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Planes’ gains & automobiles: Air travel outpaces driving in fuel efficiency

airplane
Shutterstock

If you traveled by air over the holidays, you may have landed with a bit of green guilt. Conventional wisdom says that driving a relatively fuel-efficient car is usually better for the environment than flying. That may no longer be the case, though, according to new calculations from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. Over the last four decades, driving has steadily lost the fuel-efficiency edge it once held over flying. In 1970, the per-passenger-mile fuel intensity for flying was twice that of an average car trip. “That is no longer the case for the average vehicle,” says Michael Sivak, director …

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Disney radio will stop shilling for frackers

Mickey Mouse playground equipment
chuck holton

A Radio Disney station in Ohio recently teamed up with the state's oil and gas industry on an "educational program" promoting resource extraction -- from Never Land to Gasland, you might say. The partnership made many parents and environmentalists unhappy.

From Al Jazeera:

The program, called Rocking in Ohio, went on a 26-stop tour of elementary schools and science centers across the state last month. It involves interactive demonstrations of how oil and gas pipelines work, and is led by three staffers from Radio Disney’s Cleveland branch. It is entirely funded by the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program (OOGEEP), which gets its money from oil and gas companies.

The Wooster Daily Record described the tour's stop at the Wayne County fairgrounds last year:

Radio Disney of Cleveland and its road crew promoted the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program, with games pitting all ages of children vs. their peers and even families vs. families and dads trying to beat other dads in a variety of challenges. All the challenges, except perhaps the dads' dance competition, related back to the science behind oil and gas production and their value as natural resources. ...

One of the challenges was "literally creating our own pipeline," [said Jag, the Radio Disney master of ceremonies], using balls and tubing to demonstrate "how we get oil and gas to your home."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Canadian town is using beet juice to de-ice the roads

beets
Elizabeth

What's weirder -- or at least less pungent -- than de-icing roads with cheese brine, like they do in some Wisconsin counties? How about doing the same thing using a beet juice-based road treatment, like the British Columbia town of Williams Lake? In fact, even better: Combine the two, and maybe add some traction in the form of walnuts. Tastiest clear roads ever!

Williams Lake, which averages more than 75 inches of snow a year, has already put down almost 9,000 gallons of beet juice. The town hopes this will be a cost-saving measure, because unlike sand, the beet juice doesn't have to be cleaned up when the season is over.

Read more: Cities, Food

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Canada’s energy officials take over job of protecting fish from pipelines

A salmon in Canada
Arthur Chapman

Move aside, Canadian federal fisheries and oceans officials. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's administration has decided that the nation's fossil-fuel-friendly energy regulators would do a better job of protecting fish in streams and lakes that cross paths with gas and oil pipelines. Northwest Coast Energy News has the scoop:

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has handed responsibility for fish and fish habitat along pipeline routes over to the National Energy Board. ...

DFO and NEB quietly announced a memorandum of agreement on December 16, 2013, that went largely unnoticed with the release three days later of the Joint Review Panel decision on Northern Gateway and the slow down in news coverage over the Christmas holidays. ...

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Tests show Texas well water polluted by fracking, despite EPA assurances

A well
Shutterstock

Environmentalists and residents of Parker County, Texas, were dismayed last year when the EPA dropped an investigation into complaints that fracking by Range Resources was contaminating local water supplies with methane.

As part of a legal settlement that got the EPA off its back, the company agreed to test well water in the city of Weatherford, where the complaints were centered. Sure enough, Range's test results found minimal levels of methane in the water.

"According to the EPA, the sampling that Range Resources has completed indicates no widespread methane contamination of concern in the wells that were sampled in Parker County," the agency's inspector general wrote last month in a report requested by lawmakers.

But here comes the report's kicker: "However, the EPA lacks quality assurance information for the Range Resources’ sampling program, and questions remain about the contamination." In the report, the inspector general called on the EPA to evaluate the testing results being provided by Range Resources and to work with the state to "ensure appropriate action is taken" to address any methane and benzene pollution.

And now, less than a month after the inspector general's report was published, Bloomberg has a disturbing new update:

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that a group of Texas homes near a gas-drilling operation didn’t have dangerous levels of methane in their water, it relied on tests conducted by the driller itself.

Now, independent tests from Duke University researchers have found combustible levels of methane in some of the wells, and homeowners want the EPA to re-open the case.

The previously undisclosed Duke testing illustrate the complaints of critics who say the agency is reluctant to sanction a booming industry that has pushed down energy prices for consumers, created thousands of jobs and buoyed the economy.

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Flood pressure: Climate disasters drown FEMA’s insurance plans

DR-1603 Hurricane Katrina
FEMA

When a hurricane slams into the Jersey Shore, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gets the call to pick up the pieces. When a tornado lays waste to an Oklahoma community, guess where the phones start ringing? FEMA. And when a foot and a half of rain falls around Boulder, Colo., sending hundreds of homes into the drink? Yep: FEMA again.

