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December 20 2012

Science Podcast - The Breakthrough of the Year (21 Dec 2012)

The Breakthrough of the Year, some of the runners-up, the year in news, and the top 10 ScienceNOW stories of 2012.

December 19 2011

Galleries renew £10m BP deal despite environmental protests

The British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Opera House and Tate have renewed BP sponsorship deals

Four of the UK's biggest cultural organisations – the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and Tate – have announced they are to renew sponsorship deals with BP worth £10m despite opposition from environmental campaigners.

The institutions have faced repeated protests in recent years for taking money from the oil giant. The leaders of all four gathered together in a show of solidarity and said the sponsorship would continue until 2017.

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said there were protests every year at its BP-sponsored portrait prize. He said: "We absolutely respect the right of those who wish to protest and we would always think about any sponsorship very carefully." But he said BP's support over the years had been "extraordinary" and there had been "unanimous clarity" among the gallery's board of trustees in agreeing to renew the deal.

The Tate director, Nicholas Serota, said his organisation had thought very hard about the sponsorship and had looked at it again in 2010 and this year. "The board has thought very carefully about this and decided it was the right thing to do to continue with BP, who have been great supporters of the arts," he said.

Protests against BP's involvement intensified after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but Serota said: "The fact that they have one major incident in 2010 does not mean we should not take support from them."

BP's sponsorship of the arts has been longstanding and substantial and it said the future £10m over five years would be roughly equally divided between the four organisations.

Tate Britain has also been the target of protests including one outside its summer party last year, when protesters poured oil and feathers on the pavement. BP's support for its British art displays, which will undergo a major rehang in 2013, will continue.

At the Royal Opera House, BP will continue to support the Big Screen live relays of opera and ballet from Covent Garden to sites around the country. And at the British Museum BP has sponsored exhibitions such as Italian Renaissance Drawings and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and will continue to give support over the next five years including sponsorship of a Vikings show in 2014.

The culture minister, Ed Vaizey, said: "BP's renewed commitment to four of Britain's great cultural institutions is extremely welcome. This is a significant investment, with £10m going directly towards staging world-class exhibitions and performances. For more than 20 years BP has led the way in business support for the arts and I am delighted that this will continue over the next five years."

Kevin Smith, of the art campaign group Platform, said: "By aligning themselves with BP, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and Tate Britain are legitimising the devastation of indigenous communities in Canada through tar sands extraction, the expansion of dangerous oil drilling in the Arctic, and the reckless business practices that lead to the deaths of 11 oil workers on the Deepwater Horizon. BP's involvement with these institutions represents a serious stain on the UK's cultural patrimony."

BP's managing director, Iain Conn, said the company felt it important "that we make a meaningful contribution to society here in the UK. Our work with these partner institutions is a major part of this – enabling people around the country and the world to connect through the experience of outstanding exhibitions and performances, promoting ideas and encouraging creativity."


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Slick art sponsorship: BP and the Tate

Calm down, dears, the Tate is renewing its sponsorship deal with BP. But before you join the BP-Tate haters, stop and think about how else galleries are supposed to survive funding cuts

The Tate is renewing its sponsorship deal with BP – shock, horror, how dare they.

Oh, give me a break. The campaign to stop Tate, the National Portrait Gallery and other museums from accepting money from Britain's controversial petroleum outfit is the stupidest and most misplaced of supposedly radical campaigns. Why not do something useful like join Occupy? While protests around the world this year, from Wall Street to Tahrir Square, have picked the right causes and enemies, the BP art campaign is mistargeted, misconceived and massively self-indulgent.

I would have thought the involvement of Bob and Roberta Smith dealt it the death blow. Having Bob and Roberta on your side should make anyone think twice. The silliest and most spurious artist in Britain speaks out against BP! It must be an oil man's birthday.

Declaration of interest: I went to a party with a lot of BP executives earlier this year, to celebrate the Portrait award at the National Portrait Gallery. Big men in suits, demonstrators at the door ... And I shrugged.

Galleries need money. Presumably all of you who are angry about oily art are also strong supporters of free museums? Well, the involvement of BP obviously makes it easier for galleries like the Tate to work at the world-class level they do and remain free. Either museums are going to survive and be first-rate in these challenging times, or they are going to be reduced to sad shells of themselves. Cultural sponsorship is an excellent way for them to resist the impact of cuts.

The critics of business sponsorship are playing fantasy politics against the softest of targets. Museums are not anyone's enemy. But they are vulnerable precisely because they are run by decent people. Let's guilttrip them! So much easier than taking on the heartless corporations themselves.

Pick your targets well. Museums are beacons of culture. They are not the running dogs of capitalism – and if they can get BP to hand over its filthy lucre for the cause of art, well, it is going to good use.


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December 13 2011

Tate may not renew BP sponsorship after protests

Director of group that covers four galleries around UK says decision is due on partnership deal with BP, expiring next year

The Tate galleries are reviewing their 20-year partnership with BP, after demonstrations by green campaigners.

Tate's director, Sir Nicholas Serota, has said it will decide whether to renew the contract with BP "quite soon". This month he was presented with a petition from 8,000 Tate members and visitors organised by the pressure groups Platform, Liberate Tate and Art Not Oil. Serota said: "You'll not be surprised to learn that the whole question of the support from BP has exercised trustees quite seriously over the past two years. Both the trustees as a board, but also the trustees through their ethics committee, which was instituted about four years ago, have looked very carefully at the question." The trustees had decided that "the good that has been done through the money that has come from BP for the gallery, and for the gallery's public, has been very profound". The current three-year sponsorship runs out in 2012. Art Not Oil has also called for protest against BP's sponsorship of next year's Cultural Olympiad and Festival of London. It asks artists to submit work to a "BP-free Cultural Olympiad gallery" on its website. "The Olympics has presented the company with the perfect platform for some aggressive rebranding," it said.

