Exxon

This Is What Happens When a Pipeline Bursts in Your Town

Conflicted about Keystone? Consider the horrific impact of an oil spill in Arkansas.

Here's something to keep in mind before choosing sides in the Keystone pipeline debate.

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Imperfect Pitch

THE UR-TEXT of Auto-Tune, the narrative that established the use of technology for pitch correction as a nexus of ethical debate, predates the digital age by half a century. That text is Singin’ in the Rain, the movie musical produced for MGM by Arthur Freed, the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith turned production unit chief, in 1952.

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As American troops withdraw from Iraq, anyone searching for rays of progress amid the country’s miasma of corruption, sectarian strife, and political stalemate might look to the foothills of Sulaimaniyah, Kurdistan. There, rising rapidly out of some 400 dusty acres, is a gleaming constellation of glass, steel, and Jerusalem stone that is the new campus of American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). The venture, which now educates some 500 Iraqi students on the American model, is a sign of Iraqi Kurdistan’s evolution toward a modern, flourishing society.

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It's the first Earth Day since the BP oil spill. People the world over are still angry, Gulf Coast fishing has not quite recovered, and yet BP might actually have banner profits this year. Of course, as any Earth Day activist would tell you, the Gulf Coast will be coping with the BP oil spill for many Earth Days to come. But how long will those effects last? The closest precedent is the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

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BP is currently the oil company everyone loves to hate, but there was a time, not too long ago, when ExxonMobil attracted a lot more scorn—in part because it was funding so many different climate-change denier groups. (See Chris Mooney's old but excellent Mother Jones piece that followed the money trail.) Then, in 2007, the company announced it would quit donating to anti-science groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the bad press mostly went away. Until now, that is.

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Last month, Henry Waxman and Ed Markey summoned the chairmen of the world's five big oil companies to testify before Congress. The execs from Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron spent much of their time trying to distance themselves from BP. We wouldn't have poisoned the Gulf the way BP did, they insisted. Unfortunately for them, Waxman and Markey weren't buying it, and noted that all the other oil companies had the exact same error-filled spill-response plans that BP did.

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Here's some alarming perspective on big disastrous spills. Over the past 50 years, Shell and other companies have spilled an estimated 1.5 million tons of oil into the Niger Delta ecosystem. That's the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez accident per year, every single year, for five decades. And this isn't just some long-gone problem that's now been fixed. Last year, Shell reported losing some 14,000 tons of crude around Nigeria, double what made its way into the delta in 2008.

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At the Rose Garden on Friday, President Obama finally showed some "anger and frustration" over the ballooning oil disaster in the Gulf. To wit: “For too long, for a decade or more, there has been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill. It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies.

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Yesterday, NPR's Richard Harris had an important Gulf scoop—the oil spill may be much, much larger than both BP and the U.S. government have been saying. Here's Brad Johnson's follow-up: Based on “sophisticated scientific analysis of seafloor video made available Wednesday,” Steve Wereley, an associate professor at Purdue University, told NPR the actual spill rate of the BP oil disaster is about 3 million gallons a day — 15 times the official guess of BP and the federal government.

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Reading through The New York Times every day, it can seem like the press has been covering the Gulf disaster obsessively. Indeed, some fishermen in Louisiana are now worried that the media is too focused on the oil spill—to the point where it could harm business even in unaffected areas. But how does all this coverage compare historically? I asked Drexel sociologist Robert Brulle for his thoughts, and he put together some fascinating data.

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