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March 31 2011


The Ticking Time Bombs In The Gulf of Mexico

49 weeks have passed since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in millions of barrels of oil leaking into the Gulf, and yet the same fatal flaws that doomed that rig are still present in most offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

The reason that BP’s Macondo well managed to leak oil into the Gulf was because the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon rig malfunctioned, meaning that the preventer could not blow up and seal off the well. But the Deepwater Horizon is not the only rig that contained a malfunctioning blowout preventer. According to new reports, blowout preventers on rigs throughout the Gulf have not been properly inspected or maintained, meaning that another rig explosion could result in more oil in the Gulf. <!--break-->
Steve LeVine writing for Foreign Policy outlines the problem:

“The oil industry has known for many years that the blowout preventers work in only a fraction of accidents, and that they have been prone to failure, especially as drilling has moved into deeper water, requiring thicker, tougher pipe. In 2004, a study commissioned by federal regulators found that only three of 14 newly built rigs had blowout preventers that could squeeze off and cut the pipe at the water pressure likely to be experienced at the equipment’s maximum water depth.”

But the flawed designs in the blowout preventers go even deeper than that. As Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) noted in a hearing last year as Chairman of the Oversight and Investigations of the BP blowout case:

“We uncovered an astonishing document that Transocean prepared in 2001, when it bought the blowout preventer from Cameron. I would like to display the executive summary from this document. It says there are 260 separate “failure modes” that “could require pulling of the BOP.””

So how could oil rigs get away with having faulty emergency equipment installed? Weren’t there any federal regulators inspecting these rigs? The answer is both “yes” and “no.” MMS regulators were required to inspect all aspects of oil rigs operating in American waters, but when it came time to do the reports, they decided that it would be best to just let the rigs – the oil companies who own the rigs, that is – fill out the inspection reports themselves in pencil, and then MMS officials would simply trace over their pencil marks in ink. MMS inspectors took the oil companies’ words as truth, and submitted these reports for filing.

No real inspections, and no accountability.

But if you think that the story ends with oil rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico with faulty equipment, then think again. Believe it or not, there are actually bigger problems in the water than malfunctioning safety equipment. Reports from last summer identified 27,000 abandoned oil wells littered across the Gulf of Mexico. And these wells don’t even have the benefit of a cursory oil company-sponsored inspection – these wells have remained untouched for years, and no one knows if they are properly sealed off and secure.

To make things worse, there are an additional 3,500 “temporarily abandoned” wells in the Gulf. By declaring a well “temporarily abandoned,” companies can avoid all of the requirements that are supposed to ensure the safety of “permanently abandoned” wells, making these 3,500 the biggest time bombs in the Gulf.

With soaring gas prices hitting every American in the wallet pretty hard, the renewed calls for “drill baby, drill” are becoming louder and louder. The shock from the BP blowout has worn off for most of the public, but rest assured, those of us like myself living on the Gulf Coast are reminded of the dangers every day – with every tar ball that rolls ashore, with every new oil sheen spotted in the water – we remember.

September 03 2010


Weekly Mulch from the Media Consortium: Another Rig Catches Fire and Reignites Offshore Drilling Fears

The Vermilion oil rig aflame in the Gulf of MexicoBy Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger
(reposted with permission)

On Thursday, a manageable explosion on a Gulf Coast oil rig reignited fears founded by the BP spill and revived calls for a reassessment of the country’s drilling policies.

Just before 9 a.m. Thursday morning, the Vermilion Oil Rig 380 exploded. Unlike the Deepwater Horizon rig, this one was located in shallow waters. By late afternoon, a sheen of oil had been spotted, spreading a mile long from the burning rig; but by Friday morning the Coast Guard was saying the that was a mistake—there was no sheen.

Mariner Energy, the company that owns the well, said the fire burned off the oil used to power the well and was out by 3 p.m. The rig had seven actively producing oil wells, but they were quickly shut off after the fire began.

Media coverage and the spill

After more than four months of worry over the BP oil spill, the entire political apparatus—politicians and journalists, activists and lobbyists—shot into action at the news of the fire.

In April, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the media was slow to realize how serious a disaster the explosion represented. (The Mulch was as guilty as anyone else: the rig exploded April 20, but on April 23, this column featured the Cochabamba climate conference.) BP’s initial estimates of the spill’s volume, later increased by thousands of barrels per day, encouraged this impression.

On Thursday, however, the Vermilion story topped the agenda. Groups like the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity blasted out reactions, and as Andrew Restuccia reported at The Washington Independent, drilling opponents like Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) seized on the incident to push their legislative agenda.

