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Claire Thompson's Posts


Keystone XL won’t use state-of-the-art spill technology

women protesting Keystone
Dan Holtmeyer
These women don't trust TransCanada's assurances about safety.

TransCanada swears that once the Keystone XL pipeline is operational, it will be totally safe. The company is apparently so confident -- despite already having had to dig up and replace faulty stretches of the pipeline’s southern leg -- that it doesn’t see the need to invest in state-of-the-art spill-detection technology. TransCanada is like that obnoxious seventh-grade skateboarder too confident in his sick moves to bother with a helmet.

The internal spill detectors TransCanada currently uses -- in which sensors alert remote operators if pressure along the pipeline drops -- are standard for the industry, but they’re designed to catch high-volume spills. Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

Keystone XL would have to be spilling more than 12,000 barrels a day -- or 1.5 percent of its 830,000 barrel capacity -- before its currently planned internal spill-detection systems would trigger an alarm, according to the U.S. State Department, which is reviewing the proposal.


Facing climate reality, cities look for ways to adapt

The East Village.
The East Village after Hurricane Sandy.

Since the 2007 release of PlaNYC, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sustainability vision, the city has chipped away steadily at its carbon emissions, cutting them to 13 percent below 2005 levels already. But nothing New York does on its own to mitigate climate change can save the city from future Sandys and the sea-level rise that will make such storms even more destructive going forward.

Last week, Bloomberg unveiled an ambitious, expensive plan to fortify the city against the kind of extreme weather that's fast becoming the “new normal.” The event amplified a message more local leaders are embracing: Climate change is already upon us, and adapting to it will be essential to prevent massive losses of money and life.

On Monday, the mayors of Washington, D.C., Denver, Nashville, and 42 other U.S. cities signed a “Resilient Communities for America" agreement, pledging “to prepare and protect their communities from the increasing disasters and disruptions fueled by climate change.” According to a press release about the campaign, $1 spent on disaster preparation saves $4 in potential losses (consider that Hurricane Sandy caused almost $20 billion of damage). The local leaders also called for more support and cooperation from the federal government. Although, as Bloomberg himself has pointed out, cities are in an ideal practical position to start taking immediate climate action, the scale of work to be done to strengthen urban infrastructure requires all the federal dollars they can get.

The Associated Press explains how, in green circles, a focus on adaptation was once frowned upon, out of concern that it would distract from efforts to address the source of the problem or downplay its importance. That concern still exists, but as a climate-changed world becomes reality much faster than a global climate solution, government officials figure they’d better prepare for the worst.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


A Franke discussion: How one artist fought back when the feds tried to shut her up

Franke James.
Franke James.

Canadian artist Franke James knows how to convey gloomy information without being a downer. She takes a relentlessly cheerful, self-deprecating approach to issues too often screamed about by scolds and trolls. (It’s an approach we here at Grist admire.) Her illustrated essays call out individuals, corporations, and governments for their inadequate responses to environmental threats, but in an unfailingly good-natured way more likely to make you grin than grimace. Though her art reaches a wide audience, James is no subversive revolutionary; she herself says, “I don’t like to get in trouble for what I do.” So it’s hard to believe the Canadian government would be keeping its eye on her, much less interfering with her work.

In the U.S., Canada, and beyond, environmentalists of all kinds have been the subjects of increased government attention in recent years -- especially as opposition to fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline grows more intense. (Earth Island Journal has a great in-depth report on this trend, giving a typical example of how a small and civil local anti-fracking group that strove to avoid inflammatory rhetoric found itself featured in intelligence bulletins compiled by a private security firm and distributed to Pennsylvania state and local authorities.)

BannedOnTheHill_FrontCover400James didn’t know she was on the government’s radar until promised federal funding for a traveling show of her art in Europe was mysteriously yanked, and the Croatian nonprofit organizing the show was pressured to scrap it. By filing Access to Information requests (the same as a U.S. Freedom of Information request) and poring over internal government emails, James discovered that her art, and its criticism of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tar-sands-boosting administration, didn’t sit so well with the feds. Her book Banned on the Hill tells the tale as only she can: in a series of illustrated essays, some of which were published a few years ago and cited by bureaucrats in their email exchanges as examples of James’ unacceptable artistic dissent.

We caught up with James -- whose work has been featured on Grist -- to learn what it’s like to be the unlikely target of misplaced government paranoia.

Q. Why do you make art the way you do?

A. There are a lot of people who don’t really like to sit down and read a book, and putting it together the way I [do], with words and pictures, gives a certain amount of fun to it. It makes for a very easy read.

Q. When did you start exploring environmental themes in your work?


Coal companies get sweetheart deals on federal leases, shortchange taxpayers

coal on money

As if climate disruption, air pollution, health problems, and landscape destruction weren’t bad enough, here's another reason to hate the coal industry: Coal companies are shortchanging U.S. taxpayers out of tens of millions of dollars they should be paying for the rights to mine federal land.

A new report [PDF] from the inspector general of the Interior Department reveals that the Bureau of Land Management routinely underestimates the value of coal, letting companies like Peabody and Arch Coal snap up federal mining rights for a song, often with little or no competition. More than 80 percent of coal leases up for auction in the past 20 years received only one bid, the report found.

The New York Times reports:

The report said that the process by which the value of the leases is computed is faulty, costing the government millions. At the current rate of coal leasing, the inspector general found, every penny-a-ton undervaluation costs the taxpayers $3 million.


Bloomberg unveils ambitious plan to protect NYC from climate change

Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg laid out an ambitious plan today to fortify the city against the extreme weather and storms we can expect thanks to a changing climate. “This is a defining challenge of our future,” Bloomberg said in a speech at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The plan, estimated to cost $20 billion, includes 250 recommendations in all, covering everything from erecting bulkheads and levees to retrofitting old buildings to protecting the city’s power infrastructure. (Fifty-three percent of NYC’s power plants currently sit within the 100-year floodplain, and by the 2050s, 90 percent could be in that danger zone.)

The New York Times reports:

The plan covers so many different parts of the city and calls for such a wide array of proposals that the estimated price tag could change – and given the history of large infrastructure projects, that means the cost is likely to grow.

The price estimate also does not include some of the more ambitious projects envisioned in the report that require further study, like the construction of a so-called Seaport City, just south of the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan, modeled after Battery Park City, which would protect Lower Manhattan but cost billions.

The administration said that roughly half of the currently estimated $20 billion cost of the next decade would be covered by federal and city money that had already been allocated in the capital budget and that an additional $5 billion would be covered by expected aid that Congress had already appropriated. Most of that money was allocated, through a variety of programs, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, according to the report.

While a $20 billion price tag sounds staggering, Bloomberg pointed out that Hurricane Sandy alone did $19 billion in damage to the city, and that a future storm could cause as much as $90 billion worth of destruction.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


How fracking companies exploit Amish farmers

Arthur Chapman

It's no secret that fracking companies engage in some shady behavior. But a report in The New Republic reveals just how low they'll sink in the rush to exploit natural gas: Energy companies in eastern Ohio -- home to the world's largest Amish population and billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves -- have been convincing Amish farmers to sign away drilling rights to their land for far less than they're worth, knowing that because their religious tradition frowns on lawsuits, the landowners will have little recourse for justice once they realize they've been duped.

Lloyd Miller, for example, an Amish farmer near Millersburg, Ohio, said an agent from Kenoil offered him $10 an acre to drill for shale gas on his 158 acres, promising it was the best deal around. Strapped for cash at the time, Miller and his wife said yes, figuring, “Hey, that’s $1,500 we didn’t have,” Miller explained. But they soon found out many non-Amish farmers in the area were leasing drilling rights for as much as $1,000 an acre. Miller consulted with a lawyer, who told him the agent had committed fraud by promising that $10 an acre was the best he could get. The Millers had grounds to sue -- but that's something that, in accordance with their Amish beliefs, they'd never do. Of the Kenoil agent, Miller said: “He’s got to live with his conscience.”

The New Republic explains:

Their prohibition on the courts derives from the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus instructs his followers to turn the other cheek, and if they are sued for their coats, to give up their cloaks, too. The Amish interpret this to mean that the court is no place to right wrongs. In 2011, for example, after the Securities and Exchange Commission charged a local man, Monroe L. Beachy, with running a Ponzi scheme that wiped out nearly $17 million in Amish retirement savings, a committee representing his some 2,500 Amish creditors asked a judge to dismiss his bankruptcy case so that they could resolve his debts amongst themselves.

Lest you're tempted to give fracking companies the benefit of the doubt, a lawyer for Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. told The New Republic that the Amish restriction on litigation is “a known fact to us.”

One local father-and-son law firm said it had consulted with dozens of Amish landowners in the area who had been misled by energy companies in a manner similar to the Millers.


Whole Foods opens in Detroit, threatening stereotypes everywhere

Laura Taylor

Because any positive economic activity that happens in Detroit is apparently national news, the opening of a Whole Foods Wednesday in the city’s Midtown neighborhood has caused more fanfare than possibly any grocery-store debut in history. Hundreds reportedly waited in line to enter the store, and Whole Foods Co-CEO Walter Robb was present for the occasion, accompanied by “a marching band, speeches by civic leaders, specialty food vendors handing out samples of pickles, granola and other products, and a festive air of celebration,” according to the Detroit Free Press.

Why all the hoopla? After all, as Aaron Foley at Jalopnik Detroit points out in a level-headed post, the city, despite being labeled a “food desert,” already has its share of real grocery stores, including independent chains like Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe, not to mention its famous Eastern Market, the largest permanent farmers market in the U.S. So it’s not like Whole Foods is suddenly swooping in to deliver fresh vegetables where only Twinkies and Top Ramen existed before.

Much has been made of Whole Foods’ potential to attract further economic development, “a magnet for retail, in particular, and for development more generally,” as Free Press editor Stephen Henderson puts it. “A grocery store as a creator of density.” But would a concentration of high-end retail and condos in one neighborhood do anything to address this troubled city’s structural problems? Local investors and government officials seem to be betting so; the store was financed with the help of $5.8 million in state and local grants and tax credits.

But really, what seems to be causing the freakout over Whole Foods’ unlikely new location is just that: its unlikeliness, and the racist and classist assumptions underlying that assessment. Just listen to Kai Ryssdal of public radio's Marketplace question CEO Robb at the opening. Ryssdal calls Whole Foods “a place that does not have the reputation of perhaps being a place where people would shop in Detroit,” and even asks, “Did you have to teach people how to shop here?” -- as if navigating a Whole Foods requires some special sixth sense not innate to black and low-income people.


Which U.S. city has the best park system?

Even the Minneapolis winter can't keep kids out of its parks.
Michael Hartford
Even the Minneapolis winter can't keep kids out of its parks.

If you’re a lover of outdoor urban activity, might we suggest a move to Minneapolis? Not only does the burg have a bike culture to rival Portland’s, it boasts the best park system of any major U.S. city, according to rankings released Wednesday by the Trust for Public Land in its second-annual ParkScore Index.

Minneapolis didn’t appear on last year’s inaugural ParkScore list, which ranked only the 40 largest U.S. cities (Minneapolis comes in at No. 48). But this year, TPL looked at 50 cities, and Minneapolis took top honors, bumping San Francisco, last year’s winner, to third place. New York City moved up from third to second.

Here's the top 10:

  1. Minneapolis
  1. New York City
  1. Sacramento & San Francisco & Boston (a three-way tie)
  1. Washington, D.C.
  1. Portland, Ore.
  1. Virginia Beach
  1. San Diego
  1. Seattle
Read more: Cities, Living


Huge proposed Alaska mine could be next big environmental controversy for Obama

Bristol Bay.
Robert Glenn Ketchum
Bristol Bay.

While environmental groups have been pouring energy into opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, a less talked-about fight in Alaska is bubbling over into what The Washington Post says “may be one of the most important environmental decisions of President Obama’s second term”: whether to allow construction of a massive mine near Bristol Bay, one of the most productive salmon fisheries in the world (supplying half the world’s sockeye salmon) and home to potentially vast reserves of gold and copper.

Politico explains:

The focus of this fervor is buried near the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, where massive deposits of gold, copper and molybdenum lie in a watershed that feeds into Bristol Bay. The Pebble Partnership, which owns the land, wants to dig an open-pit mine that could stretch for miles and would need roads, a power plant and a port.

In a 2006 feature, Mother Jones elaborated on what that would look like:

The proposed Pebble Mine complex would cover some 14 square miles. It would require the construction of a deepwater shipping port in Cook Inlet ... and an industrial road—skirting Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and traversing countless salmon-spawning streams—to reach the new harbor. At the site's heart would be an open pit measuring two miles long, a mile and a half wide, and 1,700 feet deep. Over its 30- to 40-year lifetime, the Pebble pit is projected to produce more than 42.1 million ounces of gold, 24.7 billion pounds of copper, 1.3 billion pounds of molybdenum—and 3 billion tons of waste.

Not only would the Pebble mine be North America’s biggest, it would be 20 times larger than all other mines in Alaska combined. And the companies behind it aren't even American. The Pebble Partnership is a joint venture between Anglo American, a British mining firm currently facing a class-action lawsuit from South African gold miners, and Northern Dynasty, a Canadian company whose interest in the Pebble Partnership is its principal asset.

The Pebble Mine threatens the area's important fishing industry.
Nick Hall
The Pebble Mine threatens the area's important fishing industry.

Opposition to the project has united the fishing industry and local tribes, two groups often at odds. Mother Jones said the Kvichak is “known to anglers as the most abundant salmon stream on the planet and as home to some of Alaska's most gargantuan rainbow trout.” For native communities, the hunting and fishing supported by this watershed provide a crucial source of food and a link to traditions.


Connecticut will label GMOs if you do too

"Label GMOs Now" sign
CT Senate Democrats

Connecticut is poised to become the first state to require labeling of genetically engineered food -- in theory, at least.

On Monday, the state House of Representatives passed an amended version of a labeling bill that the state Senate approved two weeks ago, and Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) has said he’ll sign it. The bipartisan bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 134-to-3 in the House, with little debate in either chamber -- a major contrast to California’s contentious GMO-labeling ballot initiative that ultimately failed last year. Differences between the two states aside, it goes to show you how much more difficult passing such progressive measures becomes once corporate money and gullible voters are involved.

The Hartford Courant’s political blog reports that “Immediately after the vote, cheers could be heard outside the Hall of the House from advocates who had been pushing the labeling requirement.” The bill’s success is certainly an important victory for the GMO-labeling movement, which seems to have been motivated, not discouraged, by last year’s loss in California. Thirty-seven labeling proposals have been introduced in 21 states so far this year.

But the final version of the Connecticut bill includes quite a crucial catch: The labeling requirement won't actually go into effect until similar legislation is passed by at least four other states, one of which borders Connecticut. Also, the labeling adopters must include Northeast states with an aggregate population of at least 20 million. So if, say, New York passed a labeling law, that would help a lot, as New York borders Connecticut and has a population of 19.5 million, which, combined with Connecticut’s 3.5 million, easily passes the population target.