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Claire Thompson's Posts


Kids these days just don’t care about cars

I refuse to conform to your car culture.
I refuse to conform to your car culture.

At Grist, we’ve been onto the trend of the youngs losing interest in driving for awhile now. And every time a new study or survey comes out to statistically corroborate the anecdotal evidence we see every day, we hear the same responses from skeptics -- it’s just the economy, just a stage of life. Wait til those millennials get real jobs, get married, have families, and move to the suburbs. Then you bet they’ll start driving.

But the latest report on declining driving trends -- released today by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund -- argues that a rejection of car culture is here to stay. “The Driving Boom is over,” it declares. In fact, the report calculates that “If the Millennial-led decline in per-capita driving continues for another dozen years … total vehicle travel in the United States could remain well below its 2007 peak through at least 2040 -- despite a 21 percent increase in population.”

The U.S. PIRG study reveals how, after six decades of steady growth, both total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and VMT per capita have been falling since 2007. Total VMT is now at 2004 levels, while VMT per capita has fallen to 1996 levels. And once again, it’s those meddling millennials who are reimagining one of the pillars of American culture. Young people ages 16 to 34 drove an average of 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 2001, according to the report. If you consider that more than half the people in that age group were old enough to drive in 2001, too, that suggests that even as those at the older end of this generation enter their 30s -- presumably settling into more stable jobs and in some cases starting families -- they’re still not switching over to a car-centric lifestyle at the same rate as generations before them.

Economic factors -- high gas prices, the recession -- obviously motivate people of all ages to drive less. But, as we’ve pointed out before, larger societal shifts lie behind millennials’ generation-wide “meh” attitude toward car ownership. Brian Merchant at Vice summarizes them in two words: Facebook and Brooklyn.

Read more: Cities, Living


Food-safety push in California hurts wildlife — and doesn’t make food safer

spinach field
Rigid rules for leafy greens are taking a toll on wildlife.

A deadly outbreak of E. coli in 2006, traced to a California spinach field, spurred an overhaul of food-safety regulations in the leafy-greens industry -- and that’s got to be a good thing, right? Not so fast, says a study published last week in the journal Nature. Those regulations have contributed to a major loss of ecosystem diversity in California's Salinas Valley, while at the same time doing little to alleviate the risk of food-borne illness.

In an effort to reduce the potential for contamination, the industry put in place standards that, while technically voluntary, quickly became widespread. Big produce buyers, fearing further disease outbreaks and the public-relations disasters they create, only want to do business with farmers conforming to the new guidelines. “Nationwide, U.S. fruit and vegetable farmers report being pressured by commercial produce buyers to engage in land-use practices that are not conducive to wildlife and habitat conservation, in a scientifically questionable attempt to reduce food-borne illness risk,” the study reports.

Scientific American describes what this ends up looking like:


Supreme Court hands a big win to Monsanto on GMO seeds


In a blow to opponents of GMOs and Monsanto, the Supreme Court today ruled unanimously that an Indiana soybean farmer violated the company’s patent by saving its trademark Roundup Ready seeds.

Every time a farmer buys seeds from Monsanto, she or he must sign a contract agreeing not to save seeds from the crop. Monsanto’s many vociferous critics condemn this practice for the way it traps farmers in a costly cycle of dependence on the company’s products. The farmer in this case, Vernon Bowman, signed such an agreement when he originally bought Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans. But he found a clever way to get around the restrictions. Tom Laskawy explains:

For years, Bowman would grow a first crop of Monsanto seed, which he would purchase legally, and then would buy some commodity seed from his local grain elevator for his second crop. While aware he could not save seeds from the first crop he grew, Bowman would later plant the commodity seeds, spray the plants with Roundup, and was then able to identify which were resistant to the herbicide when they didn’t die. Bowman saved those seeds and saved money, since he had bought the commodity seeds for his second crop at a steep discount without paying Monsanto or signing its licensing agreement.