The company's sponsorship of British arts institutions, including the National Gallery and the Royal Opera House, is worth more than £1m a year. It first attracted protests after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Two months later, five gallons of molasses were poured down Tate Britain's stairs at its summer party. Demonstrators also let off helium balloons in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with dead fish attached which were shot down with air rifles by gallery staff.

Sponsorship is increasingly contentious as arts organisations make up the shortfall in government funding. Last week, two poets withdrew from the TS Eliot prize sponsored by investment management firm Aurum Funds; the Poetry Book Society struck the deal with Aurum after its arts council funding was withdrawn. On Thursday, the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said artists should support firms that donate; it is "is encouraging good behaviour by corporations", he told the New Culture Forum, a rightwing arts thinktank. Encouraging philanthropy, Hunt added, was his priority for the arts.

Arts Index, launched by the National Campaign for the Arts last week, calculates business contributions are down 17% from 2007-10, but Hunt said he hoped this coming year would show an increase of 6%.

BP said it remained "committed" to the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival. But a spokesman said it would not comment on the Tate sponsorship before talks on its renewal. The Cultural Olympiad said it valued BP's support.


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August 29 2011

TERRA 610: Spoil

SPOIL follows the International League of Conservation Photographers and the Gitga'at first nation people of British Columbia in their search for the illusive spirit bear. Their mission is to create images of this rare bear and the ecosystem that it relies on before a proposed oil pipeline from the Alberta tar sands threatens to SPOIL it. The spirit bear, globally rarer than the panda, only lives on the north coast of British Columbia and gives and inspiring look at the interconnectedness of this coastal ecosystem existing in symbiosis with the indigenous communities there for thousands of years. By following three world renown photographers and the relationships they build with indigenous guides throughout a 10 day photo expedition, viewers experience stunning imagery of the biodiversity that exists when a wild land meets a wild ocean.

June 15 2011

Climate activists target BP Portrait Award

Protesters displayed a collection of portraits outside the gallery showing the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill

Climate activists on Tuesday night targeted the BP Portrait Award ceremony in protest against sponsorship from the oil giant.

Demonstrators claimed BP was using the arts in an attempt to divert attention away from its impact on the environment.

But the National Portrait Gallery said the support of the global company was beneficial to artists.

The protesters displayed a collection of portraits outside the gallery that showed the impact of last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

One of the pictures, entitled First Splash Since Spill, pictured a child playing in oil-covered water in Louisiana after being told it was safe.

The artist, Beverly Curole, said: "I captured Max, my grandson, on the first day the beach was opened and supposedly safe.

"Max was so excited he jumped in the water and made a huge splash. I then noticed flecks of oil at the tide line and knew something was wrong.

Some 14 portraits from the US Gulf Coast were submitted for tonight's award by campaign group Facing the Gulf.

Despite none of them being selected by the judges, the organiser Nancy Boulicault hoped they would force the gallery to look again at its link with BP.

She said: "We think the National Portrait Gallery needs to start asking themselves some questions about this relationship, in the same way as the people of the Gulf have had to ask themselves very serious questions."

She went on to say that the artists had some sympathy with the gallery.

"They understand the complications that come when oil becomes part of your life, because it's part of their lives.

"But what became quite important to everyone is the fact that we need another vision without oil in our lives.

"Our cultural institutions are about trying to create another vision, but when they are in bed with oil it's very hard for us to find that vision through our arts."

Facing the Gulf and direct action group London Rising Tide invited Sandy Nairne, the gallery's director, to view the alternative exhibition ahead of tonight's ceremony but said he declined.

A spokesman for the gallery said: "The National Portrait Gallery, while principally supported by grant-in-aid from government, is pleased to work with a wide range of companies in support of its exhibitions and displays.

"The sponsorship of the annual Portrait Award by BP is now in its 22nd year and their support directly encourages the work of artists and helps gain wider recognition for them."


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December 15 2010

Roberto Schmidt in Southern Sudan

The AFP photographer has followed voter registration for a January referendum on independence in Southern Sudan



October 09 2010

Deepwater Horizon from the air

In the three months before the Deepwater Horizon well was capped, almost 5m barrels of oil gushed into the pristine waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Flying high above was award-winning photographer Edward Burtynsky who has spent 30 years capturing the impact of our exploitation of the natural world

It's high noon in New Orleans, and the heat feels like a blast furnace. We are taxiing for takeoff in a tiny Cessna 185 seaplane. Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky is up front with the gear, beside the pilot; I'm tucked in behind. Looking out the window as the engine's roar approaches full throttle, we see two snow-white egrets taking flight, flapping their wings lazily, heading out to the marshes. As we lift up, the air cools and we wheel above storage yards filled with miles of neatly stacked gas pipe. Higher now, we glimpse the profiles of the refineries that dot the horizon. Soon the wetlands are opening up beneath us – not the shallow fringe one might imagine, but the broad brow of the Mississippi river delta, which stretches out for half an hour as we fly south to the Gulf of Mexico. The marsh is a vast web of life – fragile, verdant, delicate as old lace.

I am here to watch Burtynsky photograph the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 50 miles off the Louisiana shore, 100 miles from where we are now. For 30 years, Burtynsky has made it his practice to record, in large colour prints, the human imprint on the natural world, photographing mines and quarries and railway cuts and, more recently, the impact of oil extraction and use around the world, from the freeways of Los Angeles to the shipbreaking deltas of Bangladesh and the oil fields of Alberta and Azerbaijan.

