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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


U.S. trees burned in British coal plants count as renewable energy. WTF?

iPhone chargers in waiting.
iPhone chargers in waiting.

Follow this if you can: Wood from U.S. trees is being shipped over to the U.K., where coal power plants burn it, producing more greenhouse gas emissions than when those same plants generate an equivalent amount of electricity by burning coal.

The weirdest part? This doubly destructive practice is being subsidized in the U.K. to help the country meet its renewable energy targets. WTF?

The BBC explains that when pine trees are grown in America, the best trunks are cut up for wood planks and sold as timber. Much of the rest of the wood is either used for wood pulp or gets chopped up to be used as fuel. Because the wood chips are considered a renewable energy source by the British government, great piles are being shipped over to England to be burned.

Read more: Climate & Energy


John Kerry’s wishful thinking on climate change

Kerry greeted in Ethiopia.
State Department
Kerry greeted in Ethiopia.

We did it! Despite never ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, America has surpassed the ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets laid out in the treaty.

Or so claimed Secretary of State John Kerry while visiting Ethiopia on Sunday. "We're below the Kyoto levels now," he told a group.

The one problem is that we've done no such thing, and we are below no such levels right now. From the AP, via NPR:

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which the Clinton administration signed but never won ratification for, called on the U.S. to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 6 percent from 1990 levels. Although a natural gas surge and economic woes have helped the U.S. lower emissions, they were still up some 9.5 percent from 1990 to 2011, the last year for which full data is available.


Climate change adaptation: So simple, a caveman could do it

caveman crop lego

Climate change is a helluva thing to live through. But humanity's ability to cope and survive during past periods of climatic upheaval might have been what inspired species-advancing leaps in culture and innovation.

New research published last week in the journal Nature Communications links some of our ancestors' greatest cultural advances during the Middle Stone Age to periods of tremendous tumult in the climate. The findings suggest climate change helped get our African ancestors off their butts and thrust them off on quests to explore the greater world.

The Middle Stone Age, which began roughly 280,000 years ago and ended perhaps 30,000 years ago, was a momentous time in our history. During this period, Homo sapiens developed modern bodies and brains, and began an epic march out of Africa to inaugurate a worldwide diaspora. This migration begat cave paintings, advanced stone tools, and a cultural revolution that would eventually deliver us to the globalized, Twitter-connected, Monsanto-dominated, mountaintop-removing, solar-panel-using, electric-car-driving world we recognize today.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


GMO-free ingredients are tough to round up in the U.S.

bowls of beans

Responsible food manufacturers are trying to meet consumer demand for products that are free from transgenic ingredients.

And they are finding it exceedingly difficult in the U.S. to do so.

The New York Times reported Sunday on the difficulties -- and high costs -- faced by small and large companies that want to keep GMOs out of their products:

Lizanne Falsetto knew two years ago that she had to change how her company, thinkThin, made Crunch snack bars. Her largest buyer, Whole Foods Market, wanted more products without genetically engineered ingredients -- and her bars had them. Ms. Falsetto did not know how difficult it would be to acquire non-GMO ingredients.

Read more: Food


Fukushima meltdown’s latest victims: American uranium jobs

The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant will shutter.
Department of Energy
The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant will shutter.

In comic books, radioactive disasters make stuff be massive. But in the real world, the Fukushima meltdown of 2011 is having the opposite effect on the worldwide nuclear power sector.

The sector is rapidly shrinking from the Hulk that it used to be, leading the U.S. government to announce on Friday that it is jumping out of the unprofitable uranium enrichment business.

The Energy Department is closing the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Western Kentucky at the end of the month. The plant opened in the 1950s to help the nation develop its nuclear arsenal, and in the 1960s it began enriching uranium for power plants. Federal officials say the refinery's operations, which were privatized in the 1990s, are no longer sustainable. From Lex 18 News:

Soft demand for enriched uranium, stemming partly from the disaster in Japan when a tsunami crippled a nuclear plant, coupled with steep production costs triggered the decision, USEC spokesman Jeremy Derryberry said. Production will be phased out in the next month.

"We've been telegraphing for a long time that the plant had a limited lifetime," Derryberry said. "That was only accelerated by what happened in Japan."


Chesapeake oil? Offshore drilling pushed by Virginia lawmakers

Terry McAuliffe used to oppose offshore oil drilling, then he lost a gubernatorial primary and now he's running as an offshore drilling supporter.
Terry McAuliffe used to oppose offshore oil drilling, then he lost a gubernatorial primary and now he's running as an offshore drilling supporter.

Lawmakers are talking up the prospect of drilling off the Virginia coast, and the mere whiff of the possibility of oil profits has already driven one prominent candidate there to sway in the wind.

For a time, the Deepwater Horizon calamity had put the brakes on offshore drilling, and the Obama administration responded by slapping moratoriums on the practice off coastlines around the country. (A moratorium covering the Gulf of Mexico was quickly lifted by the Interior Department.)