Farmers can sell saved seed to local grain elevators, which often resell the mixed seed packs for animal feed or industrial uses. In buying these so-called commodity seeds from the grain elevator, Bowman rightly assumed, as The Washington Post explains, that “those beans were mostly Roundup Ready — resistant to the weedkiller glyphosate — because that’s what most of his neighbors grow.” Bowman saved and replanted the Roundup Ready seeds from his second crop for eight years before Monsanto caught on and sued.


Coal-export plans going off the rails in Pacific Northwest

You shall not pass.
Scott Granneman
You shall not pass.

Plans for two Oregon coal-export terminals have gone up in smoke in the last two months. That makes for a total of three scrapped terminals in the Pacific Northwest, after a proposed facility in Grays Harbor, Wash., bit the coal dust last year. Three others in the region remain in the works, but they face many of the same challenges -- permitting and zoning issues, stalled negotiations, and delayed environmental reviews, not to mention fierce public opposition.

A spokesperson for Kinder Morgan, which announced Wednesday it was abandoning plans for a coal-export terminal at Oregon's Port of St. Helens, “blamed site logistics for stopping the project, not the intense controversy over exporting coal from the green Northwest,” reports The Oregonian. He said Kinder Morgan would continue to explore options for a West Coast terminal.

The abrupt announcement came barely a month after the Port of Coos Bay ended negotiations with a California company looking to build a terminal there. There's a chance the port could consider coal-export options with other companies, but the expensive rail improvements any project would require make a coal deal unlikely, said David Petrie, founder of Coos Waterkeeper.


This scientist needs your help to study air pollution from coal trains

Dan Jaffe
Dan Jaffe

“Do coal and diesel trains make for unhealthy air?”

Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington-Bothell, thinks that’s a fair question to consider as Washington state grapples with whether to allow the construction of coal-export terminals that could triple the amount of daily coal-train traffic chugging through the state.

But Jaffe, whose lab has published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers on air pollution, hasn’t been able to scare up funding to research the potential air-quality impacts of those coal trains. In the absence of dollars from the usual government or corporate channels, he has turned to the internet to crowd-fund this vital research. Jaffe started a page on Microryza, a sort of Kickstarter for scientific research (a great idea with a name that unfortunately does not roll off the tongue). He writes:


Coal companies have gotten good at wrangling their way out of federal fines

Robert Murray
Reuters / Danny Moloshok
Coal boss Robert Murray, probably contemplating how to minimize his company's latest safety fine.

Back in high school, I had a great strategy for dealing with parking tickets I couldn’t afford to pay: I went down to city hall and challenged them -- sometimes with a legitimate excuse, sometimes not (“The two-hour sign was obscured by a flowering cherry tree!”). I had figured out that bureaucrats cared less about the reliability of my sob story than they did about getting on with their day, so often they’d just roll their eyes, reduce the fine, and shoo me out the door.

Turns out the same tactic works for coal companies facing fines for safety infractions. A Cleveland Plain Dealer investigation found that when federal regulators fine mine operators for violating safety standards, those companies “are fighting significant fines as a matter of course and getting them reduced, if not dropped,” which means “clogging up the appeals process and wearing down a system that lacks resources to match the challenge.” You know, just like a privileged teenager exploiting an overburdened traffic court -- except with hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention miners’ lives, at stake.

The Plain Dealer reports:


Will natural-gas cars start to catch on?

Honda's natural gas-powered Civic.
Wikipedia / Mariordo
Honda's natural-gas-powered Civic.

Could the U.S. boom in natural gas lead to a boom in natural-gas cars? It can cost as little as $1 a gallon to fill them up in the U.S., says Bloomberg Businessweek, and there could be 25 million of them on roads worldwide by 2019.

To provide demand for a swelling supply of natural gas, the rush is on for investors, entrepreneurs, and the auto and energy industries to figure out how to power our transportation fleet with this abundant and relatively cleaner-burning fuel. Bloomberg reports:

Commercial vehicles, which generally rack up two or more times the annual mileage of consumer cars, are going first. In the last year many companies, including GE, UPS, FedEx, AT&T, PepsiCo, and Waste Management, the biggest trash hauler in the U.S., have announced plans to begin or expand conversions of their fleets to natural gas. Cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Fort Worth, Dallas, and San Francisco all have CNG [compressed natural gas] bus fleets. Large fleets of airport shuttles are converting as well.


