Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday Reading

For Decades — The aftereffects of the oil spill will be around for a long, long time.

Snorkeling along a coral reef near Veracruz, Mexico, in 2002, Texas biologist Wes Tunnell spotted what looked like a ledge of rock covered in sand, shells, algae and hermit crabs. He knew, from years of research at the reef, that it probably wasn’t a rock at all. He stabbed it with his diving knife. His blade pulled up gunk.

“Sure enough, it was tar from the Ixtoc spill,” Tunnell said.

Twenty-three years earlier, in 1979, an oil well named Ixtoc I had a blowout in 150 feet of water in the southern Gulf of Mexico. The Mexican national oil company Pemex tried to kill the well with drilling mud, and then with steel and lead balls dropped into the wellbore. It tried to contain the oil with a cap nicknamed The Sombrero. Finally, after 290 days, a relief well plugged the hole with cement and the spill came to an end — but only after polluting the gulf with 138 million gallons of crude.

That remains the worst accidental oil spill in history — but the Deepwater Horizon blowout off the Louisiana coast is rapidly gaining on it.

The spill has now been partially contained with the cap that BP engineers lowered onto the mile-deep geyser Thursday night. That means roughly a quarter to half of the flow is being piped to a surface ship, the national incident commander, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Saturday. BP hopes to improve the rate captured in coming days. If official government estimates are correct, 23 million to 47 million gallons of oil have spewed so far.

Ecosystems can survive and eventually recover from very large oil spills, even ones that are Ixtoc-sized. In most spills, the volatile compounds evaporate. The sun breaks down others. Some compounds are dissolved in water. Microbes consume the simpler, “straight chain” hydrocarbons — and the warmer it is, the more they eat. The gulf spill has climate in its favor. Scientists agree: Horrible as the spill may be, it’s not going to turn the Gulf of Mexico into another Dead Sea.

But neither is this ecological crisis going to be over anytime soon. The spill will have ripple effects far into the future, scientists warn.

“This spill will be lasting for years if not decades,” said Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation.

More below the fold.

Leave Sarah Alone — Leonard Pitts, Jr. stands up for the right of privacy for celebrities.

There goes the neighborhood.

We do not know if that was Sarah Palin’s initial response to the news that a journalist writing a book about her had rented the house next to hers in Wasilla, Alaska. But who could blame her if it was?

As it is, the response Palin did share on Facebook seems tellingly uneven, as if Joe McGinniss’ decision to move in next door had knocked her off her game. One moment, she’s chirping with trademark insouciance about how she might bake him a blueberry pie to welcome him to the neighborhood. The next, she is talking about raising the fence between her house and his.

In the same Facebook posting, Palin also suggested, with smarmy innuendo, that from his new home, the author could see into her daughter’s bedroom. Palin did not explain why he would wish to do so.

McGinniss’ move has stirred controversy beyond Wasilla. A posting on Slate.com strongly defended his ”immersion” journalism. At the other end of the opinion spectrum, the author has received death threats from angry Palin fans. Among McGinniss’ more hinged critics, the word ”creepy” gets used a lot. Even in defending him, the piece on Slate.com likened him to a stalker.

For his part, McGinniss told NBC’s Today show that ”Creepy is as creepy does” — whatever that means — and portrayed his decision to rent the house next door as coincidental. He needed to live in Wasilla for the summer while doing his research, it was a great house at a great price and it just happened to be next door to the woman he is writing about.

If ever there is a Museum of Disingenuous Explanations, that one will deserve its own wing. And here, let us stipulate three things:

One, McGinniss is pulling an obvious stunt that ultimately benefits both parties: it helps him sell books, it helps her sell herself as a victim of the ”lamestream” media.

Two, McGinniss is perfectly within his rights to rent this house — or any other he desires.

Three, Palin is, of her own doing, a public figure and as such, must accept intense, even intrusive media scrutiny.

But even stipulating all that, it’s hard to be sanguine about the uncomfortable nearness McGinniss has foisted upon his subject. Not that you can’t understand why he’d want to write about her. Palin is, second only to the president himself, the most compelling figure in American politics — and the most polarizing. For some, she is the folksy, straight-talkin’ avatar of conservative principles, while for others, she is the leader of an intellectually incoherent movement that has no idea where it’s going but seems in a hurry to get there.

Frank Rich — Don’t Get Mad…

If Obama is to have a truly transformative presidency, there could be no better catalyst than oil. Standard Oil jump-started Progressive Era trust-busting. Sinclair Oil’s kickback-induced leases of Wyoming’s Teapot Dome oilfields in the 1920s led to the first conviction and imprisonment of a presidential cabinet member (Harding’s interior secretary) for a crime committed while in the cabinet. The Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s and the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 sped the conservation movement and search for alternative fuels. The Enron scandal prompted accounting reforms and (short-lived) scrutiny of corporate Ponzi schemes.

This all adds up to a Teddy Roosevelt pivot-point for Obama, who shares many of that president’s moral and intellectual convictions. But Obama can’t embrace his inner T.R. as long as he’s too in thrall to the supposed wisdom of the nation’s meritocracy, too willing to settle for incremental pragmatism as a goal, and too inhibited by the fine points of Washington policy debates to embrace bold words and bold action. If he is to wield the big stick of reform against BP and the other powerful interests that have ripped us off, he will have to tell the big story with no holds barred.

That doesn’t require a temper tantrum. Nor does it require him to plug the damn hole, which he can’t do anyway. What he does have the power to fix is his presidency. Should he do so, and soon, he’ll still have a real chance to mend a broken country as well.

Doonesbury — planning.

Jon Stewart reviews the week.

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