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Coast Guard blames Shell for beached Arctic drill rig

Sarah Gilman | Apr 08, 2014 12:35 PM

On New Year’s Eve, 2012, Royal Dutch Shell’s Kulluk drilling platform ran aground off a southern Alaskan island called Sitkalidak. Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard released a 152-page report dissecting the incident in minute detail and squarely pinning the blame on the oil company and its contractors.

The company had used the Kulluk – a 266-foot wide, conical-hulled drilling vessel completed in 1983 – for exploratory drilling off Alaska’s north coast that fall, then hitched it to a specialized ship called the Aiviq and sent it on Dec. 21 towards a Seattle shipyard for the winter. On the 1,700-mile journey along the coast from Captain’s Bay in the Aleutians, the two vessels were beset by a brutal, multi-day storm in the Gulf of Alaska, with up to 50-knot winds and 25-foot seas. On the 27th, the towline broke loose, and shortly after the crew managed to hook up an emergency line, the Aiviq’s engines failed.

A Coast Guard vessel soon arrived and tried to tow the Aiviq, still attached to the Kulluk, but its line snapped too. A second ship attempted to tow the Kulluk side-by-side with the Aiviq, during which the Coast Guard managed to helicopter evacuate the Kulluk’s 18 crewmembers, but then both towlines snapped. A tugboat then managed to establish an emergency towline on the 30th, allowing the Aiviq to get a line back on the rig on the 31st, only to lose it yet again. As the seas’ heaving worsened, the Coast Guard ordered the tugboat to cut the rig loose for the safety of its crew.

Kulluk aground
Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo surveys the grounded Kulluk drilling platform. Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

Though no one was hurt, and the Kulluk’s 139,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of combined lubrication oil and hydraulic fluid stayed securely onboard, the incident added credence to environmentalist contentions that neither industry, nor the federal government, is ready for the risks of developing oil reserves beneath the harsh Arctic Ocean farther north.

"The most significant factor (contributing to the accident) was the decision to attempt the voyage during the winter in the unique and challenging operating environment of Alaska," wrote Coast Guard Seventeenth District Commander Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, “demonstrating a lack of respect” for the challenging environment with an “inadequate determination of risk” and “ineffective risk management.” Worse, the company made the decision to move the rig to Seattle in part to avoid a multi-million dollar state tax bill, which would have been assessed Jan. 1 had it stayed in Alaskan waters.

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New Drought Risk Atlas gives real context to extreme weather

Jonathan Thompson | Apr 07, 2014 07:45 AM

Maybe it’s the grey creeping into my hair, or the lines around my eyes. For whatever reason, whenever the weather gets a little bit weird — maybe it doesn’t snow in December or gets really sunny in January — people ask me if it’s “normal for these parts.” No, I’m not a climate scientist or a meteorologist or even a television weather man, though sometimes I wish I were. It’s just that I’ve lived in the same region for most of my 40-some years, and my age is starting to show, so folks figure I must have a pretty good sense of what the weather’s supposed to be like around here.

In response, I typically regale my interrogator with a story of an applicable extreme weather event from my past. If it’s a dry winter, I tell him about that Christmas Eve in ’89 when we played volleyball at the family gathering instead of going sledding. If it’s especially snowy, I might recount the time, while on a mid-December backpacking trip in Utah’s canyon country, that two friends and I got buried by a sudden storm, requiring an epic trek out. If spring refuses to blossom until May, I’ll tell him about the Memorial Day blizzard of ’96 that forced hundreds of hypothermic bike racers to abandon their steeds mid-ride in exchange for a seat in a heated bus.

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The Drought Risk Atlas provides great graphs of precipitation -- aggregated by week, month or year -- for the entire period of record of particular climate stations. Source: Drought Risk Atlas.

Usually my tales are enough to make the questioner forget his initial query, thus obscuring the fact that I didn’t even get close to answering that query. Which is a good thing. Because if you were to ask me if the remainder of that volleyball-on-Christmas winter was extraordinarily dry or warm, I would have no clue. Did that late May snowstorm follow an intensely snowy winter? No idea.

Now you can find out what “normal” weather might look like for your area, without having to listen to me blather on about ill-conceived adventures of my youth. That’s thanks to the National Drought Mitigation Center’s new Drought Risk Atlas, a Web-based clearinghouse of historic climate and drought data. While much of the information in the virtual Atlas was available to the public in various places and forms before, this tool is far easier to use, and provides a wealth of information in one quick stop.

