How the LIBOR rate fixing scandal may affect you…

Do you have a mortgage? If so, the apparent fraud that is being revealed in the LIBOR rate fixing scandal, a scandal affecting hundreds of trillions of dollars of transactions, and potentially even more through its affects on the derivatives markets, may have influenced the interest rate you have obtained for your home mortgage. The Justice Department has taken note, and municipalities, such as Baltimore and Oakland, Ca., are seeking court relief from swap deals they entered into with banks involved with the LIBOR fixing scandal. These cases should be watched; court cases oftentimes reveal the rot infiltrating poorly supervised industries.

This Real News Network video is a good update on the Libor scandal:

More on the LIBOR scandal can be found at www.nakedcapitalism.com

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$800 Trillion, That’s Real Money…

“The CEO of Barclays, Bob Diamond, has resigned in disgrace…” writes Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. This scandal is all about manipulating the interbank exchange rate, LIBOR, on a grand scale since possibly as early as 2001, which the Wall Street Journal is calculating to effect $800 Trillion in contracts, with the express purpose of gaming the system to make the banks involved, including Barclays, lots of money. Barclays CEO getting called out is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

This manipulation has the effect of skimming money off the top of pension funds, State and local bond holdings, private and institutional investors, derivatives markets to the tune of hundred of trillions of dollars. LIBOR is described by The Guardian as: “The London interbank offer rate [LIBOR] is set each day at 11am in all the key currencies lent and borrowed in London. Each major bank submits the interest rate it is paying to the British Bankers’ Association and the average becomes the benchmark rate for most of the world’s loans and financial contracts. For example, there are some $554tn worth of so-called interest rate derivative contracts whose price is linked to Libor – manufactured products whose alleged purpose is to hedge the risk of unexpected interest rate changes in a world of floating exchange rates and free capital movements.” As the interest rate that so many other financial transactions are based off of, it is hard to estimate the reach this manipulation has had.

Robert Scheer, formerly a Los Angeles Times reporter, also writes about what he describes as “the crime of the century.”

“Study Casts Doubt on Key Rate” was the headline on the May 29, 2008, investigative report, which concluded: “Major banks are contributing to the erratic behavior of a crucial global lending benchmark, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows.” Even then, according to the report, it was known that the Libor rate was being manipulated “to act as if the banking system was doing better than it was at critical junctures in the financial crisis.”

And:

“As The New York Times editorialized: “The evidence, cited by the Justice Department—which Barclays agreed is ‘true and accurate’—is damning. ‘Always happy to help,’ one employee wrote in an email after being asked to submit false information. ‘If you know how to keep a secret, I’ll bring you in on it,’ wrote a Barclays trader to a trader at another bank, referring to their strategies for mutual gain. If that’s not conspiracy and price-fixing, what is?””

So, why is nobody (in the US) freaking out over the LIBOR banking scandal?

More here, and here.

A Manifesto for Economic Sense, and Why We Need One…

Why are policy makers so immune to doing the right thing when it comes to creating and following policy that will ease the current unnecessary crisis of unemployment and reign in the forces that have taken the world into the financial and economic crisis we still face? Here are two views offered to help understand the problem. First a look at what the problem really is and what policy makers can and should do immediately, and then a look at the hubris and criminality policy makers, particularly those on the right, refuse to acknowledge and address that is exacerbating the problem.

From www.manifestoforeconomicsense.org:

A Manifesto for Economic Sense

More than four years after the financial crisis began, the world’s major advanced economies remain deeply depressed, in a scene all too reminiscent of the 1930s. And the reason is simple: we are relying on the same ideas that governed policy in the 1930s. These ideas, long since disproved, involve profound errors both about the causes of the crisis, its nature, and the appropriate response.

These errors have taken deep root in public consciousness and provide the public support for the excessive austerity of current fiscal policies in many countries. So the time is ripe for a Manifesto in which mainstream economists offer the public a more evidence-based analysis of our problems.

