Skip to content Skip to site navigation


Ma, why does my scratch and sniff smell like a gas leak?


Back in January, I interviewed a very nice Texan who was organizing a neighborhood pipeline watch. While both oil and natural gas pipelines are the responsibility of the companies that build them (and the agencies that are supposed to keep an eye on them), in reality, the majority of leaks -- both natural gas and crude  -- are spotted by regular people.

Which is why the news that the pipeline company TransCanada is handing out scratch-and-sniff cards to Canadian farm kids so that they can identify pipeline leaks is both sensible and creepy. Sensible because: These kids and the pipelines occupy the same rural territory, so what kind of a jerk would judge an attempt to make that relationship safer? Creepy because: Children already have to deal with so much from adults -- is asking them to monitor our pipelines for us taking it a little too far?


How to not lose your shirt when the climate goes bust

Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Hank Paulson
Jim Gillooly/PEI; Helloaloe/Wikipedia; Fortune Live Media

Much of the computing power that crunches the data for the Bloomberg financial empire lives in a building on Houston and Hudson, in Manhattan. It won't be there for much longer, though. After Hurricane Sandy, having a data center three blocks from the Hudson River no longer feels like a great idea.

"I own my company," former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference Tuesday morning. "I want to sleep at night. I do some things so I can do that."

Bloomberg was there -- along with Tom Steyer, Henry Paulson, and a bipartisan League of Superfriends-style "Risk Committee" of political and financial heavy hitters -- to announce a project called Risky Business. The project, summarized in a report released today, is an ambitious attempt to spell out, in plainspoken, unvarnished business talk, the threat that climate change poses to the serious work of making money.


Climate change is the next market crash, says former Treasury secretary

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

It's not every day that a Republican finance guy -- one who remembers George W. Bush as a "terrific boss" -- writes an op-ed in The New York Times imploring the nation to set up a carbon tax. Not this year, anyway; just a few years ago, it might've been ho-hum.

Once, the carbon tax was the conservative, free-market solution to the climate problem, as opposed to the big-government, heavy-handed-regulation solution. Now that so many Republicans don't accept that there is any climate problem at all, the whole idea just looks like another evil tax to them. And when a former Treasury secretary under the GOP flag steps forward to advocate it -- to insist that we have no choice, we're crazy not to act fast and act big -- it's news.

In June of 2006, Henry Paulson left a position as CEO of Goldman Sachs to become secretary of the Treasury. At the time, Paulson reports telling President Bush and his economic team that he was fairly sure the country was headed for a financial crisis before the end of Bush's last term, based on the size of hedge funds and the lack of transparency in the over-the-counter derivative market, though he wasn't sure how specifically the collapse would happen.


Put solar on it

Celebrate solar power at a solstice event this weekend


It is a question for the ages: How does one go about making solar panels seem fun instead of just noble? This weekend's national celebration of all things solar, which goes by the very Portlandia name of "Put Solar on It," answers that question: in a way that is both dweeby and endearing.

On Saturday, June 21, the longest day of the year, Put Solar on It events will take place in cities and towns around the U.S. (you might be able to find one here or here). Some involve tours of local solar installations, others will have solar-related presentations and talks. If you can't make it to one, you can still play along at home by voting for your favorite solar installation (50 votes = $100 donated to a project).

The campaign is being put on by more than a dozen organizations, including Al Gore's Climate Reality Project and Organizing for Action, which is run by the organizers of Obama's reelection campaign. But "Put Solar on It" has its origins with the solar investment company Mosaic, which brainstormed the phrase back in December. "It made a good hashtag," said Katie Ullman, the company's communications manager.


Buying a bike? Now you can use Twitter to find out if it’s stolen property


Back in the olden days of 2005, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, bicyclist and web developer Bryan Hance had his bike stolen yet again in Portland, Ore. In response, he did what web developers so often do as a part of their grieving process: He built a website.

Hance wasn't the only person doing this. The rise of bicycling and everyone crowding onto the internet meant that anyone who had their bike stolen found themselves wading through a plethora of bike forums and Google groups dedicated to tracking down bikes and bike thieves. There were plenty of websites, but there wasn't a widely used database for stolen bikes, the way that there was for cars. While there was a national site affiliated with McGruff the Crimefighting Dog, it charged a stiff fee and only let law enforcement run searches through its database.

But Hance's database was particularly popular, even with people outside of Portland. When Hance announced early this week that his site had joined forces with an another bike registry -- a company named, which has ambitious plans to register bikes before they even reach their first owners -- it became, arguably, the closest thing we have to a national bicycle registry. From now on, whether you're looking at a bike in a used bike shop, or in someone's suburban garage, you can post the serial number to @isitstolen on Twitter, and a bot will report back to you on whether or not it's been reported stolen. (I just tried it and the bot told me that my bike isn't stolen, but sent me some depressing pictures of stolen bikes that look like mine.)

Read more: Cities, Living


Oil-train info does not need to be secret, feds say

oil train

Public release of details about oil-train routes and shipments does not pose a serious security risk, the federal government said yesterday.