As the U.S. Coast Guard responds to this latest incident, we must redouble our efforts to accelerate the push for clean, renewable energy and end our nation’s dependence on oil,” Lautenberg said, in a statement.

Ticking time bombs in the Gulf

It looks like this explosion, unlike the one at BP’s Macondo well, will not extract a lasting price from the Gulf. That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Like the BP explosion, the Mariner incident shows the systemic risk that drilling requires. The system would benefit from better regulation and oversight.

Consider this image, from Mother Jones, that shows 33,000 miles of pipeline, 50,000 wells, and thousands of abandoned rigs.

At Earth Island Journal, Jason Marks puts Thursday’s explosion into perspective. “Sure, this incident is frightening, and in that sense it’s newsworthy,” he writes. “But the fact is that fires, explosions, spills, and blowouts aren’t all that uncommon in the Gulf’s industrial archipelago…accidents happen all the time in the ocean oil fields.”

Oil on the mainland

The ocean isn’t the only place where the industry presents a danger, either. Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes flags a recent spill in North Dakota totaling more than 1,000 barrels of oil. And the Michigan Messenger has been reporting for more than a month on the fall-out from a significant pipeline spill in that state.

It’s notable, however, that incidents like these aren’t getting as much attention as Thursday’s non-spill. They represent real environmental disasters for the communities affected, but because they’re more than 100 miles from BP’s well, their problems don’t raise the same fears.

Follow through

Politicians like Lautenberg who want to clamp down on drilling would do well to keep playing off of those fears, however. By the time Congress was ready to respond to the BP incident, stories about the spill had become so routine as to be easily tuned out. Even if the Mariner explosion has a minimal environmental impact, the specter of Deepwater Horizon could breath new life into legislative efforts to limit drilling.

The best outcome would be that the only lasting impact is political,” writes Change.org’s Jess Leber. “Let this incident— “accident” already seems too light —be more than just a reminder that the existing deep water moratorium needs to be in place longer….It should tell our elected officials they need to stop listening to inflated claims by the oil industry, and start looking at the evidence right before their eyes. All offshore drilling, in all its forms, needs to be re-examined at minimum.”

Should Obama lift the drilling moratorium?

The Obama administration has been making noise about lifting the drilling moratorium early, but perhaps this new incident will push the White House to reconsider. Over the past few months, president Obmam has had terrible timing vis-à-vis drilling: as soon as he made it a keystone of a compromise on the Senate’s energy bill, the BP spill happened. Now, just as his team has started making noise about lifting the ban, this explosion triggers memories about how bad the BP spill really was.

What if this explosion had triggered another oil spill? A temporary moratorium on new deep water drilling is not enough to make the entire endeavors of oil extraction a safe one. Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard puts a fine point on it:

The moratorium was put in place so regulators could evaluate whether offshore drilling can be done safely. And despite the outcry from the industry, the moratorium is only temporary (six months), and it’s only on new exploratory operations. It doesn’t even touch the existing deep water platforms, or drilling in shallow waters. If anything, today’s news should be an indicator that we need to take the time to evaluate all offshore operations.”


This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Image credit: Sustainabilityninja.com

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August 12 2010


June 21 2010


Ask the Investigative Reporters

Today, New York Times reporters will answer readers' questions about their article on the decisions that led to and followed the failure of the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon rig.

June 16 2010


Gulf Oil Spill and the Changing Energy Equation

An oil protection boom off Dauphin Island, AlabamaThe explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has critical implications for the energy industry. In response to the spill, the federal government and Congress are rewriting the rule book on offshore oil and gas production. These new rules will change the way the US produces, transports and consumes energy.

The Obama administration issued a six-month moratorium on the drilling of new wells below 500 feet in the Gulf and they stopped the drilling operations on 33 oil wells.

Structural changes are already underway at the executive agencies responsible for energy. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) is responsible for managing offshore oil and gas and renewable energy leasing and development on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), including safety and environment impacts. Due to flagrant misconduct, Elizabeth Birnbaum was removed from her position as the MMS Director (Birnbaum did resign, though she likely had little choice) and Chris Oynes, Associate Director of Offshore Energy and Minerals Management at MMS, has resigned.

A May 19, 2010 Secretarial Order divides the MMS into three separate agencies: a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, focused on OCS oil, gas and renewable energy project leasing; a Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, focused on inspections; and an Office of Natural Resources Revenue, focused on royalty collection.

