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Philip Bump's Posts


Europe goes crazy for coal — and we can blame ourselves

London, during the coal-caused "Great Smog" of 1952. (Photo courtesy of Geograph.)

Germany just set a new record in solar energy production, creating 14.7 terawatt-hours of electricity over the first six months of 2012. Solar energy covered between 10 and 50 percent of the country's peak hour demand on average every day. Nice work, Germany!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe (and also in Germany):

Demand for coal, the dirtiest fuel for making electricity, grew 3.3 percent last year in Europe while sales of less-polluting natural gas fell 2.1 percent, the steepest drop since 2009, according to a BP Plc report.

Oh man, Europe, what happened? We thought you were cool.

But even with some European Union member nations implementing efforts to increase the cost of carbon pollution, coal is still less expensive than the alternatives. And Europe has its enablers:

Cheaper coal was made possible partly by a 49 percent jump in first-quarter imports from the U.S., Energy Information Administration data show.

The fracking boom in the U.S. has led to a big drop in coal use, meaning that we're now free to export that coal to Europe.

Ha ha. Um, sorry, guys.


Warming waters pose a huge threat to the world’s coral

Photo by Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There's a reason people focus on the preservation of coral reefs. They're an oddity (animals that look and behave like plants), a beauty (see photo above), and a ecological asset (reefs are enormously diverse ecosystems). The world has thousands of reefs in various sizes and at various levels of health.

Image courtesy of NASA.

And, according to a new study, they are all at enormous risk due to climate change.

For years, researchers have examined the expected impact of global warming on the reefs. Overfishing and pollution have long been identified as stressors for coral, with some scientists arguing that those factors are more critical threats. But a new study from researchers at Florida Institute of Technology suggests that coral has been decimated by warmer waters before.

The research from doctoral student Lauren Toth and advisor Richard Aronsen, published this week in Science, involved taking core samples from reefs, boring an aluminum pipe into dead reefs off the coast of Panama (nice work if you can get it). When they extracted the samples, they were surprised to find that two-and-a-half millennia of expected growth was missing.

Read more: Climate Change


Duke Energy CEO Bill Johnson resigns after one day, gets $44 million in severance

The headquarters of Duke Energy, where Bill Johnson worked for a bit. (Photo by K. Koukopoulus.)

When Duke Energy announced its merger with Progress Energy last year, the two companies agreed that Progress CEO Bill Johnson would assume the same position at the combined company. So he did: On June 27, Johnson signed a three-year contract to helm Duke. When the merger went into effect on July 2, he assumed the position of CEO.

And then, on July 3 at midnight, Johnson resigned. The Wall Street Journal:

Outsiders considered the turn of events highly unusual. New chief executives almost never quit days after accepting an employment contract, three executive-compensation consultants said.

It "is very odd" for a CEO to exit days after taking command, said David Schmidt, a consultant at James F. Reda & Associates, a compensation consulting firm in New York that wasn't involved with either company. "I have never seen that before.''

But let us not weep for our once and not-future king. Bill Johnson's golden parachute was not affected by his short flight.

Despite his short-lived tenure, Mr. Johnson will receive exit payments worth as much as $44.4 million, according to Duke. That includes $7.4 million in severance, a nearly $1.4 million cash bonus, a special lump-sum payment worth up to $1.5 million and accelerated vesting of his stock awards, according to a Duke regulatory filing Tuesday night. Mr. Johnson gets the lump-sum payment as long as he cooperates with Duke and doesn't disparage his former employer, the filing said.

Under his exit package, Mr. Johnson also will receive approximately $30,000 to reimburse him for relocation expenses.


Economy adds 80,000 new jobs — fewer than expected, hoped

Photo by Will Merydith.

This morning, as it does on the first Friday of every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its Employment Situation Summary. The "non-farm payroll" numbers, as they're better known, estimate the number of jobs created during the prior month, broken down by sector and participant demographics.

