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Another reason to bug out: Drought puts electrical production at risk

In 2005, Americans used 410 billion gallons of water a day. In the spirit of the soon-to-commence-we've-heard London Olympics, that's enough to fill 620,808 Olympic-sized swimming pools. In the spirit of the 2000 Sydney Games, it's three times the amount of water in Sydney Harbor. (How much we use now is probably similar, but the U.S. Geological Survey's research on 2010 won't be ready until 2014.)

Half of the water we use goes to power generation. Michael Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas, finds that worrisome, given our recent water-access difficulties. (Yes, we're talking about the drought again. Get used to it.) He wrote an editorial for The New York Times titled, "Will Drought Cause the Next Blackout?"

During the 2008 drought in the Southeast, power plants were within days or weeks of shutting down because of limited water supplies. In Texas today, some cities are forbidding the use of municipal water for hydraulic fracturing. The multiyear drought in the West has lowered the snowpack and water levels behind dams, reducing their power output. The United States Energy Information Administration recently issued an alert that the drought was likely to exacerbate challenges to California’s electric power market this summer, with higher risks of reliability problems and scarcity-driven price increases.

Read more: Fossil Fuels, Wind Power

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Cargill recalls over 29,000 pounds of ground beef

Under no circumstances should you just dig into this with a spoon. (Photo by Danielle Scott.)

People: Cook your burgers.

Cargill Beef recalled 29,339 pounds of fresh ground yesterday after a salmonella outbreak in seven states made 33 people sick. From Food Safety News:

Cargill Beef late Sunday recalled almost 30,000 pounds of 85 percent lean, fresh, ground beef, produced by the company at Wyalusing, PA on May 25, 2012. The meat may be contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) associated with an ongoing multiple state outbreak of SE.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said it became aware of the the problem "during the course of an ongoing investigation of a multistate outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis involving 33 case-patients from 7 states (MA, ME, NH, NY, RI, VA, and VT.)"

A problem: The meat is likely no longer in stores.

While the use-by date has passed and these products are no longer available for retail sale, FSIS and the company are concerned that some product may be frozen in consumers' freezers.

Read more: Food

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Fracking research: Industry-sponsored, unclear, and misinterpreted

If you look like this, skip to the last paragraph.

If you're a scientist, particularly one who does research into fracking, feel free to skip down to the last paragraph of this article. You gone? Good.

Everyone else, listen up. We need to talk about something. Non-scientists like you and me sometimes make mistakes on the science.

Let me show you how. For one thing, we don't always consider the source of scientific research. For example: Turns out that fracking proponents fund the research that is used to push pro-fracking policy. Shocking, right? Here's Bloomberg News:

As the U.S. enjoys a natural-gas boom from a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, producers are taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook: funding research at established universities that arrives at conclusions that counter concerns raised by critics. ...

In 2008, private sources provided about 6 percent of all academic research funding, according to a June report from the Washington-based AAUP. The figure excludes gifts, endowments for new faculty appointments, consulting or speaking fees, honoraria, seats on company boards, commercial licensing revenue, or equity in startups.

Controversy has followed when research too closely supports a corporate agenda. Litigation against tobacco companies helped reveal a decades-long effort that relied on academic research to suppress the dangers of smoking.

Such sponsorship doesn't necessarily taint the results, but it certainly makes it hard to assume that the research is without bias. And what we need in the debate over fracking is clarity around impacts.

There’s another mistake non-scientists make, particularly when they have an agenda: They distort and misread research even from unbiased sources. Anti-fracking activists have been doing this, according to the Associated Press.

Read more: Uncategorized

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The $1.3 billion wasted in the debt ceiling fight could buy a lot of Merlot

If this were the last bill being placed on a pile of $1.3 billion, it would be 88.25 miles above ground. (Photo by doctorwonder.)

The phony, unnecessary debt ceiling fight last year cost the government $1.3 billion [PDF] by increasing the Treasury Department's borrowing costs.

$1.3 billion is a lot of money. So much so, that we thought we'd illustrate it in a way that opponents of raising the debt ceiling would appreciate. Here's what $1.3 billion can buy you in various hyper-stereotypical liberal products.

Read more: Politics

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Republicans want end to regulations, you eaten by alligator

Click to embiggen.

This graph shows the civilian unemployment rate in America since 1970. It's been kind of up and down, dropping as low as 4 percent after the economic boom of the 1990s. On average, it's been at about 6.1 percent, per my back-of-the-envelope calculations.

So House Republicans have a clever idea: Let's ban any new major regulations until unemployment drops below 6 percent! It's called the "Regulatory Freeze for Jobs Act," the thinking being that tacking "for Jobs" onto the end of any random phrase will increase the likelihood of passage. ("Banning Sex for Jobs." "Sending Puppies to Canada for Jobs.") But really: no major new regulations at all. The Congressional Budget Office, tasked with figuring out the possible cost of the proposal, basically threw up its hands and said, "Dunno." [PDF] Because seriously: what?

Sherwood Boehlert, former Republican U.S. rep from New York state, weighed in at The Hill.

[T]his bill is not drafted to deal with any practical concern ...; it’s designed to codify an ideological fantasy. Bills like this make it harder, not easier to get down to the real work of improving the regulatory system.

And:

Atlas may shrug, but mere mortals should take note. The right wing is serious about disabling the government.

This alligator both relates to the story and is a metaphor. (Photo by renedrivers.)