Some have even suggested that offshore drilling be taken away from the jurisdiction of the MMS and given to another federal department like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Energy. The White House Council on Environmental Quality is reviewing MMS policies and procedures under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The oil spill has initiated a host of new safety recommendations. On May 27, 2010 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar provided safety recommendations to President Obama that included recertification of emergency systems, new deepwater well procedures and new well design requirements. Salazar also recommended increased federal testing, inspection, and intervention capabilities. Further, on June 8, the Department of the Interior (DOI) issued a Notice to Lessees outlining new safety measures for energy production on the OCS. The Presidential commission established to investigate the spill will add its drilling safety recommendations later this year.

The President tasked Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to oversee efforts to protect the health and safety of workers associated with the Gulf oil spill. Congress is also expected to review the potential health impacts on workers and volunteers in the Gulf.

DOI and Congress are working on the issue of liability related to offshore oil and gas production. The DOI has indicated that it will propose a new liability regime that differentiates between deepwater and shallow water production.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress to increase the liability limit for economic damages under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Increased liability (excluding the costs of cleanup and restoration) are currently capped at $75 million, the proposed bills would set the cap as high as $10 billion or eliminate the cap entirely.

Some have suggested that only those companies able to bear consequences of a catastrophic spill should be permitted to drill for oil, particularly in deep water. Other efforts are also underway to modify the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and provide better protection for whistleblowers.

On June 1, the Department of Justice announced a criminal investigation related to the oil spill. Congress has scheduled more than two dozen hearings and dozens of lawsuits have also been filed against BP, Transocean, and related contractors. Although it will take years and cost fortunes, the outcome of these legal battles will have implications for the entire energy industry.

The cost of fossil fuel production is expected to keep rising as pressure is building to eliminate the oil industry’s tax incentives and increase its rate of taxation. In May 2010, the House of Representatives passed a bill that quadrupled the tax paid by the oil industry into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and insurers are expected to add to these costs with premium increases.

It may be hard to fathom through the billowing flow of underwater crude, but there is a silver lining to the dark cloud polluting the Gulf. The spill has breathed new life into clean energy legislation, and the increased costs of oil production will help to make clean energy more attractive.

The government is now exploring new kinds of energy partnerships. The recent establishment of the DOI’s Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium offers some insight into the kinds of government partnerships we are likely to see in the emerging energy economy.

As we tally the ongoing costs of fossil fuel production, it is becoming increasingly apparent that clean energy offers a viable alternative to our untenable addiction to oil. The oil spill is driving legislative and policy changes that are helping to change the energy equation.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics and eco-economics.

Additional reading:
Gawker: The Idiots Responsible for the BP Oil Leak

June 07 2010


BP, Meet Cassandra

BP’s Deepwater Horizon’s blowout is the largest oil disaster in the United States, far  surpassing Exxon Valdez, which 21 years ago contaminated 1500 miles of coastline, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of birds, otters, seals and whales, and devastated local communities, which are still dealing with the consequences even today.

The lessons to be learned of this incredibly horrific event are as numerous and massive as the gazillions of gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf and beyond. For starters, offshore drilling is not such a good idea, and never has been, judging by the 1969 Union Oil Rig Spill in Santa Barbara. Secondly – surprise, surprise – oil is not a clean, nor safe, nor a renewable resource. Now really would be the time to kick our addiction to fossil fuels in favor of truly clean, safe, and renewable resources. Third; well, oil companies, (nor really any incredibly huge, corporate industry) cannot be trusted, and definitely cannot be trusted to put safety or its workers or the environment before profits, because heck, why not take the risk. There will always be seagulls, right?

This brings us to the fourth and perhaps the most important lesson: That it is time, once and for all, to learn from our past mistakes. Already in the twenty year history of deepwater drilling there have been serious problems and numerous accidents including fires, gas leaks, loss of power, equipment failures, poor maintenance, blowouts, wells that collapsed, platforms that nearly sank…

BP being a prime example, if not the poster child, of these hazards as it has consistently put profits ahead of safety.

For example, in January 2001, BP employees sent a letter to oil industry watchdog, Charles Hamel, asking him for assistance in getting BP to address their safety concerns:

We were concerned about our recommendations being ignored and disregarded in the OSHA required hazard reviews…concerned about BP’s cost cutting efforts undermining our ability to respond to emergencies, and reducing the reliability of critical safety systems…about the lack of preventative maintenance on our equipment.” Additionally, “It is clear that BP Management has one priority and that is cost reduction…If these concerns are not addressed, we feel that a major catastrophe is imminent. We have only our lives and our futures at risk here."

