Despite lower prices at the pump, the biggest publicly traded oil companies in the world have raked in billions of dollars in profit over the past three months. According to their earnings reports released last week, the big five oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell—earned a combined $30.2 billion during the first quarter of 2013, or $331 million per day. Cumulatively, Big Oil profits were six percent lower than the first quarter of 2012 due to lower gasoline and oil prices, but these companies still earned a combined $229,832 every minute from January through March. This is more than what 95 percent of American households earn in an entire year.
Nearly one-third of these profits were used to repurchase companies’ stock, which only serves to pad the pockets of senior executives and the largest shareholders. The big five oil companies are also sitting on $82 billion in cash reserves, according to reports from the Securities and Exchange Commission for each company. While making these huge profits, BP and Exxon are the culprits in ongoing major oil disasters that are affecting the Gulf Coast and Arkansas.
Big Oil Behaving Badly, Again
April 20, 2013, was the third anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 oil-rig workers and gushed 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days. Three years later hundreds of Gulf Coast residents are still experiencing serious health effects from this spilled oil, along with the nearly 2 million gallons of toxic chemicals dumped into the Gulf of Mexico to disperse oil during the haphazard cleanup process. There is growing evidence that the oil and dispersants are also harming sea life.
Congress has yet to pass a single law to strengthen federal oversight of offshore oil and gas production. A year ago a Center for American Progress column, The Lasting Impact of Deepwater Horizon, highlighted the need for Congress to raise the preposterously low $75 million limit on liability that oil companies currently face for future oil blowouts. The cleanup costs for the 2010 BP disaster rang in at more than $14 billion at the end of 2012, according to the Congressional Research Service. This demonstrates the huge financial and environmental risks that face Americans if these liability limits remain so artificially low and the companies responsible for future disasters refuse to pay for cleaning up their messes.
On land, meanwhile, fellow oil giant ExxonMobil’s most recent spill dumped 500,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil near Mayflower, Arkansas, in late March 2013. The spill forced the evacuation of two dozen homes, and a massive cleanup is currently underway. Because this tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, is classified under the Superfund law as “diluted bitumen,” this and similar kinds of oil are exempt from the 8-cents-per-barrel fee that conventional oil must pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. This fund, created under the Superfund Act in 1980 and paid for by levying this tax on oil companies, pays for the oil-spill cleanup should a mishap occur. Exxon gets to avoid it.
This terrible oil-pipeline spill spewed tar sands oil similar to the oil that could be transported through the Keystone XL pipeline if it is approved by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Pipeline discharges are a common event. NPR reported that, “Federal data show that on average over the past decade, nearly 3.5 million gallons of oil spilled from pipelines each year.” If Keystone XL moves forward, not only will Big Oil profit from its operation, it could eventually add to this spill tally.
Big Oil Skimps on Corporate Taxes and Receives Billions of Dollars in Wasteful Subsidies
The biggest three publicly owned U.S. oil companies—ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips—also paid relatively low federal effective tax rates in 2011. Reuters reported that their tax payments were “a far cry from the 35 percent top corporate tax rate.” It estimated that ExxonMobil’s effective federal tax rate in 2011 was 13 percent, Chevron’s was 19 percent and ConocoPhillips’s was 18 percent.
The oil and gas industry gave more than $70 million in federal campaign contributions during the 2012 cycle, with a whopping 90 percent going to Republican candidates. The big five oil companies spent nearly $50 million on lobbying Congress in 2012, or more than one-third of the entire oil and gas industry’s expenditures. A major goal of these political activities is to retain special tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, which add up to $40 billion over a decade. Despite ranking as some of the most profitable companies in the world, the big five oil companies receive $2.4 billion in tax breaks from Congress each year, according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. U.S. taxpayers should no longer foot the bill for antiquated, 100-year-old fossil-fuel subsidies that, upon conception, were meant to help a then-fledgling industry grow.
