Friday, June 18 Nine Circles of Hell!


The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – are excerpted below under the ‘more’ button. The Nine Circles for Friday, June 18, are:

Will Senate overturn secretive, “serious detriment to transparency”?

Border fence capabilities dwindle as cost up more than seven-fold

Political fundraising from oil, gas concerns not slowed by Gulf disaster

Bacteria that regularly threatens Gulf shellfish, thrives on oil

“Dead zone” creating methane released from spill latest threat to Gulf

Russian president wonders if spill costs will cause BP’s “annihilation”

New documentary says natural gas threatens water, air, lives

Electoral “earthquake” could mean the end of Belgium

Indian villages in deadly war over fishing rights

Will Senate overturn secretive, “serious detriment to transparency”?
McClatchy Newspapers

Bid to end senators’ secret holds’ advances

In the Senate, every man or woman can be king.

Each can hold up a billion-dollar spending bill on a whim, or block one of the president’s nominees from ever getting a hearing.

Whether they’re in the majority or minority doesn’t matter. They also don’t even have to explain why. But the best part of all?

They never have to admit that they did it.

So blame Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri if pretty soon it’s just not as much fun as it used to be.

McCaskill, a first term Democrat, apparently has persuaded enough of her colleagues to back her effort to take the “secret” out of the Senate’s practice of secret holds.

If her bill gets to the floor, which is appearing more likely since every Democrat supports it, plus enough Republicans to grease passage, no senator would be able to block on a nomination or a piece of legislation without leaving fingerprints.

McCaskill cautioned that it was too early to start tossing confetti.

“We have 67 people who said they want to abolish the rule,” she said. “Now we have to translate 67 people into 67 votes. I haven’t been here very long, but long enough to know this is going to be the hard part.”

Indeed, she intends to continue her hunt for more supporters so she has “some wiggle room in case some senators get cold feet.”

Senate watchers and open government advocates said that eliminating the secret holds would be a significant step toward reform.

“They’re a serious detriment to transparency,” said Paul Blumenthal, senior writer for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. “Citizens across the country should know not only who’s sponsoring a bill, but who’s blocking it from coming to the floor.”

Border fence capabilities dwindle as cost up more than seven-fold
The Associated Press

At least $800M spent for 53-mile border fence in Arizona

Taxpayers have shelled out at least $15.1 million per mile for 53 miles of “virtual fence” built to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, more than 12 times the original estimate.

The federal government set aside $833 million for the fence of cameras, sensors and other barriers in 2007, and the vast majority of that money, at least $800 million, has been spent on a sliver, in Arizona, of the nearly 2,000-mile southern border. About $20.9 million has been used on the northern border.

Rep. Chris Carney, D-Pa., chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee, said the money was supposed to buy virtual fence for 655 miles of border in Arizona, New Mexico and a slice of Texas, at a cost of about $1.2 million per mile.

“We are guardians of the taxpayers’ money and someone said yes to this, we said yes to this and it’s not what was originally sold,” Carney said.

The totals come from the House Homeland Security Committee, which got them from the Homeland Security Department. Customs and Border Protection confirmed the figures.

The fence, developed as part of a border security plan under President George W. Bush, was supposed to monitor most of the southern border with Mexico by 2011. Now, the 53 miles in Arizona is expected to be done by the end of the year.

Additionally, the expected capabilities of the virtual fence have shrunk, said Randolph Hite, a Government Accountability Office official.

Political fundraising from oil, gas concerns not slowed by Gulf disaster
The Washington Post

Lobbyists for BP hosted at least 53 fundraising parties for lawmakers and candidates in recent years — four of them since the explosion and oil spill at a BP-run oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a watchdog group’s analysis …

Other oil and gas concerns have raised cash for lawmakers, too, sometimes with uncomfortable timing. On May 12, executives including BP’s chairman, Lamar McKay, Transocean chief executive Steve Newman and Halliburton’s Timothy Probert appeared before a hearing in the House Energy and Commerce Committee to discuss responsibility for their respective roles in the Deepwater Horizon spill. About an hour earlier, House Republicans had gathered a few blocks away for an “oil and gas breakfast” fundraiser with industry members to benefit Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex).

David Donnelly, of the Campaign for Fair Elections, said he wasn’t surprised that fundraisers were held by the lobbyists of BP and other oil firms.

