Sunday, September 25, 2011

Climate Progress for September 24th, 2011

 

Climate Progress for September 24th, 2011


Joe Nocera on "The Phony Solyndra Scandal": The "Real Winner is … the Chinese Solar Industry."

Posted: 24 Sep 2011 09:46 AM PDT

If Brian Harrison and W. G. Stover, the two Solyndra executives who took the Fifth Amendment at a Congressional hearing on Friday, ever spend a day in jail, I'll stand on my head in Times Square.

It's not going to happen, for one simple reason: neither they, nor anyone else connected with Solyndra, have done anything remotely criminal. The company's recent bankruptcy — which the Republicans are now rabidly "investigating" because Solyndra had the misfortune to receive a $535 million federally guaranteed loan from the Obama administration — was largely brought on by a stunning collapse in the price of solar panels over the past year or so.

The company's innovative solar panels, high-priced to begin with, became increasingly uncompetitive in the marketplace. Solyndra didn't have enough big commercial customers to create the necessary economies of scale. And although Harrison and Stover remained optimistic up to the bitter end — insisting six weeks before the late-August bankruptcy filing that the company was going to be fine — they ultimately failed to raise additional capital that would have allowed Solyndra to stay in business.

The Republicans are trying to make that optimism appear sinister, but if we've learned anything from the financial crisis, it is that wishful thinking in the face of a collapsing market is not a crime. Otherwise, Richard Fuld, the former chief executive of Lehman Brothers, would be wearing prison garb….

At the hearing on Friday, several of the Republican congressmen boasted that, in passing the continuing resolution to keep the government running the day before, they had succeeded in slashing the program that had made the loan to Solyndra….

But the real winner isn't the American taxpayer or even the House Republicans. It's the Chinese solar industry.

That's business columnist Joe Nocera in a great NY Times piece "The Phony Solyndra Scandal."  Nocera is not some progressive, renewable energy advocate columnist.   Before joining the NYT in 2005, "Mr. Nocera spent 10 years at Fortune Magazine, where he held a variety of positions, including contributing writer, editor-at-large and executive editor."

That's why his piece makes so much sense –  he is just looking at this with business sense.  Here's more:

Harrison and Stover are on the hot seat. Anything they say in their defense — even an off-hand remark — can and will be used against them. Their lawyers would be fools if they didn't insist that their clients take the Fifth Amendment.

Do the Republicans know this? Of course. Do they care? Of course not. For an hour and a half on Friday morning, they peppered the two men with questions about this "taxpayer ripoff," as Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, described it, knowing full well that Harrison and Stover would invoke their constitutional right to remain silent. Joe McCarthy would have been proud.

The purpose of the hearing — indeed, the point of manufacturing a Solyndra investigation in the first place — is to embarrass the president. That's how Washington works in the modern age: the party out of power gins up phony scandals aimed at hurting the party in power.

Undoubtedly, the Solyndra "scandal" will draw a little blood: there are some embarrassing e-mails showing the White House pushing to get the deal done quickly so it could tout Solyndra's green jobs as part of the stimulus package.

But if we could just stop playing gotcha for a second, we might realize that federal loan programs — especially loans for innovative energy technologies — virtually require the government to take risks the private sector won't take. Indeed, risk-taking is what these programs are all about. Sometimes, the risks pay off. Other times, they don't. It's not a taxpayer ripoff if you don't bat 1.000; on the contrary, a zero failure rate likely means that the program is too risk-averse. Thus, the real question the Solyndra case poses is this: Are the potential successes significant enough to negate the inevitable failures?

I have a hard time answering "no." Most electricity today is generated by coal-fired power plants, operated by monopoly, state-regulated utilities. Because they've been around so long, and because coal is cheap, these plants have built-in cost advantages that no new technology can overcome without help. The federal guarantees help lower the cost of capital for technologies like solar; they help spur innovation; and they help encourage private investment. These are all worthy goals.

To say "no" is also to cede the solar panel industry to China, which last year alone provided some $30 billon in subsidies for its solar industry. Over all, the American solar industry is a big success story; it now employs more people than either steel or coal, and it's a net exporter.

But solar panel manufacturing — a potential source of middle-class jobs, and an important reason the White House was so high on Solyndra, which made its panels in Fremont, Calif. — is another story. Not so long ago, China made 6 percent of the world's solar panels. Now it makes 54 percent, and leads the world in solar panel manufacturing. Needless to say, the U.S. share of the market has shrunk. The only way America can manufacture competitive solar panels is to come up with innovative technologies that the Chinese can't replicate. Like, for instance, Solyndra's.

Well said.

What Questions Would You Like Climate Progress to Ask?

Posted: 24 Sep 2011 06:36 AM PDT

I re-instigated the weekend question a month ago and response has been great.

You have given great answers to "What Topics Would You Like Climate Progress to Cover?" and "If You Could Ask a Climate Scientist One Question…." and "Is President Obama a Lost Cause Environmentally — and What Should Progressives Do?"  And Stephen Lacey and I are definitely incorporating your ideas into our planned future posts.

They say knowing what questions to ask is as important as knowing how to find the answers.  So I'd like you to suggest weekend questions you would like Climate Progress to ask you, the readers, in the coming months.

Some classics include  "What should Ian do with his life?" and, of course, "Where would be the best place to live in 2035? 2060?"