Big Oil argues that it needs these tax breaks for oil exploration and development. Yet the big five oil companies produced two percent less oil in the first quarter of 2013, according to their recent financial statements, compared to the same time last year. These companies each have several hundred idle offshore leases that could produce oil if they were to be developed, according to an analysis for Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). Instead, these companies leave the leases undeveloped while sitting on billions of dollars of cash reserves.
Big Oil Benefits From Low Federal Royalty Rates on Public Lands
In addition to special tax breaks, Big Oil companies drill for oil and gas on public lands owned by all Americans while paying relatively little for what they produce from these areas. Oil companies pay a royalty for the oil and natural gas that they extract from these federal places: A law from the 1920s requires the oil and gas industry to pay “not less than” a 12.5 percent royalty on oil and gas produced from onshore public lands. This rate has not been permanently increased in nearly 100 years, despite the fact that there is nothing preventing Congress or the Obama Administration from doing so.
The federal royalty for oil and gas production on public lands is much lower than what is paid to some states and private landowners for oil taken from their lands. The state of Texas, for example, assesses up to a 25 percent royalty for oil produced from its lands. North Dakota has a royalty of 18.8 percent, while Wyoming’s rate is at least 16.6 percent. Royalties for oil taken from private landowners nationwide are estimated to average 18.8 percent.
Higher royalty rates on federal public lands would ensure that Americans receive more compensation for oil companies’ use of their lands and minerals, which is all the more important in this time of fiscal uncertainty. The Department of the Interior should finalize plans to significantly raise the royalty rate for oil and gas produced on public lands.
The five biggest oil companies are making tens of billions of dollars in profits, while paying artificially low, ineffective federal tax rates and low royalties for taking and producing oil and gas owned by all Americans. In addition, companies can evade payments into the oil-spill cleanup fund based on specific categorizations of different kinds of petroleum. Meanwhile, they continue to make billions of dollars in profits every quarter while receiving special tax breaks from Congress.
None of this makes sense, especially when sequestration is forcing steep automatic across-the-board cuts in college assistance, cancer research and other middle-class programs. It’s time to ask the huge, profit-making, big five oil companies to pay their fair share.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
This Saturday, June 6, marks National Trails Day, an annual celebration of the remarkable recreational, scenic and hiking trails that crisscross parks nationwide. The event, which started in 1993, honors the National Trail System and calls for volunteers to help with trail maintenance in parks across the country.
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By John Letzing
This past Wednesday, when some previously hard-hit countries were able to register daily COVID-19 infections in the single digits, the Navajo Nation – a 71,000 square-kilometer (27,000-square-mile) expanse of the western US – reported 54 new cases of what's referred to locally as "Dikos Ntsaaígíí-19."
The Navajo Nation covers the corners of three different states. Google Maps
Growing Contribution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NDY5Ny9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM4MTgyM30.IuQTKQs1stvYYKD6vaVTrqAyoBsUG0BhDvlhxsyKwPA/img.png?width=980" id="02a05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2841f82b1785df5d5ed7bf64d3bb882b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
World Economic Forum
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World Environment Day: A Time to Consider the Planet We’ll Return To, and Decide How to Care for It Going Forward
It's a different kind of World Environment Day this year. In prior years, it might have been enough to plant a tree, spend some extra time in the garden, or teach kids the importance of recycling. This year we have heavier tasks at hand. It's been months since we've been able to spend sufficient time outside, and as we lustfully watch the beauty of a new spring through our kitchen's glass windows, we have to decide how we'll interact with the natural world on our release, and how we can prevent, or be equipped to handle, future threats against our wellbeing.
Scuba divers around the world are holding their metaphorical breath to see if a coronavirus infection affects the ability to dive.
DAN medical experts explained the difference between normal lungs, on the left, and "very serious lungs caused by COVID-19," on the right. Matias Nochetto / Divers Alert Network (DAN)
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