“The fundraising season in Washington never ends, even when there are disasters like in the Gulf Coast and when the economy crashes. Members of Congress still have to look for money,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly also expressed concern about campaign contributions to Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who apologized to the company Thursday for what he said was a White House “shakedown” in pressing BP to set aside $20 billion to compensate victims of the spill. Later in the day, GOP leaders demanded that Barton retract his apology and stress BP’s responsibility for the spill.

Barton, who was elected to Congress in 1984, has received $27,000 in campaign contributions from BP and its affiliates and $1.4 million from the oil and gas industry as a whole, according to campaign finance records.

“It’s amazing that Rep. Barton would stand up for a multinational corporation that has wrecked the livelihoods of so many people along the Gulf Coast,” Donnelly said. “Comments like this make all Americans question whether Congress represents them or the special interests funding their campaigns.”

Bacteria that regularly threatens Gulf shellfish, thrives on oil
The New York Times

Will Bacterial Plague Follow Crude Oil Spill Along Gulf Coast?

Some bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico love eating oil as much as they like infecting humans.

A close relative of the bacteria infamous for seafood contaminations that often lead to fatal disease, the microbe Vibrio parahaemolyticus, is common in warm coastal waters like the Gulf. The long comma-shaped bacteria, slurped down with raw oysters, brings twisting cramps and nausea to 4,500 American shellfish aficionados each year.

But unlike some of its finicky peers, V. parahaemolyticus has a deep thirst for crude oil. “You can feed it exclusively oil,” and it will thrive, said Jay Grimes, marine microbiologist at the University of Southern Mississippi.

As many have noticed, oil is not in short supply on the Gulf Coast.

Scientists have long known that the ultimate end of the crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from the damaged BP PLC well will rest in the hands of marine bacteria, single-cell organisms that have been purging the seas of oil from natural seeps for millenia, having only recently added human folly to their cleanup resume. Without these bacteria, whose numbers surge in response to hydrocarbons, enough oil would leak each year to coat the world’s oceans in a fine film, molecules deep.

Beneath this awareness, however, sit vast reserves of uncertainty. Microbiologists are unsure which bacteria, feeding off the oil, are already growing exponentially in the Gulf. They are curious how long the bacterial growth will last once the oil’s hard remnants drift down into ocean sediment. And no one seems certain how the surge in microbial life will alter the intricate, disentangling web of the Gulf’s already weakened ecology.

One of the more pressing questions involves Vibrios, which, until the oil spill, were one of the primary threats to the region’s vital shellfish business. While parahaemolyticus rarely causes serious disease, another Vibrio species, vulnificus, kills dozens of Americans each year, largely through seafood contamination. The disease, only recently discovered, has caused fierce debate between health officials and local Gulf politicians over raw oysters, the primary carriers of the disease …

Already, the spill is stressing and killing marine life, covering oyster cages in oily films, Oliver’s Gulf colleagues tell him. The most common vector for seafood contamination, the oysters that survive the crude could see their immune systems weakened, potentially leaving them easy prey for bacteria. And what if their offspring are weakened?

There are few answers, said Doug Bartlett, a microbiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Mostly questions. “If the oil is killing all these marine animals and if the marine animals are highly compromised, would they be more likely to succumb to infectious disease?” he said.

“Dead zone” creating methane released from spill latest threat to Gulf
The Associated Press

Gulf oil full of methane, adding new concerns

It is an overlooked danger in the oil spill crisis: The crude gushing from the well contains vast amounts of natural gas that could pose a serious threat to the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile ecosystem.

The oil emanating from the seafloor contains about 40 percent methane, compared with about 5 percent found in typical oil deposits, said John Kessler, a Texas A&M University oceanographer who is studying the impact of methane from the spill.

That means huge quantities of methane have entered the Gulf, scientists say, potentially suffocating marine life and creating “dead zones” where oxygen is so depleted that nothing lives.

“This is the most vigorous methane eruption in modern human history,” Kessler said.

Methane is a colorless, odorless and flammable substance that is a major component in the natural gas used to heat people’s homes. Petroleum engineers typically burn off excess gas attached to crude before the oil is shipped off to the refinery. That’s exactly what BP has done as it has captured more than 7.5 million gallons of crude from the breached well.