We're Poisoning the Oceans and It Threatens Our Food

Posted: 24 Sep 2011 05:14 AM PDT

by Sheril Kirshenbaum, in a Science Progress cross-post

Marine chemist Richard Feely, a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, has been collecting water samples in the North Pacific for over 30 years. He's observed a decrease in pH at the upper part of the water column, notably the region where carbon dioxide from automobile exhaust, coal-fired power plants, and other human activities has collected. This surface water is now acidic enough to dissolve the shells of some marine animals such as corals, plankton, and mollusks in laboratory experiments. Feely's findings are just one sign of a troubling global phenomenon called ocean acidification.

We spend a lot of time worrying about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as a form of pollution and also as a key greenhouse gas that traps solar heat. But we pay less attention to the effects emissions have in the ocean. There is no debate that rapidly increasing seawater acidity is the result of man-made carbon emissions.

"The chemistry of the uptake of carbon dioxide and its changing pH of seawater is very, very clear," explains Feely.

The oceans absorb an estimated 22 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every day. This buffers the greenhouse effect by drawing the planet-warming gas out of the atmosphere and storing it in water, but at a great cost to ocean life. This carbon mixes with the salt water to create carbonic acid, which immediately breaks down, forming bicarbonate and hydrogen. And this excess hydrogen increases the water's acidity.

Higher acidity, in turn, makes life difficult for marine animals by hampering their ability to form shells and skeletons. For microscopic plankton and many other species at the base of marine food chains, this means slower growth and potential population decline. These problems trickle up to affect the large fish that depend on smaller organisms for food.

Acidification also causes some coral species to grow more slowly or disappear. Since coral reefs support 25 percent of the ocean's species of fish, this spells widespread trouble. Marine ecosystems are so interconnected, in fact, that scientists cannot predict the full effects of acidification. They only know that changes in the availability of food and in community structure can scale up quickly.

Carbon emissions released since the start of the industrial revolution have sped the process of ocean acidification, leaving little time for plants and animals to adapt to altered conditions. Scientists now anticipate an average pH decline from 8.1 units to 7.8 in oceans by the end of this century. According to John Guinotte, a marine biogeographer at the Marine Biology Conservation Institute, in Washington, D.C., human activity is now increasing the amount of CO2 in the ocean at an accelerating rate. "Unless we alter human behavior," he warns, "we may experience irreversible shifts in the marine environment that can have dire consequences for life on Earth."

An international team of marine biologists recently traveled to Papua New Guinea where excess CO2 released from volcanic activity has already decreased local ocean pH to the levels that are expected globally by 2100. In this area, they found that more than 90 percent of the region's coral reef species were lost. The study provided a glimpse of how oceans might one day change around the world and serves as a warning that we must curb carbon emissions as quickly as possible.

For us on land, ocean acidification will do more than raise the cost of seafood. A decline in reefs worldwide, for example, would make coastal communities more vulnerable to storm surges and hurricanes. Meanwhile, the fishing and shellfish industries stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars, and countless jobs, because of acidification's effects on shellfish, as well as associated changes in the populations of larger species. In the United States, oyster hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest have already experienced reduced shell growth due to higher acidity levels. No one can predict the full consequences of ocean acidification, but it's clear our own species will experience them in many ways.

"About one billion people throughout the world depend on protein from fish for survival, so we have to think about what this means for international food security," explains Feely.

Carbon emissions clearly cause problems beyond climate change. And because sea waters mix slowly, whether or not we reduce emissions now, acidification will continue for centuries. If Congress cannot act to restrict emissions, it must as least ensure that marine scientists have the funding needed to study the effects of changing pH on different marine species and, in the decades ahead, to search for ways to mitigate the effects of ocean acidification.

Sheril Kirshenbaum is an author and research associate at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy. You can find this post and many other good scientific pieces at Science Progress.

Related Post:

Hottest Decade on Record Would Have Been Even Hotter But for Deep Oceans — Accelerated Warming May Be On Its Way

Posted: 23 Sep 2011 03:05 PM PDT

A composite of all the major global temperature records via Skeptical Science.

The last decade was easily the hottest on record.  We've known that sulfate aerosols (from volcanoes and/or Chinese coal) and the "the deepest solar minimum in nearly a century" masked the rate of warming somewhat.

Even so, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which probably has the best of the long temperature datasets, reported the 12-month running mean global temperature reached a new record in 2010.  As a NASA analysis found: "We conclude that global temperature continued to rise rapidly in the past decade" and "there has been no reduction in the global warming trend of 0.15-0.20°C/decade that began in the late 1970s."

But other datasets appeared to show a slight slowing in the rate of warming, though even that may have been due to flawed data, as in the case of the UK's Hadley Center.

Scientists have long known that the overwhelming majority of human-caused warming was expected to go into the oceans (see figure below).  And many have suspected that deep ocean warming has also been masking surface warming.

Now a new study led by led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) finds that may indeed be the case:

The planet's deep oceans at times may absorb enough heat to flatten the rate of global warming for periods of as long as a decade even in the midst of longer-term warming….

The study, based on computer simulations of global climate, points to ocean layers deeper than 1,000 feet (300 meters) as the main location of the "missing heat" during periods such as the past decade when global air temperatures showed little trend. The findings also suggest that several more intervals like this can be expected over the next century, even as the trend toward overall warming continues….

"This study suggests the missing energy has indeed been buried in the ocean," [coauthor Kevin] Trenberth says. "The heat has not disappeared, and so it cannot be ignored. It must have consequences."

These potential consequences include accelerated warming in the coming decade and melting of  the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Let's take these two in order.

The heat may have been carried deep into the ocean by overturning circulations, which can plunge surface water from the subtropical regions into the ocean's depths. The burying of warmer water also corresponds with La Nina weather patterns, which are born from cooler-than-average surface water temperatures in the tropical Pacific. And over the last decade, La Nina conditions have dominated, Trenberth said.