Earlier this month, I wrote about how the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to tell states about shipments within their borders of the more-explosive-than-usual Bakken crude, so that those states and relevant municipalities could prepare for the Lac-Mégantic-sized explosions that might be lying in store for them.

Railroads said, "Yeah, sure," and then turned around and drew up non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) for every state they were routing oil through. By the conditions of the NDAs, the states could only use the crude shipment information for disaster planning and response. Any other disclosure and it was lawsuit time.


The Canadian pipeline (almost) everyone hates gets a go-ahead

Stephen Harper
The Prime Minister's Office

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has approved the Northern Gateway pipeline.

This is not a huge shock. This is the man, after all, who called Barack Obama to personally register his displeasure over the president's failure to approve Keystone XL. In the years before he was prime minister, Harper was a second-generation employee of the Imperial Oil Company. The man has governed in a way that is not only anti-environment but anti-environmental science. What else was he going to say to a pipeline besides "yes"?

Northern Gateway is tremendously exciting to those who invested big in Canada's tar sands, and then found that the pipeline that would get their product to market -- Keystone XL -- had become a symbol of everything dangerous about current energy markets. The Northern Gateway pipeline would carry diluted bitumen (a.k.a. dilbit -- tar-sands crude oil diluted in solvents so it's liquid enough to be pumped through a pipe) from Alberta through British Columbia to the Pacific port town of Kitimat. There, it would be loaded onto tankers bound for China -- now the world's largest net importer of petroleum and other liquid fuels -- and other countries in Asia.


Fuel disclosure

When cranky crude rides the rails, who should know?

A firefighter walks past a burning train wagon at Lac Megantic, Quebec, July 6, 2013.
Reuters/Mathieu Belanger

Last weekend, on June 7, it became official: After an emergency order from the federal Department of Transportation, railroads now have to tell state emergency responders when, and where, they happen to be driving trains full of Bakken crude through their region. Is this good news?

It is certainly better than nothing. In the last two years, this newfangled American crude from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota has shown a distressing propensity for exploding when it is loaded on trains and shipped cross-country. This seems to be caused by a variety of factors: old train cars; mystery solvents that are mixed in with the crude in order to keep it liquid and that could be dissolving the train cars; the flammability of the Bakken crude itself.

After a runaway train exploded in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, last year and killed 47 people, and an analysis by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Organization showed that seven of the 10 worst oil spills of the decade in the U.S. had happened in the last three years, people began looking, with great interest, into whether trains full of Bakken oil were being routed through their towns.

When they did this they were often stonewalled by railroads, who said that, since the crude was so flammable, its movements through the country were a matter of national security. Railroads sometimes revealed the information, but they did it haphazardly, so that some fire departments knew that Bakken crude was passing through and some didn't.


Four reasons why Portland became a cyclists’ utopia

Portland tweed ride
Will Vanlue

When I was young, I left the Motor City for a city that I would never have to drive in again. Years later, so did my sister.

Television commercials made the relationship between cars and humans look like a romance, but from a kid's perspective, it looked like an abusive relationship. Automobiles had a way of breaking down when you needed them most, taking large amounts of your money without warning, and attracting unwelcome attention from law enforcement officers. Little in the movie 8-Mile feels like a genuine depiction of Detroit life, but one thing feels accurate: the way that no one’s car will start.

I moved to San Francisco. My sister moved to Portland. I love San Francisco, the way that you do, but whenever I visit my sister I cannot help noticing that -- as far as gracious, car-free living goes -- she made the better choice. When I visit her, I don’t have to look at every car that I pass and gauge the risk of being doored, because, in a lot of places, the bike lane is wide enough for both me and an open car door. I rarely have to merge into car traffic and route myself around someone who has double-parked in the middle of a bike lane, because some traffic engineer has thoughtfully placed a barrier between car and bike traffic. All is not perfect; my sister still got doored last winter. But Portland had zero bike deaths last year (and many years before it), which is more than you can say about San Francisco.

How did this come to pass? While Portland has a reputation for being the most uber-millennial of millennial cities, it’s not that different from your average American college town. Bicycling in cities has been on the rise for years now; what made Portland so ready for it, when bicyclists in other cities have had to struggle? I did some digging, and came up with a few theories.

Read more: Cities, Living


Climate change rocks a key Michigan Senate race

Piles of petroleum coke near the Marathon Refinery in Detroit MI, circa 2103
Detroit Petcoke Facebook Group

The summer that I learned to drive, it rained almost every day. No one in my neighborhood knew quite what to make of it. Summers in the suburbs of Detroit were brutal, and if you knew what you were doing you spent them cultivating the friendship of someone with a swimming pool or air conditioning, because the alternative was lying on the linoleum with a glass of ice water in each hand, praying for death. "So much," my mom said, "for global warming!" She had just picked me up from driver's ed. I had spent all afternoon trying to learn …

Read more: Cities, Politics