Economic reporters predicted that today's report would be somewhere on the order of 100,000 new jobs. It wasn't. The BLS estimates that 80,000 new jobs were created in June, keeping the unemployment rate steady at 8.2 percent. Here's how the data breaks down.

  • 12.7 million people are currently unemployed. The number of long-term unemployed (those who've been out of work for 27 weeks or more) stayed consistent at 5.4 million, about 42 percent of the unemployed.
  • Over the second quarter of 2012, job growth averaged 75,000 a month, compared to 226,000 in the first quarter.
  • 84,000 new jobs were created in the private sector, and the public sector (government) lost 4,000 jobs. This continues a recent trend of public-sector contraction. Over 600,000 public-sector jobs have been lost in the past few years.
  • The unemployment rate for blacks went up 0.8 percent to 14.4 percent overall. This is consistently the highest rate of unemployment for any demographic group. Most other groups remained consistent in June.
  • The rate of participation -- people of working age who are employed/seeking employment -- didn't change.
  • Manufacturing jobs went up by 11,000. Professional and business services increased by 47,000 jobs. Health care went up 13,000. Mining and logging jobs remained unchanged; oil and gas extraction went up slightly.
  • Average hourly earnings have increased 2 percent over the course of the year. Average hours worked ticked up 0.1 hour.
Read more: Politics


Scientists make depressing discovery about oceanic plastic pollution using depressing research technique

An as-yet unhelpful scientific indicator. (Photo by Jason Crotty.)

One of the best ways to determine how much plastic is polluting a region of the ocean is, unfortunately, to autopsy dead birds in the region. One species of bird in particular, the Northern fulmar, eats nearly anything, rarely regurgites plastic, and is populous enough to die in large numbers over a broad area. So scientists scour the beach for dead Northern fulmars and cut them open. Fun.

What they've found recently suggests a massive increase in the amount of plastic these birds are ingesting in the Pacific Northwest. From the Globe and Mail:

Necropsies of 67 of the beached gull-like seabirds collected between October 2009 and April 2010 from the coasts of B.C., Washington and Oregon indicated nearly 93 per cent of them had bellyfuls of plastic, she said.

One bird had 454 pieces of plastic in its gut, said [University of British Columbia researcher Stephanie] Avery-Gomm, the study’s lead author and graduate of the university’s zoology department.

Not only are more birds ingesting plastics, they're ingesting more of it.

The mass of plastic that’s eaten also increased dramatically -- from 0.04 grams in 1969-1977 to 0.385 grams in the current study, she said, adding the average northern fulmar weighs about 800 grams.

Read more: Animals, Pollution


South Korea may start hunting whales again, for ‘science’

CNN reports:

South Korea is considering hunting whales in the waters off its shores for what it says are scientific purposes, drawing criticism from environmental groups and countries around the Pacific Rim.

Citing calls from fishermen for a resumption of limited whaling, the head of the South Korean delegation to the International Whaling Commission, Kang Joon-suk, said Wednesday that Seoul was working on a proposal to hunt minke whales migrating off the Korean Peninsula.

As everyone knows, some of the world's greatest scientists are first-and-foremost fishermen: J. Craig Venter, James Cameron, the Gorton's guy.

The tastiest / most scientifically pertinent part. (Photo by kohane.)

The "we're doing it for science" argument is one that Japan has used for years. As of yet, there have been very few peer-reviewed studies about the whales that they catch.

Read more: Animals


Making pollution costly: How China, British Columbia, and Australia are trying to get it done

Photos taken over Australia and China during one flight. (Photo by hayzen77.)

This Times report about groundbreaking anti-pollution protests in China ends in a weird way. The story relates how unique protests in the country have stopped the creation of a copper smelting operation in Shifang. And then, as a coda:

But to the extent China toughens its environmental standards, it could erode some of the competitive advantage of Chinese companies and affect those multinationals that depend on Chinese suppliers for a huge variety of materials.