That the heat is buried in the ocean, and not lost into space, is troublesome, Trenberth said, since the heat energy isn't likely to stay in the ocean forever, perhaps releasing back into the atmosphere during a strong El Nino, when sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific are warmer than average.

"It can come back quite fast," he said. "The energy is not lost, and it can come back to haunt us, so to speak, in the future."

I asked Trenberth whether we might see a decade where warming is a tad faster than expected, and he emailed me, "Yes."  Once the decade of slower warming "is over, the subsequent warming can play catchup."

This idea that the ocean can mediate periods when human-caused global warming is faster and slower is not new.  Indeed, Dr. Mojib Latif, head of the Ocean Circulation and Climate Dynamics Division at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences, came to the exact same conclusion in a widely misunderstood 2008 article (see "Nature article on 'cooling' confuses media, deniers: Next decade may see rapid warming").

Here was Latif's Nature "forecast" — the green dashed line (click to enlarge) — notice the accelerated "catch up" surface warming this decade:

For more explanation of this figure, see here.

A key point from recent observation is that whatever slight slowing in global warming some groups may have observed in the past decade, it was primarily in the surface temperature data set.  The oceans kept warming (see "Sorry Deniers, the Oceans are Still Warming as Predicted"):

Figure 1:   Revised estimate of global ocean heat content (10-1500 mtrs deep) for 2005-2010 derived from Argo measurements. The 6-yr trend accounts for 0.55±0.10Wm−2. Error bars and trend uncertainties exclude errors induced by remaining systematic errors in the global observing system. See Von Schuckmann & Le Traon (2011).  Via Skeptical Science.

A 2009 NOAA-led study, "An observationally based energy balance for the Earth since 1950" (subs. req'd, release here) concluded:

[S]ince 1950, the planet released about 20 percent of the warming influence of heat-trapping greenhouse gases to outer space as infrared energy. Volcanic emissions lingering in the stratosphere offset about 20 percent of the heating by bouncing solar radiation back to space before it reached the surface. Cooling from the lower-atmosphere aerosols produced by humans balanced 50 percent of the heating. Only the remaining 10 percent of greenhouse-gas warming actually went into heating the Earth, and almost all of it went into the ocean.

Note that this Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres study was done "without using global climate models."

"Total Earth Heat Content [anomaly] from 1950 (Murphy et al. 2009). Ocean data taken from Domingues et al 2008."

There is a second consequence of ocean warming, of course.  As Climate Progress reported last December, "Deep ocean heat is rapidly melting Antarctic ice":

"Warm waters carried by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current are brushing the ice front in the western part of the continent, in the area of the Bellingshausen Sea."

Antarctica is disintegrating much faster than almost anybody imagined — see "Nothing in the natural world is lost at an accelerating exponential rate like this glacier." In 2001, the IPCC "consensus" said neither Greenland nor Antarctica would lose significant mass by 2100. They both already are.  As Penn State climatologist Richard Alley said in March 2006, the ice sheets appear to be shrinking "100 years ahead of schedule."

A presentation at the fall 2010 meeting of the American Geophysical Union sheds some light on the underlying cause of this rapid melt — the ice is being attacked from the bottom.  Discovery News had the story:

Global warming is sneaky. For more than a century it has been hiding large amounts of excess heat in the world's deep seas. Now that heat is coming to the surface again in one of the worst possible places: Antarctica.

New analyses of the heat content of the waters off Western Antarctic Peninsula are now showing a clear and exponential increase in warming waters undermining the sea ice, raising air temperatures, melting glaciers and wiping out entire penguin colonies.

"In the area I work there is the highest increase in temperatures of anywhere on Earth," said physical oceanographer Doug Martinson of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Martinson has been collecting ocean water heat content data for more than 18 years at Palmer Island, on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

And that was updated in a June post, Ocean Currents Speed Melting of Antarctic Ice, as "Seawater Appear[s] to Boil on the Surface Like a Kettle on the Stove." The news release by Columbia University's Earth Institute explained:

Stronger ocean currents beneath West Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf are eroding the ice from below, speeding the melting of the glacier as a whole, according to a new study in Nature Geoscience. A growing cavity beneath the ice shelf has allowed more warm water to melt the ice, the researchers say—a process that feeds back into the ongoing rise in global sea levels. The glacier is currently sliding into the sea at a clip of four kilometers (2.5 miles) a year, while its ice shelf is melting at about 80 cubic kilometers a year – 50 percent faster than it was in the early 1990s – the paper estimates.

This new study, "Stronger ocean circulation and increased melting under Pine Island Glacier ice shelf" (subs. req'd), gives us a better understanding of just how PIG is being undermined from underneath: "We conclude that the basal melting has exceeded the increase in ice inflow, leading to the formation and enlargement of an inner cavity under the ice shelf within which sea water nearly 4◦C above freezing can now more readily access the grounding zone.

Here is a particularly remarkable observation the scientific team made one day:

One day, near the southern edge of Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf, the researchers directly observed the strength of the melting process as they watched frigid,  seawater appear to boil on the surface like a kettle on the stove. To Jacobs, it suggested that deep water, buoyed by added fresh glacial melt, was rising to the surface in a process called upwelling. Jacobs had never witnessed upwelling first hand, but colleagues had described something similar in the fjords of Greenland, where summer runoff and melting glacier fronts can also drive buoyant plumes to the sea surface.

