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The five farm bill amendments you should keep an eye on

The farm bill, a massive Gordian knot of legislation that rolls through Congress every five years or so, has rolled into Congress. Not recently, mind you, it's already been under discussion and in negotiation for a year. The bill touches nearly every aspect of America's food system -- and sucks in more than a few tangential issues as well. (If you're new to the bill and its details, our page of posts on the topic is the best place to start. NPR also has a good overview.)

Right now, the Senate is considering the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (read: the farm bill, though ARFJA is also catchy). It left the Senate Agriculture committee and arrived on the Senate floor, where it was promptly peppered with over 90 amendments.

We went through and identified five of the 90 that are most worth paying attention to. If you have additions or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments; consider this a living document. As the bill progresses through the Senate and then the House -- perhaps even before the existing legislation expires at the end of September -- we'll track its evolution and likely impacts.

Read more: Farm Bill, Food, Politics

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Big mystery: U.S. oil production hits 14-year high, gas prices not at 14-year low

Great news, America! The amount of crude oil produced within our borders is at the highest levels we've seen since 1998.

This is mostly because of the drilling booms in North Dakota and Texas.

This is basically the scenario that fossil fuel companies argue for. Let's drill more, they say, and then gas prices will go down. It makes intuitive sense, right? The more oil to make gas with, the more gas; the more gas, the lower the price. Good old supply and demand.

But -- and I don't want to freak you out or imply that fossil fuel companies are being disingenuous -- gas prices are not at the lowest point since 1998. In fact, they may be starting to go back up.

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China’s smog city: What Wuhan looks like with 20 times the U.S. dust limit

This is what residents of the Chinese province of Wuhan woke up to yesterday.

At about 2 a.m. local time Monday morning, a dense smog began to cover the province. By early afternoon, it reached its peak density in the land-locked city of Wuhan itself.

People posted numerous photos of the haze on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter. One blogger described her friends in the city darkly joking about being turned into Incredible Hulks.

Read more: Cities, Clean Air

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Romney energy advisor on oil subsidies: Four more years!

In an appearance before the Senate Finance Committee tomorrow, the CEO of Continental Resources will argue for preserving the billions of dollars in tax subsidies the federal government provides to oil companies each year. Given that Continental Resources bills itself as "America's Oil Champion" (after, we assume, a difficult championship battle), the CEO's stance probably comes as no surprise. In fact, it's hard to figure out why the Senate's even bothering to hear from him, when a large blinking sign reading MORE MONEY PLS would be functionally equivalent.

But the CEO of Continental Resources, one Harold Hamm, isn't just another energy executive. He's also chair of Mitt Romney's energy advisory team. The Hill got a copy of his planned testimony, in which Hamm declares that "[t]he tax provisions that let us keep our own money to reinvest in drilling are crucial to keep this energy revival going." More directly, Hamm implies that ending the subsidies would "slow down, if not stop, America’s march to energy independence."

Read more: Oil, Politics

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California celebrities are wasting electricity moving water around

UPDATE: Sometimes, America, sometimes in the heat of our excitement about coming up with a lot of California jokes, we read things wrong. In this case: the diagram below. So, basically the whole post. I've corrected it below. Credit to commenter Maylward who was able to both read properly, unlike me, and graciously note my error.

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) runs the state's electrical grid. They're responsible for making sure the state has enough electricity to do the things it needs to do: making movies, fermenting wines, playing air hockey at Google, slouching around Golden Gate Park, etc.

But in what mix? How much of the electricity was going to ensure that Tom Cruise had the proper lighting and how much was going to display Albert Pujols' name on a scoreboard? They did the math to figure it out. And the answer was: not a whole lot went to either of those things probably still a decent amount! (Especially Cruise.)

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Estimates of Michigan’s Enbridge spill were way (way) too low

Oil-coated birds from Michigan.

In 2010, a rupture in an Enbridge Energy pipeline dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil sands crude into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.

When the spill was first reported, Enbridge estimated that 819,000 gallons of oil had escaped. Later, it revised the estimate upward to more than 843,000 gallons.

Those were both low.