The “but” is a tremendously odd final note in an otherwise optimistic article. The Times is essentially saying, “In a repressive regime, people are finally fighting back. But it might diminish the country’s business advantage to address pollution, so …” It's particularly odd when one considers the artificiality of that business advantage. The apex (nadir?) of the race to the bottom is scrapping every constraint on business practices -- environmental, labor -- in order to be attractive in the marketplace. The Times' move here is like ending an expose about a toy company dumping toxic waste into a city reservoir with, "But ending this practice may make their toys more expensive." Well, yeah. That's kind of the point. The market shouldn't reward pollution or polluters that reduce costs by polluting.

Regular readers will see where this is going.

Read more: Politics


How’s the weather, America? July 5, 2012 edition

Basically: hot.

Everything west of the Mississippi is still on fire.

Also, some spots east of the Mississippi. Maybe also the Mississippi.

InciWeb tracks wildfires currently burning in the United States; right now, there are literally hundreds of thousands of acres on fire or recently burned. (Grist List has a horrifying, sad video from a family that visited the "moonscape" that was once their neighborhood.)

On the plus side, people are more and more willing to point at climate change as the culprit. Here's Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano drawing that connection.

Read more: Climate Change


Complete jerks think fracking is more important than democracy

The North Carolina State Capitol, where "democracy" happens. (Photo by Jim Bowen.)

Becky Carney, a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives, hit the wrong button.

She meant to support Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of a bill that would lift a ban on fracking in the state, but, instead, voted to overturn the veto. In other words, removing the quadruple negative, she voted to allow fracking in North Carolina. She'd never intended to do that -- in fact, a few weeks prior, Carney had voted against lifting the ban.

It gets worse. The vote required 72 votes for the veto to be overturned. Carney was the 72nd.

And then it gets hyper-mega-worse. Her colleagues ("colleagues") decided that she wasn't going to be allowed to change her vote.

The vote took her by surprise. Republicans limited debate on the fracking legislation – Senate bill 820 – and called the vote. Green button to override. Red button to sustain.

Carney hit the button and looked to the board above the chamber that shows the results: 72 to 46. The color next to Carney’s name matched the Republicans.

She panicked. She hit a different button to turn on her microphone and called to the House speaker on the dais. He didn’t recognize her. So she rushed to the front, 20 steps from her seat in the eighth row down the red-carpeted middle aisle.

Carney asked the clerk to check her vote. Green. Override.

She then asked Tillis if she could change her vote. Tillis said House rules prevented it.

Read more: Natural Gas, Politics


Japanese commission: Don’t blame Mother Nature for Fukushima

Cesium spread around Fukushima. (Click to embiggen.)

Japan's Fukushima disaster was one of the worst nuclear accidents in history, rendering a large area of the country uninhabitable for the immediate future. The meltdown was triggered by last year's earthquake and tsunami, but don't go blaming nature, says the commission tasked with assessing the crisis. According to a new report, the tsunami may have been the least significant contributor to the disaster.

The earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, were natural disasters of a scale that shocked the entire world. Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster -- that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.

These are the first words in the official report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, the introduction to the message from the commission's chair. Apparently he decided on the direct approach.

The report suggests a number of ways in which human error made a horrible situation much, much worse. Just a few of the excoriating lines:

The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. …

We conclude that TEPCO was too quick to cite the tsunami as the cause of the nuclear accident and deny that the earthquake caused any damage. ...

Had there been a higher level of knowledge, training, and equipment inspection related to severe accidents, and had there been specific instructions given to the on-site workers concerning the state of emergency within the necessary time frame, a more effective accident response would have been possible. …

The Commission concludes that the situation continued to deteriorate because the crisis management system of the Kantei, the regulators and other responsible agencies did not function correctly.

Reading this, it becomes clear that Murphy's Law is also in effect in Japan.

Read more: Nuclear