As Trenberth said, "The heat has not disappeared, and so it cannot be ignored. It must have consequences."

Finally, some of you may recall a certain controversy from a certain email:

The discovery of the heat, which the researchers say is likely locked deep in the ocean, sheds light on a controversial email that was written by one of the study's co-authors, Kevin Trenberth, in 2009. The email was one of hundreds that hackers stole from a server at the University of East Anglia nearly two years ago.

In the email, Trenberth wrote, "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't."

Climate change skeptics immediately seized on the email as proof that global warming wasn't real. But from the beginning, Trenberth argued that he was referring to holes in scientists' ability to measure how heat moves through the climate system.

I discussed Trenberth's response at the time here.  I emailed Trenberth to ask, "Does this close the chapter on your 'travesty' comment?  He replied:

It helps close the chapter, but more observational studies are needed.  We plan to do those but await better datasets.

Getting the Facts Straight on Green Jobs

Posted: 23 Sep 2011 01:42 PM PDT

by Kate Gordon

The past few weeks have seen a perfect storm of misinformation on green jobs:  what they are, how many there are, how much they contribute to the economy.  Many of those throwing numbers around have relied on one source, a recent report from the Brookings Institution, which worked with Battelle's Technology Partnership Practice to attempt to define, evaluate, and count green jobs as a part of the economy from 2003-2010.

It is clear to those of us who have been deeply engaged in making the case for green jobs for years that the Brookings report has been almost universally misunderstoodHence this post to try and clear up some of the details.  But first, a digression about green jobs.

The phrase "green jobs" does not stand for, and in fact has never stood for, one specific set of occupations that can be set aside and easily counted.  In this, green jobs are not unique.  Think about "high tech jobs," for instance.  There are jobs in inventing and developing software, to be sure.  But there are also jobs in using software to make existing companies more productive and efficient.  There are manufacturing jobs associated not only with the hardware in our computers, but with the servers we use to store data.  There are construction jobs that would not exist were it not for the need to build server farms.  All the jobs that have come about because of the invention of the computer, and the transformation of our economy from a low-tech to a high-tech one, are arguably "information technology jobs."

Similarly, "green jobs" go way beyond the obvious jobs, like the wind turbine operators.  They span huge numbers of industries and occupations, and touch nearly every sector of the economy because they can include all those who use cleaner or more efficient energy and fuel, as well as those who invent, manufacture, install, operate, and maintain those things.  Just like the phrase "high tech jobs" has come to stand for an entire economic transformation toward computerization of nearly everything we do, so does "green jobs" stand for a huge transformation in the kinds of energy we use to underpin our long-term economic growth.

So, back to the Brookings report.  In that report, Brookings researchers tried valiantly to pin down at least some of the industries and occupations that are most clearly associated with the green economy transformation.  They did an admirable job, and here's what they actually found:

  1. A lot of people already have green jobs. Brookings found that there are currently 2.7 million jobs in the clean economy, as broadly defined to include not just mature industries like manufacturing, transportation, and public services, but also emerging industries like solar, wind, and battery technology.  It also includes conservation and restoration jobs.  That's 2.7 million people who have jobs because their employers, cities, or states – or their country, through the Recovery Act — prioritized moving away from dirty fossil fuel use and toward mass transit, or clean energy, or energy efficiency services – or because they have realized they need to clean up the mess left by generations of fossil fuel use.
  2. Green jobs are part of a growing, not a shrinking, sector of the economy – and some green industries are growing incredibly fast.  Broadly defined, the clean economy – again including transportation, restoration, efficiency, clean energy, etc. – grew at 4.3 percent from 2003-2010, adding half a million new jobs.  Pause to think about that:  that's half a million people who now have jobs in these sectors, and might not have jobs at all if their companies, cities, and states hadn't decided to become a little cleaner and greener.  The part of the clean economy sector that is focused on clean energy in particular – the wind, solar, fuel cell, smart grid, biofuel, and battery companies – grew far more quickly, at an average rate of 8.3 percent, which is nearly twice the growth rate of the economy as a whole.
  3. The overall clean economy grew during the recession, but was not exempt from its impacts. Given the huge growth in clean energy and fuel sectors, you'd think we'd see a higher overall growth rate for the clean economy as a whole.  What kept that growth from being more explosive?  The same thing that brought down the economy as a whole and threw us into recession:  the housing crisis.  A lot of green jobs are in construction, because green building and energy efficiency retrofits are such a fantastic way to bring down energy costs and lower our carbon footprint.  Just like the rest of the construction sector, this part of the clean economy suffered when the bottom fell out of the housing market.  But even given that fact, we still saw 4.3 percent growth, because not all green jobs are construction jobs.
  4. That gets us to the next point:  green jobs are spread across industries and occupations.  You can find them in everything from research and development, to manufacturing, to construction and installation, to operations and maintenance, to retail and service.  Unlike jobs in the much-touted real estate and finance sector, they are not all concentrated into a relatively small set of occupations.  That means that when the bottom fell out of the real estate and finance markets, there was still growth across all green jobs sectors.  Similarly, when gas prices went up this past summer, as they invariably do, the parts of the green economy that are focused on alternative vehicles and fuels were suddenly a hot spot for growth.  This diversification across occupations and industries makes the green economy smarter, more secure, and more sustainable than the economy as a whole.
  5. Green jobs are spread across regions, too – also unlike a lot of jobs in the financial sector, which tend to be concentrated in big cities on the coasts.  Brookings found that of all regions in America, the South has the highest concentration of jobs in the broader clean economy.
  6. Green jobs are good jobs for all Americans, not just the small number with college degrees.  Finally, Brookings found – as we and others have found in the past – that a lot of green jobs are in what are sometimes called "middle-skill" occupations, meaning that they require education and skills beyond high school, but not necessarily up to the four-year college level.  Twenty-six percent of clean economy jobs are in manufacturing, which is a sector where workers with specific technical skills, but no Bachelor's Degree, can make a solidly middle-class living.  Why do we care?  Three big reasons:  first, nearly 70 percent of our workforce lacks a four-year college degree.  That's a lot of people shut out by high-skill industries.  Second, middle-skill jobs have always been the key to America's middle class.  Build an economy that only creates high- and low-skill jobs, and you build an economy with vast income inequality.  And third, when we build up the manufacturing sector here in America, we can export our products to other countries, making us competitive in the global economy.