We love oil, and oil is killing us. "Like all animals, human beings have always taken what they want from nature," Burtynsky tells me before our flight. "But we are the rogue species. We are unique in our ability to use resources on a scale and at a speed that our fellow species can't." Greed, he said – the rampant pursuit of comfort, ease and sensory gratification – is part of our primal nature. But mankind is also endowed with reason. Which side will prevail?

Along the way, Burtynsky has attracted numerous accolades – from the inaugural TED Prize in 2005 to the ICP Infinity Award and an appointment to the Order of Canada. His photography books, like his landmark volume on oil and his study of contemporary industrial China, are among the most luxurious books being produced by any living artist. A touring show that debuted last year at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC was a career highlight. But all this isn't making Burtynsky any less itchy to get down to work.

He has flipped open the aeroplane's side window now and has started shooting – leaning out the aperture with his Hasselblad, his shirttails flapping inside the cabin. I know what he has his eye on: the arbitrary, man-made lines that traverse the wetlands, some of which indicate the presence of under- water pipelines, others dredged to add fresh river water to the delta's saline mix, stabilising the ecosystem altered by the levees. Already we are looking at a landscape heavily mediated by man. But there is no sign yet of the oil we are looking for.

As our Cessna's shadow crosses the last of the vegetation, though, we see a few of the outermost islands with their dark oily wreaths, the first to succumb. Further out, passages of dark ochre begin to be visible beneath the surface of the ocean, rusty menstrual streaks that could at first be misconstrued as mud of a darker shade. But as we continue, these stains intensify, and when I borrow the polarising filter that Burtynsky offers me, the true horror snaps into focus: a striated underwater mess that deepens and thickens the farther south we travel.

"When you think about it, oil is just past life, compressed and condensed," Burtynsky had said to me earlier that morning, philosophising over a plate of scrambled eggs in a diner near the Ninth Ward. "But here it got out of control. It's Pandora's box."

Drilling deep, drilling dumb, we have unleashed a monster. Burtynsky described a conversation he'd had with Greg Baiden, a professor of mining engineering at Laurentian University, about how human development had been fundamentally altered and accelerated by the advent of drilling – for water, for minerals and for oil – expanding our capacities exponentially. It may be our most quintessential human endeavour.

We talked, too, about the paradox of Burtynsky shooting environmental catastrophes while flying around in aeroplanes and driving in cars, and using toxic chemicals in the photo-processing lab he owns in Toronto. We are in the grip of "collective cognitive dissonance", he said, making excuses and engaging in "myside bias" to appease our guilt. He's planning to buy more land to protect some Ontario forest, in an effort to offset the carbon footprint of his peripatetic lifestyle, but it doesn't really solve the problem. Like the rest of us, he's enmeshed in these conundrums.

Burtynsky directs my gaze to a tiny orange dot on the horizon. It's the site, and as we approach it over the next 15 minutes, the spot grows larger, revealing itself finally as the twin flames of two emergency vessels, torching methane from their sides in giant saffron flares, a haze of smoke floating upwards. Other ships are spraying dramatic arcs of water to cool down the fiery pipes, preventing them from melting. Around them is scattered a ragtag flotilla of coast guard and oil-industry vessels, some of them spewing dispersant from their flanks.

At first it looks like a scattering of children's toys over an expanse of blue carpet, but as we move closer it takes on the look of chaos, a solution held together with Band-Aids and desperation. The sea now bears the surface sheen of a rainbow slick, stretching towards us in a wide fan from above the wellhead. The day before, an undersea robotic device had dislodged the cap on the well, releasing more than 1m gallons of crude before it could be refitted. Our timing has turned out to be tragically auspicious.

"The dark water of the true gulf is the greatest healer that there is," Hemingway wrote, describing how the old fisherman, exhausted from his struggle with the giant marlin, trailed his torn and bloodied hands in the ocean to soothe his cuts. Overcoming this injury, though, will not be so easy.

No television camera could really help us to appreciate the magnificence and scale of these marshes and the pristine, sparkling Gulf of Mexico, upon which hundreds of drilling platforms now sit like waterbugs, scattered as far as the eye can see. One can't register the scale of the catastrophe without first taking the measure of the innocence and beauty of what has been lost. Burtynsky's pictures help us to feel that.

This can't be fixed. We can only hope that, finally, it can be understood. This is the miracle planet as we have blunderingly defaced it. Here, looking long, we see our writing on the wall.

To see more of Edward Burtynsky's work go to www.edwardburtynsky.com


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Deepwater Horizon: Drilling deep, drilling dumb

Award-winning photographer Ed Burtynsky's has spent 30 years studying the effects of oil on our lives. Here, we show his extraordinary images of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill



July 02 2010

Can Tate afford BP?

The oil company might give generously to arts organisations, but Tate and other museums must live up to their ethical commitments. It's time to ditch this tainted sponsor

Jonathan Jones has some simple words of advice for national artistic institutions currently feeling the financial squeeze: "If they can get money from Satan himself, they should take it." The phrase is deliberately provocative, but succeeds in reaching the heart of the debate over BP's sponsorship of the arts. The argument is straightforward enough – it's time to batten down the hatches and ignore the storm of protest, because without organisations such as BP the arts might simply cease to exist.

Responding to Jones yesterday, the artist John Jordan suggested one problem with this approach: that art risks selling its soul. BP's money is tainted, and it is hard to see how the company's reputation won't have a long-term impact on those who accept it. The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the environmental scandal of the decade, but it won't be the last. And as BP strives to extract the last drops of oil from ever more remote regions of the planet, a whole new kind of reputational risk begins to emerge. Shocking images of oil-soaked pelicans will not be around for ever, but the consequences of climate change will be with us for the rest of the century.

