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The grinch that stole the coal industry’s Christmas

coal
Shutterstock

Coal industry executives can only wish Santa will leave them a lump of the black stuff in their stockings this Christmas. But as 2013 draws to a close, those stockings are likely to be empty as the pace of coal-fired power plant closures accelerates.

Market research firm SNL Energy estimates that coal-fired plants generating as much as 64,002 megawatts of electricity will be shuttered by 2021. That’s 5,000 megawatts more than SNL predicted in May. Just since that earlier projection, however, several energy companies and utilities announced they would close some big coal plants, including the Tennessee Valley Authority’s decision in November to take out of service coal-fired power stations generating 3,100 megawatts. That would leave the government-owned utility in the heart of coal country reliant on nuclear and natural gas to generate the bulk of the region’s electricity.

That’s certainly good for the planet, given that coal is responsible for 42 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

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Are Brits going to get screwed by pricey nuclear power?

Rendering of Hinkley Point C nuclear plant
EDF Energy
This nuclear plant would be really, really expensive.

New nuclear power has become so expensive that Britain intends to allow a nuke plant operator to charge double the market rate for electricity. The European Union is investigating whether that amounts to illegal government aid to a company.

French nuclear energy giant EDF wants to build a $26 billion facility in southwest England, the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant. The U.K. government's philosophy is that nuclear power is desirable; the new plant could meet 7 percent of Britain's electricity needs without hurting the climate. So, the power plant would be heavily subsidized by utility customers paying roughly double the rate set by the free market for electricity.

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America’s new cars are more fuel-efficient than ever before

a green-colored car
Shutterstock

The 1990s-style thirst for power that gave rise to America's fleet of gas-guzzling SUVs is being replaced by a hunger for fuel-efficient cars, helping auto manufacturers in 2012 beat their previous record for overall gas mileage.

The average model-year 2012 vehicle got 23.6 miles per gallon, according to a new report from the EPA. OK, that's still pretty lame -- but it's 1.2 mpg better than the previous year, the second-largest annual increase in history.

Click to embiggen.
EPA
Click to embiggen.

And Dan Becker of the Clean Climate Campaign points out that this improvement marks real progress made under Obama's new fuel-economy standards: "That’s roughly 5% in the program’s first year. We are on track to hitting the 54.5 mpg standard for 2025. This is a big deal."

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Pushing poor people to the suburbs is bad for the environment

suburb
Darko Zeljkovic

In recent years, an overhyped counterrevolution has emerged in America. Millennials from the suburbs and their empty-nester parents have been flocking to certain desirable urban neighborhoods. This has led to a lot of chin-pulling about “demographic inversion,” wherein the cities become richer and whiter and the suburbs more non-white and poor. Skeptics note that suburbs are in the aggregate still richer and whiter than central cities and most middle-class families still settle in suburbia.

This sociological debate misses the important environmental question: What will we have achieved if we simply change the demographic complexion of who lives in walkable urban areas and who doesn’t? The answer is nothing. For the urbanist movement to be worthy of its name, the end result has to be that a higher percentage of Americans are actually living in central cities, and that the residents of both cities and suburbs represent the full spectrum of American life.

The evidence suggests that a combination of bad public policies is instead causing poor residents to be priced out of the most popular cities by well-heeled newcomers. Consider Annie Lowrey’s report on low-income renters in Tuesday’s New York Times. They are being squeezed by an economy where all the gains accrue to the top and new housing is built at the high end. Gentrification also brings wealthier renters into poor urban neighborhoods, bidding up the price of existing housing. Writes Lowrey:

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This bike could purify the air as you ride it

filter_bike
Lightfog Creative & Design Company

Obviously riding a bike is better than driving a car because, among other things, bikes don't emit greenhouse gases or other poisons. But what if bikes could actually reverse pollution, by sucking in smog and pumping out clean air?

It's theoretically possible, according to the group of Thai engineers and designers responsible for this concept bike. 

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Happily ever NAFTA: New trade pact could boost corporations and harm environment

world-earth-hunger-feeding-plate-425.jpg

I grew up around the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was all grownups talked about in Detroit: the Sound of NAFTA. Although not much rhymed with that phrase, the hills were indeed alive with the sounds of grouchy tool and die workers, complaining that all of our jobs were going to Mexico.

As a kid, I found it hard to see what was so exciting about jobs. My dad worked in a tool and die shop with bad ventilation and no heat, and every winter he would come down with a case of bronchitis that was one order of magnitude worse than the last. But it didn't matter what we thought, anyway. George Bush Sr. was for NAFTA, and Bill Clinton was for NAFTA, and the only guy who wasn't was Ross Perot -- which is always a sign your cause is in trouble.

Now, at nearly 20 years of age, NAFTA is almost old enough to drink responsibly. The number of people I knew who worked in tool and die shops went from everybody to nobody, and while on the whole the consensus has been this is Not Great, it's also been years since my dad has had trouble breathing.