Those are some of the facts about the new clean economy.  It goes beyond clean energy, though that is probably the most exciting and high-growth sector.  A green jobs growth strategy spans industries, occupations, skill levels, and geographic regions, making these businesses and workers less vulnerable to price spikes, extreme weather events, recessions, attacks – you name it.

And most important, the clean economy is real.  It employs real people in real jobs with real salaries – something at I bet the 14 million Americans who are currently unemployed sure wish they had.

– Kate Gordon is Vice President for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress.

Related Post:

House Passes Sweeping Anti-Clean Air TRAIN Act

Posted: 23 Sep 2011 12:50 PM PDT

Leading Environmental Groups Call on Senate to Reject It,  Commend Veto Threat from White House

Today the House of Representatives passed a sweeping anti-environment bill that blocks two landmark public health safeguards against air pollution. The TRAIN Act,  H.R. 2401, blocks standards that would curb mercury emissions from power plants and reduce pollution that travels across state lines and endangers communities. Leading environmental and public health  groups (listed below) issued the following statement after the House vote:

"We are heartened by the President's strong stand against the TRAIN Act and against pollution with his promise to veto this dangerous legislation.  His leadership will keep Americans from being forced  to breathe smog and other dangerous air pollutants.  We call on the U.S. Senate to stand strong and  reject the TRAIN Act and its deadly impacts on public health.  Hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks and heart attacks and tens of thousands of premature deaths can be prevented with common  sense clean air safeguards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The House today showed they have bought the false argument that we need to choose between  protecting lives and creating jobs. Now we need the Senate and the President to protect our right to  breathe."

Environment America
Natural Resources Defense Council
Sierra Club
League of Conservation Voters
US Climate Action Network
League of Women Voters
Environmental Defense Fund
Earthjustice

Wall Street Journal Readers Name US Chamber of Commerce in the "Top Corruption-Related Story of the Year"

Posted: 23 Sep 2011 11:57 AM PDT

Wall Street Journal readers were asked to name the "Top Corruption-Related Story of the Year."  So far, the easy winner is the US Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber is one of the major forces behind the destruction of a livable climate and a sustainable US economy (see "The Chamber is so extreme they oppose R&D into renewable energy" and "U.S. Chamber Fights Regulations On Chemicals Linked to Penis Deformations, Birth Defects").  In spite of the staggering economic advantage they get from their pollutocrat members, they still use the most despicable tactics (see "Chamber lobbyists solicited hackers to sabotage unions and smear its political opponents").

Now Climate Progress has urged major publications not to use online polls.  But they don't listen, much to their regret.

So if you want to spend a few seconds of your weekend casting your vote against the Chamber, click here.  Do it for the children.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Iraq: We Lost $1.2 Billion in Equipment Going in; How Much Will We Lose Getting Out? | Truthout

Iraq: We Lost $1.2 Billion in Equipment Going in; How Much Will We Lose Getting Out? | Truthout

Iraq: We Lost $1.2 Billion in Equipment Going in; How Much Will We Lose Getting Out?

by: Dina Rasor, Truthout | Solutions

On December 31, 2011, the United States has committed to the government of Iraq that they will be removing their troops and contractor personnel. The US State Department will remain in a diplomatic role with limited Department of Defense (DoD) personnel and some State Department-hired private security personnel for protection.

Beyond the sticky diplomatic implications of this transfer, the DoD has a complicated task to wind down its giant footprint in Iraq. It will require a delicate and well-prepared withdrawal to get all the troops, contractors, equipment,and other assets out of the giant bases and turn the bases over to the Iraqi government while preventing attacks from insurgents and looting of US government assets.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) just released a detailed report saying, in their ever so polite way, that the DoD and the State Department don't have the information and tools to pull this off. The benign title of the report to Congress ("IRAQ DRAWDOWN: Opportunities Exist to Improve Equipment Visibility, Contractor Demobilization and Clarity of Post-2011 DoD Role") doesn't project the startling troubles they outline inside the report that threaten this withdrawal.

To anyone who has followed the logistics of this Iraq war, problems with getting out are no surprise because of the unprecedented use of contractors and the lack of oversight of these contractors. All in all, there promises to be a huge mess that could affect the lives of our troops and our future diplomatic abilities in Iraq. Some of the withdrawal has been taking place all this year, but an important share of the troops and contractors and the turnover of the biggest bases will be happening between now and the end of the year deadline. According to the GAO report, "In terms of military personnel and contractors, 46,000 and 61,000 continue to conduct operations or work under DoD contracts out of pre-drawdown levels of 134,100 and 125,163 respectively, as of June 2011."

