TIME Environment

Judge Places Most Blame on BP for 2010 Oil Spill

Deepwater Horizon site
Deepwater Horizon site Carrie Vonderhaar—Ocean Futures Society/Getty Images

British energy giant's conduct called "reckless"

A New Orleans judge ruled on Thursday that British energy giant BP’s gross negligence led to the largest offshore oil spill in American history.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said BP was mostly to blame for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster, which killed 11 people and spewed oil into the water for 87 days.

Barbier attributed 67% of the fault to BP, 30% to Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, and 3% to Halliburton, the cement contractor.

“BP’s conduct was reckless,” Barbier wrote in the decision, according to Bloomberg. “Transocean’s conduct was negligent. Halliburton’s conduct was negligent.”

Barbier oversaw a trial last year to distribute fault for the spill. BP could face up to $18 billion in fines, Bloomberg reports, though appeals will likely delay if and when any penalties are settled. The company pleaded guilty in 2012 to 14 federal counts and agreed to pay $4 billion to end the criminal case.

BP said in a statement it would appeal the decision. Its shares were down nearly 6% at 12:12 p.m. ET on Thursday.

TIME weather

New Ultra High-Def Satellite Shows Mind-Blowing View of a Forest Fire

A forest fire at the Happy Camp complex in California’s Klamath National Forest imaged with (left) and without (right) SWIR, in Aug. 2014.
A forest fire at the Happy Camp complex in California’s Klamath National Forest imaged with (left) and without (right) SWIR, in Aug. 2014. Courtesy of DigitalGlobe

The new technology can penetrate thick clouds of smoke to reveal clear images

State-of-the-art imaging technology on board DigitalGlobe’s recently launched WorldView-3 satellite offers unprecedented views of world events. The technology, known as Shortwave Infrared Imagery, or SWIR, can penetrate thick clouds of smoke, as shown in the above image of a forest fire. The photo reveals a clear image of an August fire at the Happy Camp complex in California’s Klamath National Forest.

Previous images of the event were covered in a dense cloud of smoke.

TIME

The New Job Every City Needs

Urban centers need to anticipate environmental disasters--not just clean them up. A resiliency officer can help

For the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population (currently 7.1 billion) lives in urban settings. While urban living offers many attractions — employment opportunities, higher education, entertainment, health care, and public transportation – the changes we make to the natural landscape to accommodate and support our current population often makes us vulnerable to human and environmental threats. And when disasters strike urban areas, many lives are threatened and upended.

For instance, think about how we have built right up to shorelines in the New York City area and how quickly Hurricane Sandy flooded streets and subway terminals in 2012. Consider the way Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levee systems and devastated New Orleans in 2005. And the list of urban crises goes on: Fukushima, Japan (2011), the floods in Fort Lyons and Boulder, Colorado (2013), tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma, and the deadly European (2003) and Chicago (1995) heat waves.

For all its attractive features, L.A., too, is vulnerable. Los Angeles is not only vulnerable to acute disasters like earthquakes and floods, but we also experience chronic hazards like air pollution and high temperatures. After all, the city is in a three-year drought and is vulnerable to 13 of the 16 federally-designated natural disasters. (The three we don’t have: volcanic eruption, snowstorms and tornadoes).

Strengthening our city is the motivation behind the recent announcement that Los Angeles will create the position of Chief Resilience Officer. L.A. is one of the first 32 cities to create such a position, as part of a campaign backed by the Rockefeller Foundation. The goal of the program is to build urban resiliency around the world by pursuing collaborations across government, private, and non-profit sectors to address complex human, environmental, and economic challenges.

In addition to the city’s emergency management departments – the fire department equipped with search and rescue capabilities, and a well-trained police force – to respond to acute disasters, L.A. needs one person to lead a city-wide effort to make the important and thoughtful decisions that will increase resiliency while reducing vulnerability to human and environmental threats in the future.