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How will British Columbia power its liquified natural gas industry?

Ben Goldfarb | Apr 04, 2014 05:10 AM

Vladimir Putin’s Crimean escapades have politicians demanding the U.S. ramp up its natural gas export capacity, thereby breaking – or so the theory goes – Russia’s energy stranglehold on Europe. As HCN’s Jonathan Thompson and others have pointed out, though, President Obama can’t turn gas into a geopolitical weapon by snapping his fingers: Export facilities are costly, time-consuming projects, and the Department of Energy has so far approved just 6 of 21 terminal applications. While one terminal will open in Louisiana in late 2015, the rest won’t get cranking until 2017 at the earliest, and plants faced opposition even before a liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage tank blew up along the Columbia River on Monday.

As the U.S. has tiptoed toward gas exports, however, its northwestern neighbor, British Columbia, has lurched forward – not for Russophobic reasons, but for boring old economic ones. The Canadian province is in the midst of a fracking boom that’s producing 3.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day, and its shale reserves hold over 1,000 trillion cubic feet (about seven times more than the famous Marcellus Shale in the northeastern U.S.). Shipping that vast production to Asian markets is too tasty an opportunity to pass up. Provincial Premier Christy Clark predicts B.C.’s nascent LNG industry will someday contribute $100 billion to the province’s economy and transform B.C. into an energy powerhouse to rival Alberta, home of the tar sands.

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How British Columbia powers its LNG boom could determine whether the province manages to meet its emissions reduction targets. Photo courtesy of the B.C. Ministry of Natural Gas Development.

Last week, British Columbia took a big step toward making its LNG dreams a reality. The province approved four export terminals, to be operated by energy giants like ExxonMobil, Pacific Oil & Gas, and Petronas, with the combined capacity to ship nearly 75 trillion cubic feet annually. Canada’s plants, like those in the U.S., will take years to come online. Still, it’s hard to downplay the magnitude of this act: With a few strokes of the pen, Canada’s minister of natural resources authorized more LNG capacity in British Columbia than all U.S. approvals combined.

Even as Canada’s LNG industry plows ahead, however, a critical question remains unanswered: How will all these new plants be powered?


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Rare island-dwelling wolf closer to protection in Southeast Alaska

Christi Turner | Apr 03, 2014 10:55 AM

Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island is home to the Alexander Archipelago wolf, an extremely rare subspecies of gray wolf facing a plethora of threats. Environmental groups first petitioned to protect the animal under the Endangered Species Act nearly three years ago. The Fish and Wildlife Service finally announced this week that it will consider a listing – even as the state scrambles to come up with its own plan and head off federal protection.

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The rare Alexander Archipelago wolf is threatened by logging and hunting on Prince of Wales Island. Photo courtesy of Robin Silver.

As few as 100 of the predators roam Prince of Wales, down from a population of about 350 in the 1990s. The third-largest island in the U.S., Prince of Wales is part of the archipelago of forested islands clustered along Southeast Alaska’s narrow mainland. Towering western hemlock, Sitka spruce, western cedar and Alaska cedar up to 800 years old dominate the island’s temperate rainforests, where the wolves make their dens and forage for food. But after more than 60 years of intensive logging, young, dense replacement forests that lack old-growth biodiversity cover as much as half of its land area, threatening the wolf as well as its key food source: Sitka black-tailed deer, who need the food and shelter of the old growth forest to survive the harsh winter. More than 3,000 miles of logging roads crisscross the island, disrupting the natural habitat and giving access to legal and illegal hunters and trappers alike. With deer numbers down, hunters have been killing more wolves to try to restore the deer population; biologists estimate that as many as half of recent wolf deaths have been illegal catches. Now scientists say the whole predator-prey system is on the brink of collapse.

With the Coast Range Mountains and its glaciers to the east, the Fairweather Range to the north and the ocean to the west and south, the Alexander Archipelago wolves have been isolated since the last Ice Age, cut off from their larger, lighter-colored and lighter-coated North American cousins. Only around 1,000 may now exist across the entire archipelago, and their situation is especially dire on Prince of Wales Island, considered a “significant portion” of the wolf’s range, which under the ESA could justify a listing.