Notice how there are many more contractor personnel than troops left and 52 percent of the contractor personnel are connected to the LOGCAP (Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program) contract, the infamous contract that has been executed by KBR, a former subsidiary of Halliburton. That service contract, which has swelled to over $40 billion over the course of the war, has been cursed, investigated, exposed and threatened to no avail. KBR has led almost a charmed life with this contract and has suffered little consequences from the government for their overcharging and lack of supplying of safe services to the troops. People remember the endless scandals such as allowing unsuspecting troops to drink filthy water and the electrocution of troops due to shoddy wiring. Now, the military is going to have to rely on them to turn over all the lists of government equipment they were using; keep their employees there to continue feeding and other support tasks for the troops until the end of the year; and, in an organized manner, help the military exit Iraq.

Oh boy.

I started following the LOGCAP contract and other contracts in this war from the very beginning. I was alerted by some whistleblowers early on that there were far more contractor personnel in this war than any other war and that the contractors were closer to the war action than contractors in past wars. This presented a very unique problem for the military on several levels. The commanders in the fields, who were forced to rely on their "life support" from these contractors, didn't have absolute authority over the workers like they did when the work was done by the troops in past wars. The contractors and their personnel were not under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) like the troops. This led to the contractors refusing to do work that they didn't want to do with little recourse for the commanders. Unlike the troops, who would face jail if they left their posts, the contractor personnel, as civilians, could quit anytime they wanted and go home, leaving the military shorthanded in critical areas.

After realizing that the logistics and hired-gun contractors were turning into a disaster in Iraq on a scale that had not been seen before, I spent several years investigating and co-authoring a book on it. The book, "Betraying Our Troops: the Destructive Results of Privatizing War," was published in 2007, and now I am watching the last chapter of this problem playing out as we withdraw our troops and contractors.

There was a mess going into this war, partly because all the traditional logistic plans were thrown out the window just weeks before the invasion by the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and partially because of an unrealistic troop cap imposed by him. In desperation, the logistics section of the Army dusted off a small contract with KBR to maintain bases around the world called LOGCAP, and exploded it to cover the invasion of Iraq because they did not have enough troops to do traditional logistics for the war. Many in the military bought into the idea that this would be a short war where we would be greeted as liberators, and there were only five to seven days of parts and logistics in place as the war started, compared to 30 days of supplies in the Gulf War.

KBR and other contractors were responsible in warehousing and organizing supplies in Kuwait before the war and to give the troops what they needed for the invasion. Many of my sources claimed that the contractors did not have the same urgency as the military to be ready for the war and to make sure the supplies were there for the troops. GAO confirmed this problem and the other logistical problems that happened even before the invasion. Their December 2003 report stated, "a discrepancy of $1.2 billion between the amount of materiel shipped to Army activities in the theater of operations and the amount of materiel that those activities acknowledged they received." That is GAO speak meaning that the military lost an astonishing $1.2 billion worth of war materiel between the continental United State or Europe and the staging areas of Kuwait.

The security on crucial war materiel was also a problem in Kuwait. "Physical security at ports and other distribution points in the theater was not always adequate to protect assets from being lost or taken by unauthorized personnel. For example, Army officials noted cases where vehicles and expensive communications and computer equipment had been lost from various distribution points in Kuwait." This meant that vital communications and computer equipment, with their sensitive information and codes, just disappeared. My sources told me that this type of equipment was left unguarded outside on pallets in Kuwait and was raided nightly. The GAO report goes on to say that this affected the invasion with a lack of crucial supplies and replacement parts. I recorded major problems for troops as they invaded and did not have enough supplies since the contractors did not get into the country fast enough because of the sustained fighting.

Now this new GAO report lists forbidding problems in getting out:

"DoD will have fewer available resources. DoD's infrastructure in Iraq that supports its equipment retrograde [removal] and base transition efforts, such as materiel handling equipment and military personnel, will simultaneously decrease as USF-I exits Iraq. Base-level personnel with whom we met expressed serious concerns with the sufficiency of military, civilian and contractor personnel to set the conditions for transitioning the base according to the schedules required by USF-I's plan. For example, officials were concerned that as living standards decrease on bases in Iraq and new job opportunities open elsewhere, contractors will be unable to remain fully staffed and thus less likely to complete their work and demobilize by the required date. In addition, DoD officials cite the collapsing support infrastructure in Iraq as a challenge for the current phase, noting concerns regarding the availability of key transportation resources, such as aviation assets, flatbed trucks and heavy equipment transporters."

Note that the military is having the same problem on relying on the contractors not to leave as they did during the course of the war. The special problem here is that it will be very hard to replace these people as the military draws down and the "life support" (why does it sound like they are on the moon?) could quickly collapse and create dangerous chaos.

"... CMGO [Contractor Managed, Government Owned] equipment can still only be tracked in real time by government personnel, such as those responsible for executing the drawdown, after the equipment has been 'delivered' to the government, which often may not occur until contract performance ends. Therefore, real-time visibility over this category of equipment during the drawdown remains an issue. For example, USF-I estimated that its confidence in its total equipment visibility was only 80 percent as of June 2011, primarily due to shortfalls in its visibility over CMGO equipment, according to DoD officials. According to Army data, such equipment comprises over a third of the Army equipment remaining in Iraq....

"According to a senior DoD official, officials in Iraq recently discovered that one contractor had been using 200 CMGO trucks it had obtained from another contractor, yet had never transferred these vehicles to its own property record. Because these trucks were not on the contractor's list of equipment, they had not been included in prior inventories. As a result, these trucks were not factored into DoD's drawdown plans until they were properly added to the contractor's equipment tracking system and checked by USF-I....