But not all FEMA's shit storms are of the weather variety. When angry ratepayers blew up their elected representatives' phone lines recently, Congress hauled in a few of our chief emergency managers. The controversy swirled around rate hikes for property owners covered by the National Flood Insurance Program, which FEMA administers.

"Let me just say, all of the harm that has been caused to thousands of people across the country -- [who] are calling us, [who] are going to lose their homes, [who] are placed in this position -- is just unconscionable," Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., told the agency's director, Craig Fugate, during a recent hearing.

But here's the thing. As NPR's Christopher Joyce so astutely pointed out, Waters co-sponsored the law that directed FEMA to raise people's rates. In fact, it bears her name: It's called the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act.

Here's the other thing: While Biggert-Waters contained only passing mention of climate change, it was the first real wake-up call for many coastal residents who had been living with the illusion that, if disaster struck, the federal government would always be there to pick up the pieces. As comforting as that might seem, it is becoming less and less realistic as the mercury, and the waters, rise.

Here's the story of how we got here -- and a few thoughts on how we might get out.

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These windmills are so tiny, you could fit 10 of them on a grain of rice

tiny windmill
UT-Arlington

The gospel about windmills is that bigger is better. And there are advantages to building bigger windmills: As they grow, the energy they produce increases exponentially, because physics. But two researchers at UT-Arlington went the other way, and made micro windmills so small they're "a tenth the size of a grain of rice," Raw Story says.

When a windmill is that tiny, wind comes easy -- you could just wave your hand over these things and the movement in the air would send them spinning. Here's how the researchers imagine this would work:

“Imagine that they can be cheaply made on the surfaces of portable electronics,” Chiao said, “so you can place them on a sleeve for your smart phone. When the phone is out of battery power, all you need to do is to put on the sleeve, wave the phone in the air for a few minutes and you can use the phone again.”

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Specimens of an “extinct” shark species found at a fish market

shark-Carcharhinus-leiodon
NOAA

Back in the early 1900s, when white people were willing to spend a lot of money and time going around the world and "discovering" new species, a white guy named Wilhelm Hein went to Yemen and found a species called the smoothtooth blacktip shark. (Which sounds like a particularly nasty variety of PUA.) That was in 1902.

No other specimens of the shark had "even been found by scientists," Scientific American says, and so, naturally, everyone assumed it was extinct. (Because nothing exists unless white guys see it with their own eyes or experience it themselves.) But, it turns out, this species isn't extinct at all. It's so not-extinct that it shows up fairly regularly at fish markets across the Middle East:

More recent studies in fish markets throughout the region have located 47 additional smoothtooth blacktip sharks, greatly increasing what scientists know about this species with and reported in a 2013 paper in Marine & Freshwater Research.

Read more: Living

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West Virginia caught unprepared for contamination of water supply, despite warnings

don't drink the water in West Virginia
Shutterstock

West Virginia officials knew that a supplier to the coal industry was storing a toxic chemical near the Elk River that had the potential, if it leaked, to poison the water supplies of hundreds of thousands of people.

Last week, it did just that. The chemical leaked from one of Freedom Industries' tanks into the river, triggering an emergency and urgent warnings that residents and businesses should avoid using tap water.

So why are state officials now scratching their heads and sounding surprised about the disaster? Here's some excellent reporting from the Charleston Saturday Gazette-Mail, asking why there was no plan in place for dealing with such an emergency:

Last February, Freedom Industries sent state officials a form telling them the company stored thousands of pounds of a coal-cleaning chemical called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol in the storage tanks at its Etowah River Terminal. ...

Freedom Industries filed its "Tier 2" form under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. State emergency response officials got a copy. So did emergency planners and responders from Kanawha County.

Under the law, government officials are supposed to use chemical inventory information on Tier 2 forms, like Freedom Industries', to prepare for potential accidents. ...

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Get a hot, sustainable burrito in a gas station vending machine

burrito-box-instagram
Daniel Powley

Move over, lubed condoms: There’s a new kid in the gas station vending machine, and his name is SustainaBurrito.

Tehnically the newfangled gizmo is called a Burrito Box — “like a Red Box with burritos,” the L.A. Times wrote -- and they’ve started showing up in L.A. Burrito Box is mimicking Chipotle’s guilt-free, sustainable meat thing, with “100 percent all-natural” burritos, and the breakfast option made with cage-free eggs:

You can choose from six varieties, including roasted potato with egg and cheese, uncured bacon with egg and cheese, chorizo sausage with egg and cheese, free-range chicken with beans and rice, and shredded beef and cheese. The website boasts the burritos are made with hormone- and antibiotic-free ingredients.

Read more: Food, Living