But the Fish & Wildlife Service’s recent response to the 2011 petition to consider the Alexander Archipelago wolf for ESA protection, while acknowledging that enough evidence exists to warrant a possible listing, still constitutes simply a strong “maybe.” Wolf advocates are hopeful that a thorough review – the final step in the ESA process – will yield a definitive yes.

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Will Colorado be the next Western state to make it harder to opt out of vaccines?

Emily Guerin | Apr 02, 2014 04:45 PM

Lake City, Colo, feels like a good place to escape the rest of the world. To the south, State Highway 149 winds through the San Juan Mountains over 11,500-foot Slumgullion Pass. You’re more likely to encounter a herd of bighorn sheep licking salt off the road here than an actual traffic jam. To the north, the road meanders in a narrow, often icy canyon alongside the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. The next town is 60 miles away.

The town’s isolation conveys a sense of immunity to the problems facing much of the urbanized West. Downstream from the second largest natural lake in Colorado, there’s definitely enough water for the town’s 400 residents. And there are hardly any immigration issues, unless you count the Texans who flock here in the summers.

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A woman gets a flu shot. Courtesy Flickr user Lance McCord.

So it’s not surprising that some Lake City residents assume their isolation protects them from diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough. Nearly 30 percent of the children in the town’s single pre K-12 school aren’t fully vaccinated – almost seven times higher than the statewide rate of 4.3 percent.

Parents are required to vaccinate their kids in order to enroll them in public school or a licensed daycare. But Colorado allows three types of exemptions: medical, religious and personal belief. In Lake City, as elsewhere in the state, the vast majority of non-vaccinated children have personal belief exemptions. A bill in the statehouse in Denver is trying to bring that number down by making it harder to fill out a personal belief exemption form – which currently only requires parents to check a box.

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Dispatch from Mexico: a historic pulse of water to restore the delta

Matt Jenkins | Apr 02, 2014 01:30 PM

Just south of the Mexican border town of Los Algodones, last Thursday dawned with a whipping breeze. Maintenance workers hustled to sweep, shovel dust and repaint the yellow speed bumps in the road alongside Mexico’s main Colorado River dam, named for the patriot José María Morelos, who was executed by Spain in 1815 for his role in the Mexican War of Independence.

The workers were preparing the facility for a wave of Mexican and U.S. dignitaries, who soon arrived to commemorate a landmark international water deal. Since the early 1960s, water has — thanks to an aggressive program of dam building upstream — only occasionally reached the delta at the mouth of the Colorado River. But Minute 319 — an amendment to a U.S.-Mexico water treaty — calls for, among other things, the release of a “pulse flow,” a substantial shot of water to boost the delta’s suffering riparian ecosystem.

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The Colorado River dissolves into the Gulf of California, about 90 miles south of Morelos Dam.

After a long round of speechifying, the U.S. officials would be chauffeured through the Colorado River Delta in what locals referred to, with considerable amusement, as “el convoy” — an armada of five-ton, bulletproof Suburbans seconded from the Tijuana consulate. Yet in spite of all the bureaucratic pomp, the event felt like a week-long beach party.

That party had actually started four days earlier, when the dam keeper — shadowed by a very small dog — made his morning rounds to check that the dam’s equipment was functioning. As the sun lit a statue of José María Morelos, on the north side of the dam, a gaggle of onlookers gathered at the toe of a levee downstream. On the U.S. side of the river, a couple of Border Patrol agents stopped to keep watch.

Just after 8 a.m., with little fanfare, one of the gates on the dam opened. At first, the change was almost imperceptible. Then someone piped up, “There it goes! Right in the middle”: water boiling out from the dam. “Wow,” murmured someone else. A pair of drones, piloted by videographers, buzzed over the crowd. Several of the advisers and environmental professionals who have worked tenaciously to get water back to the Delta — among others, Osvel Hinojosa, Francisco Zamora, Yamilett Carrillo, Jennifer Pitt, Peter Culp and Carlos de la Parra — broke out bottles of champagne for a spontaneous toast. Then they did it again for the cameras.

As more and more water rushed from the dam, the onlookers tightened into a denser and denser group to avoid the rising river. Finally, a local policeman reefed on his whistle and summoned everyone to higher ground.


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Feds and state officials square off on Alaska hunting regulations

Krista Langlois | Apr 01, 2014 05:00 AM

The morning of Friday, February 21 dawned bright and clear in the rolling boreal forest of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, east of Fairbanks, Alaska. The temperature topped out at eight below zero.