Fracking threatens to escalate the West’s water wars

dry lakebed
Patrick Emerson

One of fracking's few but feverishly touted upsides is that the natural-gas boom it's spurred could help America move toward energy independence; it's a crucial piece of Obama's “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. But in building up our fuel supply, fracking threatens our supply of another crucial natural resource – water.

A new report from nonprofit Ceres (which maintains a neutral position on fracking in general) reveals that nearly half of the country's fracking wells are located in water-stressed regions -- in particular Texas and Colorado, where 92 percent of fracking wells are in extremely high-water-stress regions. Ceres compiled its report using data from the World Resources Institute -- which considers an area extremely water-stressed if 80 percent of its available water supply is already allocated for municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses -- and, a voluntary national registry of fracking wells' locations and water usage.

FracFocus shows that between January 2011 and September 2012, the 25,450 wells in its database used 65.8 billion gallons of water, or the amount of water 2.5 million Americans use in a year. Because the site doesn't have data for every single well in the country, fracking's total water impact is likely even higher.


Climate hawk Markey wins primary, moves one step closer to Senate

Ed Markey
Martha Coakley campaign
Markey, one step closer to the U.S. Senate.

On Tuesday, Rep. Ed Markey handily won the Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ special election to fill the Senate seat recently vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry. In June’s general election, Markey will go up against Republican candidate Gabriel Gomez, an ex-Navy SEAL, son of Colombian immigrants, successful businessman, and political outsider who has never held office.

Markey, one of the most passionate environmentalists in Congress, coauthored the big climate bill that passed the House in 2009 but failed in the Senate. A 20-term House veteran, he ran on his long liberal track record, but he also got a boost from green backers. The League of Conservation Voters spent nearly $850,000 in support of his campaign. Meanwhile, San Francisco rich-guy do-gooder Tom Steyer spent more than $400,000 on “online ads and microtargeting,” according to Mother Jones; many of those ads attacked Markey’s primary opponent, South Boston “conservative” Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch, for his support of the Keystone XL pipeline. And it doesn’t look like Steyer plans on closing his pocketbook after this early victory, MoJo reports:


Uranium mining is coming soon to the Grand Canyon area

Paul Fundenburg

So much for that ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon that Obama imposed early last year. The U.S. Forest Service just went ahead and gave a Canadian company approval to begin mining for uranium a mere six miles from the Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim entrance, which nearly 5 million people visit every year.

Canadian company Energy Fuels Resources says its rights to mine the area, granted in 1986, should be grandfathered in, and the Forest Service concurred. In response, three environmental groups and the local Havusupai Tribe filed suit in March against the feds. They say the 1986 environmental impact review that originally gave the mine clearance needs to be updated. From The Arizona Republic:

Opponents say newer studies indicate pathways for trouble. One study, conducted in preparation for an old development plan at Tusayan, found that groundwater pumping at that Grand Canyon gateway sucked water from the vicinity of the mine. Another, by the U.S. Geological Survey, included models based on known subsurface geology funneling water toward Havasu Springs.

The Forest Service had no way of knowing these things before the 1986 approval, Northern Arizona University hydrogeologist Abe Springer said.

“Nobody ever asked the question” back then, he said.

A spokesperson for the mining company argues, naturally, that the review is still adequate, and calls the old Canyon Mine, now set to reopen in 2015, “tiny.” But Roger Clark, director of Grand Canyon Trust, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, compares the area -- which will be stripped of vegetation -- to the size of a Walmart parking lot, and tells The Guardian about other contamination concerns:

Clark argues that uranium's radioactive properties only become dangerous once it is brought up out of the ground and exposed to air and water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, such properties include radon gas, a substance that was not regulated when the government conducted its initial study of the mine in 1986. The lawsuit contends that radon and other chemicals could pollute the area.

The mine is located on a site sacred to the Havusupai and other tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo.