ebyI finally read the anti-climactic article about one counterinsurgency (COIN) general replacing another in Afghanistan, hoping all the pundits who don't usually get their political news from Rolling Stone flipped over to Tim Dickinson's jaw-dropping preview of coming distractions, BP in the Arctic.

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John Eby: Edison, Arctic BP as newsworthy as Gen. McChrystal

Published 3:49pm Monday, July 5, 2010

Of Dickinson’s previous opus, President Obama’s LBJ-Walter Cronkite moment highlighted here June 21, NPR said, “Anyone who believes that the so-called liberal media is in thrall to the Obama administration should read the Rolling Stone piece.”

Former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown agreed: “the most definitive piece yet” about how the Obama administration failed to correct corruption of the Bush years and bungled the crisis from day one, starting with downplaying the scope of the catastrophe.

Worse, even after 78 days of the worst environmental disaster in American history, the Obama administration not only has not cleaned up the mess at the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the federal agency in charge of offshore drilling, it continues to greenlight new Gulf leases – 96 at last count, including two for BP, one in the same undersea canyon as the gusher fouling the Gulf! – and is poised to let BP proceed to drill this fall near Prudhoe Bay with a rig created by building “Liberty” island three miles out. Dickinson’s reporting on “BP’s Next Disaster” will leave you shaking your head.
Or just shaking with rage at the business-as-usual mindset.

BP and Shell Oil plan to drill 11 exploratory wells in waters way more remote and hostile than the Gulf (even “Survivor” knows to shoot in tropical paradises) in quest of a 27-billion-barrel prize to rival some of the largest Mideast oil fields.

Tethered to the mainland by a causeway, it reminds me of Indiana winking at gambling on “riverboat” casinos which never leave dock.

First BP drills two miles down, then SIDEWAYS six to eight miles – the distance between Dowagiac and Cassopolis – to reach a rich offshore reservoir.

This is called “extended reach” and “the effort has required BP to push drilling technology beyond its proven limits,” including special pipe and the equivalent of 50 Mack truck engines to turn the drill.

BP not only has MMS’ blessing, the Interior agency issued a leadership award for its “visionary approach.” Yet experts warn that an Arctic spill would be far worse than the disaster unfolding in the Gulf in part because of sheer remoteness.

The closest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away. Boom to help contain a spill, 2,000 miles in Seattle. Two small airports in the region, no industrial ports. Relief equipment can be brought in by boat seasonally, since ice encases the Arctic half the year.

There’s no proven technology for cleaning up oil in icy water, which can render skimming boats useless.

The most chilling visual of all is a “circumpolar event”:

“A blowout that takes place in the fall, when the seas are freezing over, could flow unabated until relief wells could be drilled the following summer. In the interim, oil could spread under the sea ice, marring the coastlines of Russia and Canada, and possibly reaching as far as Norway and Greenland.”

“Drilling the Arctic should make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck,” said Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Also as noteworthy as the controversial RS war piece is Time’s cover story about the pride of Port Huron, Thomas Alva Edison.

Time is in its ninth year with the fascinating History Issue, making dusty figures from the past pulse through modern mass media like they would born in a different time.

Previous subjects include Lewis and Clark, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt (the only one in the bunch known to have visited Dowagiac), JFK, Mark Twain and FDR.

If you doubt Edison is hugely relevant now, or think he was selected because he and Gen. Stanley McChrystal slept four hours a night, guess again.

Clearly, Time wants to point up disturbing trends as U.S. dominance of science and technology wanes and perhaps inspire youth to study science with Edison’s astonishing story.
America investment in research and development has not increased as a 2.7 percentage of GDP since the mid-1980s.

The government’s share has actually declined, contrary to China boosting its commitment as it eats our lunch on so many fronts. China’s research and development (R&D)  investments grew at a more than 20-percent clip between 1996 and 2007, compared to 6 percent annually for the USA. And it’s not just China, but Japan and South Korea.

Once upon a time, boys and girls, the USA was a leading nation in the ratio of science and engineering graduates to its college-age population.

Now, thanks to decades of complacent napping and hollow chest-thumping, the USA drags near the bottom of 23 nations that gather such data.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but we’ve got to get our act together again like we did the year I was born when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

We can’t afford to keep standing around chanting, “We’re No. 8! We’re No. 8!” among wealthy nations for the portion of GDP expended on research and development (R&D).
When Edison passed at 84 in 1931, the New York Times (which has banned the word “tweet” from the paper) ran 22 stories.

After all, his patents totaled 1,093 and included such lesser-known achievements as a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder and a battery for an electric car! Think of it, with just three devices Edison gave birth to a trio of enduring industries – electrical power, music and motion pictures. No wonder a 1996 biography credits him with “inventing the (20th) century.”

He invented the phonograph in 1877. The recorded-music industry alone is valued at $150 billion. Ironically, his genius lives on in his team approach developed in Menlo Park, N.J., which pioneered modern R&D.

What nourished Edison’s imagination since formal schooling amounted to three months? He grew up in a society that “reveled in the romance of scientific discovery” – particularly when his family moved from Ohio to Michigan.

In Port Huron, with lumber mills and shipyards on the Great Lakes, he had a front-row seat for the Industrial Revolution.

In one great miscalculation, Edison presumed the future of movies was a peep-show kinetoscope for one viewer at a time.

Even a mind as dexterous as his couldn’t comprehend a large audience gathering for images projected on a screen. In fact, with shorts of cats in boxing gloves and watermelon-eating contests, he sort of fathered YouTube, too.

John Eby is Daily News managing editor. E-mail him at john.eby@leaderpub.com.

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