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American idyll

North Dakota’s ag commissioner race oughta be on Broadway

amazing cowboy man
Tom Kelly

In the struggle over North America's energy boom, some tales are more suitable for Broadway musical treatment than others. But could there be another story more perfect for song and dance than that of the race for North Dakota agricultural commissioner?

The agricultural commissioner does pretty much what you expect -- handle permits for agricultural lands, which, in the case of North Dakota, is mostly ranchland. Since part of permitting grazing territory is making sure that said land remains safe for grazing, the agricultural commissioner also has sway over drilling permits and oversight -- a lot of sway.

Now that North Dakota is producing more oil than some OPEC members, and oil companies are planning to drill 35,000 new wells across North Dakota in the next 15 years, the race for this relatively homespun political office has suddenly become the stuff of political melodrama.

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Drilling in Pennsylvania has damaged the water supply 209 times in last seven years

frackwell_marcellusshale
WCN 24/7

Whether or not you think that's alright depends on your perspective. According to Patrick Creighton, those numbers are pretty good -- so many oil and natural gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past seven years that 209 problem wells is a mere 1 percent of the total. But Creighton happens to be the spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group composed of natural gas drillers. So there's that.

According to Steve Hvozdovich, 209 is a lot. "You are talking about somebody’s drinking water supply.” But then Hvozdovich works for the environmental group Clean Water Action. He would like clean drinking water.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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In Pennsylvania, Dr. Frack will see you now

fracking site
Daniel Foster

People who live near fracking sites have been complaining for years about headaches, nosebleeds, and birth defects. Now one such population, in Washington County, Penn., is getting some help in the form of free medical consultations -- but not from the usual suspects.

Washington County is a place known for its many picturesque bridges. It's also known for its "wet gas" -- an underground smorgasbord of methane, propane, butane, and ethane that hasn't seen daylight since the Devonian era. During the drilling process, most of this gas is captured, but a certain amount does leak into the atmosphere.

There has been some research into the risks of living in a natural gas drilling area, but not the kind of long-term, systematic study that would prove or disprove a connection between the gas and the health issues.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Detroit will stop shutting off people’s water — for now

water-protest
Light Brigading

Monday morning, the Detroit Water and Sewerage District (DWSD) announced that it would stop shutting off people's water, at least for now. What was it, in this infrastructural showdown I wrote about last week, that caused the change of heart? Was it the condemnation from the U.N.? The protestors blocking utility shut-off trucks? The giant march on Friday, featuring Mark Ruffalo and a megaphone? The children holding signs that read "We need water to brush our teeth”?

The DWSD isn't saying. Here's what it is saying: "We are pausing for 15 days to refocus our efforts on trying to identify people who we have missed in the process who may qualify for the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program." That's according to DWSD spokesperson Bill Johnson in a phone interview this morning.

The Water Assistance Program is a long-defunct but recently revived program that allows Detroit residents who are below the federal poverty line to keep their water running as long as they agree to pay a fraction of the overall bill each month. The program was suspended in 2012 when all of the people who managed it at the Detroit Department of Human Services were laid off. The program continued to accumulate money, Johnson says, but there was no one around to help pass it out. This June, DWSD signed a contract with THAW -- a nonprofit that helps Michigan residents with their heating bills -- to restart the Water Assistance Program.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Washington state just lopped up to $2,500 off the cost of solar panels. Here’s how.

solar panel rainbow
Steve Jurvetson

All new technology, no matter how innovative, arrives in a world of pre-existing laws and regulations. But not all technology catches the same breaks. A company like Lyft or Uber can do its thing right out there in the open for a surprisingly long time, despite being -- essentially -- appified versions of such already-illegal innovations as dollar vans and jitneys.

By comparison, solar energy, despite having made leaps and bounds both technologically and finance-wise, can't show up at the block party without bringing down a lawsuit, a law, or some kind of extra fee.

Yet those impediments, intentional and unintentional, are beginning to remove themselves. A decision this week by the Building Code Council in Washington state is a prime example.

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This crusty activist gave up on playing by the rules. What are they gonna do, arrest him?

Alec Johnson
Tar Sands Blockade

It’s been over a year since Alec Johnson was arrested for locking himself to an excavator sitting on a pipeline easement in Atoka, Oklahoma. He’s still waiting to go to trial. Rural Oklahoma communities only hold jury trials once or twice a year, and every time a new court date comes up, Johnson gets bumped – priority goes to anyone charged with a felony or presently cooling their heels in jail, which Johnson is not.