Tate director Nicholas Serota needs to consider this risk carefully. Does his institution want to be associated with one of the world's biggest single sources of pollution? One that has actively lobbied to undermine clean energy, pouring huge sums into industry groups that campaign to lower carbon taxes and weaken climate legislation? BP's alternative energy business is a plaything of former boss Lord Browne that has been consigned to the corporate rubbish tip. For these reasons and others, BP is certain to remain the focus of environmental resistance and public anger for years to come. Similarly, those who choose to lend the company an air of acceptability by receiving corporate sponsorship will continue to be seen as legitimate targets for protest around the world. This movement is still in its infancy, but will only gather in strength.

The second problem simply concerns credibility. The Tate website proudly proclaims its ethical policy, announcing that it will not accept funds from a donor who has "acted, or is believed to have acted, illegally in the acquisition of funds". As lawmakers on Capitol Hill put the final touches to a series of massive lawsuits, and criminal prosecutions loom on the horizon, it is hard to find a single individual who claims that BP has acted in compliance with the law. Far more compelling, though, is the Tate's stated ambition to demonstrate "leadership in response to climate change". If ever there were a moment to show such leadership, this is surely it. Tate has a unique opportunity to demonstrate that one of the UK's most progressive institutions is prepared to take meaningful steps to show its opposition to carbon-intensive industry. Currently, it refuses to even acknowledge BP's record as an issue, relying instead on bland statements that mention only the longevity of BP's financial support. There is clearly a disconnect, and behind closed doors there must be real uneasiness in the boardroom – not to mention the membership.

The issue here is not sponsorship per se, but choices. Over the past few days a number of commentators have pointed out that tobacco companies are now seen as an unacceptable partner for any self-respecting artistic body, but for some reason oil companies are still welcome to the private view. This comes despite human rights abuses, refinery explosions, the destruction of entire ecosystems, and political interference on a historic scale. You have to wonder why. Sure, BP probably offers slightly more money than the other companies vying for the sponsorship deal. They probably don't interfere too much, either (some might say that they know a thing or two about secrecy and discretion). But the fact is that there must be a host of other companies out there who actually fit the existing ethical policy of these organisations, and a relatively small financial hit is surely worth the reputational protection such a deal would provide.

By now you might be asking what all the fuss is about. After all, it's only a small logo on a programme, a discreet thank you at the bottom of the catalogue. Jones says: "I must have seen the BP logo a thousand times on press releases and it never lodged in my mind." But ask any branding expert: it's exactly this kind of subliminal association that gives a brand its identity. Until the Gulf of Mexico disaster, BP's green sunflower was found only in carefully selected locations designed to give the company an air of clean, British authority: Covent Garden, the National Portrait awards, a new exhibition at the Tate. These are some of our best loved pastimes, and for BP this feelgood factor is simply priceless. Their executives do not sponsor the arts as a way of "giving something back", or because they truly believe in opera, or painting, or culture. They simply believe in winning political and cultural aquiescence in the ugly business of oil extraction, and the sponsorship deals allow them to do just that. The millions BP spends on our artistic institutions represents an absolute bargain. Unfortunately, it is the rest of society that is being ripped off.


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June 24 2010

Summer of protest over BP arts sponsorship

Prestigious institutions defend links with oil firm as artists and green activists plan action

The summer season of events at Britain's most prestigious galleries and museums will be picketed by artists and green groups intent on portraying BP's arts sponsorship as a toxic brand.

Protests are planned next Monday by an eco-alliance styling itself "Good Crude Britannia" at Tate Britain's celebration of its 20-year association with the international oil conglomerate.

Climate change activists, artists and musicians opposed to the fossil fuel industry are determined to highlight BP's link to the arts in the context of the company's international embarrassment over the continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But the main recipients of BP's corporate largesse – the Royal Opera House, Tate Galleries, British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery – today issued a joint statement defending the connection and signalling their determination to preserve the commercial relationship.

The calls for cultural institutions to distance themselves from the oil industry comes at a time when government spending on the arts is about to be slashed amid efforts to cut public debt.

Many of Europe's leading artists, donors and cultural supporters are expected to be greeted at the glittering annual Tate summer party by Lord Brown of Madingley, chair of the Tate and former head of BP.

The planned demonstration next Monday follows protests this week by a group of artists calling themselves the Greenwash Guerrillas, who distributed leaflets outside the National Portrait Gallery at a BP-sponsored arts event. Greenpeace campaigners followed up with an "alternative exhibition" at a private viewing at the gallery.

The oil company has refused to divulge how much money it donates to the arts in Britain but it is thought, along with Shell, to be one of the most generous donors. In 2005 the figure was estimated to be more than £1m a year. BP also sponsors the Almeida theatre, the National Maritime museum, and the Science and Natural History museums.

"Organisations like the National Portrait Gallery help shape public attitudes towards the big issues of the day and if the gallery is serious about climate change then the sponsorship deal with BP has got to end," said Robin Oakley, Greenpeace's campaigns director.

In a separate development, musicians including Lady Gaga, Korn, Disturbed, Godsmack, Creed, and the Backstreet Boys said they planned to boycott BP on their national tours this year.

"It is absurd that the Tate should be sponsored by a company that is as irresponsible and polluting as BP," said Matthew Herbert, an electronic artist and composer who will headline the jazz stage at Glastonbury this weekend.

The oil industry has been a target for artists and activists for many years. Shell was widely boycotted in the 1990s for its involvement in the Nigerian government's decision to hang the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Last month a group called Liberate Tate entered the gallery's main turbine hall and released dozens of black balloons attached to dead fish in protest against the Gulf oil spill. Gallery staff had to shoot the balloons down with air rifles.