Since that letter, which Hamel did sent to BP as well as President Bush, BP has been responsible for at least 10 disastrous and deadly accidents resulting from equipment failure and negligence. They have been convicted of felony violations of both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and have paid at least $158 million dollars in fines and penalties, including the largest fine ever imposed by OSHA ($87,430,000). The second largest fine was issued by OSHA in 2005,  also against BP.

According to Scott West, former special agent of the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division in charge of a 2005  probe into BP’s activities, in which there had been numerous warnings of safety concerns before the massive Prudhoe Bay spill, “BP turned a blind eye and deaf ear to their experts who predicted a major spill. It wasn't an intentional act to put oil on the ground, but it was an intentional act to ignore their employees. That's negligence and its criminal.” In 2007, The Minerals Management Service cited BP for a “'lack of knowledge of the system, and lack of pre-event planning and procedures."

Ergo, it should come as no surprise that with Deepwater Horizon, "BP made several cost-cutting and time saving decisions in its choice of well designs.” Even BP’s Tony Hayward admitted, “It's probably true that BP didn't do enough planning in advance of the disaster. There are some capabilities, that we could have available to deploy instantly, rather than creating as we go."

And now, more than six weeks after the disaster, and after yet another BP spill in Alaska on May 25, in which BP operators stated, “procedures weren’t properly implemented,” finally President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have announced criminal investigations into the matter. To “ensure that anyone found responsible for this spill is held accountable,” and "prosecute to the full extent any violations of the law.” Which really shouldn’t be too hard. As US District Court Judge Ralph Beistline, who prosecuted BP in 2007 affirmed, oil spills were a "serious crime" that could have been prevented if BP had spent more time and funds investing in pipeline upgrades and a "little less emphasis on profit."

There is a reason that environmentalists are referred to as “Climate Cassandras.” Not because they possess the gift of prophecy, but because with knowledge, foresight and hindsight, they understand the potential and likelihood for tragic, catastrophic events. They call for preventative measures – often just decency and common sense – to ensure these disasters do not occur.

So next time someone accuses you of spreading doom and gloom or calls you Cassandra, just remind them what happened in Santa Barbara, Valdez, the Massey Mine, Three Mile Island, Chernoyble and now Deepwater Horizon, to name but a few.  Remind them that that the only way to stop history from repeating itself is to end our addictive dependence on dangerous and dirty fossil fuel and risky nuclear power. Warn them of the urgent need to immediately implement a National Energy plan.

If we fail  to learn from the past and plan for the future, it will soon not be the fall of Troy that we’re worried about, or the devastating destruction of the Gulf, but truly, with climate change and unsustainable resource consumption, the end of the world as we know it.

It is time to wake up.

Image credit: Truthout, courtesy Flickr

Further reading:
Cassandra in the Gulf

May 28 2010


May 21 2010


The Wildlife Conundrum

Repeatedly federal officials have said they are very concerned about gulf wildlife; that they cannot predict how birds and fish and the like will be affected; and that they have no idea when they will know.

May 11 2010


A Cheerier Oil Blowout

There was a time in the early days of the oil business when a blowout wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

May 10 2010


May 08 2010


Time Out on Arctic Offshore Oil Drilling Needed

EarthJustice.org Conservation and Alaska Native groups head to federal court in legal challenge to Shell Oil plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean this July May 6, 2010 Portland, OR — Thirteen Alaska Native and conservation groups represented by Earthjustice are heading to federal court today to argue a legal challenge against the federal government’s October and December [...]

May 07 2010


What Are You Seeing?

Send us your photos and accounts of what you're seeing as the oil spill reaches land.

In the Chandeleur Islands, Spotting the Spill's 'Leading Edge'

Researchers spot the "leading edge" of the Deepwater Horizon spill encroaching on the Chandeleur Islands.

April 30 2010


The Weekly Mulch from the Media Consortium: That Sinking Feeling – Oil Rigs and Climate Bills

Louisiana oil spill - Nasa satellite image, April 29, 2010 By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger
(reposted with permission)

Two disasters flared up this week, one environmental, the other political. Off the coast of Louisiana, oil from a sunken rig is leaking as much as five times faster than scientists originally judged, and the spill reportedly reached land last night. And in Washington, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) jumped from his partnership with Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) just before the scheduled release of the draft of a new Senate climate bill.

The trio had worked for months on bipartisan legislation on climate change. After Graham’s defection, his partners promised to press on, but the bill’s chances of survival are dimmer.

The next Exxon Valdez?

As Grist puts it, the spill off the Louisiana coast is “worse than expected, and getting worser.” The oil rig sank on April 20, and since then, oil has been pouring out of the well and into the Gulf of Mexico.

