Skip to content Skip to site navigation

John Upton's Posts


USDA doesn’t care about GMO contamination of alfalfa

baled alfalfa
Is this normal hay or a freak Monsanto strain? The lines have getting blurry, and the government doesn't care.

The federal government has refused to take any action in response to a Monsanto variety of alfalfa ending up in a Washington farmer's supposedly GMO-free crop.

The farmer's harvest was rejected for export because tests showed it was tainted with Monsanto's Roundup Ready variety. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture just considers contamination like that to be the new normal. From Reuters:


Big Coal, Republicans go after Obama’s energy nominee, saying he’s too green

Ron Binz
Ron Binz

Ron Binz is an experienced electricity regulator who understands the important role that wind and solar power are playing as they pour electrons into grids across the country. He was the lead author of a paper last year that described how boosting renewable energy infrastructure could hedge against fossil-fuel cost increases, aging equipment, and other risks.

"This is no time for backward-looking decision making," he wrote in that paper [PDF], published by the nonprofit Ceres. "It is vital -- for electricity consumers and utilities’ own economic viability -- that their investment decisions reflect the needs of tomorrow’s cleaner and smarter 21st century infrastructure and avoid investing in yesterday’s technologies."

So no frickin' way is this guy qualified to oversee the nation's power lines! Am I right?

No, of course I'm not right. But that's what the coal sector is arguing as it desperately rallies Republican opposition to President Obama's nomination of Binz to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The New York Times reports that the "fight over Mr. Binz has been unusually public, considering that the job at stake is at an agency most people cannot name." From Bloomberg's coverage of a Senate confirmation hearing held on Tuesday:


Fracking study downgrades methane worries, escalates enviro infighting

pie fight
No pies have been thrown yet, but we wouldn't rule it out.

The latest research on methane emissions at fracking sites is dividing environmentalists.

A study of 190 natural gas fracking sites, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that methane leaks at the sites were notably lower than fracking critics have warned.

The New York Times reports that the study is "the most comprehensive look to date" at the issue of methane leakage during natural gas drilling and production:

The study, conducted by the University of Texas and sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund and nine petroleum companies, ... concluded that while the total amount of escaped methane from shale-gas operations was substantial — more than one million tons annually — it was probably less than the Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2011.

From the AP:

The findings bolster a big selling point for natural gas, that it's not as bad for global warming as coal. And they undercut a major environmental argument against fracking, a process that breaks apart deep rock to recover more gas. The study ... doesn't address other fracking concerns about potential air and water pollution.


America’s kids eating healthier, getting fitter

Kids exercising
Yay for exercise and healthy food.

Here's news as sweet as a fistful of blueberries: American kids aged 11 to 16 were eating more fruit and vegetables in 2009 than those who came before them just eight years earlier, according to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

Kids are also cutting back on sweets and sugary drinks, eating breakfast more regularly, spending more time exercising, and spending less time in front of the television, the study found:

Read more: Food, Living


Pebble Mine project in Alaska is on the ropes

Bristol Bay
Friends of Bristol Bay
A waterway that leads to Bristol Bay.

The future of the controversial Pebble Mine, which could excavate 186 square miles [PDF] of pristine Alaskan terrain, is now very much up in the air.

The proposed mine near Bristol Bay would dig up an estimated $300 billion worth of gold, copper, and molybdenum. But it would threaten another treasure: one of the world's biggest salmon runs, which provides half the world's supply of sockeye.

One of two global mining giants involved in the project announced Monday that it was walking away from what it regards as a high-risk venture. U.K.-based Anglo American had spent $541 million getting the 50/50 joint-venture project nearly to the point where it could begin applying for state and federal permits. By quitting now, it avoids spending nearly $1 billion more it had agreed to sink into development of the mine. Anglo told shareholders it would write $300 million of intangible assets off of its ledger at the end of the year -- the price of walking away from a deal that it once thought would lead to bountiful riches.

It's too early to say what this will mean for the fate of the project, but environmentalists rejoiced in the news while investors choked on it.