Read more: Oil

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U.N. tries to inspire world bike revolution, doesn’t

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stood at a podium outside the U.N. on Friday wearing a dashing bike helmet — only to break my heart.

A promise had been made to me that I would get to ride bikes with the secretary general. To be fair, the promise was only implied; the invite from the Embassy of the Netherlands and its associated partners read only, "U.N. Bike Ride." But I definitely was under the impression that the secretary general of the U.N. and I would very possibly be riding bikes simultaneously, in the same vicinity, in concert. Discussing issues of the day; inspiring others around us to celebrate the bike as a low-carbon -- high-fun! -- means of transport.

This is not me.

I hadn't been to the U.N. before. People that live in New York don't really go there. Only in New York City would an international organization tasked with keeping the world prosperous, healthy, and at peace be relegated to a strip of land by a murky river and then ignored. The complex sits like a once-great college campus at the end of 42nd Street, oozing stale optimism onto the highway that runs underneath it. It's a symbol, not a destination -- for this idea that we can all work together to change the world for the better despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

With the Earth Summit -- or as it's officially known, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (oh, bureaucracy) -- now days away, we're in one of our hopeful periods about the U.N., like we just bought a lottery ticket that probably won't pay off but-what-if-this-one-time. Maybe this time, the U.N. will shift the world on its axis.

And how better to inaugurate that sentiment than a bike ride through New York City? A rainbow-colored coterie of diplomats and press and New Yorkers sweeping out from behind the high gates of the U.N. like Willy Wonka stepping into the public light, a show of solidarity revealing a magic that inspired the world. Or, at the very least, a visible statement of the utility and rationality of using bikes in America's biggest city. I mean, it works in the Netherlands, and bike use is expanding in the U.S.

The very least I could do is join in.

Read more: Biking, Cities

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Clean energy investments climb, along with Big Oil’s blood pressure

Chinese workers with a solar panel

Last year, global investment in renewable energy passed the quarter-trillion-dollar mark, hitting $257 billion, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

In other words, investors spent about $38 for every human being on Earth. Someone needs to tell these job creators that they're ruining a lot of people's arguments about the green economy.

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Philadelphia invests in fresh food to fight obesity — but will it work?

Via sodapop on FlickrPhoto (of a store in NYC) by sodapop on Flickr.

Thirty-two-point-six percent of the residents of Philadelphia are obese -- a staggering figure, and a higher percentage than any other large city in America.

To address the issue, the city has committed $900,000 to a program that would expand access to healthful food at small, local convenience stores. (We wrote about Philadelphia's efforts last August.) Selecting some 600 of its 2,500 corner stores to receive funding -- and refrigeration systems -- the city aims to make fresh fruits and vegetables available in communities that are currently labeled food deserts.

The Washington Post's Wonkblog spoke to Philadelphians about the program -- and have seen some early signs that people are taking advantage of the produce.

Anecdotal reports from shop owners suggest that sales of fresh produce have indeed increased alongside the surge in supply.

“Almost every day, people grab lettuce or something,” says Catalina Morrell-Hunter, who has owned her corner store in North Philadelphia for 15 years. Apples and oranges go fastest, and cilantro has proved popular in the largely Hispanic neighborhood. “I don’t say I sell like an entire market does. But when people are short a carrot, they can come to the convenience store.”

Read more: Cities, Food, Politics

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Did you say ‘sea-level rise’? You liberal.

Via jaaronPhoto of Beijing smog by jaaron on Flickr.

Last week, the Chinese government demanded that foreign embassies stop reporting independent air pollution measurements. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, for example, has a monitor on its roof that automatically tweets information about the city's particulate and ozone pollution.

The government claims that its objection is based on the small sample size such readings necessarily represent. The real critique, of course, is that air pollution in that nation's capital is an ongoing source of tension and embarrassment -- one that the government would rather not be a matter of public knowledge. It's embarrassing to have your carefully crafted messaging fall apart in the face of scientific evidence.

But that's China -- a repressive regime that mirrors 1984, right? It doesn't know the freedoms and honest debate that comes from living in a democracy.

Hold that thought.

Read more: Cities, Politics, Pollution