  • The causes. Many policy makers insist that the crisis was caused by irresponsible public borrowing. With very few exceptions – other than Greece – this is false. Instead, the conditions for crisis were created by excessive private sector borrowing and lending, including by over-leveraged banks. The collapse of this bubble led to massive falls in output and thus in tax revenue. So the large government deficits we see today are a consequence of the crisis, not its cause.
  • The nature of the crisis. When real estate bubbles on both sides of the Atlantic burst, many parts of the private sector slashed spending in an attempt to pay down past debts. This was a rational response on the part of individuals, but – just like the similar response of debtors in the 1930s – it has proved collectively self-defeating, because one person’s spending is another person’s income. The result of the spending collapse has been an economic depression that has worsened the public debt.
  • The appropriate response. At a time when the private sector is engaged in a collective effort to spend less, public policy should act as a stabilizing force, attempting to sustain spending. At the very least we should not be making things worse by big cuts in government spending or big increases in tax rates on ordinary people. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what many governments are now doing.
  • The big mistake. After responding well in the first, acute phase of the economic crisis, conventional policy wisdom took a wrong turn – focusing on government deficits, which are mainly the result of a crisis-induced plunge in revenue, and arguing that the public sector should attempt to reduce its debts in tandem with the private sector. As a result, instead of playing a stabilizing role, fiscal policy has ended up reinforcing the dampening effects of private-sector spending cuts.

In the face of a less severe shock, monetary policy could take up the slack. But with interest rates close to zero, monetary policy – while it should do all it can – cannot do the whole job. There must of course be a medium-term plan for reducing the government deficit. But if this is too front-loaded it can easily be self-defeating by aborting the recovery. A key priority now is to reduce unemployment, before it becomes endemic, making recovery and future deficit reduction even more difficult.

How do those who support present policies answer the argument we have just made? They use two quite different arguments in support of their case.

The confidence argument. Their first argument is that government deficits will raise interest rates and thus prevent recovery. By contrast, they argue, austerity will increase confidence and thus encourage recovery.

But there is no evidence at all in favour of this argument. First, despite exceptionally high deficits, interest rates today are unprecedentedly low in all major countries where there is a normally functioning central bank. This is true even in Japan where the government debt now exceeds 200% of annual GDP; and past downgrades by the rating agencies here have had no effect on Japanese interest rates. Interest rates are only high in some Euro countries, because the ECB is not allowed to act as lender of last resort to the government. Elsewhere the central bank can always, if needed, fund the deficit, leaving the bond market unaffected.

Moreover past experience includes no relevant case where budget cuts have actually generated increased economic activity. The IMF has studied 173 cases of budget cuts in individual countries and found that the consistent result is economic contraction. In the handful of cases in which fiscal consolidation was followed by growth, the main channels were a currency depreciation against a strong world market, not a current possibility. The lesson of the IMF’s study is clear – budget cuts retard recovery. And that is what is happening now – the countries with the biggest budget cuts have experienced the biggest falls in output.

For the truth is, as we can now see, that budget cuts do not inspire business confidence. Companies will only invest when they can foresee enough customers with enough income to spend. Austerity discourages investment.

So there is massive evidence against the confidence argument; all the alleged evidence in favor of the doctrine has evaporated on closer examination.

The structural argument. A second argument against expanding demand is that output is in fact constrained on the supply side – by structural imbalances. If this theory were right, however, at least some parts of our economies ought to be at full stretch, and so should some occupations. But in most countries that is just not the case. Every major sector of our economies is struggling, and every occupation has higher unemployment than usual. So the problem must be a general lack of spending and demand.

In the 1930s the same structural argument was used against proactive spending policies in the U.S. But as spending rose between 1940 and 1942, output rose by 20%. So the problem in the 1930s, as now, was a shortage of demand not of supply.

As a result of their mistaken ideas, many Western policy-makers are inflicting massive suffering on their peoples. But the ideas they espouse about how to handle recessions were rejected by nearly all economists after the disasters of the 1930s, and for the following forty years or so the West enjoyed an unparalleled period of economic stability and low unemployment. It is tragic that in recent years the old ideas have again taken root. But we can no longer accept a situation where mistaken fears of higher interest rates weigh more highly with policy-makers than the horrors of mass unemployment.

Better policies will differ between countries and need detailed debate. But they must be based on a correct analysis of the problem. We therefore urge all economists and others who agree with the broad thrust of this Manifesto to register their agreement at http://www.manifestoforeconomicsense.org, and to publically argue the case for a sounder approach. The whole world suffers when men and women are silent about what they know is wrong.

And why we need economic common sense…

Matt Taibbi contributing editor of The Rolling Stone magazine, and Yves Smith, author of Econned, and creator of the blog http://www.nakedcapitalism.com, explain against the backdrop of JP Morgan’s recent loss on (now estimated at nearly $9 billion) of bets hedging the bank’s investment positions, how Wall Street with Mafia-like fixing of bids, continuing government largess in corporate welfare propping up operations, and expertise at gaming the system with depositor funds epitomizes the greed that has played it’s role in destroying municipal, state, and national budgets, causing so much suffering through the resulting austerity measures, bailouts for the wealthiest, reductions in safety net protections to the elderly, children, the disabled, and the poor. Republican senators fawned over JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon in hearings earlier in June, ignoring JP Morgan’s record of criminal abuse evident in the fines paid for illegally foreclosing mortgages of military service men and women serving overseas, or for bid-rigging for municipal bonds and CDO fraud for which they paid fines of $228mil and $153mil, respectively, last year. Being too big to fail (privatizing profits, while socializing the risks inherent in gaining those profits) is apparently the neo-liberal corporatocracy the current crop of “trickle-down” economic faith-healers believe is the “American way” to freedom and liberty…

How Much Inequality?

A brief essay by Daniel Little on the website UnderstandingSociety asks the following questions, examining the issues of inequality in income and opportunity from moral, social justice, social cohesiveness, and utilitarian perspectives, with links to additional writings on each view.

How much inequality is too much?  Answers range from Gracchus Babeuf (all inequalities are unjust) to Ayn Rand (there is no moral limit on the extent of inequalities a society can embody). Is there any reasoned basis for answering the question?  What kinds of criteria might we use to try to answer this kind of question?

Ayn Rand’s novels appear to have infected a large number of people with the notion that moral considerations of inequality in a society are inappropriate when compared to the rights and motivations of the individual, which argument is helping fuel the divisive gridlock on economic matters policy makers are facing in States and the Federal government. The author of a budget proposal lacking a moral compass, Paul Ryan, is awarded a “fiscal responsibility” award, while legislation to aid job creation and to continue benefits for millions of the long-term unemployed is routinely blocked, growing an underclass of otherwise productive workers unable to return to their former areas of expertise or income levels. The States under growing budget constraints choose to cut revenues, primarily for those at the top of the income scale, while they reduce spending, placing the burden of strangled government on the shoulders of the unemployed, the elderly, children, the sick, and the disabled. It is not hard to see the moral inequality of these actions, and as Joseph Stiglitz in his commentary and latest book, The Price of Inequality, How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, points out social cohesiveness is at risk as those in the vice of unequal policy and advantage in society reject and resist such policy. (More here.)

America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them. It is this sense of an unjust system without opportunity that has given rise to the conflagrations in the Middle East: rising food prices and growing and persistent youth unemployment simply served as kindling. With youth unemployment in America at around 20 percent (and in some locations, and among some socio-demographic groups, at twice that); with one out of six Americans desiring a full-time job not able to get one; with one out of seven Americans on food stamps (and about the same number suffering from “food insecurity”)—given all this, there is ample evidence that something has blocked the vaunted “trickling down” from the top 1 percent to everyone else. All of this is having the predictable effect of creating alienation—voter turnout among those in their 20s in the last election stood at 21 percent, comparable to the unemployment rate.

And the driver of this alienation…? The “anything goes” philosophy from the right that has promoted security force violence against students and demonstrators protesting the effects of inequality, too big to fail industries that privatize their profits while socializing the risks they take to realize their profits, and unresponsive government unwilling and unable to represent the vast majority of people in their societies. Can we do better? Let us hope so…

The Great Recession

At the end of April PBS’s investigative unit Frontline began showing the first of their four part series,  Money, Power and Wall St. Each one hour segment  is worth paying close attention to. I developed a greater appreciation for how collateralized debt obligations (CDO’s) and credit default swaps (CDS’s) are created, traded, and how the market for these derivatives — private, proprietary, opaque — contributed to (if not created) the financial crisis and continues to create enormous risk today. Several of the economists and public officials that I have looked to to gain understanding of the crisis, and have found to be progressively minded and extremely knowledgeable, Robert Reich, Joseph Stieglitz, Paul Krugman, Jared Bernstein, are featured along with a number of other smart, informed, highly credible players in the drama that unfolded. The role of Occupy Wall Street is featured prominently is this discussion, especially in the last hour with interviews of the Occupiers, former Wall St. traders, involved with Occupy the SEC and whose workgroup is offering public comment on the rule-making process surrounding the Frank-Dodd legislation.

The Derivative Markets

The phenomenal profit to be made from securitizing mortgages for a growing derivatives market drove both unscrupulous and unwitting lenders to write mortgages as fast as they could that many borrowers simply couldn’t afford, or similarly didn’t understand as to the terms to which they were agreeing. Predatory lending and aggressive markets in derivatives largely fueled a worldwide housing bubble, which when bursting caught up millions of people stuck with out-sized mortgages worth more than the homes they had financed. This derivatives market is to this day a largely unregulated shadow banking industry, which in 2010 held assets of $13 trillion, $3 trillion more than the regulated, public, commercial banking system held in loans.

This shadow banking system trades derivatives in private, proprietary transactions and counter bets which wiped out unsuspecting investors not only in mortgage markets, but created turmoil for cities in the US and Europe, and for nations such as Greece, Ireland, Spain. A complicated deriviatives deal in Italy by Bear Stearns left the city of Casino in debt to the financiers at Bear. Goldman Sachs profited by the hundreds of millions from derivative deals with Greece, helping propel Greece into the civil turmoil discussed below in the posting Dignity. The bank runs that ensued in the turmoil of late 2008 and 2009 depleted some of the largest Wall St. banks of their already thin, over-leveraged capital reserves, freezing credit, and very nearly initiating a second Great Depression. Nearly $8 Trillion in emergency loans by the Federal Reserve to banks around the globe prevented a much more serious crisis from enveloping the world economy.

An Occupier

Additional at length interviews by some of the contributors are also worth taking in. Cathy O’Neil wanted to be a mathematician since she was in her early teens. Her academic path lead her from UC Berkeley to Harvard to MIT and post-grad training. After joining a hedge fund company and coming to see the basic immorality of the prevailing attitude on Wall St. she left her firm to take up risk analysis. As a former “quant,” an analyst who understood the statistical models used to gauge trends traders reacted to Ms. O’Neil brought to the alternative banking working group of OWS her expertise with risk management and how the system can and does get gamed. She has been working with the sub-group Occupy the SEC to submit public comment on the Volker Rule which is meant to regulate the extent to which commercial and investment banking in a single firm might overlap. A step in the right direction to the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall-like protections, which provided a clear separation of commercial and investment banking, the Volker Rule as part of the Frank-Dodd Financial Reform Act may help Frank-Dodd be an effective piece of reform legislation. If watered down too much, by banking lobbyists and the loopholes they argue for, the legislation will be weak and unable to reign in the predatory nature of Wall St. investment banking.

 

Another additional at length interview worth your attention is by Phil Angelides, head of the Financial Inquiry Commission that investigated the crisis and who has advocated deep reform measures to address the ongoing threat, as serious a threat as before the crisis that in his words “hasn’t ended.”

Some may view this series as “too establishment,” as too much an endorsement of a system thoroughly broken… I view this as a good starting place to begin to understand the history, knowing no historical depiction is ever 100% correct. I encourage folks to have a look and take from this what they will.

GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s Budget in Need of Absolution

From Solidarity Notes (Albany, NY) June, 2012

Georgetown Priests and Faculty Take Issue With GOP Rep. Ryan’s Budget Plan

Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, a Roman Catholic, claims that his budget is in keeping with the traditions of his faith, as he cuts social programs, attempts to cut or eliminate parts of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare—but there are those who disagree with him on all of his attempts to make life easier for the rich and for Corporate America.

The following is a letter that met Ryan when he recently went to Georgetown University in Washington to explain how his budget and policy views are beneficial to the people:

Dear Rep. Paul Ryan:

Welcome to Georgetown University. We appreciate your willingness to talk about how Catholic social teaching can help inform effective policy in dealing with the urgent challenges facing our country. As members of an academic community at a Catholic university, we see your visit on April 26 for the Whittington Lecture as an opportunity to discuss Catholic social teaching and its role in public policy.

However, we would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has wisely note in several letters to Congress – “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” Catholic bishops recently wrote that “the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.”

In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.

Cuts to anti-hunger programs have devastating consequences. Last year, one in six Americans lived below the official poverty level and over 46 million Americans—almost half of them children—used food stamps for basic nutrition. We also know how cuts in Pell Grants will make it difficult for low-income students to pursue their educations at colleges across the nation, including Georgetown. At a time when charities are strained to the breaking point and local governments have a hard time paying for essential services, the federal government must not walk away from the most vulnerable.