"Without developing a means to achieve and maintain real-time visibility over critical CMGO property that retains the important checks and balances inherent to DoD's current accountability processes, DoD will continue to face challenges ensuring the efficient retrograde and transfer of such property as it completes the drawdown in Iraq and begins the drawdown in Afghanistan."

What GAO is trying to say is that a third of the Army equipment is at risk to be lost, looted or sold on the black market because of bad databases on the part of contractors and the military. The Army has already shown that they can lose over a billion dollars of equipment just sending it to Kuwait. Their problem of tracking this equipment on the way out could be many more billions of dollars and loss of military assets that are needed in Afghanistan.

"DoD has taken action to improve its management of contracts in Iraq, such as enhancing contract oversight through command emphasis and assigning COR [Contracting Officer's Representative] responsibilities as a primary duty in certain instances. However, other concerns, such as lack of experience among contract oversight personnel, remain. As the drawdown progresses, DoD may face further challenges in ensuring that major contracts transition without gaps in key services and in effectively implementing its guidance for descoping [reduction in services commensurate with declining needs] contracts and demobilizing contractor personnel and infrastructure. Specific challenges for DoD include providing certain information, such as base closure dates, to contractors, obtaining information from contractors such as accurate personnel headcounts and ensuring sufficient resources to facilitate full contractor demobilization."

During the years I was researching my book until 2007, Congress grew increasingly frustrated with the DoD because they could not provide a list of how many contracts they had let in Iraq, how many contractors they had and how many contractor personnel. The DoD started coming up with sketchy lists and many assumed that the DoD had finally gotten their act together. One of the problems at that time was a lack of DoD oversight personnel on these contracts and the inexperience of the oversight personnel that was stationed in Iraq or Kuwait. The paragraph above shows that, as they are trying to wind down in Iraq, they are having similar problems. One would think that the DoD has finally figured out who their contractors are in Iraq as they are leaving, but the GAO has come out with another report, also just last week, called "IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN: DoD, State and USAID Cannot Fully Account for Contracts, Assistance Instruments and Associated Personnel." The report concludes:

In 2008, DoD, State and USAID designated SPOT [a computer program] as their system of record for tracking statutorily required information on contracts and contractor personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, a designation they reaffirmed in 2010 when the requirement was expanded to include assistance instruments and personnel. Yet the agencies still do not have reliable sources and methods to report on contracts, assistance instruments and associated personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I fear that it will be very hard to "descope" (Isn't that a proctology word?) these contracts when, amazingly, DoD still doesn't know how many contracts, contractors and contractor personnel they have. This will just add to the potential chaos at a delicate time and certainly puts federal dollars even more at risk. This lack of information is just begging for some substantial contractor thieving to go on while we extract ourselves from this war.

Using subcontractor personnel from foreign countries was always a big security risk in Iraq because of the active insurgency just waiting to slip past any physical security to kill troops. Although the report does not address security directly, these scenarios place troops at risk while they are transitioned out of Iraq:

... Providing information to contractors. Guidance in a USF-I fragmentary order requires senior tactical commanders at each base to notify all contractors with the base closure or transition date no later than 180 days prior to the base closure or transition so the contractors can start preparing their personnel and equipment for redeployment. However, LOGCAP program officials were unable to provide base transition dates to subcontractors because base closure dates and other information relevant to demobilization are classified, which limited the contractors' ability to plan their demobilization tasks such as replacing third country national personnel with local national personnel to ensure continuity of service while downsizing their infrastructure. [Emphasis added.]

... As a further example of the challenge of accounting for contractor personnel, when closing Forward Operating Base Sykes, a medium-sized base in Iraq, CENTCOM-Joint Theater Support Contracting Command said that it found 392 third country nationals when they were only expecting to find 381. According to CENTCOM-Joint Theater Support Contracting Command, this was due to a database not being updated by vendors when they reassigned their workers to other locations during the course of employment. CENTCOM-Joint Theater Support Contracting Command said that this issue was being addressed with a new demobilization clause that was being inserted in contracts with its vendors. CENTCOM-Joint Theater Support Contracting Command also stated that it was conducting face-to-face interviews with all of its contractors to help them understand what is expected with respect to accounting for contractor personnel. [Emphasis added]

...Units are taking further steps to ensure the continuity of key services while continuing to descope contracts. For example, as bases begin descoping contracts and demobilizing contractor personnel in preparation for base transition, some units are exploring the option of using local contractors to provide certain services. According to senior military officials, since local contractors do not require extensive base life support, such as housing and will not have to be repatriated to their country of origin at the end of the contract, they can be employed to provide certain services that would otherwise have to be discontinued. However, we have previously reported on challenges hiring local national contractors, including the need for greater oversight due to Iraqi firms' relative lack of experience, limited capacity and capability, unfamiliarity with U.S. quality standards and expectations and lack of quality control processes that U.S. firms have in place. Some units also intend to replace contractor personnel with servicemembers to ensure continuity of certain services, such as guard security, airfield vegetation removal and generator maintenance and are conducting "troop-to-task" analysis to determine which servicemembers will perform these tasks and how many will be needed. For example, the mayor cell at Joint Base Balad has developed plans to reduce contractor personnel for the base's incinerator operations and eventually replace them with servicemembers. Officials from one mayor cell noted that these additional tasks may further tax unit personnel who are in short supply and busy meeting other priorities. [Emphasis added.]

It is also the height of total irony that some of the units have decided that the most practical and safe thing to do as they transition out is to use troops to do the tasks because they can be trusted. These are the same tasks that, before this war, the troops use to do because they were under the same command, could be trusted to do the work for their fellow troops and were not a security risk.