What I didn't realize at the time was that NAFTA was not just about jobs. Chapter 11 of the agreement contained a provision that has had, and has continued to have, major effects on the environment and environmental regulations.

To understand why, look to the province of Quebec, which, two years ago, put a stop to fracking. At first the move didn't seem like much. Quebec's environment minister, Pierre Arcand, said that the province was just going to conduct an environmental review, and that "informative demonstrations" of hydraulic fracturing would still be allowed. But by April, 2012, there was a complete moratorium, the environmental review showed no signs of finishing, and there was talk of extending the ban five years into the future.

Attitudes in Canada seemed to be shifting. "Why does my kid come home from Alberta junior high school social studies saying the oil and gas industry is evil?" Michael Binnion, the CEO of Questerre Energy Corp., complained to Alberta Oil magazine. "I hardly know a senior oil and gas executive who hasn’t had a similar experience."

But Quebec's fracking ban wasn't simply a political move fueled by a cultural shift; it also carried a financial risk. This September, an energy company named Lone Pine Resources sued Canada for allowing the province to tighten its environmental policies, and asked for $250 million. The suit read:

The dispute is in relation to the Government of Quebec’s arbitrary, capricious, and illegal revocation of the Enterprise’s valuable right to mine for oil and gas under the St. Lawrence River, in violation of Chapter Eleven of the NAFTA.

Welcome to NAFTA's unexpected environmental legacy. Chapter 11 is not well known in the U.S. -- its tribunals are secret, and Canada and Mexico are the countries that get sued the most under it. But NAFTA was always meant to be a template for other trade agreements, and since its mid-'90s enactment it has become one. As NAFTA's offspring have multiplied around the world, so have lawsuits like Lone Pine's, where corporations seek damages from countries whose environmental regulations affect their ability to do business.

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Washing our hands in hot water is using as much carbon as Barbados, and it’s not doing a damn thing

Hot tap
Doug Wheller

Washing your hands in hot water is, according to one Vanderbilt researcher, a pretty useless endeavor.

Here's what it is doing:

  • Creating, in total, as much carbon emissions as the whole of Barbados
  • Drying out your hands.

Here's what it's not doing:

  • Killing any germs.

As Amanda Carrico explains to National Geographic, sure, hot water can kill bacteria, but it has to be so hot that it would scald your skin. We're betting that water you're using isn't that hot. (And if it is, ouch! Sorry about your hands.)

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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The week in GIFs: Jennifer Lawrence edition

Now catching fire: our impatience for the weekend. (Last week: Ryan Gosling.)

You can grace your walls with photos of cyclists on dates if you love bikes -- like really LOVE them:

jennifer-lawrence-wink
PopSugar
Read more: Living

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Oil and gas drilling waste is being spread over New York roads as de-icer

A snowy road in New York
VincentJames21
Dreaming of an oil-waste-free Christmas?

As snow and ice encrust wintertime roads in New York state, local and state transportation officials are turning to a questionable new source of salt to help them melt away the hazards of slippery roads: waste produced by the oil and gas industry.

That's a dirty habit that environmentalists and some lawmakers hope to break.

New York-based environmental group Riverkeeper discovered that officials were receiving state approval to use salty waste from drilling wells and gas storage facilities as a de-icer.

The discovery came after the nonprofit made a public-records request to the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. Riverkeeper's Kate Hudson said the documents handed over after that request revealed that the agency had approved 30 requests to use tainted brine from the oil and gas industry as a de-icer -- and that was prior to the recent return of Old Man Winter. Two of those permitting requests came from state transportation offices that manage roads in multiple counties.

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Miami vise: Rising seas put the squeeze on a sun-drenched beach town

south beach flood
siralbertus

It's a balmy, mid-November morning in Miami Beach, Fla., and I’m sitting at one of the cafe tables in front of the local Whole Foods, sipping a cup of coffee, and watching the tide come up. Oh, you can’t see the ocean from here. The tide is gurgling up through the storm drains along the street.

It starts at about 8:00. A trickle of water from a nearby grate quickly becomes a stream which becomes a lake, spreading across the intersection of Alton Road and 10th Street. By 8:20, water pours off of the cars rolling into the parking lot. At 8:40, it reaches the axles of the Jeep parked on the corner. Pedestrians abandon the submerged sidewalks for high ground in the middle of the Alton Road, dodging rooster tails kicked up by passing vehicles. To get back across town, I'll have to wade through murk that comes almost to my knees.

One of my sources here, a scientist studying the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise, tells me that if I stick my finger in that water and taste it, it will be salty. I look at the gunk burbling out of the gutters, swirling with oily rainbows and cigarette butts, and decide to take her word for it.

The water is coming from Biscayne Bay, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that lies between Miami Beach and the city of Miami. Steadily rising high tides in recent years have driven the stuff backwards through the storm drains, underneath protective seawalls, spilling into the streets and spawning a multimillion dollar retrofit to the city's drainage system. In the process, Crockett and Tubbs’ seaside haunt has become a bellwether for coastal communities everywhere that are only just beginning to grok the implications of a problem that will dog us for generations.