While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on “subsidiarity” as a rationale for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching. Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often-misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help—“subsidium”—when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger.

According to Pope Benedict XVI: “Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidary and vice versa.”

Along with this letter, we have included a copy of the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, commissioned by John Paul II, to help deepen your understanding of Catholic social teaching.

Respectfully,

(Signed by 90 priests and faculty members of Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution in Washington, D.C., at the end of April….)
I guess that means all those Congress members that voted for Ryan’s budget ought to be seeking forgiveness as well.

Nick Hanauer’s “Controversial” TED talk

So, really, who are the “job creators?” Not those the political class would have you believe… the hallowed 1%. The following TED talk is a simple, though not simplistic, explanation of how the economy really works so far as job creation is concerned, and why building and maintaining a strong middle class is so important. The feedback loop between business and the middle class is what creates jobs, not the incredibly wrongheaded economic ideas that have gained currency today, of an almost deified set of “job creators,” the very wealthy, an idea egged on by self-serving politicos, the corporate media, and economically unenlightened journalism.

Paul Ryan’s draconian and ridiculous budget Congressional Republicans have in lockstep backed, or Maine Governor Paul LePage’s and the Republican legislature’s cruel supplemental budget, both based on thoroughly discredited “trickle down” economic theories of Hayek and the “Chicago boys” channeling Milton Friedman, have been shown over and over to be a drag on the economy, slowing job creation, creating and extending misery for those under-employed or among the long-term unemployed.

Without an enlightened understanding of how our macro-economy works, things will only get worse. The redistribution of wealth and opportunity will continue to flow upwards, the middle class will continue to shrink creating an even larger underclass desperate for relief from those that seem to have no interest or ability in providing relief, their elected representatives. The current obsession with perpetual war, the security state, and a war economy that displaces useful manufacturing with armaments and weaponry serves the elite businesses that dominate the world economy. Governments captured by the elite in this mindset have little choice but to deliver… to the detriment of the masses who must comply in order to survive.

Have a look, and decide for yourself…

Dignity

What the financial crisis still rocking the world has taken from many middle and lower income people is not only their livelihoods, savings, or pensions, but their dignity. The Greek sovereign debt crisis has many causes, not the least of which are the structural weaknesses inherent in the European Union being an economic union but not a political union. The role of financial speculators such as Goldman Sachs has not been discussed in much depth in the mainstream corporate media, but its influences are without a doubt being felt along with the austerity imposed by the banking giants in Europe futilely, it would appear, trying to hold the EU together. If recent reports are correct, that will be increasingly difficult as the countries that make up that bloc retrench and weather the crisis that has yet to subside for a great many of the world’s people.

For one pensioner in Athens, the austerity imposed upon Greece by foreign creditors proved the last straw. Dimitris Christoulas , a retired 77 years old pharmacist took his own life in Syntagma Square in the center of Athens leaving the following note describing his actions:

In translation:

The collaborationist Tsolakoglou government has annihilated my ability  for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone (without any state sponsoring) paid for 35 years.

Since my advanced age does not allow me a way of a dynamic reaction (although if a fellow Greek was to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be the second after him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.

I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945 (Piazza Loreto in Milan).

Dimitris’s death sparked riots in the streets of Athens as frustrated Greeks suffering under the heavy weight of austerity measures fought with police whom they accuse of being the enforcers of a fascist regime. The reference to “the collaborationist Tsolakoglou government” refers to the pro-Axis government of Georgios Tsolakoglou during the German occupation of Greece in 1941 – 1942. Chants following Dimitris Christoulas’s funeral included: “Fascists! Sons of Bitches! Here come the hangings!” When crowds descended on Syntagma Square an aggressive policeman opposing the mourners was badly beaten.

“I won’t pay.”

Renee Maltezou in ekathimerini.com writes:

Stunned Greeks asked if a flawed recipe of austerity cuts to save the country was pushing its citizens to the brink – and family and friends said that is exactly what Christoulas had hoped to accomplish.

“My father’s handwritten note leaves no room for misinterpretation. His whole life was spent as a leftist fighter, a selfless visionary,» his only daughter, Emy Christoula, 43, said in a statement.

“This final act was a conscious political act, entirely consistent with what he believed and did in his life.”