Earlier in the week, a family of 11 wolves known as the Lost Creek pack loped beyond the preserve’s boundaries as they followed the Fortymile caribou herd, their main food source. Unfortunately for the wolves, the caribou herd’s proximity to a road — a rarity in Alaska — also makes it an important food source for local subsistence villages, and for families from Fairbanks and beyond. So to help ensure food security, the state’s governor-appointed Board of Game bolsters the herd’s numbers by killing some of the wolves that prey on caribou calving grounds.

Board chairman Ted Spraker insists that he doesn't hate wolves. “I think wolves are the most exciting animals in Alaska,” he says. Still, Spraker is bound by a 1994 state law requiring Alaska to manage wildlife to support abundant moose, caribou and deer populations for subsistence hunting, often at the expense of predators.

lost creek caribou feed
The Lost Creek wolf pack feeding on a caribou in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Photo courtesy NPS wildlife biologist John Burch.

Under former Gov. Tony Knowles — the state’s only Democratic governor since 1990 — predator control efforts like aerial wolf kills effectively ceased. In some places, ungulate populations dropped. “Subsistence opportunities were in shambles,” Spraker recalls. “People in rural parts of the state were suffering.” So in the dozen years since Knowles left office, Alaska has played catch-up, leading to what some conservationists call “a war on wolves and bears” and creating tension between state and federal wildlife officials.

Recently predator control has grown especially lethal. In parts of the state, the Board of Game has authorized the use of artificial light to rouse black bears from their dens and shoot them as they emerge (“spotlighting”), as well as baiting brown bears, increasing bag limits and lengthening the hunting season to months when wolves and coyotes are raising pups. The idea, says Spraker, is to go all-out now so programs can be scaled-back or eliminated once ungulate populations are back up in the future.

Joan Frankevich, Alaska program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, doesn’t particularly care for such practices, but she accepts that the Board has the right to do what it will on Alaska’s 105 million acres of state land. What she does not accept, however, is that the Board has also tried to implement similar regulations in Alaska’s 22 million acres of national preserves. In Alaska, national preserves are dually managed by the National Park Service and state agencies, with the state largely assuming responsibility for wildlife management and hunting. For decades, the arrangement worked smoothly.

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Fracking fuels the post-Recession economy and growth

Jonathan Thompson | Mar 31, 2014 10:00 AM

Oh how a housing bust, a nasty economic downturn and a shale oil and gas boom can change things.

Seven years ago this spring, the Census Bureau released a flurry of numbers about the economy and growth, which then spawned a bunch of articles about which parts of the country were growing fastest and why. Topping the list were mostly suburban, sun-belt counties with subprime mortgage-related housing booms. Palm Coast, Fla., gained the highest percentage of population between 2000 and 2006. Western counties near the top included Douglas in Colorado, Teton in Idaho, Lyon in Nevada, Washington in Utah and Pinal in Arizona. Forbes summed up the driving forces of the growth boom:

The high cost of urban living, cheaper land in the suburbs and new business opportunities in periphery communities are contributing to this boom. Not surprisingly, many of the most popular counties are in the South and Southwest–warm, business friendly, inexpensive and less populated than the Northeast.

Last week, the newest Census numbers were released, documenting the fastest growing metro areas in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013. The results look a bit different than they did back before the boom. The top five fastest growing counties now are:

1. Williams, N.D. (Unemployment rate: 1 percent)

2. Duchesne, Utah (Unemployment rate: 3.5 percent)

3. Sumter, Fla. (Unemployment rate: 5.4 percent)

4. Stark, N.D. (Unemployment rate: 1.7 percent)

5. Kendall, Tex. (Unemployment rate: 4.7 percent)

The fastest growing metro areas are:

1. The Villages, Fla.

2. Odessa, Tex.

3. Midland, Tex.

4. Fargo, N.D.

5. Bismarck, N.D.

6. Casper, Wyo.

And, finally, the fastest growing micropolitan areas:

1. Williston, N.D.

2. Dickinson, N.D.

3. Heber, Utah

4. Andrews, Tex.

5. Minot, N.D.

6. Vernal, Utah

Now, I don't know what's going on in The Villages in Florida, but I do know that nearly all of the other places listed above are in or near the oil and gas patch. Gone, apparently, are the days when amenity migrants and equity refugees flock to warm climates where houses are sprouting like weeds in the desert. Now people just want jobs. And these days the jobs, like it or not, are in the oil and gas industry.


