Monday, June 28, 2010

The A Whale

Hot Air calls our attention to another depressing story of how bureaucratic inefficiency in the government is slowing the Gulf oil clean-up. It's the story of a ship, called the A Whale (pronounced like "A Team"), designed to skim oil from sea water at a rate of 500,000 barrels of water a day. If it works as designed it could accomplish as much clean-up in a day and a half as has been done by other means in 66 days. So why is it just now sailing for the Gulf? Bureaucratic red tape:

Built in South Korea as a supertanker for transporting oil and iron ore, the six-month-old vessel was refitted in the wake of the BP oil spill with 12, 16-foot-long intake vents on the sides of its bow designed to skim oil off surface waters.

The vessel's billionaire owner, Nobu Su, the CEO of Taiwanese shipping company TMT Group, said the ship would float across the Gulf "like a lawn mower cutting the grass," ingesting up to 500,000 barrels of oil-contaminated water a day.

But a number of hurdles stand in his way. TMT officials said the company does not yet have government approval to assist in the cleanup or a contract with BP to perform the work.

That's part of the reason the ship was tied to pier at the Virginia Port Authority's Norfolk International Terminals Friday morning. TMT and its public-relations agency invited scores of media, elected officials and maritime industry executives to an hour-long presentation about how the ship could provide an immediate boost to clean-up efforts in the Gulf.

TMT also paid to fly in Edward Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University, to get a look at the massive skimmer.

Overton blasted BP and the federal government for a lack of effort and coordination in their dual oil-spill response and made a plea to the government to allow the A Whale to join the cleanup operation.

"We need this ship. We need this help," Overton said. "That oil is already contaminating our shoreline. We've got to get the ship out there and see if it works. There's only one way to find out: Get the damn thing in the gulf and we'll see."

"This concept has never been tried before," said Bob Grantham, a TMT project officer. "But we think we can do in maybe in a day and a half what these other crews have done in 66 days. We see the A Whale as adding another layer to the recovery effort."

To join the fight, the ship also might require separate waivers from the Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The A Whale - pronounced along the lines of "A Team" because there is a "B Whale" coming - is designed to work 20 to 50 miles offshore where smaller skimmers have trouble navigating. The ship would take in oily water and transfer it into specialized storage tanks on the flanks of the vessel. From there, the oil-fouled seawater would be pumped into internal tanks where the oil would separate naturally from the water.

After the separation process, the oil would be transferred to other tankers or shore-based facilities while the remaining water would be pumped back into the gulf.

Because the process wouldn't remove all traces of oil from the seawater, TMT will likely have to gain a special permit from the EPA, said Scott H. Segal of the Washington lobbying firm, Bracewell &Giuliani, which TMT has retained to help negotiate with federal regulators.

"The simple answer is, we don't know what the discharge will look like until we can take A Whale out there and test it," Segal said. TMT will work with regulators to determine an appropriate level of oil that can be contained in the ship's discharge.

TMT is also working with the Coast Guard to gain approval to operate in the gulf, which may require a waiver from a 90-year-old maritime act that restricts foreign-flagged vessels from operating in U.S. waters, said Bob Grantham, a TMT project officer.

So what's the hold-up? Does the EPA think that the gulf will be worse off after the A Whale has processed the polluted water than it was before processing it? Why can't President Obama just tell his people to waive all restrictions that would prevent anyone from contributing to the effort to clean the Gulf? When is the media going to insist that he explain why these kinds of bureaucratic hold-ups are allowed to persist while the Gulf ecosystem, and people's livelihoods, are suffering so much damage?


Caring for Strangers

I've recently been engaged in an interesting dialogue at Secular Right a blog for political conservatives who reject theism. The discussion resulted from a post there that discussed the fact that our concern for people diminishes as our (cultural, genetic, geographical) distance from them increases. My point was that on secularist assumptions there's no reason why this should be otherwise. You can have an obligation to care about others or you can have atheism, but you can't have both.

Check out the post and the exchange here. I go by my nickname Dick in the comments section.


Guns and Crime

Like many of my generation, when I was a young man I was considerably more more liberal on many issues than I am today. In my twenties I was pro-choice, today I am not. I also believed then that public lands should be completely off-limits to industrial use of any kind (logging, mining, drilling, etc.) today I think that position is needlessly restrictive. I also believed, even into my forties, that handguns should be banned and was even a member for a time of Sarah Brady's organization Handgun Control Inc, (HCI).

What began my change of mind about this last issue was a column by the late Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko arguing that women would be a lot safer in our society if they owned guns and knew how to use them. I thought he made a good case, and as time went on I came to think that it was simply unjust for the government to deprive citizens of the ability and right to protect themselves and their families.

By the time John Lott came out with his book More Guns, Less Crime in which he shows that communities that allow people to own and carry arms are much safer than those in which they are not, I had long since given up my opposition.

Syndicated columnist John Stossel has evidently made a journey similar to my own and writes a column about why he no longer believes what he once did about guns. Here's part of it:

I was totally wrong about guns. Now I know that more guns means -- hold onto your seat -- less crime. How can that be, when guns kill almost 30,000 Americans a year? Because while we hear about the murders and accidents, we don't often hear about the crimes stopped because would-be victims showed a gun and scared criminals away. Those thwarted crimes and lives saved usually aren't reported to police (sometimes for fear the gun will be confiscated), and when they are reported, the media tend to ignore them. No bang, no news.

This state of affairs produces a distorted public impression of guns. If you only hear about the crimes and accidents, and never about lives saved, you might think gun ownership is folly.

But, hey, if guns save lives, it logically follows that gun laws cost lives.

Suzanna Hupp and her parents were having lunch at Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, when a man began shooting diners with his handgun, even stopping to reload. Suzanna's parents were two of the 23 people killed. (Twenty more were wounded.)

Suzanna owned a handgun, but because Texas law at the time did not permit her to carry it with her, she left it in her car. She's confident that she could have stopped the shooting spree if she had her gun. (Texas has since changed its law.)

Now a 76 year-old Chicago man named Otis McDonald, who was denied the ability to buy a gun to protect his home from the thugs that infest his neighborhood, has taken his case to the Supreme Court. The Court's decision will be handed down this week and if they rule in favor of McDonald the expectation is that restrictive gun laws that prohibit citizens from owning the means of protecting their lives and property will begin falling all across the nation. If Lott is right, and his statistics certainly make a strong case, crime rates will fall as well.

There was a time when it seemed to me that it was irrational to allow citizens to carry weapons in public. That opinion fell by the wayside many years ago as evidence mounted that armed and licensed citizens have saved thousands of lives, including their own, simply by virtue of possessing a weapon, even if it was merely displayed and not used. My former view was finally buried by reading Lott's More Guns, Less Crime, a book I recommend to anyone who doubts that a society in which citizens are armed is actually safer for everyone than one in which only criminals carry weapons.

Update: the Supreme Court has this morning passed down a 5-4 decision striking down the ban imposed by the city of Chicago on gun ownership. This effectively makes any such laws anywhere in the country unconstitutional.