The press opening of the BP Portrait Awards was gatecrashed this week by a film crew from the Don't Panic collective who distributed wine glasses filled with thick black liquid symbolising the spill.

"In the past Imperial Tobacco used to sponsor the portrait awards," said Heydon Prowse, one of Don't Panic's film-makers, "then it was considered no longer acceptable. Perhaps the same should be considered now for BP given its attitude to regulation and tar sands."

The Tate gallery said it had an ethics committee which regularly reviewed its sponsorship deals. "BP is one of the most important sponsors of the arts in the UK supporting Tate as well as several other leading cultural institutions. Tate works with a wide range of corporate organisations and generates the majority of its funding from earned income and private sources. The Board and Ethics committee regularly review compliance with the policy," it said.

The National Portrait Gallery said: "The sponsorship of the annual Portrait Award by BP is now in its 21st year and their support directly encourages the work of artists and helps gain wider recognition for them."

A joint statement – from the Tate, Opera House, British Museum and Portrait Gallery – added: "The income generated through corporate partnerships is vital to the mixed economy of successful arts organisations and enables each of us to deliver a rich and vibrant cultural programme.

"We are grateful to BP for their long-term commitment, sharing the vision that our artistic programmes should be made available to the widest possible audience."

Suggestions that the massive bills being shouldered by BP for the clean up operation in the Gulf might force it to scale back on its support for the arts were dismissed by the company. Many of the deals are subject to long-term contractual agreements. Abandoning them would generate adverse publicity at a sensitive time.

"Everyone has a right to protest," a BP spokesman said, "but we feel sad they would choose to do so since we are doing the best we can to deal with a difficult situation.

"In the States, we have offered grants for research on the impact of the oil and detergents and there are people looking to get that sponsorship. I'm not aware of any arts institutions in the USA or the UK withdrawing [from sponsorship deals]."

Maurice Davies, of the Museums Association, which represents UK galleries and museums, doubted that any institution would immediately disown BP given the firm's record of sustained commitment to the arts. "Museums make judgements about who is a suitable sponsor," he said. "No one would take [money] from tobacco firms or arms companies. BP has a long and distinguished record of sponsorship. No one will rush to judgment on a company that has been a loyal supporter for such a long time. I don't hear a national clamour for BP petrol stations to be shut down."


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June 22 2010

BP's beleaguered Tony Hayward disappears from view

Whether he was really seen on a yacht at Cowes is debated – but there was no sign of him on dry land as oil bosses met at a London congress

After Saturday's ill-advised attendance at a sailing event at Cowes, complete with disputed photographs that may or may not have shown him on board his yacht, Tony Hayward might be excused for resolving to keep his head down.

But the beleaguered BP chief executive's position came under renewed pressure tonight after he failed to show up at a gathering of the oil industry, having also ceded day-to-day control of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Shares in BP touched a new 13-year low after Hayward delegated a keynote speech to his chief of staff, Steve Westwell. He also cancelled a scheduled appearance at the National Portrait Gallery in London tonight where he was due to open an awards ceremony.

By dodging the World National Oil Companies Congress in London, Hayward avoided coming face-to-face with several Greenpeace protesters.

They guaranteed more bad publicity for BP by briefly halting Westwell's speech to urge an audience of oil experts and energy ministers to break their oil dependency.

"Assembled guests – because BP is incapable of telling you the truth, I'm going to tell you what you need to know," Greenpeace's Emma Gibson said, shortly after Westwell had begun by apologising for Hayward's absence.

"We need to speed up progress and make a push to end the oil age," Gibson added, before she and fellow activist Katie Swan were removed from the stage by security, along with a banner which read "Go Beyond Petroleum".

BP blamed Hayward's no-show on his busy schedule. But the company refused to discuss his whereabouts, which added to speculation that he might already be meeting with the Kremlin to discuss BP's future. Its Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, is responsible for a quarter of its production.

Amid the uncertainty BP shares fell to 328p, virtually half the value when the Deepwater rig caught fire and sank.

Security had appeared tight at The Grange St Paul's hotel today but Greenpeace managed to reach the conference room by the simple, if expensive, tactic of buying tickets, and went ahead with the protest even though Hayward was not present.

"We wanted to use the opportunity to speak to BP and push it to change things. BP shouldn't be drilling in deep water and it shouldn't extract oil from the Canadian tar sands," Swan told the Guardian after she and Gibson were released by hotel security staff.

Swan ,said she was concerned about the environmental and economic damage caused by the spill. "It looks like irreparable damage has been done. People's lives will have been changed forever," she said.

Gibson said BP was in "severe trouble" because it had not listened to activists, and had instead pushed on with increasingly risky projects.

"If they had heeded our advice over many years about the need to deliver genuine renewable energy sources, they would not be facing a $40bn (£24bn) disaster today," Swan said.

Even before the conference began today, the environmental movement was taking the opportunity to lobby Big Oil. About 200 Climate Camp activists marched to the hotel complete with a samba band on Monday night and held a mock trial of the industry for its actions around the world.

Shares in BP ended the day down 4.3% at 334.2p, their lowest close since the crisis began.

Hayward, whose PR gaffes have added to the recent criticism of BP, has now given control of the Gulf clean-up to Bob Dudley, BP's American director. City analysts are speculating over how long Hayward can continue as chief executive. "He will remain at the helm for the near term but ultimately, this fiasco might prove career-shortening for him," a fund manager from one of BP's top 20 investors told Reuters.