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Four women joyride the flood that will revive the Colorado River Delta

Sarah Gilman | Mar 28, 2014 05:00 AM

The guides warned us, of course. Or they sort of did.

It was sometime after the river outfitter’s shuttle van had passed through the latticework of gates and fences that guards the steep, hairpinned road to the boat-launch at the base of the Hoover Dam, and possibly right before we realized that we had left our two-burner stove back in Alison’s truck, in the parking lot of a casino hotel towering beigely over an otherwise nearly buildingless swath of desert around Lake Mead.

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Alison demonstrates proper brain-eating amoeba risk mitigation technique.

March 19 had dawned beautiful and bluebird in what we had dubbed Baja, Nevada – a 12-mile stretch of clear turquoise water with intermittent hotsprings through the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, where my three college lady friends and I planned to kayak at a luxuriantly sluggish pace for four days. Green rattlesnakes will chase you, the guides told us as we wound into the steep gorge. Scorpions will roost in your sandals. Brain-eating amoebas will Swiss-cheese your frontal lobes if you’re stupid enough to snort the hotspring water. And in the afternoon and at night, the water level can rise without warning as dam operators let more or less through Hoover’s hydroelectric turbines to feed fluctuating power demands in Arizona, Nevada and California. Make sure your gear is secure, the guides fingerwagged, and your kayaks well-tied overnight. Yes, of course, but the stove? we clamored. The eating of delicious things was, after all, a top priority. The guides exchanged glances. Tight federal security around the dam meant there would be no driving back for it. That left hoofing it out from the first side canyon, about a mile downriver.

Three hours later, Alison and I began the eight-mile roundtrip hike to the freeway and the hotel on the rim, while Sarahlee and Laura held down a campsite and explored an island in the middle of the river. The route was a spectacular scramble along sandy wash bottoms and up boulders and ragged fixed lines. Spring-fed ferns and algae wept down the canyon’s walls and an ankle-deep stream of hot water threaded its middle, curling periodically into deep, sand-bagged pools. By the time we had strapped the cornery bulk of the stove to my back, we were congratulating ourselves on the incredible luck of finding this place, and of finding a way to retrieve this key piece of gear. “Winning!” we called out with fist pumps. This battle cry would become our river-trip refrain, but it didn’t much jive with what had been happening down below.

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Conservationists join animal rights groups to challenge Idaho ag gag law

Christi Turner | Mar 26, 2014 10:55 AM

Idaho’s sweeping new ag gag law, enacted in February, raises so many red flags that the Animal Legal Defense Fund has filed a lawsuit against it, only the second suit of its kind in the nation. But this time, in a new twist on ag gag litigation, the animal rights non-profit is joined by conservation groups, too.

That’s because this new statute – designed to prevent people from documenting what goes on in factory farms, like all of the now seven total ag gag laws in the U.S. – is alarmingly broad, according to senior ALDF attorney Matthew Liebman, affecting “virtually any place where there’s any interaction between humans and animals and plants.” The law defines an agricultural facility as “any structure or land, whether privately or publicly owned, leased or operated, that is being used for agricultural production” (emphasis added), and makes it a crime for virtually anyone to film or photograph in such places without express consent. But with such a broad definition, the law could potentially apply not only to factory farms and slaughterhouses like ag gag laws in other states, but also to public parks, restaurants, nursing homes, grocery stores, pet stores, and virtually every public establishment and private residence in Idaho, according to the lawsuit.

The law’s definition of “agricultural production” is also a catch-all, referring to any activity related to the production of food, fiber and fuel, including everything from construction, maintenance, pesticide or herbicide handling, planting, irrigating, harvesting plants, raising or producing, animals, and processing or packaging any agricultural product – and more. Dan Steenson, an attorney for the Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA) and author of the statute, is quoted in court documents as saying that the law could even apply to an employee who photographs a non-animal related violation – a blocked fire exit, for example.

But according to Bob Naerebout, executive director of the IDA, "The bill protects farmers and their families from misrepresentation, lies and deceit by individuals that intended to damage what they have worked a lifetime to build.”  The law, he said, does not punish people for reporting illegal, unsafe or unethical activities – a direct contradiction to how ALDF and its 11 co-plaintiffs interpret the statute.

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