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How the rare earth elements in your iPhone are polluting Inner Mongolia

In your pocket right now, you probably have some lanthanum, some europium, maybe a little cerium. At least, if you have your smartphone with you.

Called "rare earth" elements, these minerals critical to the operation of many modern devices live up to the scarcity implied by their name. Though the metals have been found in America, 97 percent of global supply comes from China. Two-thirds of that comes from an area in Inner Mongolia.

Where is the "do not ruin Inner Mongolia" app?

The Guardian details what the industry means for the surrounding region.

It was in 1958 -- when [Li Guirong] was 10 -- that a state-owned concern, the Baotou Iron and Steel company (Baogang), started producing rare-earth minerals. ... "To begin with we didn't notice the pollution it was causing. How could we have known?" As secretary general of the local branch of the Communist party, he is one of the few residents who dares to speak out.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Li explains, crops in nearby villages started to fail: "Plants grew badly. They would flower all right, but sometimes there was no fruit or they were small or smelt awful." Ten years later the villagers had to accept that vegetables simply would not grow any longer. In the village of Xinguang Sancun – much as in all those near the Baotou factories -- farmers let some fields run wild and stopped planting anything but wheat and corn.

Read more: Living

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Is fracking linked to earthquakes? Yeah, kinda, sorta, probably

A lovely, elegant fracking rig that is tangentially related to this story. (Photo by Jeremy Buckingham.)

Injection wells used to dispose of fracking wastewater may be correlated with an uptick in earthquakes, according to a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. The finding echoes other recent research. From a report at EurekAlert:

Most earthquakes in the Barnett Shale region of north Texas occur within a few miles of one or more injection wells used to dispose of wastes associated with petroleum production such as hydraulic fracturing fluids, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin. None of the quakes identified in the two-year study were strong enough to pose a danger to the public.

The study by Cliff Frohlich, senior research scientist at the university's Institute for Geophysics, appears this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. …

Frohlich analyzed seismic data collected between November 2009 and September 2011 by the EarthScope USArray Program, a National Science Foundation-funded network of broadband seismometers from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. Because of the high density of instruments (25 in or near the Barnett Shale), Frohlich was able to detect earthquakes down to magnitude 1.5, far too weak for people to feel at the surface.

Frohlich clarified his findings: "You can't prove that any one earthquake was caused by an injection well. But it's obvious that wells are enhancing the probability that earthquakes will occur."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Oil refinery on San Francisco Bay erupts into flames

At 6:15 Pacific time last evening, crude distillation unit Number 4 at Chevron's Richmond, California, petroleum refinery exploded. From the Times:

"I walked outside and saw what looked like a lot of steam coming out of Chevron, way more than usual. I thought they must have blown a boiler," said Ryan Lackay, a 45-year-old employee at a chemical plant next door to the refinery.

"And then all of a sudden it just went whoosh, it ignited."

According to a nearby reporter, other explosions followed. The resulting fire created a massive cloud of black smoke that hung over Richmond and drifted south over the San Francisco Bay. Multiple BART stations were closed; the National Weather Service issued a "shelter in place" advisory to residents of the East Bay area.

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More evidence of the EPA’s deeply nefarious plot to undermine coal

The red dot on this piece of coal is from the sights of an EPA sniper.

The worst thing about the way in which the EPA is killing coal is how sneaky it's being about it. I mean, you'd think that the agency could just be direct about killing off the coal industry, using its regulations and what-not, but instead it's going through this ridiculously complex effort: shifting the international market for energy; diminishing Appalachian coal seams; making it easier to extract natural gas. I mean, you really have to admire it -- so devious, yet so effective.

Here's one example. The Charleston Gazette ran a feature focused on the slowdown in the coal industry. It's a smart, poignant look at affected workers and how the decline in jobs trickles out through a region that is deeply dependent on coal. And then it turns to the EPA.

The belief in Eastern Kentucky is that federal environmental rules are to blame for the loss of coal jobs -- the "war on coal" that officials in the region decry -- but several analysts said other factors led to the layoffs this year.

Most notably, they pointed to historically low prices for natural gas and the unseasonably warm winter of 2011-12, which left power plants with stockpiles of coal.

Other factors, such as the slow recovery in manufacturing and the broader economy, also have played parts in the drop in demand for coal.

Changes in drilling technology have allowed companies to unlock vast new sources of natural gas in recent years, sending supplies up and prices sharply down.

It goes on and on: increases in production costs, decreases in coal spot prices, etc.

It's obviously the federal government that is fracking up all that natural gas. Without a doubt, the EPA is behind coal-seam depletion in Eastern Kentucky. And clearly government regulation made the winter so warm. (See Senate bill S.451 in the Congressional Record.) And yet the Gazette broadly lets the EPA off the hook.

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Gibson Guitars’ noble stand against the government ends with admission of wrong-doing

Late last year, Tea Party groups in Tennessee held a rally in defense of Gibson Guitars. Gibson had been cited by the federal government for allegedly using illegally logged ebony and rosewood. (You can read our reporting on it here.) To some on the right, this was just another case of the feds overstepping their bounds, the nanny state, etc. And this was Gibson! An American institution!

“We will fight, and we will make sure other companies do not face bullies with guns,” [Gibson CEO Henry] Juszkiewicz said at the Saturday rally [last October], according to the Nashville Tennessean. “With your help, we will make permanent changes.”