But the memory of the Gulf oil spill apparently does not weigh heavily on either of Virginia's Democratic senators nor on Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.). They have introduced bills in Congress that would put an end to the drilling moratorium off the coast of their state. From


GOP to Obama on Keystone: Don’t think about climate

The GOP, arguing that climate change and Keystone XL are separate issues, asked Obama to please not listen to these people.
The GOP, arguing that climate change and Keystone XL are separate issues, asked Obama to please not listen to these people.

Many Americans are worried that if the Keystone XL pipeline is built, even more sludgy bits of what used to be Canada will end up going up in smoke and heating up the planet.

Now Republican lawmakers are asking the president in a letter to please not let himself be one of those people -- because the pipeline and the climate are "wholly unrelated."

Environmentalists have been calling on Obama to reject the pipeline because the pollution produced when Canadian tar-sands oil is burned after it's refined along the Gulf Coast will hasten global warming. With Democratic support for the pipeline waning, Beltway chatter has suggested Obama might hedge his bets by approving the pipeline and simultaneously introducing new climate change regulations, as The Hill reports.

In response, Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), and 22 of their colleagues penned a letter [PDF] urging Obama to not consider climate change when he makes his decision on Keystone.


As world marches against Monsanto, senators protect it from labeling laws

Any U.S. senators paying attention to what was happening in the entire world over the weekend may have noticed a teensy disconnect between their protectionist votes for Monsanto and global discontent with the GMO giant.

Marching against Monsanto in San Francisco
Steve Rhodes
Marching against Monsanto in San Francisco.

On Saturday, protestors in dozens of countries took to the streets to "March against Monsanto." The coordinated day of action against genetic engineering and reprehensible business practices by the Missouri-based company came just two days after the Senate rejected a bid by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to ensure that his state and others are free to mandate labels on transgenic foods.

First, to those protests. Organizers tallied rallies in 436 cities across 52 countries, according to the AP:

The 'March Against Monsanto' movement began just a few months ago, when founder and organizer Tami Canal created a Facebook page on Feb. 28 calling for a rally against the company's practices.

"If I had gotten 3,000 people to join me, I would have considered that a success," she said Saturday. Instead, she said an "incredible" number of people responded to her message and turned out to rally. ...

Read more: Food


Zen and the art of bridge maintenance

The collapse of an Interstate 5 bridge in Washington state Thursday night offered a wake-up call about the sorry state of disrepair in which we’ve left our country's auto-centric transportation system. But all the talk about aging bridges and infrastructure drowns out a few larger questions -- about how we plan to fund the massive road system we've built, and why, with existing roads crumbling, we keep dropping money on more.

No one was killed when an I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington collapsed.
No one was killed when an I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington collapsed.

The bridge that collapsed in Washington was built, like many major bridges in the U.S., during the rise of the interstate highway system, circa 1955. That means it had already exceeded by several years the 50-year lifespan typical of American bridges.

Ironically, the bridge in Washington, unlike nearly 70,000 bridges across the country, wasn’t rated “structurally deficient.” It had been inspected as recently as November 2012. But after a half a century, a bridge is likely to need major upgrades of some kind, and with the average bridge in this country now 43 years old, we’re looking at a huge roster of bridges due for repairs. According to the Federal Highway Administration, as of 2009, the backlog of deficient bridges required $70.9 billion to address -- and that number has likely increased since then.

So what are states doing to tackle the problem? They're funneling money to shiny new construction projects instead, natch.


Fracking accident leaks benzene into Colorado stream

Officials in Parachute, Colo., stopped the flow of creek-water into a reservoir following a natural-gas fluid spill.
Garfield County
Officials in Parachute, Colo., stopped the flow of creek water into a reservoir following a natural-gas fluid spill.

Once again, Colorado's fracking boom has residents wondering if there's something in the water -- carcinogenic benzene, in this case. A plant for fracked natural gas processor Williams Energy, near Parachute, Colo., spilled an estimated 241 barrels of mixed natural gas liquid into the ground, some of which eventually washed as benzene into Parachute Creek.

More than two months after the spill was discovered, neighbors of the plant are wondering why the energy company is being put in charge of the cleanup -- and why the state has failed to issue any fines.

Benzene levels in Parachute Creek rose above a safe-to-drink 5 parts per billion following the spill, which was caused by a faulty pressure gauge on a four-inch pipeline.

The safety limit for benzene in Coloradoan drinking water sources is 5 parts per billion. But the state doesn't define the creek as a source of drinking water, and the limit for such water bodies is 5,300 parts per billion. Less than two miles downstream from the Williams Energy plant, headgates that control the flow of water from Parachute Creek into an irrigation reservoir have been closed since the spill was discovered.

Read more: Climate & Energy