This is supposed to be a solutions column, but since 2004, I have written a book on the problems of using contractors this extensively in war, have penned many columns, have promoted a commission to look at these problems, have worked on whistleblower lawsuits to expose and recoup money from these contractors, have pressed members of Congress to do more investigating on this, encouraged reporters to keep reporting on the fraud and waste and risks to our troops, and the contractor problem has remained, now to the bitter end. Many other people have committed time and efforts to reform and change the dominance, waste and fraud of this War Service Industry before it got too entrenched, to no avail.

This GAO report also warns of problems with the arrangements with Iraq after December 31. The State Department will be taking over our presence in Iraq with a weird hydra of State, DoD and KBR personnel that promises to be as complicated as anything else we have seen, albeit at a smaller level.

At this point, I think that the only solution now is to be alert, carefully watch this transition and ring the alarm bells if and when it starts to fall apart and especially if this "descoping" out of Iraq threatens the safety of our troops. They have been through enough. This is a very weak solution, but the staying power of the War Service Industry is very strong with powerful friends in Congress and the DoD and a lucrative revolving door for whoever helps them.

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Georgia Murders Troy Davis!

 
Amnesty International
 

The state of Georgia has executed Troy Anthony Davis.

 

Dear William,

I've been down here at death row, and we just heard the horrific news.

After a torturous delay of more than 4 hours, the state of Georgia has just killed Troy Anthony Davis.

My heart is heavy. I am sad and angry. The state of Georgia has proven what we already know. Governments cannot be trusted with the awful power over life and death.

Today, Georgia didn't just kill Troy Davis, they killed the faith and confidence that many Georgians, Americans and Troy Davis supporters worldwide used to have in our criminal justice system.

Wende, on our Abolish the Death Penalty Campaign team, met with Troy Davis yesterday to convey the support that he has had from all of you. He asked us to deliver this message back to you:

"The struggle for justice doesn't end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I'm in good spirits and I'm prayerful and at peace."

Let's take a moment to honor the life of Troy Davis and Mark MacPhail. Then, let's take all of our difficult feelings and re-double our commitment to abolition of the death penalty.

Please pledge to continue this fight because it is far from over.

This Friday at 7 pm EST, please join us for a special call to discuss Troy Davis' case, what your work means for the death penalty abolition movement as a whole and what we can do next.

I am Troy Davis. You are Troy Davis. We will not stop fighting for justice.

Thank you for everything you have done to make your voice heard.

In Solidarity,
Laura Moye
Director, Death Penalty Abolition Campaign
Amnesty International USA

 

  Not in my name

The state of Georgia may have taken one life tonight, but they cannot stop our struggle for all the Troy Davises of the world.






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© 2011 Amnesty International USA | 5 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10001 | 212.807.8400 


Friday, September 16, 2011

Re: Response From John Barrasso

Dear Sen. John Barrasso,
Wow, you really are ignorant about wolves and the management plan. It's funny how you republicans use that republican meme about one size fits all when it suits your agenda, but not on others. Why? And this comment really cracks me up- "I do not believe that the solution needs to be one or the other." You repubs have been using your solution comes first and always for the last 2 years & 9 months of republic obstructionism, come hell or high water, for far too long now, and compromise is not in your vocabulary.
This line is more Wyoming wolf hater lies and bullshit- "Neither side is arguing that the gray wolf shouldn't be managed so that they remain a viable part of the ecosystem." When wolves can be shot on sight in 80% of the state, how the hell can they be a viable part of the "state" ecosystem? 
You know ranchers and such hold a disproportionate amount of power in this as opposed to their financial contributions to the state. Agribusiness accounts for less then 5% of the state GDP, yet all the myths, lies and misinformation perpetrated by the ranch lobby and all their fearmongering (Something the right is really good at by the way, including you Johnny.) have distorted this debate, leading to the misleading of a huge percentage of Wyoming's voters who are of the low-information and anti-intellectual types. (The Repubs love this kind of voter as they are easy to manipulate- a perfect example is Barrasso as senator, Lummis as Congressperson and Mead as Governor. Need I say more?)
So, you really don't like to hear from me, but I'll play along. The new wolf management plan sucks and will lead to the second extinction of wolves from Wyoming. Shame on you republicans, and you call yourselves Christians? Ha! Your God is suppose to love all critters, not just republicans and their millionaire and billionaire benefactors.
Good night and good luck!
 
Best wishes always,
William Daniel Harasym
 
"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral." -Paolo Friere-
 
Sent: Friday, September 16, 2011 2:52 PM
Subject: Response From John Barrasso
 

 

 

September 16, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear William,

 

Thank you for contacting me regarding the gray wolf.  It is good to hear from you.

 

I believe the delisting of the gray wolf is an issue that is solely Wyoming's.  Washington, D.C.'s "one size fits all" approach to public policy does not serve our best interests. On July 7, 2011, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar travelled to Wyoming to meet with Governor Mead for final negotiations on a state wolf management plan. Secretary Salazar subsequently announced a tentative plan that included removing the gray wolf from the endangered species list.

 

Neither side is arguing that the gray wolf shouldn't be managed so that they remain a viable part of the ecosystem.  Using practical, commonsense management tools at the State and local level will allow the gray wolf to be protected while at the same time allowing for vibrant and economically strong communities to thrive.  I do not believe that the solution needs to be one or the other.

 

Thanks again for sharing your views on this issue.  I appreciate your input.

 

 


John Barrasso, M.D.                                                                         
United States Senator
 

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