider whether we want those companies who are marginal to be allowed to drill in U.S. waters.    

Competition in the marketplace is great, but it is important in any well-functioning market to have a level playing field. And in this case, a level playing field should mean those companies who want access to the public’s offshore oil assets must be able to guarantee that they can address a mess if one comes up.    

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.

Why the rush to explore space, when the oceans are the likely key to life on earth?

leave a comment »

While much news for the past month focused on plans for NASA going – or not going –  back to the moon, then exploring the wonders of the sun, and yesterday a hearing on manned spaceflight, keep this in mind:  we’ve only ever been to the deepest point in the ocean once – and that was before much of the population of the United States was even born.  Since 1968, we’ve landed on the moon six times, and nine times we’ve flown by it.  Between 1968 and 1972 there were nine missions to the moon. And yet there has only ever been one mission to the deepest part of our ocean.  It was Jan. 23, 1960. It’s been 50 years since we’ve reached the deepest ocean depths. 

On May 12, 2010 at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on the Future of Manned Space Flight, Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong noted President Bush’s plans to finish the International Space Station, return to the moon, establish a permanent presence there, and venture onward toward Mars. But there remain no analogous plans by that Administration nor the Obama Administration to commit to a serious exploration of our planet’s ocean depths. 

So other than the fact that some people like deep sea exploration and others like space exploration, does the difference matter? 

In a word – YES. 

1959 Navy photo of the Bathyscape Trieste hoisted from the water

1959 U.S. Navy photo of the Bathyscape Trieste hoisted from the water


Yes because unlike moon landings, when we failed to find any life, and have spent much time, money and effort wondering if it ever did support life, in 1960 when the Navy submersible Trieste reached Challenger Deep, the deepest ocean spot known, they saw with their own eyes what few suspected they would – life. 

Not just invertebrates, like shrimp and worms which some thought might live at such extreme depths – they saw fish.  Yes, fish at 35,800 feet.  There are flatfish in the shallows of our bays and estuaries all along the east coast.  As a young boy, still too small to hold a fishing rod, I remember catching other types of flatfish on a hand-line in my formative years on the Chesapeake Bay. And thanks to two brave men from the Navy, we know that flatfish also live seven miles beneath the sea. 

What is so much more exciting about the oceans than space?  Both have extreme conditions. Both require technology, engineering expertise and dedicated people to make visiting these places possible. But what sets the ocean deep apart from space is life itself. 

What is occurring on at the bottom of our oceans that allows for complex food chains that could support vertebrate life to exist? We have only one brief direct human observation to answer countless questions about life at the deepest part of the sea. 

We once saw the oceans as simply a form or transportation, a way to more easily move goods and armies long distances, and a way to fill hungry stomachs. But in the last century we have come to understand that terrestrial life itself depends on the oceans. Without the food it produces, the oxygen it releases into the atmosphere, terrestrial life on our planet would be very different, if it could exist at all. And now climate scientists and oceanographers alert us that the oceans have a significant role regulating climate too, and that the oceans have likely been serving as a sponge that have soaked up significant CO2 produced by human activity for some time now. How full is the sponge? We really don’t know yet, nor do we know whether the sponge keeps CO2 forever. Will the oceans later change and have a negative impact on our planet as atmospheric conditions continue to change? That is currently uncertain too. As are the impacts, either positive or negative, on life in the depths of the ocean. 

CO2 levels have been documented as changing over the last several decades. Does life in Challenger Deep it look any different than it did in 1960? Unless we build the craft to return to these vast depths, we can only guess. 

So should we stop exploring space and only explore our globe, and focus on the most extreme depths? My hunch is no, as space also provides a return on investment. Historically there has been significant technology spinoffs from the space programs – spinoffs that have been good for the American economy. How big that return on investment is for America, and whether we need to rush into expanded space exploration, or take a more metered approach, I will leave to others. 

Trieste pressure sphere

The small pressure sphere at the bottom of the Trieste is where the only direct observations of the deepest part of the ocean was made


But this year, the 50th anniversary of the only time humans sat, even ever so briefly, on the ocean’s deepest spot, I say that we have consistently underfunded the understanding of our oceans. And from this ignorance we likely risk further damaging our planet. Mankind does have a long history of harming that which we do not understand. 

So for even those of us who SCUBA dive, those who are able to see first-hand many wonders of the ocean’s first tens of meters, consider that we can spend years exploring those shallow depths and be left with one certainly: there is much of our planet that we still do not understand, not even at a rudimentary level. And while the advent of robots and autonomous sea vehicles will help us greatly expand our understanding of the undersea world, there is no substitute for a human seeing and experiencing first-hand, the most extreme places on earth.

Who will be the next to go back to the greatest ocean depths?  Will it be this generation, or will opportunity pass us by as it has the professional careers of those in decision making positions in the 70’s, 80’s 90’s and 2000’s? 

Let’s use this 50th anniversary of the Trieste expedition to build the support necessary to take ocean exploration seriously.  For when the next time humans make it back to the deepest of the ocean depths, and almost certainly make new discoveries, wouldn’t you like to tell your friends and children “did you hear about that new scientific discovery? I was a part of a group of visionary people who built the support to make it happen.” 

Navt All Hands Video image
Click on the Link below to view the Navy ALL HANDS VIDEO on the Trieste


The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.