Indeed! Last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned of another way in which the right wing is trying to disable government: choking off funding for conservation programs.

Read more: Politics

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Drought in U.S. is terrible news for the whole wide world

Time for another episode of The drought is destroying America and now is the time to panic, our non-award-winning series about how the drought is destroying America and how now is the time to panic.

Today's horrible forecast. (Image courtesy of NOAA.)

We are not alone in our assessments of the drought, though we are almost certainly the only ones to have wisely named our coverage DroughtDrought (trademark pending). Let us cite the reporting of others in our incitement to panic.

The New York Times, in its article "Widespread Drought Is Likely to Worsen":

What is particularly striking about this dry spell is its breadth. Fifty-five percent of the continental United States -- from California to Arkansas, Texas to North Dakota -- is under moderate to extreme drought, according to the government, the largest such area since December 1956. An analysis released on Thursday by the United States Drought Monitor showed that 88 percent of corn and 87 percent of soybean crops in the country were in drought-stricken regions, a 10 percent jump from a week before. Corn and soybean prices reached record highs on Thursday, with corn closing just over $8.07 a bushel and soybeans trading as high as $17.49.

The paper also created a year-by-year look at drought in America stretching back to 1896 (see also, the making-of). This year's is almost comparable to 1934 and 1936, aka the Dust Bowl.

Read more: Climate Change

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Are more colorful lobsters a bad sign?

A rare-but-getting-less-rare calico lobster. (Photo courtesy of AP/New England Aquarium, Tony LaCasse.)

Weird things are happening to lobsters.

In June, we brought you the story of a blue lobster, Old Blue (a name I gave him just now), found by a fisherman in Nova Scotia who'd never before seen a blue lobster in his many years of lobster-hunting.

The odds he finds another one are getting better every day.

Reports of odd-colored lobsters used to be rare in the lobster fishing grounds of New England and Atlantic Canada. Normal lobsters are a mottled greenish-brown.

But in recent years, accounts of bright blue, orange, yellow, calico, white and even split lobsters -- one color on one side, another on the other -- have jumped. It's now common to hear several stories a month of a lobsterman bringing one of the quirky crustaceans to shore.

It's not clear why there are more reports of colored lobster. It could be that more people have cameras to back up their tall tales. But it's also possible that overfishing is to blame.

Read more: Animals, Food, Pollution

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Green investment pays off for basically everyone except coal-based power companies

This house makes money for everyone except power companies and paint stores. (Photo by Future Atlas.)

Houses certified under various environmental standards are worth 9 percent more than the state average in California, according to new work by two economists.

Out of the 1.6-million-home-transaction sample, [the study's authors] identified 4,321 dwellings that sold with Energy Star, LEED or GreenPoint Rated labels. They then ran statistical analyses to determine how much green labeling contributed to the selling price — eliminating all other factors contained in the real estate records, such as locational effects, school districts, crime rates, time period of sale, swimming pools and views. …

The 9% average price premium from green-rated homes is roughly in line with studies conducted in Europe, where energy-efficiency labeling on houses is far more commonplace. Homes rated "A" under the European Union's system commanded a 10% average premium in one study, while dwellings with poor ratings sold for substantial discounts.

In June, the median home price in California was $274,000, meaning that green certification increased the value of a house by almost $25,000.

And green investment isn't only good for homeowners. It's also good for the federal government [PDF].

Read more: Uncategorized

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Republicans prefer naming things after Reagan to signing U.N. ocean treaties

Senate Republicans have spent most of the summer so far being mad about a United Nations treaty that was first released for ratification in 1982. Which, amazingly, you probably don't find all that surprising.

Click to embiggen. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The hilariously retro-sounding "Law of the Sea" treaty (LOST) went into effect in 1994, without the U.S. on board. Its intent is to establish more stringent standards around nations' oceanic jurisdiction: how far out into the sea counts as a nation's territory, for example, or the limits to a country's exclusive economic zone.

The most controversial aspect from the United States' perspective is a proposal that would subject the mining of the seabed outside of a country's exclusive control to distribution of royalties. That's part of why the right takes issue with it -- the gotfersaken Yoo-nited Nations tryin' to tell us what to do with our min'ral rights! The other part is that the treaty was originally kiboshed by none other than Saint Ronald Reagan. It’s that reason as much as any that has the Republican old guard -- Edwin Meese and George Will and Donald Rumsfeld -- railing against it.

Read more: Politics

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We’re ripping up our mountains to ship coal overseas. Maybe we shouldn’t?

America's use of coal to generate electricity is dropping dramatically. And yet coal production remains fairly constant.

Click to embiggen. (Image courtesy of the Energy Information Administration.)

What gives? Who's using all of that coal? Is it being put into baby and/or puppy food?

No. A lot of it is going overseas.

As we reported earlier this week, American coal is partly responsible for China's huge increase in coal consumption. But that's just one part of the puzzle. Yesterday, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee released a report, "Our Pain, Their Gain: Mountains Destroyed for Coal Shipped Overseas" [PDF], that outlines the scale of America's coal exports.

Coal exports have nearly doubled since 2009 to 107 million tons last year, now accounting for almost 12 percent of U.S. production. Three out of every four tons that are exported come from the Appalachian region, and often this coal is produced by mountaintop removal mining -- a devastating practice that has blanketed communities with soot, contaminated drinking water, and destroyed 2,000 miles of streams.

Read more: Coal