Yes! Fight the power, Hank! You show those feds who's boss!

And now, an update from the Wall Street Journal:

Gibson Guitar Corp. has agreed to pay a $300,000 penalty under a criminal enforcement agreement with the U.S., arising from allegations that the company violated the Lacey Act by illegally purchasing and importing ebony wood from Madagascar and rosewood and ebony from India.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Colorado utility hits high of 57% wind power

wind turbineWhat Mitt Romney might call a "devil flower." (Photo by Eric Tastad.)

Last week, we told you about Mitt Romney's visit to Colorado, made a smidge uncomfortable by his suggesting that he wanted all Coloradans to get fired from their jobs and, worse, move to Wyoming. Well, not really. He only wanted people who worked in the wind industry to lose their jobs, and he didn't take a public position on their state of residence.

If the production tax credit for wind energy -- due to expire at the end of the year -- isn't renewed, thousands of people in Colorado could lose their jobs. Not to mention some of their wind power -- an energy source that provided a record-setting percentage of power to the state's biggest utility on a day in April.

During the early morning hours of April 15, with a steady breeze blowing down Colorado's Front Range, the state's biggest utility set a U.S. record -- nearly 57% of the electricity being generated was coming from wind power.

As dawn came and the 1.4 million customers in Xcel Energy's service district began turning on the lights, toasters and other appliances, the utility's coal and natural gas-fired power plants ramped up production and brought wind's contribution back closer to its 2012 average of 17%. …

Colorado's overnight high-water mark demonstrated that utilities can indeed incorporate cleaner power sources into the mix.

Mind you, this is at the front end of a transition to renewable energy. Wind provides an average of about a fifth of the state's power needs.

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How’s the weather, America? Aug. 6 edition

This is part of an ongoing series in which we try to make ourselves feel better the horrible weather by making jokes about it -- kind of like Woody Allen would do, but without any family dysfunction.

It's cooler in Oklahoma -- where it isn't on fire.

"Cooler" is what's known as a "relative term." On Friday, we outlined the many, varied, terrible afflictions the state of Oklahoma faces due to the drought, while the state's senior senator gallivants around Washington raising money from fossil-fuel companies.

Over the weekend, things got worse. From USA Today (yesterday):

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In the climate crap shoot, it’s getting harder and harder to win

When I testified before the Senate in the hot summer of 1988, I warned of the kind of future that climate change would bring to us and our planet. I painted a grim picture of the consequences of steadily increasing temperatures, driven by mankind’s use of fossil fuels.

But I have a confession to make: I was too optimistic.

James Hansen directs NASA's Goddard Institute. You've heard the name; he was one of the earliest, loudest voices calling for action on climate change. He's the man who told 350's Bill McKibben that a completed Keystone XL pipeline was "game over" for the planet.

Today, in a study released by NASA, Hansen suggests that we're already way, way behind in the game.

Photo by trdesignr.

The quote above comes from an opinion piece that ran in the Washington Post this weekend. In it, Hansen outlines the ways in which global warming has exceeded even his own pessimistic expectations.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Human Curiosity lands on Mars

If you watched the Olympic opening ceremonies (or, you know, have access to the internet), you'll recognize this photo.

Photo by the U.K. Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The five rings, showering sparks as though newly forged, hung in the center of Olympic Stadium. When the sparks slowed and then stopped, five glowing Olympic rings hung in the sky.

Photo by Nick Webb.

But there was a bug. One or two of the showers didn't stop. The rings hung there -- sensational, massive, amazing -- but with a glitch, a pimple on the face of the whole affair. This little spout of flame. This one little problem. What does $42 million buy you? A nearly perfect display.

I couldn't help but think about that little glitch last night -- at 1 in the morning Eastern -- as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) neared the red planet.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Busy mocking the trees, Inhofe misses the forest fire

A forest fire in Oklahoma. (Photo from Del City Fire.)

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) thinks he has our number.

Inhofe is convinced that his savvy refutations of global warming have pinned the environmental movement back on its heels. That his clever, amusing digs at climate change show that he's a winner and we're all losers. On Wednesday, he told his peers that "the global warming movement has completely collapsed," surely crediting his infallible, rapier wit.

Here's an example of how Inhofe plays his game. Yesterday, ThinkProgress picked up a photo from a TV station in Oklahoma City, submitted to them by a local resident, that claimed to show streetlights melting in the heat. It was quite a picture, and it quickly made the rounds. (I myself shared the link.) Turns out it wasn't due to hot weather, but to a Dumpster fire (which should have been obvious).

But Inhofe, the cool jock in this high school full of environerds, seized on the mistake and ran with it.

Inhofe Exposes Another Epic Fail by Global Warming Alarmists

… These alarmists never learn their lesson. Remember Bill McKibben was the one who was going to melt a giant ice sculpture in the shape of the word ‘hoax' on the national mall, but his group had to cancel because there wasn't enough interest. Now, after proclaiming that street lights in Oklahoma are melting because of global warming, we have confirmation that a fire caused this scene.

Zing! Got us again! That wit is no doubt why you're a United States senator! (Well, that and the $1.4 million in campaign contributions you've received from the oil and gas industry over your career.)

Read more: Uncategorized