Herbicide drift threatens vineyards


Vineyards might not be the first agrarian landscape to spring to mind when you think about Wisconsin, but a thriving wine and grape juice industry is emerging in the Badger State.

The problem is that a lot of the corn and soy grown nearby is genetically engineered to withstand herbicides. As Wisconsin's farmers douse their crops with chemicals such as dicamba and 2,4-D, a lot of those herbicides are blowing over neighboring vineyards -- a problem called pesticide drift.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reports that the number of grape farms in the state has doubled since 2005. There are now more than 100 commercial vineyards in Wisconsin, which generate $100 million a year in sales and farm work. But those drifting herbicides are a serious problem for the viniculturists:

Herbicides that are used to kill weeds in crops such as corn and soybeans can be deadly to other plants, including grapes. Food or wine grape vines exposed to the chemicals may shrivel up, turn colors and grow strange, elongated new leaves.


Bobby Jindal to axe officials who took on Big Oil

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindall
Gage Skidmore
Lawsuits against Big Oil make Bobby Jindal feel emotions.

We told you last month that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) doesn't want Big Oil to be forced to spend billions of dollars to repair the marshes that once protected his state from floods.

Now comes news of the extreme steps Jindal is willing to take to ensure that the gas and oil industry, which has paid more than $1 million into his election campaigns, is protected from a lawsuit filed in July by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.

The flood authority is suing BP, ExxonMobil, and other oil companies in a bid to force them to spend billions restoring shorelines that they tore up while exploring and drilling for gas and oil and building pipelines. Those shorelines had been home to marshes and other coastal ecosystems that naturally buffered the New Orleans area from rising seas and storm surges.

The flood-control officials would like those marshes back, pretty please. But Jindal thinks their lawsuit is an outrageous attack on a wholesome industry that shouldn't be held accountable for its own actions. He's moving to kill the lawsuit by reshaping the authority's 11-person board, axing members who support it. From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:


Oil and fracking chemicals spill into Colorado’s floodwaters

Colorado floods.
Fracking equipment overwhelmed by floodwaters in Weld County, Colo, northeast of Denver.

Heavy rains returned to Colorado on Sunday and hampered rescue efforts after last week's flash floods. The confirmed death toll has risen to seven, and hundreds are still unaccounted for. An estimated 1,500 homes are destroyed. Some 1,000 people in Larimer County, north of Boulder, were awaiting airlifts that never came on Sunday -- they were called off because of the foul weather.

The floods have also triggered other problems that have gotten a lot less media attention: Fracking infrastructure has been inundated and its toxic contents have spilled out. Pipelines that transport fossil fuels are sagging and snapping under pressure. Tanks that store chemicals and polluted water are being overwhelmed and toppling over. Oil and gas wells are flooding.

The Boulder Daily Camera reports:

Lafayette-based anti-fracking activist Cliff Willmeng said he spent two days “zig-zagging” across Weld and Boulder counties documenting flooded drilling sites, mostly along the drainageway of the St. Vrain River. He observed “hundreds” of wells that were inundated. He also saw many condensate tanks that hold waste material from fracking at odd angles or even overturned.


Wasted food is a huge climate problem

Rotting pepper.
Global warmer.

If wasted food became its own pungent country, it would be the world's third biggest contributor to climate change.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization had previously determined that roughly one-third of food is wasted around the world. Now it has used those figures to calculate the environmental impacts of farming food that is never eaten, along with the climate-changing effects of the methane that escapes from food as it rots.

The results, published in a new report [PDF], were as nauseating as a grub-infested apple:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Bills will make it easier for Californians to buy and sell solar power

Los Angeles
The sun always shines in Los Angeles -- and soon more residents will be able to take advantage of that fact.

No rooftop? No yard? No problem!

All Californians will be able to invest in solar and wind projects to reduce their power costs and their carbon footprints under a bill awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) signature.

"SB 43 will allow the millions of Californians who cannot install their own solar unit, windmill, or other renewable power generation system to obtain renewable energy through their utility,” said one of the bill's authors, state Sen. Lois Wolk (D).