What does resilience mean in this context? The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization, defines resilience as the ability of natural or human systems to survive in the face of great change. Resilient systems possess the ability to return to a state of equilibrium following a disturbance while non-resilient systems struggle to restore equilibrium or fail to recover altogether.

To work on both these strategies, the job of the Los Angeles Chief Resilience Officer requires several different types of skills: the local knowledge to know what risks the city faces; the technical capacity to do the planning; and the ability to bring together very different kinds of people – from scientists to politicians to media and neighborhood leaders.

By way of example, consider how the Chief Resilience Officer might confront repeated heat waves in the city. Before the heat wave, the CRO would work to redesign our city to minimize exposure – adding trees and green spaces that have cooling effects (L.A. River restoration plans, especially removing the concrete, would have benefits here); coordinating heat warnings with the National Weather Service also would be important. During the heat event, the city could provide cooling centers, water and aid stations, and health services to assist people in need. Post-heat wave, the CRO would work to return residents and the city to normal. Think how complex such work would be on this one subject – and then think about all the other threats Los Angeles faces.

The benefits of such work would go far beyond preparation and response to disaster. Resilience planning can create jobs for those engaged in the work, add to knowledge and science as the city gathers and analyzes data on its vulnerabilities, and improve education (in part by involving scholars and other experts in the work). Incorporating technology into these planning efforts could create easily available real-time, geo-referenced data regarding evacuation routes and hazards during a disaster through social media. And once we learn lessons on effective resiliency planning, we can share them with others. The Dutch, for instance, are experts in land reclamation and levees, and they provided their expertise to New Orleans officials dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

If the CRO is to succeed, people around Los Angeles will have to collaborate as never before, and many of us – at least in the academic sector — are eager to contribute to this work, and learn from it.

In fact, students in my USC program on GeoDesign­ — a first-of-its-kind major that brings together architecture, planning, and spatial sciences – have already started investigating how resilience can be engineered. And younger students, from kindergarten to high school, can be engaged as well, through class projects and field trips.

The appointment of a Chief Resilience Officer to Los Angeles is a demonstration of global leadership. It’s also timely because, unlike New Orleans or New York, LA has not experienced a major disaster recently. L.A. can get a head start on investing in critical infrastructure and services before we encounter the disasters that we know are on their way.

Darren Ruddell is assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies at the Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. This piece first appeared on Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Companies

Halliburton to Pay $1.1 Billion Over Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

Flags flying at a Halliburton facility in Williston, North Dakota on Aug. 20, 2013.
Flags flying at a Halliburton facility in Williston, North Dakota on Aug. 20, 2013. Karen Blieber—AFP/Getty Images

The deal will pay off damage claims from property holders and commercial fisheries affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster

Halliburton has reached a $1.1 billion settlement deal with plaintiffs claiming damages resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, the Houston-based energy company announced on Tuesday.

The company will pay $1.1 billion into a trust in three installments, which will be used to pay off damage claims from property holders and commercial fisheries along the gulf coast.

The deal removes a measure of uncertainty that has lingered over the company’s legal reserves over the past four years. Halliburton has set aside a $1.3 billion litigation fund for costs related to the spill. While the settlement resolves claims from individual plaintiffs, Halliburton still faces lawsuits from several coastal states.

Halliburton has traded blame with British Petroleum (BP) over the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which unleashed nearly 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf over several weeks in 2010, one of the largest offshore oil spills in U.S. history.

BP, the owner of the well, blamed Halliburton for faulty construction work while Halliburton said BP’s faulty management was responsible. Both companies, along with the owner of the rig, Transocean Ltd., have paid out billions in settlement deals.

TIME Environment

Solved: Mystery of Moving Stones in Death Valley

A sailing stone in Racetrack playa, Death Valley, CA.
A sailing stone in Racetrack playa, Death Valley, in California Mark Newman—Getty Images

A group of scientists say they've figured out how the "sailing stones" glide along the desert floor on their own

So-called sailing stones in California’s Death Valley National Park have perplexed tourists and scientists alike for their apparent ability to move on their own, leaving sometimes meter-long tracks in their wake.

