Skip to content Skip to site navigation
Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Coal is rebounding, natural gas prices are up, and the world’s oil cartel is quite content

Back in style?

Times are good for the merchants of fossil fuels.

Coal is making a comeback in the U.S., natural gas prices are rising, and Saudis are living like kings off an oil market that is simply heavenly.

Just last year, demand for coal had dropped deeper than a canary lowered down a mine shaft. Prices had been pushed down by the natural gas fracking boom. But The Washington Post reports that demand and prices for coal have rebounded:

According to the latest data from the Energy Information Administration, coal has been reclaiming some — though not all — of its market share in 2013. ...


Crappy solar panels threaten industry growth

Crappy solar panels threaten to darken the solar industry's future.
Faulty solar panels threaten to darken the solar industry's future.

As the solar sector explodes, some of the solar panels it produces are fizzling out.

The New York Times reports on the problem of faulty panels and says nobody knows how pervasive it is because nobody keeps track. Fingers are being pointed at corner cutting by manufacturing firms in China. From the Times article:

Worldwide, testing labs, developers, financiers and insurers are reporting [quality] problems and say the $77 billion solar industry is facing a quality crisis just as solar panels are on the verge of widespread adoption. ...

The quality concerns have emerged just after a surge in solar construction. In the United States, the Solar Energy Industries Association said that solar panel generating capacity exploded from 83 megawatts in 2003 to 7,266 megawatts in 2012, enough to power more than 1.2 million homes. Nearly half that capacity was installed in 2012 alone, meaning any significant problems may not become apparent for years.


Walmart fined $82 million for dumping poisons

The enchanted interior of a Wal-Mart store.
Shutterstock / vvoe
The enchanted interior of a Walmart store.

Walmart doesn't just scrimp on employee wages. It also scrimps on employee training, and that led to its workers dumping returned pesticides, bleach, and other hazardous products into the trash or sewer systems.

On Tuesday, Walmart pled guilty to violations of federal environmental laws and agreed to pay $81.6 million in fines and penalties for improper hazardous waste disposal.

From an EPA press release:

[U]ntil January 2006, Wal-Mart did not have a program in place and failed to train its employees on proper hazardous waste management and disposal practices at the store level. As a result, hazardous wastes were either discarded improperly at the store level -- including being put into municipal trash bins or, if a liquid, poured into the local sewer system -- or they were improperly transported without proper safety documentation to one of six product return centers located throughout the United States.


Former EPA chief Lisa Jackson takes a job at Apple

Lisa Jackson
Chesapeake Bay Program
Lisa Jackson has a sweet new job.

Apple, after getting hit with criticism for using dirty energy at its data centers, has been increasingly drawing on green power -- wind, solar, geothermal, and, now, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Apple CEO Tim Cook announced Tuesday that Jackson, who served as Barack Obama's top environmental official during his first term, will join the company as vice president for environmental initiatives.

From The Washington Post:

Cook, who made the announcement at The Wall Street Journal’s D: All Things Digital D11 conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., said Jackson will be reporting directly to him and is “going to be coordinating a lot of this activity across the company.”


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