A BP spokesman said the company was burning about 30 million cubic feet of natural gas daily from the source of the leak, adding up to about 450 million cubic feet since the containment effort started 15 days ago. That’s enough gas to heat about 450,000 homes for four days.

But that figure does not account for gas that eluded containment efforts and wound up in the water, leaving behind huge amounts of methane. Scientists are still trying to measure how much has escaped into the water and how it may damage the Gulf and it creatures.

The dangerous gas has played an important role throughout the disaster and response. A bubble of methane is believed to have burst up from the seafloor and ignited the rig explosion. Methane crystals also clogged a four-story containment box that engineers earlier tried to place on top of the breached well.

Now it is being looked at as an environmental concern.

Russian president wonders if spill costs will cause BP’s “annihilation”
BBC News

BP could face ‘annihilation’, says Medvedev

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has questioned the future of BP, saying the oil giant may face “annihilation” after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he described the spill as a “wake-up call”, and said that “hopefully [BP] can afford the losses” …

“What I know is that BP will have to pay a lot of money this year,” he said.

“Whether the company can digest those expenditures, whether they will lead to the annihilation of the company or its break up is a matter of expediency” …

In Russia, BP holds a 50% stake in TNK-BP – a joint venture with AAR, which is owned by a group of Russian billionaires.

According to analysts at Moscow investment bank Troika Dialog, BP’s stake in TNK-BP is worth about $16-$18bn.

However, analysts said that BP may have to take a hit on the price if it is forced to sell.

“If BP decides to sell its [stake in TNK], it will have to do so with a discount to find a buyer faster,” Viktor Mishnyakov, energy expert from Uralsib, told the BBC Russian Service.

BP also owns about 1% of the Russian state-run company Rosneft, which is worth another $900m. Rumours about a possible sell-off caused Rosneft’s share price to fall by 6% on Thursday.

The head of BP’s Russian operations was forced to deny the rumours on Friday, saying that BP has yet to decide exactly which assets to dispose of.

For its part, Lukoil, one of Russia’s biggest oil producers, said it would not be interested in buying any of BP assets should the UK oil company decide to sell.

“We are not wolves, we do not eat the weak,” said the company’s boss Vagit Alekperov.

BP made a profit last year of $14bn, down from $25bn a year earlier.

Analysts say that the compensation fund and initial clean-up costs would, therefore, be easily affordable for BP.

However, they also warn that the threat of legal action and significant fines means it needs to conserve cash.

Standard Chartered warned last week that the total cost to the company, including legal costs, could top $40bn.

New documentary says natural gas threatens water, air, lives
The Canadian Press

HBO documentary ‘Gasland’ an unsettling look at hazards of natural gas drilling

What do you do when a gas company offers nearly US$100,000 for the right to drill on your land?

If you’re Josh Fox, you refuse the money — then make an award-winning documentary portraying the natural gas industry as an environmental menace that ruins water, air and lives.

In “Gasland,” premiering Monday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, Fox presents a frightening scenario in which tens of thousands of drilling rigs take over the landscape, gas companies exploit legal loopholes to inject toxins into the ground and residents living nearby contract severe, unexplained illnesses.

This isn’t some dystopian nightmare, Fox says, but the harsh reality in communities from Texas to Colorado to Pennsylvania. “People are feeling completely upended,” the 37-year-old filmmaker said in an interview at his woodland home near the Pennsylvania-New York border, where gas companies have been leasing thousands of acres of pristine watershed land in anticipation of a drilling boom.

Fox says the natural gas industry is selling the American public a lie. The industry calls “Gasland” a deeply flawed piece of propaganda.

Whatever the truth, Fox’s film arrives at a fraught time. Between the Gulf oil spill and several recent mishaps involving natural gas extraction, the public is focused on energy — and the increasingly complicated ways we are getting it.

Just as the Gulf catastrophe illustrated the hazards of unchecked deep-water oil drilling, so, too, are gas companies failing to make investments that will safeguard the environment when something goes wrong, Fox argues.

“After a while, the gas rig just seemed like a car made in 1890 … something fundamentally unsafe,” he declares in “Gasland.” He wonders aloud whether it’s better to force gas companies to clean up their act “or just say, ‘The hell with it. Can’t we build a solar panel instead?’”