She recalled as a child attending a 1975 concert by Greek leftist composer Mikis Theodorakis, where she and her father sang together. For some dreamers, «committing suicide is not an escape but a cry of awakening», she said.

Friends and acquaintances describe Christoulas as a quiet and gentle man, but also a passionate leftist deeply shaken by the pain that the crisis had inflicted on his fellow citizens.

To many who knew him, «Makis» was a hero – a martyr who had jolted Greeks into asking whether spending and salary cuts prescribed by the foreign lenders in exchange for financial aid as Greece lurched towards bankruptcy had gone too far.

“The way he did it made the difference. It was a political act,» said 91-year old Thymios, a fellow-member of Christoulas’s neighbourhood association, who would not give his last name.

“Maybe the right thing would be to keep fighting but his act was symbolic: He went into the politicians’ ‘nest’ – parliament – and humiliated them.”

As foreign elites demand austerity in return for loans, and a compliant government bends to the wishes of those elites and enlists the security forces to enforce compliance from the public, a pensioner robbed of his pension commits a final act meant to preserve his dignity. The last book he read was Greece’s Pompeii, a comparison of Pompeii’s decadent, corrupt social system with modern Greece. Yet another stark example of the instability of inequality.

The Spill from Hell

Credible reports are surfacing of plans to reverse the flow of the 50+ year old pipeline that carries crude oil from Portland to Montreal to accommodate getting to market Alberta Tar Sands oil, or “Dilbit,” the heated, high-pressure slurry of bitumen (tar) and the chemical diluents used to liquify the tar. Permits are being sought in Canada to implement reverse flows of parts of the pipeline system connecting Alberta processors to the eastern pipeline system. This is not your conventional crude by nearly any measure you can use to describe crude oil. The methods of extraction, the processing, the dilution, the means of transportation, its characteristics when spilled, the costs of clean up… none of it follows the game plan of extracting, processing, or cleaning up spills of conventional crude. The following article appeared in a British Columbia online journal, The Tyee, on March 5, 2012 and describes the aftermath of a major spill of 843,000 gals of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in July of 2010. Typical costs of crude cleanup per liter run about $18.95. This clean up has so far cost tens times that amount, is months past the predicted schedule of clean up,  and is nowhere near finished.

I’ll let the author, Mitchell Anderson, give you the details of what a major spill of dilbit looks and smells like, but the parallels to concerns with shipping tar sands oil out of Vancouver, B.C. to shipping dilbit out of Portland Harbor should not be ignored.

Spill from Hell: Diluted Bitumen

Poisoned air. Sunken gunk. A clean-up nightmare. What we’re learning from the oil sands ‘DilBit’ dump into the Kalamazoo River.

By Mitchell Anderson, 5 March, 2012, TheTyee.ca

On a July morning in 2010 in rural Michigan, a 30-inch pipeline owned by Calgary-based Enbridge Energy Partners burst and disgorged an estimated 843,000 gallons of thick crude into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. This was no ordinary crude — it was the first ever major spill into water of diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands.

The cleanup challenges and health impacts around Kalamazoo were unlike anything the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had ever dealt with, and raise serious questions about the preparedness in British Columbia to respond to such a disaster on the B.C. coast — or the Vancouver harbour.

Each year, increasing numbers of tankers filled with diluted bitumen leave Vancouver loaded from the existing Kinder Morgan pipeline from northern Alberta to a terminus in Burnaby.

Tankers exiting Vancouver harbor must transit through the shallow Second Narrows channel during “high slack water” — a short tidal window of about 20 minutes that provides loaded tankers with less than two metres of under-keel clearance.

Citizens concerned about these shipments have been assured that extensive preparations have been made to respond to an accident, and that an array of skimmers and floating oil booms are on-hand to contain any spilled oil. But what if the “oil” in these tankers doesn’t float?

Unlike conventional crude, diluted bitumen or “dilbit” is a mixture of unrefined tar that is often heavier than water and “diluent.” This is usually a cocktail of volatile solvents like naphtha or natural gas condensate that allows the thick bitumen to be pumped through the pipeline.

A toxic cloud released

The local residents and EPA responders near Kalamazoo quickly learned that bitumen and diluent do not stay together once released into the environment.

Volatile portions of the diluent containing toxic fumes of benzene and toluene began off-gassing in the area, impacting the health of almost 60 per cent of the local population with symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches, coughing and fatigue. Clean-up crews were issued respirators to protect them from toxic fumes.