A lot has changed in that year. The protest around U.S. energy policy and climate change has shifted fronts – coal terminals, oil-by-rail, divestment, solar, and a massive climate rally planned for this September. Keystone XL South (now renamed the Gulf Coast pipeline) is up and running and being monitored by an ad hoc group of volunteers. Keystone XL is on hold until after the November U.S. elections -- possibly for good, though Johnson has his doubts. “In my experience, the ruling class pretty much gets what they want when they want,” he says.

Johnson has been arrested seven times, though there’s a gap of several decades in the sequence. The majority of his arrests happened in the mid-'70s, outside of the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Johnson was a member of a direct-action group called the Clamshell Alliance, and getting arrested was a whole different business then. “I got the shit kicked out of me,” he said. “They had their badge numbers taped over. A lot of white people that doesn’t happen to, but it happened to me.”

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Four things you should know about Detroit’s water crisis

detroit-water-red-pipe
iStockphoto

This May, the Detroit Water and Sewerage District (DWSD) sent out 46,000 shutoff notices to customers who were behind in their water bills. It was the latest calamity to befall a city that had seen its water rates rise 119 percent in the last decade.

As a city that has lost nearly two-thirds of its population in the last 60 years, Detroit has a lot of water infrastructure to maintain, and not much money to maintain it.

Since the shutoffs began (about 17,000 households and small businesses have lost service to date), residents have fought back hard. They've blocked trucks that are being sent out to shut off water accounts. They've called out DWSD for focusing on shutting off water to private homes that don't even owe that much, while ignoring golf courses that owe amounts in the hundreds of thousands. (DWSD responded that it had focused on residential customers because shutting off water to a large-scale user was more technically complicated than most of its employees can handle.) They've accused DWSD of dropping low-income customers as a way of making the system more appealing to potential buyers. (Whether or not that's true, Detroit emergency manager Kevin Orr has spoken openly about selling DWSD to a private company.) They've organized brigades of volunteers to bring water in to people who've had their accounts shut off. They even got the United Nations to condemn the way that DWSD is handing the situation.

But what's happening in Detroit isn't just Detroit's problem. It has larger implications for the rest of us. Here's what you need to know.

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In Iowa, solar is fighting back against utilities and winning

SolarPower
iStockphoto

Last week, I wrote about the pushback that solar is getting from utility companies, who fear it will cut into their profits and break their monopolies. (The predictions in certain corners of the business world that solar is coming to "take their lunch" isn't helping either.)

But there's another story - which is that solar is fighting back and winning. The most recent evidence is a decision last week in Iowa's Supreme Court, that has big implications for solar, both in the Midwest and elsewhere.

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Guess which two words can make your nonpartisan education reforms a hot potato?

globe in hands
Podoc

Depending on who you're talking to, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)-- the first major national recommendations for teaching science to be made since 1996 -- either painfully water down the presentation of climate-change information or attempt to brainwash our nation's youth into believing climate change is real.

The backlash to the NGSS began last year, but now, we also have the backlash to the backlash -- an effort by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others, to frame science education as a civil rights issue and mobilize a grassroots movement around the idea of a Climate Students Bill of Rights. The idea is to ensure that the new standards actually wind up getting taught.

If you're the kind of person who likes geeking out over curricula, you'll find the NGSS's website fascinating. How do we teach climate change? It's such an awkward thing to explain to children, who have not caused the problem and have yet to have a chance to help make it better. Or worse, for that matter.

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Is the carbon bubble about to bust? One unlikely pundit thinks so

bubble
Jeff Kubina

As Grist readers, I'm sure you've heard of the "carbon bubble" -- the idea that the oil, gas, and coal industries are overvalued in the market because that value is calculated using energy reserves that they won't be able to sell in any future that isn't a climate apocalypse.

I've read a lot of articles about the carbon bubble, but recently I ran across a particularly interesting one, written by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Daily Telegraph -- which, as Britain's Tory paper, isn't exactly a hotbed of anti-corporate sentiment.

Evans-Pritchard sees a lot of crazy things going on in the markets right now -- China's construction boom, in particular -- but he says that the most disconcerting is the amount of effort that oil and gas companies are spending looking for new resources in areas with such low profit margins. The gradual end of the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing policy in the U.S., and similar monetary tightening elsewhere, may also cause oil and gas prices to fall, turning the infrastructure that has been invested in finding oil and gas and getting it to market into an expensive liability.