Westwell said Hayward was "genuinely sorry" to miss the event, before insisting that BP was committed to fixing the disaster. "When the media have left the Gulf coast, we'll still be there helping the community recover. When the headlines are focused elsewhere, we'll still be cleaning up and dealing with claims for economic losses."

He signed off with a line from Abraham Lincoln which may yet serve as Hayward's epitaph. "I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end."

With or without Hayward, BP will remain under the shadow of huge compensation payments and fines – and possible prosecution.

Meanwhile, tonight, the oil companies congress is holding its gala dinner, with the promise of "fine wine, exquisite food and the company of some of the greatest minds in the energy business". For the oil industry, even with a temporary halt on new deepwater drilling, it remains business as usual.

Tony's travels

Where's Hayward been?

The BP chief executive flew to America shortly after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on 20 April, with the loss of 11 lives. He returned to the UK for a flying visit in May to celebrate his birthday, and came back to the UK again last week following his savaging by Congress on Thursday. Spending Saturday yachting at Cowes proved the latest in a series of blunders.

Where's he now?

BP refuses to say, arguing that it never reveals its chief executive's location – even when he has abandoned a keynote speech at the last minute.

Where should he be?

In Russia, for a meeting with president Dmitry Medvedev, who has admitted he fears that BP could be destroyed by this crisis.

Reassuring the City about the company's long-term prospects would also be wise, as they face up to a dividend freeze.


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May 26 2010

TERRA 534: Hindsight and Foresight - 20 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

In light of the recent catastrophe in the Gulf Coast region, it seems appropriate to re-visit the previous disaster of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. This film, produced by NOAA, takes a look at the past 20 years of recovery and persisting environmental effects in Prince William Sound. What does this film tell us about the consequences of the present BP oil drilling disaster in the Gulf Coast region and what can we learn from it?
TERRA 534: Hindsight and Foresight - 20 Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

In light of the recent catastrophe in the Gulf Coast region, it seems appropriate to re-visit the previous disaster of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. This film, produced by NOAA, takes a look at the past 20 years of recovery and persisting environmental effects in Prince William Sound. What does this film tell us about the consequences of the present BP oil drilling disaster in the Gulf Coast region and what can we learn from it?

March 31 2010

"Obama to Open Offshore Areas to Oil Drilling"

The administration is supporting a significant expansion in offshore drilling for oil and natural gas:

Obama to Open Offshore Areas to Oil Drilling for First Time, by John Broder, NY Times: The Obama administration is proposing to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling... The proposal ... would end a longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, covering 167 million acres of ocean.
Under the plan, the coastline from New Jersey northward would remain closed to all oil and gas activity. So would the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border. The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska would be protected... But large tracts in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska — nearly 130 million acres — would be eligible for exploration and drilling...
The proposal is intended to reduce dependence on oil imports, generate revenue from the sale of offshore leases and help win political support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation.
But ... it is no sure thing that it will win support for a climate bill... Mr. Obama and his allies in the Senate have already made significant concessions on coal and nuclear power to try to win votes from Republicans and moderate Democrats. The new plan now grants one of the biggest items on the oil industry’s wish list — access to vast areas of the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling.
But even as Mr. Obama curries favors with pro-drilling interests, he risks a backlash from some coastal governors, senators and environmental advocates, who say that the relatively small amounts of oil to be gained in the offshore areas are not worth the environmental risks. ...
It is not known how much potential fuel lies in the areas opened to exploration, although according to Interior Department estimates there could be as much as a three-year supply of recoverable oil and more than two years’ worth of natural gas... But those estimates are based on seismic data that is, in some cases, more than 30 years old. ...

Increasing the risks to the environment in an attempt to save the environment seems like a less than optimal strategy.

Reposted from02myEcon-01 02myEcon-01

March 24 2010

Ghana: Do Ghanaian oil fields belong to Ivory Coast?

Joseph Appiah-Dolphyne writes about a dispute that could break out between Ghana and neighboring Ivory Coast, if immediate steps are not taken to enter into appropriate negotiations to redefine the international boundary between the two nations.

Ghana's Western neighbor Ivory Coast is reportedly laying claims to portions of the huge oil wealth in the deep waters of the Western Region of Ghana.

In a move to save the situation, Ghana has begun an urgent move to pass a new law that seeks to establish the Ghana Boundary Commission to undertake negotiations to determine and demarcate Ghana’s land boundaries and de-limit Ghana’s maritime boundaries.

Ghana’s Parliament has therefore been tasked to race against time to pass the Ghana Boundary Commission Bill under a certificate of urgency.

The morning of the news; I twittered about it here;

West Africa: Ivory Coast lays claim to Ghana's oil http://bit.ly/djVBzu

The news of Ivory Coast’s claim to parts of Ghana’s oil fields comes just days after United States operator Vanco Energy struck oil in the deep-water Dzata-1 well, off Ghana’s Cape Three Points near Ivory Coast, further boosting the oil wealth in Ghana’s booming offshore Tano basin.

A few days after this news; another news item was on air from Vanco Energy dismissing the threat of Ghana’s Oil Find. A twitter update from Peacefmonline reads;

Vanco Ghana Dismisses Threat to Ghana’s Find …. http://bit.ly/bPLPEq

Joseph Appiah-Dolphyne once again reported on this new update from the Oil Firm.

He writes;

Petroleum exploration firm, Vanco Ghana Limited, has dismissed suggestions that its oil field in the Western Region is at the centre of a possible boundary dispute between Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The company said its oilfield, known as Gyata 1, is so far away from the maritime boundary between the two countries that it cannot be the subject of any dispute.

He also quoted the Country Manager of Vanco Energy; Mr. Kofi Afenu as saying;

The Ivorian authorities are only seeking negotiations with Ghana over the Jubilee oilfield, which is owned by Kosmos Energy.

Tatamkulua href=”http://tatamkulu.blogspot.com/2010/03/ghana-and-ivory-coast-fight-over-oil.html”> posts an article from the Chronicle quoting Alhaji Collins Dauda, Minister for Lands and Natural Resources, saying that Ghana's boundary with Ivory Coast had not been clearly demarcated.

Gayle writes about the topic remembering gas fields dispute between Australia and East Timor:

In Sunday’s post Making Sense of Oil Discoveries in Ghana: Part 1, I explained the oil exploration industry basics. And in my very first post on the subject, Making Sense of Ghana's Oil Discoveries: Introduction, I referred to the potentially problematic border issue:

“It gets quite complicated when the field also happens to sit in disputed areas like major gas fields between Australia and East Timor.

She hopes that the dispute will be resolved faster that Australia and East Timor:

Hopefully this can be resolved faster than Australia and East Timor could resolve their differences. It should be simpler as the issues in this case are less complex (not relating to agreements with a former invading nation, for starters), but rather between amicable neighbours. But they certainly need experienced, honest and independent experts to advise. If not, I won’t be the only person in Ghana throwing my hands in the air and cursing about lost opportunities.

March 22 2010

Nigeria's toxic legacy

Violence, corruption, war ... photojournalist Ed Kashi charts the devastating effect of oil production on a west African nation

Curse of the Black Gold sounds like the title of an old-fashioned adventure novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs or Henry Rider Haggard. It is, in fact, an epic work of reportage by the photojournalist Ed Kashi that documents in photographs, essays and interviews (and even poems) the cost of 50 years of oil production in west Africa.

Kashi's story has everything a writer of contemporary action-packed thrillers could ask for: political intrigue, unfettered global capitalism, corruption on a grand scale, violence, kidnapping, tribal warfare and ongoing ecological disaster. The setting is the vast Niger delta – 28,000 square miles of rainforest and mangrove swamp, a wetland of islands criss-crossed by countless rivers, tributaries, creeks and channels. It is a vast area of incredible biodiversity. In his brilliant introductory essay, Professor Michael Watts of the University of California, an expert on the region, writes that the delta is "comparable in grandeur and scale to the Mississippi, the Ganges and the Mekong".

It is also the source of most of America's oil, and the 11th-largest producer of crude oil in the world. In the 50 years since the first well was drilled there, the delta has become a place of extreme poverty, violence and political turmoil. In June 2006, Kashi experienced the danger first-hand when he was arrested by the military while photographing in the Nembe region and held illegally for four days. He also spent time travelling with the armed insurgents of Mend (Movement for the Emancipation of the Nile Delta) as they attempted to blow up oil pipelines.

During several visits there over a five-year period, Kashi photographed tribal chiefs, warlords, oil workers and the many devastated oil-stained shanty towns where local people scrape out a living. One of Kashi's panoramic pictures shows a town that stands literally in the shadow of a huge oil refinery. As metaphors go, it's a striking one.

When I interviewed Kashi recently before an audience at the Frontline Club, he was quick to point out that it's too easy to blame giant oil companies such as Shell and Total. In Nigeria, he said, corruption was endemic to the point of being self-defeating. Watts echoes this view in his introduction, going on to rail against the cataclysmic effect of black gold on Nigeria as a whole.

"The deployment of oil wealth to purchase local political consent through massive corruption and state multiplication has probably prevented another war or state collapse. At the same time, it has fuelled a sort of dispersion and fragmentation seen in the hardening of local and ethnic identities, and, in the Niger delta, in the explosion of insurgent politics. All this has contributed to a profound sense of the unravelling – the un-imagining – of Nigeria as a nation." The cost of oil, in short, has been nothing less than the cost of the nation's soul.

This is complex terrain for a photography book and Kashi knows it. His images speak for themselves in their depiction of the horrendous and sordid consequences of oil exploitation. The book also contains writings by local Nigerians: political activists, poets and insurgent leaders. To appreciate it fully, you must spend time pulling all the interwoven strands together – the history, politics, poetry, photographs.

Kashi, like many other contemporary photojournalists, practises what he calls "advocacy journalism". He works with NGOs and local activists to disseminate his images through local communities in west Africa, exhibiting them in the very communities he has worked with. In the US, when he is not taking photographs, he is undertaking speaking tours, holding workshops and making films. Alongside his wife, he runs Talking Eyes Media, a multimedia company that aims to "deliver issue-oriented stories to the general public." As part of the event at the Frontline Club, he showed his astonishing Kurdistan Flipbook, a short film about the plight of the Iraqi Kurds made from thousands of still images.

Kashi, then, is an emphatically contemporary kind of reportage photographer, but he is driven by old-fashioned liberal ideals and the singular intensity of purpose that drives every campaigner for justice and human rights. "I take on issues that stir my passions about the state of humanity and our world," he writes on his website, "and I deeply believe in the power of still images to change people's minds. I'm driven by this fact, that the work of photojournalists and documentary photographers can have a positive impact on the world."

Curse of the Black Gold asks much of the reader and insists on, rather than demands, one's total attention throughout. It is, in its own way, as complex and mutli-layered as the tale it attempts to tell. I urge you to find it and read it (it's just about to be published in paperback) – just as I wonder what impact it will have in a digitally-driven world where immediacy is all.

Now see this

One hundred and thirty works by well-known photographers are on view in A Positive View at Somerset House in London (until 5 April 2010; admission free). The show includes images by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Malick Sidibé and Ellen von Unwerth. All works will be auctioned at Christies on 15 April 2010 in aid of Crisis, the UK charity for the homeless.


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December 17 2009

"The Great Moderation: What Caused It and Is It Over?"

The paper below says that, contrary to what you might think, the Great Moderation is not over. What is the Great Moderation? From the paper:

The idea of “the Great Moderation” came to widespread public attention in a 2004 speech by then-Federal Reserve Governor Ben Bernanke.1 He began his speech with a statement of empirical fact: “One of the most striking features of the economic landscape over the past twenty years or so has been a substantial decline in macroeconomic volatility.”
This empirical fact was established in two influential academic papers by Kim and Nelson (1999) and McConnell and Perez-Quiros (2000).2 Both papers presented evidence of a large reduction in the volatility of U.S. real GDP growth over the past half-century. Furthermore, both papers found that the reduction was sudden and estimated to have occurred in 1984Q1.
This sudden reduction in volatility is visible to the naked eye in Figure 1, which plots seasonally-adjusted quarterly U.S. real GDP growth for the period of 1947Q2-2009Q3.
GreatModeration

Let me repeat a list of factors from a previous post that have been proposed to explain the Great Moderation:

  • Better technology, e.g. information processing allowing better inventory control and management
  • Better policy, e.g. inflation targeting
  • Good luck so that no big shocks hit the economy
  • Financial innovation and deregulation
  • Globalization leading to dispersed risk
  • Better business practices (this is less common, here's the link)
  • Increased rationality of participants in financial markets
  • Demographic shifts (again, since this less commonly offered as an explanation, here's the link)

Much of the literature prior to the crisis found that monetary policy was at least a contributing factor, if not the major factor behind this change (e.g. empirical evidence from Clarida, Gali, and Gertler of a large increase in the coefficient on inflation in the Taylor rule that, in New Keynesian models, would lead to a more stable economy). However, this paper focuses on the "good luck" explanation and finds that "smaller economic shocks related to oil prices, productivity, and inventories explain much of the Great Moderation." In addition, the paper finds that our good fortune may not be over:

The Great Moderation: What Caused It and Is It Over?, by James Morley: In this Macro Focus, our resident time series econometrician, James Morley, tries to rehabilitate the “Great Moderation.” His findings are both surprising and encouraging:
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Great Moderation was not a myth. There has been a very real, broad-based decline in U.S. macroeconomic volatility since the mid-1980s.
The reduction in volatility does not appear to be primarily the result of better policy or changes in the structural response of the economy to shocks.
Instead, the Great Moderation appears to be mostly due to smaller economic shocks (e.g., oil price shocks, productivity shocks, and inventory mistakes).
The technological basis for the smaller shocks means that the prognosis for the continuation of the Great Moderation is much better than you might think.
Given the financial and economic turmoil of the past few years, it would be easy to believe the “Great Moderation” was a myth based on wishful thinking. Many commentators have proclaimed as much and even many of us who study the phenomenon have started to wonder whether it was all too good to be true.
Despite these doubts, a dispassionate examination of the data suggests that the stabilization of economic activity since the mid-1980s was very much a reality. The more legitimate question is whether or not it is now over. This Macro Focus seeks to answer this question through careful analysis of what caused the Great Moderation. The finding that it was largely due to smaller economic shocks for technological reasons implies a surprisingly optimistic prognosis for its continuation. ... [paper]

December 02 2009

Rising oil prices refuels Russian taste for fine art

Oligarchs start spending again at London art sales

Four Russian art sales in London this week are expected to raise £55m as Russian oligarchs return with petrodollars burning a hole in their pockets.

Upmarket auction house Sotheby's made a total of £19.3m at its Russian art sale series this week. A selection of treasures such as a Fabergé cigarette case and a pair of Fabergé cufflinks, which belonged to Russia's royal family before they were killed in 1918, raised a staggering £7.1m – a huge increase on the expected £900,000.

The so-called "Romanov heirlooms" had been lost for more than 90 years before they were discovered in Sweden this year. The top-selling painting at the auction was Venice by Alexandra Ekster, which sold for £1,049,250.

The sale was a far cry from last year, when demand for art dampened in the midst of the credit crunch, and auctioneer Christie's failed to sell a Francis Bacon self-portrait in New York.

Auction houses now hope wealthy Russians will help boost business after a year of decline. A large majority of the buyers at the Sotheby's sale were Russian and an increasing number of the country's billionaires appear to be returning to the high end of the art market as their economy, which is dependent on oil, starts to recover.

Oil prices now stand at around $77 a barrel after falling to a five-year low of about $35 in December 2008.

William MacDougall, co-director of MacDougall Auctions, which specialises in Russian art and whose client base is 90% Russian, said that he expected sales to pick up at his auction this week. "[The Russians] were a bit cautious from the crisis. Last November they didn't know where they were ... Now we know that we are not in a Great Depression. The worst cases haven't happened. They may have lost a lot of money but they still have a lot. For example, someone who used to be worth £1bn may now be worth £600m, but that is still a lot of money."

MacDougall believes that after the experience of the global financial crisis, the Russians now see art as a safer way of investing their money.

Neil Shearing, an expert on emerging Europe at Capital Economics, said that he expected the Russian economy to grow by 4.5% in 2010 after falling about 9% this year.

"The economy was freefall in the first quarter of the this year. [The government] put lots of stimulus into the economy so growth next year will look quite impressive," he said.

However, he said that he did not think it would last because Russia's economy is based on oil and oil prices were expected to fall back again. "All these oligarchs are based in the commodities sector."

Russia's billionaires were hit hard in the crisis. This year Forbes revealed that the number of billionaires in Moscow had fallen to just 27, which meant that it lost its title of world billionaire capital to New York, which had 55. London was second with 28.


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