But after years of speculation, researchers with patience, remote weather monitors, cameras, and stones that are fitted with GPS say they have discovered the force behind the phenomenon.

Wind (very strong winds) and ice (very thick ice) have long been considered as possible explanations for why the rocks, sometimes weighing hundreds of pounds, move. It’s actually a combination of a little of both, the team of researchers say in their study, published in the journal PLOS One this week.

Rainwater in what is known as the Racetrack Playa creates a shallow pond over the playa that, in cold winter temperatures, freezes over. When the ice begins to melt under the sun, it first breaks up into large panels thin enough that, with a nudge from even light winds, they shift — and push whatever rocks may lie in their path.

TIME Environment

Obama Mulls Circumventing Congress for International Climate Change Agreement

Climate Change Global Warming Asbestos Mines
Asbestos mines in Amiandos, Troodos Mountains, Cyprus, June 15, 2014. G. Nimatallah—De Agostini/Getty Images

Possible end-run around Senate ratification

The Obama Administration is working on an international agreement for countries to cut their fossil fuel emissions, a move that could set up a showdown with Congress by avoiding the need for formal treaty ratification.

The accord, meant to be signed at a United Nations summit next year, will likely bypass the usual ratification procedure, the New York Times reports. Ratification would require a two-thirds vote from the Senate, but any action on climate change faces stiff resistance from Republicans and from some moderate Democrats, and President Barack Obama has increasingly looked for ways to work around congressional opposition as his time in office winds down. The Administration is considering framing an agreement as “politically binding” instead of legally binding as a way to circumvent the need for ratification, the Times reports. Obama’s climate negotiators told the Times that the framework would help “name and shame” negligent countries.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it’s premature to say the Administration is planning to circumvent the Senate.

“Not a word of the new climate agreement currently under discussion has been written, so it is entirely premature to say whether it will or won’t require Senate approval,” Psaki said in a statement. “Our goal is to negotiate a successful and effective global climate agreement that can help address this pressing challenge. Anything that is eventually negotiated and that should go to the Senate will go to the Senate. We will continue to consult with Congress on this important issue.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voiced opposition to the possible maneuver, saying it’s indicative of what he called the Obama Administration’s tendency to “ignore the elected representatives of the people when they don’t agree.”

-Additional reporting by Zeke J Miller

TIME natural disaster

How 10 Seconds Could Save Lives During Earthquakes

Napa Area Businesses Continue Recovery Effort From Earthquake
A crack runs down the center of an earthquake-damaged street in Napa, Calif., on Aug. 26, 2014 Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

California eyes warning system after latest quake

Ten seconds could save your life. That’s the message from researchers developing an early-warning system in California that could eventually alert the public an earthquake is about to hit.

The research program, run by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in partnership with several California universities, is still in beta form, but was put to the test last weekend when an earthquake struck the Napa area. At the University of California, Berkeley, to the south, the system detected and sent out a warning signal to the scientists about six seconds before the tremor reached the area.

The technology behind the system uses sensors across the state that detect early waves from an earthquake before the main event strikes. While it’s not possible to issue warnings to those located right next to an earthquake epicenter, those further away could be warned seconds or even a minute in advance.

Doug Given, USGS’s early-earthquake-warning coordinator, says 10 seconds might not seem like a lot, but it could be enough for people to take cover before an earthquake hits and for public services and private industry to take precautionary steps. This might include systems that force elevators to let passengers off at the closest available floor and those that let first responders know they should open garage doors ahead of tremors so they can quickly begin search-and-rescue missions afterward. Given says other applications include letting hospitals know an earthquake is coming, so they can prepare doctors and patients. “If you’re in an MRI machine, you might want them to pull you out before it starts shaking hard,” says Given. Likewise, he says surgeons performing delicate operations — on eyes, for example — could have notice that their work is about to be interrupted.