Local residents interviewed by the Tyee reported that even weeks after the Kalamazoo spill, they could still smell the fumes up to 50 kilometres away. The local health department went to door-to-door in the days after the spill to assess acute symptoms. They also instituted a voluntary evacuation within about one mile of the river to limit people’s exposure to benzene fumes — a known carcinogen.

Residents near the Kalamazoo River talk about how the spill affected them. Source: National Resource Defense Council.

Sunken tar sinks to bottom

As the lighter chemicals evaporated into the surrounding area, the bitumen portion began to sink to the bottom and become mixed with river sediments. Conventional clean-up equipment such as skimmers and oil booms proved useless in recovering the large amounts of submerged oil that now covers an area of river bottom estimated to be approximately 200 acres.

“This was the first time the EPA or anyone has done a submerged cleanup of this magnitude,” Ralph Dollhopf, the EPA Incident Commander for the Kalamazoo spill told the local media.

“I would never have expected… that we would have spent two or three times longer working on the submerged oil than surface oil. I don’t think anyone at the EPA anticipated that, I don’t think anyone at the state level anticipated that, I don’t think anyone in industry anticipated that.”

In the absence of any previous experience in dealing with spilled Alberta bitumen, the EPA had to “write the book” on figuring out how to recover large amounts of oil that doesn’t float.

Twenty months after the spill these expensive recovery efforts continue, and 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River impacted by the spill remain closed to swimming, boating, fishing or even wading for the foreseeable future. A recent video details the aftermath of the spill on local residents.

Clean-up 10 times what oil spills cost

Enbridge now estimates that clean up costs of the bitumen spill will cost more than $720 million. The company exceeded their insured clean-up coverage of $600 million last fall and the clean up is far from over. Compared to other spills of heavy oil, this Kalamazoo bitumen spill has been colossally expensive. A study of historic oil spills in the U.S. reported the average clean-up cost for heavy crude of $18.95 per litre. The Kalamazoo spill has so far cost over 10 times that much and counting.

Additional questions have been raised about the volume of oil discharged by the broken Enbridge pipeline. To date, the EPA reports recovering 1,146,803 gallons of oil — 35 per cent more than the volume Enbridge reported was spilled. The EPA declined to comment on this discrepancy or on the proportion of the spill that sank, citing disclosure concerns around an ongoing investigation. The EPA also declined to estimate the proportion of oil that has so far been recovered.

If a bitumen spill happens here

All of this raises troubling questions about the risks associated with a potential tanker spill near the Lower Mainland. Unlike rural Michigan, large numbers of people live or work close to Burrard Inlet or shorelines that might be impacted by a bitumen accident.

In the days following the Kalamazoo spill, authorities advised local residents within approximately one mile of the river to remain indoors or leave the area to limit their exposure to toxic fumes. Obviously that would not be practical in the Lower Mainland, home to more than two million people.

What happens when bitumen mixed with distillate pours out of pipeline. Source: Friends of Earth.

Any plume of volatile distillate would also likely be carried by prevailing winds up the confined airshed of the Fraser Valley. A recent spill of crude oil at a Kinder Morgan storage tank near Abbotsford demonstrated the impact that toxic fumes can have on local residents in the area.

As the lighter portions of the spill begin to evaporate, the progressively heavier bitumen would likely begin to sink — rendering useless the conventional clean-up equipment designed to recover floating oil. Carried within the water column, accumulating on the ocean bottom or becoming entrained in marine sediments — a spill of Alberta bitumen might prove impossible to contain.

Contacted in 2011 by The Tyee, Dr. Carl E. Brown, research manager of Emergencies, Science and Technology Division at Environment Canada confirmed that “a concern with bitumen fuels is their density is quite high and chances are if those materials were spilled into the marine environment, those products might sink.”

A recent review of existing technologies to respond to a bitumen spill stated:

“If the spilled oil eventually assumes neutral buoyancy and becomes suspended between the water surface and the bottom, then it is unlikely that any response technologies can be successfully applied to significantly control the spill.”

Bitumen laden tankers slated to multiply

A potential accident involving diluted bitumen in Vancouver harbour is obviously not the only concern regarding tanker transits through B.C. waters. Last November, the Island Trust expressed concerns to Transport Canada about preparedness for bitumen spills associated with tankers that routinely pass through the Gulf Islands. As of yet, there has been no reply.

Whether they realize it or not, British Columbians may soon see more and larger tankers carrying bitumen travelling through B.C. waters. Kinder Morgan will announce this month whether they will proceed with a $3.8-billion plan to double existing pipeline capacity from Alberta to Burnaby. Port MetroVancouver supports expanding capacity to allow larger SuexMax tankers, with 1,000,000 barrel capacity, into Burrard Inlet.

There is also the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, which if approved would result in large numbers of tankers carrying both diluted bitumen and volatile distillate on the north coast.

What does that mean for public safety and the environment? Competent individuals and sophisticated equipment are on standby to respond to a conventional oil spill. Yet these preparations may prove to be a Maginot Line of defence should “unconventional crude” ever be spilled off the B.C. coast.

An Unnecessary Evil

When members of the 99%, Doug Bowen and Kathy Chaiklin, were granted an audience with Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins earlier this year, the pair sat with Senator Collins to discuss campaign financing and the donations she has received from wealthy out-of-state interests. The following exchange was recalled from memory after the meeting:

Doug – Senator [Margaret Chase] Smith stood up to Senator Joe McCarthy when he nearly paralyzed government by accusing officials of being communists. At a great risk to her career she exposed him as a liar, when other members of congress were afraid to. Now, we believe the greatest threat to democracy is unlimited special interest money from corporations and lobbyists and unions that members of Congress rely on to win elections, they are influenced by it. You know that 1% of Americans contribute 99% of all the money members raise to win elections.

Senator – I don’t believe Congress is influenced by campaign contributions. I don’t think large contributions are a problem. Now, the Super PAC money might be a problem, its so huge, the ten million the Adelsons gave to Gingrich’s campaign…..though I don’t think that would influence Newt… Casinos?

Doug – Americans were very concerned about the influence of big money on Congress long before Citizens United. Americans have given Congress like 10% approval ratings for years, 80% think “government is controlled by a few big interests looking out for themselves.” These are polls. What people actually think about Congress is what’s really important, we can’t trust it. What’s a regular person supposed to think when he sees a corporation give huge amounts of money to a Senator, how can he believe there isn’t going to be something in return, I don’t mean passing cash, but like favors returned over time –

Senator – No its not like that. I am not influenced. At all. Most in Congress are not. (vigorous shaking of head).

I’ve often wondered how a person in Senator Collins position could make this type of statement, a statement so clearly out of sync with prevailing public sentiments, and still feel as if the statement was an honest one. What rationalization would have to take place to allow the Senator a clear conscience with regard to the funds ALL Congresspeople must collect in our present broken and unfair campaign finance system to compete in elections? The following episode from a recent This American Life broadcast might supply an answer.

The episode is called Take the Money and Run for Office. In it both senators and congress members describe the process they must use to collect needed campaign donations to stay competitive. The twist, though, for those that have in mind narrow-interest corporate lobbyists dangling campaign funds in front of hapless or easily influenced Congress members is in the fact that Congress members and their campaign staff are often the ones soliciting campaign funds, and an audience with a Senator or Congress person is more easily attained when the lubricant of campaign donations is present or at least promised. (Money is certainly not the only avenue to catch the ear of a senator or congress member, but it certainly helps.) A lobbyist’s office hasn’t returned funding raising phone calls from a Senator’s or Congress member’s office? Why should that senator or member make time in their busy schedules to hear what that particular lobbying firm has to say?

If Senator Collins’ office initiates the fund raising call, and couples face-time with her to the success or failure of her outreach efforts does her influence over those she seeks funds from preclude or overshadow their influence over her decisions? Is this the rationalization that threads a twisted path through the thicket of influence buying and influence peddling that to the public seems obvious, pernicious, very suspect?

Bundlers for candidates are given more easy access to successful candidates because through their fund raising efforts they become players, often seeking appointments to the many political appointment positions that successful candidates make upon winning office. You pay to play, or you watch from the sidelines. For the vast majority of people watching from the sidelines it is difficult to tell who is trying to buy influence and who is peddling influence. Take the Money and Run for Office captures some of how this system works and why it needs to be changed.


Economic Inequality and Political Representation (pdf), Larry M. Bartels, Department of Politics and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, August 2005.

(MP3 audio file of Take the Money and Run for Office will be available after 7pm, April 1, 2012.)

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