Electoral “earthquake” could mean the end of Belgium

Does Belgium’s Election Spell the End of the Country?

Is this the beginning of the end for Belgium? The country – composed of perennially squabbling French and Dutch speakers – has been a precarious construct since its creation in 1830, perpetually on the verge of splitting. But over the years, the state, with its population of 10.8 million, has remained intact by adapting its political institutions to changing moods and accepting hodgepodge coalitions of parties with wildly different agendas. The results of the latest general election, however, suggest it might finally be time to draw the curtain on a uniquely European model of federalism.

On Sunday, June 13, the New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, or N-VA), a party that calls for independence for Dutch-speaking Flanders, became the biggest political force in the country, securing 27 seats in the 150-seat Parliament, or 17.4% of the total Belgian vote. In Flanders, a region of 6.5 million people that accounts for almost 60% of the Belgian population, 45% voted for the N-VA or other separatist parties. That might be too powerful a mandate for Brussels to ignore.

“The people of Flanders have voted for change,” said N-VA’s burly, charismatic leader, 39-year-old Bart De Wever. “We have been living in a gridlocked country. Everything is complicated in this country, and the Flemish don’t want that anymore.”

Results among French speakers provide further indication of the country’s deep division. The Francophone Socialist Party (PS) also saw a surge in support, claiming 26 seats on 13.8% of the national vote. The head of the PS, Elio Di Rupo, 58, is the son of Italian immigrants who is also mayor of the city of Mons. He campaigned on plans to strengthen the federal state, which many Flemish interpret as transferring more subsidies from the rich, French-speaking north to the struggling, Dutch-speaking south. The question now is whether De Wever and Di Rupo can reconcile their contrasting agendas.

“It’s a historic result. It’s unprecedented. It’s an earthquake,” says Marc De Vos, the head of the Itinera Institute, a Brussels-based policy think tank. “The divide between the north and the south has never been deeper. And we don’t know if it will be possible to reach a compromise between them.”

Indian villages in deadly war over fishing rights
IPS News

Violence Escalates Around India’s Largest Inland Lake

Basudev Dalai, 43, never thought that the fishing village where he has lived all his life and which has been home to generations of fishermen like him would be embroiled in violent clashes over the very source of their livelihood.

“The stakes are so high people are even prepared to kill those they have lived with for generations,” says Dalai, a native of Alupatna village near Chilka Lagoon along the Bay of Bengal in eastern India.

A pitched gun battle and crude bomb attack early this month involving two fishing villages, long in conflict over Chilka lake’s resources, has left two dead, 40 wounded and the local economy in tatters.

Chilka is Asia’s largest saltwater lagoon and a wetland of international importance under the Convention on Wetlands, otherwise known as the Ramsar Convention, an international agreement on the sustainable use of wetlands among the member states.

Sprawled over 100,000 hectares of land covering three districts on India’s east coast, Chilka provides livelihoods to 137 surrounding villages or some 200,000 fisherfolk.

A day after the fight erupted and before police searches began, the thousand or so inhabitants of the warring communities fled to nearby villages in fishing dinghies. The assailants remain at large.

Eran Dalai, a 25-year-old native of Alupatna, says the fight started when his village fishers found their shrimp stakes and net enclosures destroyed. “Our villages had earlier engaged in violent clashes at least five times, but this was the worst so far,” he adds.

Before this month’s bloody incident, police had recorded a total death toll of 60 from similar attacks that began in 1999.

Local police inspector in-charge Debi Prasad Das says over 300 crude bombs and 200 rounds of bullets were used during this month’s attack that went on for five hours before police managed to put the situation under control.

Clashes over fishing rights in Chilka Lake have been escalating both in number and intensity, says Biswapriya Kanungo, legal adviser to Orissa-based Chilka Traditional Fishers’ Federation whose membership runs into thousands. “Skirmishes or serious encounters occur once a month on average,” he adds.

Increasing population, overfishing, depleted fish stocks, and environmental degradation brought on by a host of factors, including siltation, as well as the advent of commercial prawn farming in and around Chilka, have all taken their toll on the lake and its rich biodiversity.

The seriousness of the situation confronting the lake and its inhabitants has resulted in head-on clashes among the fishing villages.