Briefly

Stuff that matters


can't make this stuff up

The Kochs launch campaign to convince black people that dirty fuel is good for them.

Fueling U.S. Forward, a public relations operation funded by the Koch brothers, is trying to spread the message that black people benefit the most from cheap fossil fuels, according to a story in The New York Times. Clean energy, they say, is a threat.

Last month, the group sponsored a toy drive and gospel concert in Richmond, Virginia. The event included a panel discussion on how the holidays were only possible thanks to oil and gas.

What went unsaid, of course, was that people of color are far more likely to be harmed by the fossil fuel industry than helped. They’re more at risk from climate change and pollution and more likely to suffer health problems tied to burning fossil fuels.

Asthma is more common among black people than white people, partially because they’re more likely to live near coal-fired power plants and other fossil-fuel infrastructure. That’s not exactly because they want those plants in their neighborhoods; it’s because they have less power to fight them.

This is far from the first attempt to turn people of color against renewable energy and, as Fueling U.S. Forward has made clear, it won’t be the last.


nervous arctic

Ships head for the melting Arctic. But there’s no plan if things go wrong.

Climate change is rapidly altering the region, and less sea ice means more ships are lining up to traverse its remote waters. “It’s what keeps us up at night,” Amy Merten, a NOAA employee, told the New York Times. “There’s just no infrastructure for response.”

Cargo ships and cruise liners are already setting sail, and the Trump administration is clearing the way for oil rigs to join them.

Canada, the U.S., and Russia have an agreement to help each other during emergencies, but the U.S. only has two functional heavy icebreaker ships, and rescue efforts would likely have to rely on other commercial ships being nearby.

To top it all off, the head of the Coast Guard, Paul Zukunft, says the U.S. is unprepared to deal with an Arctic oil spill. Zukunft pointed out the difficulty in cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon spill, which had much more favorable conditions.

“In the Arctic, it’s almost like trying to get it to the moon in some cases, especially if it’s in a season where it’s inaccessible; that really doubles, triples the difficulty of responding,” the head of the Navy’s climate change task force told Scientific American.


lead foot in mouth

Trump’s EPA promised to prioritize communities like East Chicago. How’s that working out?

In short, not so well.

When EPA administrator Scott Pruitt took office, he pledged that the agency would redouble its efforts on guaranteeing clean air and clean water in its so-called “back to basics” environmental agenda. In April, he visited East Chicago, a community of color in Indiana where residents have coped with lead and arsenic contamination for decades, to highlight that agenda.

As the Chicago Tribune points out, the EPA has repeatedly told Indiana Harbor Coke Company that its pollution exceeds legal limits, but the agency has yet to file a lawsuit. “I’ve been told by career staff at the agency that everybody is kind of frozen since Pruitt arrived. Nobody is willing to pull the trigger to enforce the law,” the former head of the U.S. EPA’s Office of Regulatory told the Chicago Tribune. More than 100,000 people live within the five miles surrounding the East Chicago facility.

The company that owns the facility told the Tribune that it’s “exploring a number of projects” to deal with the continued pollution. With proposed budget cuts of 31 percent at the EPA, it may be up to companies to monitor pollution and clean up after themselves. That’ll work.

Watch our video on East Chicago’s lead crisis:


leading indicator

Warren Buffett is driving truckloads of money into electric companies.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway recently announced that it plans to buy Oncor, one of the country’s largest electricity-transmission companies, for $9 billion. And Berkshire was already making 10 percent of its earnings from energy investments. It looks like the Oracle of Omaha is betting that there are big improvements for utilities to make.

“There are tremendous efficiencies to be squeezed out of the system,” Jon Wellinghoff told the Los Angeles Times. Wellinghoff is the former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and chief executive of consulting firm Policy DE.

To wring these efficiencies (read “profits”) out of the system, Berkshire is pushing for a more interconnected electrical system across the American West. It’s involved in a project to build 1,000 miles of transmission lines across Idaho and Wyoming. That would allow distribution of cheap renewable energy — which is sometimes wasted in places where too much is produced at once — to more places that need electricity. Of course, it might also allow coal power plants to stay profitable longer.

These investments suggest that Berkshire is likely to join in the ongoing struggle between rooftop solar and utilities. Buffett apparently doesn’t think utilities are entering a death spiral at all.


the road to denial

Trump comms chief Anthony Scaramucci used to be right about climate. Not anymore.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned over the appointment of Scaramucci, a Wall Street executive and longtime supporter of President Trump.

Scaramucci’s Twitter history holds some surprises for a Trump appointee. Case in point:

Scaramucci called the science of climate change “pretty much irrefutable” in a June 2016 interview with a financial outlet and tweeted about climate action on multiple occasions last year.

But when Scarmucci joined Trump’s transition team following the election, a very curious transformation occurred. In an appearance on CNN in December, Scaramucci noted that some scientists believe climate change is “not happening.” When the show’s host reminded him about the scientific consensus on the matter, Scaramucci countered that there was once “overwhelming science that the earth was flat.”

We’ll wait and see if Scaramucci descends further into climate denial during his role as communications secretary, which begins in August.

And speaking of incoherence on climate change, here’s a grand performance to watch in memory of Spicer’s old job:


greenbacks

A gold-standard test proves we can save forests with just a little money.

Here’s a simple way to match the priorities of rich environmentalists (saving forests and vulnerable species, like gorillas) with the needs of the poor (making a little more money): Pay people living near endangered forests not to cut them down.

The world has already promised to spend billions this way. But do people just take the cash and still hack away?

A new study of a cash-for-forest program attempts to answer that question. Northwestern University economist Seema Jayachandran led a randomized, controlled trial — the gold standard for science — monitoring 60 villages in Uganda over two years.

People were cutting down trees around all the villages. But they chopped down fewer in areas where villagers were paid $11.40 an acre per year not to. It’s a great bang for the buck, if you measure in terms of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere — several times cheaper than other popular methods, like subsidizing solar panels.

“I came into this study expecting to be a wet blanket,” Jayachandran, told the New York Times. “We were surprised the impacts were so large.”

Everyone has their pet ideas for saving the world. We need good evidence like this to figure out which ones work best.


easy tiger

Louisiana won’t give the security firm that tracked DAPL opponents a license.

The state Board of Private Security Examiners rebuffed the North Carolina company known as TigerSwan, citing a legal complaint filed by a similar North Dakota agency charging that the outfit operated in that state without legal permission.

Fabian Blache III, the board’s executive director, said that Louisiana law governing the private security industry is designed to protect the state’s people. He said TigerSwan — which was denied a license in North Dakota twice — had not shown it could follow regulations.

Internal company documents obtained and reported on separately by Grist and The Intercept last month revealed the extent of TigerSwan’s surveillance operations during last year’s protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that Energy Transfer Partners said it no longer had a security presence on the ground in North Dakota, and TigerSwan said it had ended work with the Dallas-based pipeline developer at the end of June.

But apparently the firm was still seeking to work for Energy Transfer Partners in Louisiana, where the company is currently planning to build a 162-mile pipeline known as Bayou Bridge, which would shuttle refined crude oil to hubs in Texas. That project, like Dakota Access, faces court challenges.

Regional advocacy groups pleaded with the Louisiana board to deny TigerSwan’s license, citing the type of intrusive surveillance reportedly employed by the company in North Dakota. “TigerSwan follows people as if we were criminals,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “We can disagree about the pipeline without resorting to such behavior.”