“Imagine being a dental chair,” says Margaret Vinci, manager of the Office of Earthquake Programs for the California Institute of Technology, one of the colleges partnering with USGS. “Would you not want that dentist to pull that drill out of your mouth?”

Given and Vinci also say a statewide early-earthquake-warning system could tell rapid transit systems to slow trains to help prevent derailments. A similar alert program exists in earthquake-prone Japan, where earthquake warning alerts automatically slow bullet trains.

Japan and Mexico are two countries that already have the kind of earthquake-warning system California lacks. Devastating quakes in those countries prompted major public investments in such systems. As recently as April, residents in Mexico City had a full minute of warning before a 7.2-magnitude quake 170 miles away rocked the capital.

California’s program, though, is hobbled by lack of adequate funding, according to Given, who says the program needs an investment of $80 million over five years and about $12 million a year to maintain operations. California passed a law recently calling for a statewide early-earthquake-warning system to be set up, but did not provide funding. Given says the program currently includes about 400 sensors set up around the state, but needs at least double that figure for the warning system to be fully functional. “We hope we will be the first country that builds its system before the big earthquake rather than after,” Givens says.

Investments in the system itself wouldn’t include spending by local governments and private businesses that would need to establish response plans, and possibly automated systems, to take advantage of the USGS warnings. As for the public, earthquake warnings could be sent out via text message and through local television and radio stations, but that too requires advance planning and spending. Vinci says if the early-warning system was fully funded, it could be ready for public consumption in two years.

In the meantime, researchers involved in the project are asking public and private organization to test whether the alert system works and offer suggestions about how to improve it. Disneyland, the city of Long Beach and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system are among those serving as testers. Researchers are also studying which kinds of warning sounds and signals work best with the public. When activated, the existing system, which is called ShakeAlert and which runs on computers for those involved in the program or serving as beta testers, kicks in to tell users an earthquake is coming, how soon it will happen and how severe the shake will be. The warning includes a loud quick buzz with a speaker saying, ”Earthquake! Earthquake!”

“Right now the ShakeAlert we have now is kinda scary,” Vinci says.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 25

1. Slavery’s long shadow is inextricably linked to modern income inequality in the south.

By Stephen Mihm in the Boston Globe

2. Superdistricts in the House of Representatives could end the tyranny of incumbency in Congress.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post

3. Yelp the Police: Georgia teens build an app to rate law enforcement interactions.

By Rebecca Borison in Business Insider

4. The new Egyptian government’s policies of repression and exclusion could push citizens into the arms of extremist groups.

By Michele Dunn and Scott Williamson at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

5. Transforming oil and gas rigs into artificial reefs could save the delicate ecosystems formed around the structures.

By Amber Jackson in Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Environment

Climate Change Could Happen Slower for the Next Decade, Study Says

California's Drought Becomes Critical
One of two major water storage lakes on the Russian River is lake Mendocino, which is nearly empty on January 24, 2014, near Ukiah, California. George Rose—Getty Images

Atmospheric temperatures are expected to rise slowly in the next decade

Temperatures have risen more slowly in the past decade than in the previous 50 years and will continue to rise at a somewhat slower rate in the next decade, according to a new study, even as climate change continues to raise temperatures to unprecedented levels worldwide.

The study, published in the journal Science, explained the temporary slowdown in rising temperatures as a potential consequence of the end of a 30-year current cycle in the Atlantic Ocean that pushes heat into the ocean.

“In the 21st century, surface warming slowed as more heat moved into deeper oceans,” the study says.

Despite this brief respite, the study says temperatures will begin to rise more quickly after the cycle is complete.

“Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850,” according to a different study published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends,” the IPCC study said, cautioning that the slowdown in global warming does not mean the atmosphere will not continue to heat at a faster rate.

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