British Petroleum (BP), which operates the rig, along with the Coast Guard and now the Department of Defense, has pushed to contain and clean up the spill. The problem is deep under water and difficult to measure, but by mid-week, experts estimated that it was gushing 5,000 barrels a day from three different leaks.

Interior department officials said the spill could continue for 90 days. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum looks at a couple of estimates for how much oil could end up in the Gulf and concludes, “An Exxon Valdez size spill might only be a few days away.”

The federal government has rallied to respond. Administration officials have traveled to Louisiana, and both the executive branch and the legislative branch have announced investigations into the spill. But, as Care2 writes, the White House is saying that the explosion should not derail plans for future drilling.

In all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, according to Care2.

New drilling, no regulations

Just a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama announced that the government would open up areas off the East Coast for offshore oil and gas drilling. The proposal already had some opponents, and the spill makes the politics of new drilling that much trickier. Mother Jones' Kate Sheppard reports that White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner acknowledged the issue, along with energy experts around Washington.

"This reopens the issue: Is the risk worth the reward?” asked Lincoln Pratson, a professor of energy and environment at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, told Sheppard.

And even though BP is relying on the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense for help managing this spill, the company is pushing back on efforts to minimize those risks, Lindsay Beyerstein reports for Working In These Times.

The company “continues to oppose a proposed rule by the Minerals Management Service (the agency that oversees oil leases on federal lands) that would require lessees and operators to develop and audit their own Safety and Emergency Management Plans (SEMP),” Beyerstein writes. “BP and other oil companies insist that voluntary compliance will suffice to keep workers and the environment safe.”

Climate bill catastrophe

The country might also have to rely on companies’ “voluntary compliance” with measures to combat global warming: Congress doesn’t seem likely to pass a bill regulating carbon any time soon. Senator Kerry and friends were supposed to release their version of climate legislation Monday, but over the weekend, Senator Graham backed out. His reason? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had floated the idea of prioritizing immigration reform, which Graham argued would undermine work on energy legislation.

It seems like the senator…has a bit of an attitude problem,” wrote The American Prospect's Gabriel Arana. “He storms out of climate talks because Democrats have dared consider working on two things at once? The degree to which movement in the Senate hinges on this single, mercurial senator, seemingly the only one whose agenda includes something more than stymieing Democrats, is remarkable.”

Call the clean up crew

After Graham’s announcement (Arana called it a “hissy fit”), congressional democrats scrambled to prove that the climate bill was not knocked entirely off course. On Monday, Senator Kerry and Senator Lieberman met with their wayward colleague; by Wednesday, Senator Reid had promised that he would “move forward on energy first;” and by Thursday, Kerry and Lieberman had asked the EPA to start evaluating the bill’s environmental and economic impacts.

Although a draft of the bill was supposed to come out on Monday, no one has seen it. At Mother Jones, Kate Sheppard reports that even the EPA, which is supposed to analyze the bill, hasn’t received the full draft.

According to the EPA, the senators submitted a "description of their draft bill" for economic modeling,” she writes. “The agency confirmed in a statement to Mother Jones the senators "have not sent EPA any actual legislative text." The agency is determining whether it has enough information about the bill to produce an analysis of its economic and environmental impacts.”

Despite assurances from the Senate leadership, it’s not clear if climate legislation will come to the floor this year or, if it does, that it will pass.

Not a disaster

There was one bright spot of news for environmentalists this week: the United States will build its first off-shore wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod. The project, called Cape Wind, has a host of opponents, but Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar decided to approve it. The scale will be smaller than originally planned—130 rather than 170 turbines, the Washington Independent reports—which could mollify critics who worried about its visual impact.

Cape Wind is a prime example of how clean energy projects can still cause harm or anger the people who live in their shadow. The Texas Observer recaps opposition to clean energy projects: A working-class neighborhood fought against efforts to build a biomass plant in their town, and won.

Despite some activists touting these projects as solutions to global warming, and politicians promoting them as the key to economic prosperity, renewable energy projects tend to have their own sets of problems for local residents,” reports Rusty Middleton.

Biomass is one thing: burning materials like waste wood might produce fewer greenhouse gasses, but a biomass plant still dirties the air around it. But if the choice is between an off-shore wind farm that could mar a pleasant vista or an off-shore drilling operation that could spill thousands of  gallons of oil onto your coast, it seems clear which is the better option.


This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

April 28 2010


Too Busy for Oil Awards

Citing an accident, the federal government cancels an awards luncheon for offshore drilling safety.
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